BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
Agreement among all the nations of the world to limit and then reduce the global production of greenhouse gases will hopefully conclude the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris on Friday.
This agreement will mark the culmination of many years of hard work by countless organizations and concerned citizens, but it will be only the beginning of the effort that lies ahead of us.
The implementation of the commitments that we will make to one another will require an even greater effort, not only by our scientists and political leaders, but by all of us. The magical triumvirate of technology, economics, and politics, upon which we have relied in solving our social problems in the past, may not be sufficient to produce the changes that we need now. Climate change requires an accompanying shift in culture if all of our efforts hope to succeed.
Pope Francis hinted at the necessity for such a cultural and spiritual transformation in his most recent encyclical Laudato Si. Climate change is not solely a technological challenge. It is also an indictment of the excessive consumption of the world’s resources in which we have indulged in recent history. A privileged few of the world’s population, who have commanded access to the majority of the world’s resources, have used those resources to extract enormous amounts of personal and corporate wealth, while the poorer people of the world have been left to suffer the most brutal effects of exploitation and climate change. This imbalance in global wealth is no longer an abstract moral dilemma, but an ominous threat to humanity’s survival as a species on this planet.
We can begin to transform our culture of consumption at the level of personal practice with our consumption of food. Meat may be a nutritional and cultural touchstone of our diet. Many of our meals continue to be built around a particular cut. Meat, however, does not deliver the optimal nutrition for the resources it consumes and the greenhouse gasses that it produces. Animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. A vegan diet that consumes no animal products produces half the carbon dioxide of a meat reliant diet. It uses 1/11th less oil, 1/13th less water, and 1/18th less land. That is a considerable amount of resources when 2,500 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef, the most resource-intensive form of meat.
A strict vegan or vegetarian diet may not be within the realm of cultural achievement for our generation, but we owe it to each other to try moving in that direction. We can start by being mindful of the amount of meat that we do eat, and seek to reduce our consumption a meal or two at a time. Every effort will make a difference. A vegan diet is neither impossible nor boring, but it requires embracing change and experimentation. We can seek out the people and organizations that are only too happy to help us.
Our personal effort to mitigate climate change can also extend to our forms of transportation. Great hopes are being placed on the development of electric cars, but electricity still needs to be generated in great quantities to support such an innovation. Personal vehicles may need to give way to both public transit and more active forms of transportation, such as cycling. These alternatives, though, require greater densities of housing than many of us suburbanites may be comfortable welcoming to our neighbourhoods. In the tension between space and mobility in urban life, mobility will shape space in a less carbon-reliant future. Higher densities will be necessary if we want to preserve our mobility.
These adjustments in personal lifestyle, however, are merely indicative of the larger shift required to save our future. We will need to reorient our existence away from a life defined by the extraction and accumulation of wealth towards the richness of valuing our existence within the ecosystem that we have been given to sustain our lives. When we exercise this option of repentance, (or turning around) in order to head in the direction of sustainability, we will gain the forgiveness and promise of a new life that is not only wonderfully sustainable and hospitable, but rich in meaning and diversity.
Climate change is not just a scientific, political, and economic problem for us, it is a spiritual challenge as well. In humility, we can seek the guidance and support of the Aboriginal peoples who live among us, and who have struggled to preserve their spiritual sense of life in balance with the world in the face of an overwhelmingly racist and colonial economic onslaught. Perhaps they may be more gracious with us than we have been with them, and once again come to our aid. The future of us all may depend upon it.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.