Monday, April 19, 2021

Earth Day 2021: When You Plant A Tree

In April 1973, to mark the third annual Earth Day, my 13-year-old self planted a tree in front of my Pittsburgh middle school, St. Canice. Two teachers, eyeballs rolling and audibly sighing, accompanied me outside. Students watched from their classroom windows. It was over in about 10 minutes. “Ecology” was trendy, along with maxi skirts and long hair for girls as well as boys.

Nearly 50 years later, where are we? Ecology is no longer a fad, it’s a science. Humans are ruining the planet, causing climate change. The sea level is rising, glaciers are melting, species are falling into extinction. We have been irresponsible stewards of creation.

As Earth Day approaches, on 22 April, what can we do? Locked down for the most part and discouraged to mobilize, our scope of action is limited. Could we plant a tree in some way? We could learn, feel, and do. Learn about climate change. Feel the pain of vulnerable people who work in dumps or cannot escape the climate destruction of their homes. Do much more.

As an individual, I’m trying to take bolder steps. I stopped buying clothes after reading a book about the toxic fashion industry, "Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes," by Paris-based author Dana Thomas. “Any more than you need is greed,” is what I remember the conservationist Jane Goodall saying in an appearance at the American Church in Paris in May 2014.

Beyond clothes, I’m trying to refrain from “impulse” purchases. We needed a living-room rug, so I went online to my favorite big box store. But wait a moment, I said to myself, isn’t there a greener choice? I ended up purchasing a 100% wool rug from a company that is working with suppliers (in this case Turkey) to ensure care of workers and climate.

And I joined our neighborhood composting group, where I am both getting to know my neighbors and reducing what goes into the garbage and the incinerator. It adds up! One group of 30 participants means about one ton less garbage a year, according to l’Agence Parisienne du Climat. To find a local group in Paris, search on the Internet for “composter” and your town or arrondissement. Yinzers go here:

What will you do this year for Earth Day? Why don’t we examine our reflexes and instead flex for the planet? Perhaps think, feel, and do differently. Start here: Pittsburghers can also go here:

Nearly 50 years later, where is that tree I planted? It stood there for at least 25 years. Today it is gone. The small patch of green where the tree stood was remodeled to become a drive-up accessible entrance to a community center. I’m not upset, however. The building now offers free preschool to children in need and houses the headquarters of the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center.

More than 1 billion people in 192 countries now participate in Earth Day activities each year, making it the largest civic observance in the world. Why not join the party? You never know what will happen if you plant a tree.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Covid, the climate, and Christians

Photo: Rose Marie Burke

(Originally published in the ACP Spire, November 2019)

The covid-19 pandemic to date has killed over 1 million people worldwide and caused immeasurable suffering. And it will continue to do so for months to come.

Meanwhile, there is a conversation about silver linings. Personally, now that I work from home, I am overjoyed to have two extra hours a day that previously went to commuting. I’ve grown closer to my spouse ‒ literally. And as you might remember, something truly amazing happened during the lockdowns early this year that lowered the COVID-19 curve. The planet began to breathe. Even in Paris, the smog lifted.

Indeed, air pollution fell so much in 2020 that it also lowered the emissions curve: According to a study by S&P Global, lower economic growth, changes in behavior, and policy combined will bring down energy-sector CO2 emissions by 27.5 gigatons ‒for the next 30 years! That’s so huge it’s hard to imagine, but just 1 gigaton is equivalent to 10,000 fully loaded US aircraft carriers.

And yet.

The world needs more than 10 times that reduction through 2050 just to meet the target set out in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to the study.

And yet.

It shows that society ‒ that we ‒ can do it. This period in history is a great opportunity “to build a new social contract that honors the dignity of every human being,’’ according to the World Economic Forum, which is calling this chance “The Great Reset.” Companies and countries are thinking about how to grow with more grace and less waste. The EU is launching a Green New Deal, to stimulate a rebound in environmentally friendly economic growth.

What can people of faith do? Some are already at work. The UN Environment Programme’s Faith for Earth initiative is a partnership with faith-based organizations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and it recently joined forces with the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, a wealth of information on the topic.

The American Church in Paris could join that effort and others to hold a “Climate Sunday” service, where, as organizers say, “we learn to explore the theological and scientific basis of creation care and action on climate, to pray, and to commit to action.”

The most effective actions you can take are to live car-free, avoid airplane travel, and eat a plant-based diet, according to a 2017 study that ranked 148 individual actions on climate change according to their impact. You’ve probably heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” but these efforts have a moderate impact. Among low-impact activities are buying organic food and composting, but that won’t stop me!

One person can make a difference. That’s because what we do affects others. When one person makes a green decision, others follow the example. For instance, patrons at a US restaurant who were told that 30% of Americans had started eating less meat were twice as likely to order a meatless lunch, according to a study mentioned in the BBC article “Ten simple ways to act on climate change.”

These steps may not be that simple and the problem is huge, and yet, it’s important to hope. “We might feel overwhelmed by the tragedies around us, but we refuse to give up, remembering the assurance of 1 Corinthians 15:58 that our labor in the Lord is not in vain,” says theologian and environmentalist Ruth Valerio. With great hope and hearts, let’s not waste this precious opportunity during the Great Reset to rebuild a way to live that is in greater harmony with all of God’s creation.

(The photo was taken at Le Croisic, in the aftermath of storm Bella at Christmas 2020.)

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Berlin: Three Scoops


In a city charged with so much history, what was astounding and refreshing about Berlin was the ice cream—or in my case, the sorbet.

This lightness melts instantly and stays only as a blissful and fleeting memory, which contrasts with the weight of the German capital’s monumental and bombastic architecture, some of it intended to last for 1,000 years.

That fleeting pleasure was also an escape from a heat wave and the worry of COVID-19, which emptied the city of most tourists—except us. It wasn’t the perfect moment for a big city vacation, which we timed to see our daughter who was on the move.

While we didn’t center our trip on an afternoon ice cream break, it allowed us to skip lunch, saving time and money, and see more of the city. However, the strategy assumes a big German brunch to start the day—also to be recommended.

Here’s my top three scoops:

  • Chipi Chip Bombon. Warschauer Str. 12. This Italian-Argentinian-inspired cream shop uses organic hay milk to turn out ice cream such as Dulce de Leche and no milk for the pineapple and parsley sorbet. A great break after seeing the scary Stasi Museum or the delightful East Side Gallery, a stretch of The Wall painted by artists in 1989.
  • Jones. Goltzstraße 3. Established by an award-winning French pastry chef, Jones churns out small batches and makes its own waffle cones. The flavors are as trendy as the Schoeneberg neighborhood where the place is located, like black sesame. I choose the cucumber and tonic sorbet, which I swore was spiked with gin. Check it out on a Saturday after enjoying the outdoor market at Winterfeldplatz.
  • Fraulein Frost. 3 Manfred-von-Richthofen-Straße (with two other locations). The corner shop with ample outdoor seating was a local family refuge on this summer day for organic flavors like strawberry basil sorbet and peach gorgonzola ice cream. Perfect after exploring nearby Viktoriapark.

For our next get-away, we're thinking of a weeklong bike trip in France. We're drooling over the routes on this amazing website for discovering France by bike--in French, English, and other languages.

Photo: Courtesy of Jones.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Paris to Pittsburgh: The Film, The Future

©Reprinted by permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.

What a week for Paris to Pittsburghers, and honorary citizens everywhere who are working to prevent and protect against climate change.

•    Last week, National Geographic aired “Paris to Pittsburgh,” about how localities in the U.S. are moving toward a green future. If you missed it, there’s still a few days to stream the movie for free on YouTube.

•    Just last night, the U.S. and 200 countries agreed on the “rule book,” the next steps in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The U.S. was there even though President Donald Trump last year said the country was pulling out of the agreement—it hasn’t done so yet. (For more on that, see last week's post here.)

In the film, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto described his doubletake in June 2017 when his phone pinged with President Trump’s news that he was elected “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” as his reason to exit the Paris Agreement.

The film was for me was a horrifying but also hopeful look at what Miami, Pittsburgh, and Iowa, for example, are doing to move to combat climate change. For many, going green is making common and economic sense. For Miami, though, it may be too late.

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Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Paris to Pittsburgh: The Film


President Donald Trump famously said in June 2017 that he was elected “to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris” as the reason why the U.S. wouldn’t agree to a world-wide deal aimed at curbing climate change called the Paris Agreement. (Read more about that here.)

That has a nice ring to it, but global warming doesn’t care whether you’re from the Steel City or the City of Light.

That’s why cities like Pittsburgh across the U.S. aren’t waiting for Washington to wake up to climate change. They have been moving toward green futures and acting to save or protect their communities from extreme weather.

Their words and work are featured in the new documentary “Paris to Pittsburgh,” to be released at 9 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 12, in the U.S. as a National Geographic film. You can see the trailer here. Later the film will eventually make its way to Paris as well as 171 other countries.

The mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto (pre-beard!), gets a lot of air time in the documentary. “There are now more jobs in renewable energy in the state of Pennsylvania than coal, natural gas and oil combined,” he states in the film, a factoid that made me take note. Who would have thought?

When I’m in Pittsburgh, as I was in October, one of my favorite places to hang out is the South Side. I enjoy taking walks along the South Side Riverfront Trail, all the way to Hot Metal Bridge, the last vestige of J&L Steel. The air is deceivingly clear.

I say deceivingly because Pittsburgh’s air quality is still one of the worst in the nation, with a major contributor being the Clairton Coke Works of U.S. Steel, which has long been in violation of air pollution rules. “The EPA ranks areas downwind … in the top 2% nationally for cancer risk from toxic air pollution,” according to the Clean Air Council. Why doesn’t the company invest and clean up the plant?

My native Pittsburgh and my adopted city of Paris both have a long way to go. Backwards is not a viable option. It’s true that Mr. Trump doesn’t represent the capital of France. But the U.S. is one of the top two polluters in the world, and when the smoke comes out of the pipe, it knows no borders.

Related post: Paris and Pittsburgh: Together Forever

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Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Grand Jury Report: Making Sense Of It All

St. Canice elementary school, 3rd grade, 1942
From Pittsburgh to Paris, there’s been one awful story dominating the news and troubling my mind in the past few weeks: the Pennsylvania grand jury report showing that more than 300 "predator priests" have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims.

Although I’ve known about these crimes for years, this time they hit home. I grew up Catholic and went to diocesan schools from 1st through 12th grade, St. Canice and Hilltop Catholic. During my four years in high school, four priests that I remember were listed in the report! That's not nothing. That's not a small problem. And the pastor was certainly involved in shuttling predators to other churches.

Our alumni have been trying to make sense of it all via our Facebook group. I wasn’t a victim, but these crimes affect me deeply as a person of faith and mom. The child victims, now adult, cry out.

What can be done to make our religious institutions for the faithful and not the fakes? Many of Hilltop’s alums say they’ve simply left the church. Or they are no longer donating. Or they try to distinguish between the church and the people. Or religion and faith.

Here’s what I think needs done. Pennsylvania lawmakers should adopt the grand jury’s recommendations, with voters and the church lending full support:
  • Stop shielding child sexual predators behind the criminal statute of limitations.
  • Let older victims sue the diocese for the damage inflicted on their lives when they were kids.
  • Improve the law for mandated reporting of abuse.
  • Fourth, adopt a law concerning confidentiality agreements that makes them illegal for crimes.
What I’m saying is do right by the victims and no more secrecy.

What can we do? What are you doing? Let me hear from you.

Here are some concrete steps suggested by David Clohessy, the former national director and spokesman for the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in an opinion article in USA Today.
  • First, help expose more wrongdoers. Every single Catholic should ask every other Catholic: "Have you ever seen, suspected or suffered clergy misdeeds, crimes or cover ups?" Help the person report this to independent sources like police, prosecutors or journalists. (If you contact me, I promise to help.)
  • Second, set up whistleblower reward funds. Catholics (by lay people for lay people) should band together to set up funds to financially help and emotionally support those who find the courage to speak up.
  • Third, donate elsewhere. People in the pews should give generously, but not to their bishops. Instead, they should donate to independent non-profits that fight against child sexual abuse.
Translation: Wake up people and do something!

Lastly, I think the church needs to devote itself to its people instead of to its hierarchy. The Catholic Church should act as a beacon on the hill (Matthew 5:14) for the future of society.

The only way our institutions (church, schools, political parties, you name it) will serve the people is if we vote with our feet and leave, or work inside them for change.

Sermon over!

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and lecturer at the University of Paris 8, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.

Friday, December 29, 2017

My Best Books Of 2017

My best books of 2017 are an odd bunch but they have this in common: Once I got started, I couldn't put them down. 

And, oddly enough these days, only one was purchased on Amazon, which is how most books are sold in the U.S. In France, bookstores are still popular, mainly because by law books must sell at a single price--no discounting. (See the infographic at the end of this blog post and “Amazon pèse lourd sur le livre, mais moins en France qu’ailleurs.”)

Two graphic novels topped my list. “Isadora,” by Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie is a French biography of American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). I purchased this beautifully illustrated book at my neighborhood bookstore as a way to read more in French, and previously blogged about that here.

The other illustrated book is the inspirational “Together is Better,” by Simon Sinek. He challenges us to be leaders who watch others rise, who cheer for others and watch them grow. That one I pinched from my husband who received it as a gift.

Another one I “borrowed” was “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg. If you agree with the author, we are mostly the sum set of what we do each day, those ingrained habits from drinking several cups of coffee or not, from working out daily or not. Don't make resolutions, build habits. They stick.

I lifted "Habit" from the huddle room at work. But instead of reading it, I listened to it on Audible where I’m testing out a three-month subscription. It’s a great companion for the commute! And much more refreshing than constantly reading the news. (Note to self: take the book back to work!)

I also listened to the 1959 classic “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which people have been recommending to me for decades. After listening to it on Audible twice, I bought the physical book so that I could linger over some of the passages. Like this one:
 “For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
In the genre of French noir, I heard about the prize-winning novel “Chanson Douce” by Leila Slimani, on French breakfast TV and was intrigued by the plot: a perfect Mary Poppins of a nanny goes rogue and kills the little darlings. I knew how it ended, but wanted to see how the author got there. Chilling.

Another chilling book was “Between the World and Me,” by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a love letter to his son about growing up black in the U.S. I can’t get into a black person’s skin, but I think this is the closest I can come to understanding how it must be. I bought that book at the great independent Harrisburg bookstore, Midtown Scholar.

Why do I still read books? Because fiction or nonfiction, they open up my mind into the souls of others. I'm challenging myself to read 18 books or more in 2018, inspired by Gretchen Rubin's idea to make a list of 18 things you'd like to do in the New Year.

Any recommendations? I especially could use a recommendation for a book in German. What were your best reads of 2017? What do you have on the shelf for 2018?
Rose Marie Burke, an editor and lecturer at the University of Paris 8, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." You can also find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+.