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.