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On Religion
Giving Up Carbon for Lent
By Eliza Griswold
March 23, 2020
On a recent Monday evening, at an event called “Doing Theology: Jesus and Carbon Neutrality,” I sat in a circle around a large bowl of Cheez-Its with twelve parishioners from Circle of Hope, a progressive Anabaptist church in South Philadelphia. The church occupies a former Italian funeral home that was featured on the show “Mob Wives,” and the room was hung with black netting to symbolize Lent, the Christian liturgical season that began on Ash Wednesday, in late February, and ends forty days later, on Easter. Lent is historically a period of atonement and reflection, and these people had come together to discuss the church’s carbon footprint, and their own.
Some Christians have made the Lenten commitment to limit their consumption in service of the Earth, rather than themselves.​Photograph from Alamy
“I feel like I’ve woken up in the ocean and I’m trying not to get wet,” Jeremy Avellino, a forty-four-year-old architect who was leading the discussion, said. In 2010, Avellino had learned that buildings were responsible for thirty-nine per cent of global carbon emissions, and considered leaving architecture completely, but God had told him not to. “I didn’t hear God audibly say, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to stay in this and make it better,’ ” he clarified, but he had had a brush with the Holy Spirit. In 2011, Avellino created Bright Common, an architecture studio that practices high-concept, low-carbon design. (Recently, during the panic shopping brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, he bought a Tushy, a seventy-nine-dollar bidet, to reduce his use of toilet paper.) Avellino finds solace in the energy-efficient houses and apartment buildings he builds. “But sometimes, when I zoom out on Google Earth and see the millions of other homes built, I sometimes slip into despair,” he said.
Sara Robbins, a thirty-three-year-old social worker who grew up in a conservative church, talked about trying to unlearn the idea that stories about humans damaging the planet, including through overpopulation, were fake news. “I grew up thinking that we had to have more children so that there were more Christians on the planet,” she said. She has started composting and using fewer single-use plastics. “I’m trying in the day to be more aware of how my actions have larger positive and negative impacts,” she said.
Many Christians observe the period of Lent by giving something up, often in the name of self-improvement. (Carbohydrates, say, or alcohol.) Over the past several years, however, some left-leaning Christians have made the commitment to limit their consumption in service of the Earth, rather than themselves. Last year, a group of nuns in Pennsylvania sent out a newsletter advising people on how to cut back on electricity usage during Lent. This year, the young adults of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, across the country, are fasting from single-use plastics, and other local sustainability practices. “It’s just way harder than I thought,” Savanna Sullivan, the twenty-seven-year-old national director of young-adult ministries, told me. “Yogurt, for instance: it’s healthy, but it’s in plastic, so I’ve given it up.” In St. Louis, the members of the University United Methodist Church are fasting from carbon. They recently shared a forty-day calendar that offers directives for each day, advising followers, for example, to collect their food waste to see how much they create, and to keep it out of the garbage, where it produces greenhouse gases. The Church of England has devoted its annual #livelent campaign to “care for Creation,” and has advised practitioners to, among other things, plant a tree, turn their thermostats down, and eat less meat. “The individual actions are easy,” Jo Chamberlain, the national environmental officer for the Church, told me. “The ones that involve other people, like having my family eat more vegetables, are trickier.”
Curious how I might begin my own carbon fast for Lent, I texted my friend Carolyn Kissane, a fifty-one-year-old professor at the Center for Global Affairs at N.Y.U. Since 2007, Kissane has taught a grad-school course called “Energy, the Environment, and Resource Security”; the first assignment requires students to assess the resources they expend. She showed me a Web site that lists the costs associated with the kilowatt-hours of appliances: ceiling fans, air-conditioners, washing machines. The students are often startled by what they learn. For instance, although China emits more carbon than any other country, individually, Americans are the biggest carbon users, emitting, on average, seventeen tons of carbon per capita a year, compared with a global average of 4.8 tons per capita. One of Kissane’s vegan students learned that the packaging, transportation, and water-usage costs of high-end plant-based foods—say, avocados—is actually more damaging to the planet than certain meats. Then there were the critical minerals in their phones and computers—the coltan, cobalt, and lithium—that are mined in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Even if our energy is entirely green,” she told me, “there are still hidden costs, negative externalities, which somebody pays when we turn on the lights.”
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Kissane makes her students do the math themselves, but I needed some help. I spoke to Caroline Bader, who lives in Germany and is the director of sustainable life styles for GreenFaith, a grassroots organization that mobilizes religious people across faiths for environmental causes. “Carbon fasting is becoming increasingly common during Lent,” she told me. Bader helps faith communities discern what choices really matter in limiting carbon usage and then to implement them. She pointed me in the direction of several carbon calculators that help parse the numbers. I clicked through questions about how often I travel, what kind of energy I use in my home, what I eat, and how much garbage I create. The questions became increasingly granular: Did I really never eat fish, or did I do it once or twice a week? When I’d completed the quiz, the results were dispiriting. My carbon footprint was about 10.8 tons per year, more than double the global average. “If everyone lived like you, we would need 3.3 earths,” the results said.
Bader then sent me a cheat sheet of sorts, listing the tonnage of carbon I could save by, say, washing clothes in cold water. “Now decide on some changes,” she said brightly. “Do the test again.” The most effective means to cut down carbon usage is limiting flights; avoiding one transatlantic fight saves more than 1.5 tons of carbon. (The only two personal choices more effective in reducing carbon are living car-free, and having one fewer child.) Going flightless was easy for me: the coronavirus outbreak had just prompted the cancellation of a trip I was planning to take to France. (Earlier this year, I’d also begun cancelling book-tour trips I couldn’t justify, including a trip to Australia, which would have been hard to feel good about since the book was about the negative impacts of fossil-fuel production.) Nor did I mind cutting out the last animal products from my diet, another large source of carbon. These changes, which amounted to twelve fewer hours on an airplane this year, and maybe fifty fewer servings of salmon, reduced my footprint by 1.3 tons, or, if everyone did them, about one-third of an Earth.
It seemed like a tiny improvement, more about “feeling good” than actually making meaningful change for the planet. At the “Jesus and Carbon” conference, Jonny Rashid, a thirty-four-year-old pastor, had argued against just such an approach: to think that we, as individuals, can end the climate crisis by what we consume is a trap. “Although seventy per cent of America’s emissions come from corporations and the military, you’re tricked into ordering the Impossible Burger,” he said. But, when I shared my results with Bader, she said, “It’s not just about the numbers.” She agreed that, by ourselves, the changes we can create are small, and that there’s a danger that they might lull us into a false sense that we are “doing something,” while distracting from the larger, systemic shifts that need to occur. Yet Bader and her colleagues at GreenFaith had decided that individual action is essential. “How can we ask politicians and systems to change if we’re not willing to undergo personal transformation?” she asked.
Now that the covid-19 quarantine has forced people around the world to stay at home, we are all suddenly on a carbon fast. China, alone, has reduced its carbon emissions by nearly a quarter over the past month. Most economic downturns come with momentary blips of reduced emissions that bounce back in the long term. But maybe such a global renunciation of carbon will have longer-lasting effects. The Lenten activists believe that being willing to make personal sacrifices encourages us to conceive of ourselves in the context of the larger system that needs to change. As they see it, changing our habits is less a plan for solving the climate crisis and more a reminder in our daily lives of our commitment to trying, the way a ritual reminds us of our faith. “We don’t think we’re going to save the earth through reducing reusable cups,” Sullivan, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, told me. “But, spiritually, it allows us to reflect on our call to care for Creation. And when people have a personal commitment to an issue, it’s much easier to organize.”
A previous version of this article misstated Sara Robbins’s profession.
Eliza Griswold, a contributing writer covering religion, politics, and the environment, has been writing for The New Yorker since 2003. She won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America,” in 2019.
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