By Fred Taylor, Paul Cameron and Diane Kurinsky
On Ash Wednesday, Faith Salter removed a light from her downstairs bathroom, and “put it in a small vase on the dining room table so that every day we would be reminded of the fast. People would come in and ask about it, and my son would tell them why it was there.” She was one of more than 10,000 people who participated in the Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in 2011 and 2012, sponsored by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. Each day, they received an email with one concrete suggestion for the day, an action that would lessen their carbon footprint. Each day’s email gave the action: the first day’s was taking out a light bulb and keeping it out for the duration of the fast. The email also included a fact or two to bring home the importance and impact of taking this step.
The scientific evidence is overwhelming that human beings are altering the global climate to an extent unprecedented in human history, due to the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting release of carbon into the atmosphere. How do people deal mentally and spiritually with this knowledge? What should be our response as individuals and as faith communities? These are questions that our group of climate change activists and writers has been exploring for the past three years.
We interviewed a number of individuals who had participated in the Carbon Fast during Lent – making daily efforts to reduce their carbon footprint during this forty-day period. We wanted to explore the impact of this fasting experience on people’s environmental awareness, spiritual practice and stewardship inspired by faith. We had been studying the problem of climate change from a psychological and spiritual perspective, trying to gain insight on how people could be inspired to make concrete changes in their lives in response to an awareness of this threat. So we designed a questionnaire to be sent out to interested participants, which we followed up with interviews and focus group discussions.
One of the first things we noticed in reviewing the responses, was how much of an impact removing the light bulb had on people. For Faith, it clearly had symbolic importance, which she made visible to everyone who entered her home. For others, it was a daily reminder of the commitment they had taken on for this Lenten discipline.
The impact of this simple act of unscrewing a light bulb points to our first major discovery: that small actions can have a powerful effect on peoples’ awareness. Many reported that the Fast helped them become more aware of the impacts of their daily actions, and more conscious of their use of energy. Kimberley Parzuchowski wrote “Every day I was thinking about my use of water, electricity and gas. That was a great awareness-invoking practice.” This awareness led for her to a greater sense of commitment to responsible action. “I felt more attuned to how my actions impact my world. That joined up with my socially ethical practice and so I found myself praying about a greater variety of my actions to help me find my way to being more environmentally responsible.” Nancy Hoell reflected on this process in her experience of the Fast: “The facts/explanations that came along with the daily suggestions were mind expanding about ones’ effect on the environment, as well as the effect of my personal consumption. I pay closer attention to turning off lights, purchasing energy efficient items whenever possible, looking at landscaping to limit consumption of carbon based energy in a different way. Bottom line, I am much more aware of what I can do to limit carbon emissions, and I’m trying to implement those changes where I can.”
This connection between awareness, action and commitment correlates well with what we had been anticipating, based on the Stages of Change Theory. In Prochaska’s Trans-theoretical Model of Change (1984), a series of research studies conducted by Prochaska and his colleagues yielded some interesting information about how people change. They examined how people had stopped smoking, and found that their attitudes and motivation to change were not heightened by threats of negative consequences or by confrontations with family, friends or medical professionals, but rather by positive support for the small changes that they made and by being part of a community or group of people who were all trying to make similar changes. Additionally, they discovered that people generally go through a series of identifiable changes in their decisions to change - pre-contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance - and that the kinds of help and support that are most effective vary greatly depending where they are in the process. According to that theory, when a person is in a “contemplation” stage, thinking about taking action but not yet making that step, the opportunity to take simple, positive actions can result in a change in self-identification, which then leads to a deeper commitment. This begins a positive cycle that leads to increasing levels of action and commitment.
Taking action, however small it may seem, then takes on much greater importance. These actions result in a transformation of the people who take them - when they begin to see themselves as agents who take action, this change in self-perception is a crucial part of empowering citizens to become engaged. One of the things we have learned is that many people in our society feel that their individual actions don’t make a difference in addressing a global issue such as climate change. This leads to feelings of despair and cynicism. This vicious circle of inaction was one of the realities the Carbon Fast hoped to counteract. However, if people are motivated to take even simple actions such as changing a light bulb, it can help them feel empowered and transform the way they see themselves. One participant summarized the value of this process as a stimulus to personal growth: “Every time we are given an opportunity to see how our daily actions support or don’t support our values, we grow.”
We were also curious to see to what degree the fast was spiritually significant to the participants. Several people mentioned the idea of sacrifice in a positive context - “a whole lot more meaningful than giving up something, like chocolate” in Nancy Hoell’s words. Nancy Stouffer remarked that Lent is “a time to be reminded of sacrifice and the unification that can come through that process. Changing from being in my car to riding my bike brought me the joy of moving my body, of seeing my neighbors, of having contact with the non-human world around me.”
The fast led to a heightened spiritual and environmental awareness for some: “I often thought about what I was doing for God's - and our - earth and found that to be spiritually rewarding. I haven't fasted during Lent for some time, and it felt good to find a practice that meant something to me and, hopefully, to the community.” Faith Salter reflected on the spiritual importance for her: “Doing it during Lent made it more present. I felt more deliberate about making changes and had a greater sense of accomplishment. …When I have doubts about the success of my activism and educational efforts to get people to save energy, I draw strength from the conviction that I am doing God's work. On a more comic note, I also got some comments about Jesus and his carbon footprint at this time. Someone said to me, ‘Jesus would have driven a Prius.’ And I said, "Jesus would have walked." In the words of Judy Leavell, “I consider anything we do to reduce our carbon footprint as highly spiritual.”
Another theme that showed up repeatedly, and in different ways, was the relative value of doing this by oneself versus in a group. In our focus group with the members of the Amherst UCC church, people brought up the importance for them of doing it in a group. “Knowing the community did it was really a boost.” For Lydia, this communal aspect was important, because we “will sacrifice when we know others are also.” Betsy, who heads the earth ministry team of the church, and organized the group observation of the fast, commented that the “group heals all wounds.” Doing it in community gave her a sense that “the church could be a real light.”
By far the majority of the participants said that they did this alone, which was not surprising, given that the fast was accessed online. Several said they would like to have done it as part of a group. One of the biggest surprises was how many people relished the individual experience as an online program. One person spoke of getting up in the morning and going right to the computer because she was so eager to see what the day’s task would be. Some used the Internet and social networking to spread the word to others. Faith Salter’s favorite part of the fast was re-posting the information on Face Book. “I often edited it or added commentary from my own experience. The best part was the random people from as far away as Australia and New Zealand commenting on these posts, sharing their advice and stories. One of my friends in Indiana got her home energy audit as part of the fast. Another began to compost. Another took the afternoon off to experience nature. That was the best part.”
One of the questions that underlies this project is the question of hope. Religion is partly about hope, about being motivated by a larger sense of meaning in one’s actions. And these people reflect a sense of hopefulness in their responses. Nancy Stouffer “felt a sense of hope, that making these changes, having a daily reminder to people and putting it into a spiritual practice, that idea of faith in action, might actually help change our path from one of self-annihilation to salvation, if you will.” Yet much of the dialogue around climate change is charged with a sense that the problem is so great that there is no hope. Sitting with this dilemma, one of our group had a powerful dream.
“In the dream, I am leading a discussion on climate change, and we are gathered around a large table. I ask the participants each to speak their own truth on the matter. A scientist speaks of the devastating impacts that are already so advanced there is no chance at stopping them. “There is no hope,” he says. A young person, a lover of wild places and things, cries out, “we must not lose hope, must carry on with fierce determination.” Another, a filmmaker friend, speaks of a deep despair that engulfs her, keeps her from taking action. One by one, each person speaks his or her truth. Their words bump against one another, pushing and shoving, jostling for space: the despair and resignation, the hope and passionate caring, the denial and avoidance. Gradually, I sense a deeper truth coming to being in the midst of us, in the empty space between us, an unarticulable wholeness that only comes into begin when each of us speaks our truth from our own limited perspective. I point toward the center of the circle, and up above us into the air, and say, “there, this is what gives me hope: something in the midst of us and beyond us, that only comes into being when each of us speaks our individual truth. This is what enables us to go forward.”
Fred Taylor, Ph.D., teaches environmental writing at Antioch University New England and is on the faculty of the Vermont College Master of Arts program. Fred also leads numerous groups into the field in search of literary and spiritual inspiration.