Lent, de-growth and dying to old ways

So this is Lent, a time when we take a step back from business as usual so that God might step in, a season of self-denial so that spiritually we might grow. This particular Lent we are spending time reflecting on lifestyle practices that in their current form are damaging God’s beautiful creation. As we do this, we are seeking to rediscover ways of being that tread lightly on the earth.

Dying to our old ways and rising with the new.

By now, many of you will know this act of dying to the old and rising with the new is not easy. As the saying goes “old habits die hard” or as St. Paul might say “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Such a sentiment could not be highlighted more clearly than it was in a recent study, entitled “Good Intents, but Low Impacts” which looked at the relationship between attitudes and actions when it comes to climate change.

The study, by Moser and Kleinhückelkotten, published in the June 2017 edition of the journal Environment and Behaviour, worryingly found that the most accurate predictor of an individual’s carbon footprint was not their attitude towards climate change, but their socioeconomic status. By examining data gathered by a survey of 1,000 individuals undertaken for the German Environment Agency, the study was able to compare the intentions and impacts of participants. While self-defining as environmental was the only significant predictor of pro-environmental behaviour, the carbon reducing impact of these behaviours paled in comparison to the much larger, negative, effects of other lifestyle factors, most of which were associated with lifestyles enabled by a higher socioeconomic status

The reality, which seems to be backed up by studies in 2012 and 2013, is that those with higher levels of environmental concern tend to be wealthier, which means that on average they also live in bigger houses, travel more, go on holiday more, own a car, eat more meat and use more energy hungry household appliances. This most often results in their carbon footprint being significantly larger sized from the start, compared to those who don’t have access to these lifestyle choices. These choices offer the opportunity to create, or deny, a lifestyle which has the potential to become a bigger burden on the planet.

The implication of this seems to be that, if it is to be done well, being environmental or caring for God’s creation cannot just be an additional facet to our life but must require a root and branch restructuring of how we live.

If we want to avoid runaway climate change, we need to consider very seriously the prospect of not flying, not owning cars, not owning or using so many electrical appliances and changing our diets. More challenging still, wealthier countries might need to consider having less affluent lifestyles, a concept known as ‘degrowth’, particularly if we want poorer countries to have the opportunity to develop.

These are not easy or comfortable concepts and yet Lent seems the perfect season in which to begin to explore them. As we repent of the damage that we have done and continue to do to creation, and seek to discern how we might tread more lightly on the earth, it seems to me that the self-denying element that is such a significant part of Lent is also essential here. It might just be that in self-denial there might be spiritual growth, in the death of old ways we might find new life, and in stepping back in this way we might allow space for God to step in.

Andrew Tomlinson works for the Church of Scotland, as part of the Church and Society Council. His academic background is in Theology and Medieval History and he has also undertaken study in the area of Conflict and International Development. His work explores ways to live out a faith and theology that helps and empowers those whom society often disempowers or marginalises.