Lent and environmentalism: the need for sacrifice

Thomas posted earlier in the week about the efforts of some dioceses on the west coast to promote a carbon fast during Lent. He wrote criticizing it.

And regardless of the science of climate change, the idea that Catholic should be more focused on supporting politicized green campaigns instead of focusing on the personal effects of sin is … deeply misguided as well.

This post by “Master Peters” provoked an angry response from Tony A. at Vox Nova of which this is a taste

A second point: when Peters lectures the bishops on sin, he seems unaware that something could be morally amiss with American over-consumption and the consumerist culture, even apart from carbon emissions.

I’m not particularly interested in the rest of the posts, which argue about whether or not man has caused global warming and the current state of science on the subject. I think those kinds of arguments miss the point. Regardless of what is causing it, we are experiencing some kind of climate change and these changes do have consequences, particularly for coastal regions and the poor who become displaced or lack access to natural resources that are being over-consumed by industrial countries. This has clearly been a concern for the last two popes, the latest entry of which was in Caritas in Veritate, Chapter 4. One telling passage reads:

51. The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles “in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments”. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society. Nature, especially in our time, is so integrated into the dynamics of society and culture that by now it hardly constitutes an independent variable.

I think then that the pope outlines a pretty clear mandate to be concerned about the environment and its impacts, particularly on the poor. The pope seems far less interested in its scientific causes (which could be debated-though I believe both the last two popes have in other statements expressed agreement with the idea that man is causing at least some of this) than in its moral causes.

This then would seem to be a good argument for a carbon fasting for Lent, as long as it is seen in the light of reducing the materialist origins of environmental damage and therefore our attachments to things not spiritual. But the particular “fast” proposed is mostly embarrassing. One friday we have the suggestion to not eat meat b/c meat produces carbon. Then there is the idea of writing a letter to support an environmental cause. The day after Ash Wednesday, we have the remarkable sacrifice of turning down the thermostat a whopping 1 degree.

That’s not to say some of the ideas aren’t good ones, liking buying local food or reduce the time in the shower, that actually would call for sacrifice (though I think the highest example of mortification for the environmental movement they could have called for would be to watch Avatar again). But I think on the whole this particular “carbon fast” sounds less like a call for sacrifice to reduce materialism in your life and more like a bunch of tips to reduce your energy bill. Its not that it calls for carbon fasting, but that it calls for too little in the time of Lent, a time where the Church calls upon us to make greater sacrifices.

Ultimately, the environmental movement needs to get out of its current mentality, which is trying to convince people to save energy while not dramatically changing your lifestyle. If you waste energy, just buy some carbon credits to offset it. Don’t actually change your life. Catholics, with their understanding of the importance of sacrifice to love and the need to sacrifice material goods for happiness, have something tremendous to bring to the table. It just needs to actually be brought to the table, not watered down: the truth is even more inconvenient than the mostly secular (and perhaps borderline pagan) environmental movement is ready to admit.



  • Adam

    How exactly does giving up material goods lead to happiness? It doesn’t seem like the people who have nothing and are starving to death are very happy.

  • Marv

    When we focus on the effects of sin, the sin never goes away. When we focus on the causes of sin, we have an opportunity to reduce or illiminate the effects forever. In my opinion, we will reduce abortions when we work on the causes of abortions: unwanted pregnancies caused by low self-esteem. Raise the self-esteem of human beings and unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions, are reduced.

  • Matt Bowman

    Well, you can’t altogether avoid the issue of whether man contributes to global warming, if you contend that environmental fasting would help alleviate it. Seems to me that making certain sacrifices for the environment can be justified simply on terms of good environmental stewardship, and of personal sacrifice. But that’s not as motivational as saving the poor from man-made chlimate catastrophe. Seems to me, also, much more clearly true that the cost of a cup of coffee could be a real material help for a third world poor person, than that the same cost directed toward assumed alleviation of climate change will help the third world poor. Again, fast environmentally. Fasting in any way is good. But if the justification is the help it will give for the poor, I don’t see how you can avoid positively concluding that man contributes to the warming, and by at least generally quantifying the degree of benefit of an environmental sacrifice.



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