Carbon Fasting

Christians Give Up CO2 for Lent

Catherine Woodiwiss reports on how faith groups worldwide are cutting their carbon consumption to highlight the injustice of climate change.

Schoolgirls participate in a 2009 rally demanding carbon reduction in Calcutta, India. India is one of the many countries with communities participating in a carbon fast during Lent this year.
  (AP/Bikas Das)
Schoolgirls participate in a 2009 rally demanding carbon reduction in Calcutta, India. India is one of the many countries with communities participating in a carbon fast during Lent this year.   (AP/Bikas Das)

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—small “fasts” intended to discipline and redirect one’s mind to the divine. For Catholics, liturgical Protestants, and increasingly, nondenominational Christians around the country, Lent fasts can often feel like another round of New Year’s resolutions—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.

Faith groups leading the charge dub this practice a “carbon fast.” Of course, completely giving up carbon use is nearly impossible. But from taking on daily ecological-minded actions such as 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 to promote stewardship of the earth throughout the 40 days of Lent.

First started by a Liverpool bishop in 2007, Carbon Fast has been developed and promoted among individuals, bible study groups, and churches by the U.K.-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. “[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 United States several faith-based groups have created their own carbon fast promotion materials. Interfaith Power & Light circulated a calendar of daily actions and alterations, ranging from the straightforward (“Turn down your thermostat by one degree,” and “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 more than 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 emphasis 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, or EEN, a Carbon Fast partner with Tearfund, has designed weekly devotionals around the idea of putting things to right, from relationship with God and others to relationship with Creation.

“[As Christians] 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 habits, the Carbon 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.”

Its full influence is difficult to measure, but Tearfund estimates that if the Carbon Fast’s actions were taken over the whole year, it would save more than 7 tons of CO2 per person.

It would be easy to dismiss climate awareness actions such as the Carbon Fast as “silly religion stuff,” says Laushkin. “But spirituality at large is increasingly grappling with responding to climate change. 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.

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Catherine Woodiwiss

Special Assistant