For Some Christians, Lent Means ‘Giving Up’ Carbon

by Catherine Woodiwiss

For many Christians, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection before Easter known as Lent is a chance to get in mental and spiritual shape.

People give up chocolate; quit drinking or smoking; avoid meat; start reading the Bible regularly; or even give up social media – “fasts” intended to discipline and re-direct one’s mind to the divine. For Catholics, liturgical Protestants, and, increasingly, non-denominational Christians around the country, Lent fasts can often feel like New Year’s Resolutions 2.0: a second attempt at giving up small indulgences for personal betterment.

But this year, thousands of Christians worldwide are making a bigger statement: giving up carbon to help save the planet. (Of course, it’s nearly impossible to “give up” all carbon. But devoted Christians are doing their best to reduce their carbon footprints during this time.)

Faith groups leading the charge have dubbed this practice a “Carbon Fast.” From taking on daily ecological-minded actions like walking to work, to engaging in national advocacy and carbon-reduction campaigns, these groups are determined to bring awareness of human involvement in climate change and promote stewardship of the earth throughout the 40 days of Lent.

First started by a Bishop in Liverpool in 2007, Carbon Fast has been developed and promoted among individuals, bible study groups, and churches by the UK-based Christian development organization Tearfund since 2008. Its simple message of carbon reduction as a path to environmental and spiritual renewal has taken hold, and this year communities in Canada, the Netherlands, India, Hong Kong, Australia, and Brazil are observing Carbon Fast as well.

“We have found it to be a great resource for introducing Christians to the issue of climate change and how we can respond,” says Tom Baker at Tearfund UK. “[It] provides people with ideas about how they can respond to the injustice of climate change. …It’s a great way for people to start.”

In the US, several faith-based groups have created their own Carbon Fast materials. Interfaith Power & Light circulated a calendar of daily actions and alterations, ranging from the straightforward (“Turn down your thermostat by one degree”; “Remember to bring reusable bags to the store”) to the deeply symbolic (“Remember your baptism today, and the power of water. Try to conserve: Leave a bucket in the shower or kitchen sink, and collect ‘grey water’ to water the plants.”)

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington’s Environmental Outreach Committee produced a similar calendar. And the United Church of Christ’s Ecumenical Carbon Fast, in which over 6,000 people took part in 2011, mails daily suggestions to reduce carbon and pairs it with a weekly focus for the church.

A major focus of the Fast is on poverty and the environmental injustice of climate change, a concept that is appearing more frequently in concerns from both secular and religious green groups. The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), a Carbon Fast partner with Tearfund, has designed weekly devotionals around the idea of relationships and putting things to right, from God and others to Creation.

“We are charged to ‘do no harm’ and climate change is a part of that,” says Alexei Laushkin at EEN. “We have to reconnect with our context. Changes in our consumption points to changes in policies that lead to cleaner sources of energy. This effort personalizes it and makes it real.”

Indeed, though the daily actions are limited to personal or family habit, the Fast is geared toward community impact and campaigning action to demonstrate public support for climate change. “We’re keen to emphasize that personal lifestyle actions alone won’t be the solution to global warming,” says Baker. “We need international action.” And though the Fast’s full influence is difficult to measure, Tearfund UK estimates that the actions, if taken throughout an entire year, would save over 7 tons of CO2.

It would be easy to dismiss climate awareness actions like the Carbon Fast as “silly religion stuff,” says Laushkin. “But spirituality at large is increasingly grappling with this. A large spectrum of folks are grappling with this question. For Christians, this relates to our faith. We develop a keen awareness for how [climate stewardship and faithfulness], that are separate in our mind, are connected in God’s mind.”

Catherine Woodiwiss is a Special Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

7 Responses to For Some Christians, Lent Means ‘Giving Up’ Carbon

  1. andy says:

    All that is miniscule acts of contrition when you consider how christians have been backing the worst polluting politicians so they can try to have a theocracy. The personal steps you take to reduce your carbon footprint only work in conjunction with stopping corporate pollution. The republicans that christians back have deregulated and destroyed our environment already. Pagans and humanists have been doing this for ages.As usual, xtians are decades late and then want credit for it.

  2. rick says:

    What a delightfully sweeping blanket statement that is sure to alienate potential allies in this global fight for survival that we’re all in together.

    Also, if you’d bothered to read the piece:

    “We’re keen to emphasize that personal lifestyle actions alone won’t be the solution to global warming,” says Baker. “We need international action.”

    Sounds like an acknowledgement of the need for regulation to me.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It matters what parts of the Bible you are reading, and what sort of ‘Christian’ you are. As you observe, there are many Christians who deny anthropogenic climate destabilisation for crude ideological reasons and due to a perverted theology that sees the earth as given to Man by His ego-projection, ‘God’, to do with as He pleases. If He destroys the planet, then it must be His Will.

  4. Duncan Noble says:

    Perhaps the personal actions may seem small relative to the magnitude of the challenge. And of course they are. However, change sometimes occurs one conversation at a time. Initiatives such as carbon fast encourage those conversations, just as this blog does. We need to encourage these conversations everywhere AND push as hard as possible for deep systematic changes in policies.

  5. Phil says:

    If they’re THAT worried about it, why aren’t they doing these things all year, rather than just one day? What hypocrites.

  6. Wade says:

    Using Lent as a season to commit to more sustainable and life-giving choices is a great model for behaviour change. Most of us want to make changes in our lifestyles, but often we’re busy and put it off or are worried we won’t be able to keep it up.

    Trying on a new choice for Lent provides a clear starting point and prayerful community support with others who are also making changes in their lives – and behaviour change research shows that if you keep something up for four weeks or longer, you’re likely to keep doing it.

    I think this represents an important shift happening for many Christians from Lent being simply a time of personal, spiritual change to connecting the personal and public. Of course, there have always been Christians who have seen and practiced this connection (St. Francis, Dorothy Day, MLK Jr.), but climate change has brought this conscious more into the mainstream. Thank God.

  7. bruce ritchie says:

    I have not really practiced lent, but conservation seems a good way to start. Personally I think that the term “carbon” will invite skepticism,yet many people have grown up in more simple and frugal times, and will easily receive the thought of living lightly on God’s creation. Connecting simple living with the idea of “enough” and how this frees our spirit to focus on more important things. A saying I have liked which fits this very well is . . . . “we form our habits, and then they form us.”