A note to non-Christian readers: Please don’t think this article is not for you! The benefits of a free trial period for a lifestyle change can be yours, too, even without the religious significance. You can fast along with us for these 40 days, or choose a different time period. UPDATE: In 2020, Lent is February 26 through April 11.
Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite pieces of the Episcopal liturgy, Eucharistic Prayer C:
God of all power, Ruler of the Universe . . . At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. From the primal elements you brought forth the human race and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you and betrayed your trust. . . .
As caring for the environment becomes trendy, we’re all hearing about the many things we could do to protect this fragile earth, our island home, the amazingly complete and intricate gift with which we have been entrusted. For each of us, some changes have been easy to make, but then there are the others–the things we feel we “should” do and might resolve to “try” but never quite get around to doing because we fear the big commitment of changing our comfortable habits.
Good news! Christian tradition gives us a clearly defined season in which to take on something we’ve been meaning to do or give up something we’ve been meaning to stop. Lent offers an opportunity to change my lifestyle without committing to making that change permanent. Instead of pushing aside those nagging feelings that I “should try to get around to” making a change, I can just jump in and do this one thing, knowing that it’s only temporary and God will strengthen me. It’s like a 40-day free trial period with customer support! If I don’t like it, well, I can just quit after Easter.
The funny thing is, though, that sometimes giving up something for Lent shows me just how unimportant that thing really is, and I find myself doing a lot less of it forever afterward. For example, in 2002 I gave up meat (and fish, too) for Lent. I found it was pretty easy to get along without it, and I was surprised by how little I craved it. Ever since then, I’ve been eating about one-tenth as much meat as I used to eat before that Lent. Fasting from it taught me some new habits–like scanning a menu for vegetarian items first–that make the fast easy to continue.
Almost any change in behavior can be suitable for a Lenten fast, but in this article I’m focusing on the idea of fasting from something that harms the environment.
A Catholic organization has published a Lenten calendar encouraging us to try a different environmentally friendly activity each day. If you feel dazzled by all the green options out there, this type of day-by-day fast could be a great way to learn about some of those options and discover many changes you can make. Some of the suggested activities–such as changing all your incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent or LED–are easily done in one day but will conserve resources for a long time to come.
However, if trying something new each day feels like too much confusion for you this season, then sticking to one fast for the whole six weeks may be more meaningful. Here are some ideas:
- fast from meat and seafood. More resources are used to raise an animal for meat than to raise a plant for eating. Large-scale cow, pig, and chicken operations cause pollution and breed disease. Large-scale fishing operations damage our oceans with widespread effects on both edible and inedible creatures. [UPDATE: Here’s more about how and why to eat less meat, and some vegetarian meals from around the world that make fasting fun for the family!]
- fast from individually-packaged beverages—bottled water, sodas, drinks in disposable cups. All those small packages add up to more resources than fewer, larger packages or a washable cup or reusable water bottle. Even if you’ve been recycling bottles and cans, a lot of energy goes into manufacturing, recycling, and transporting them.
- fast from a disposable item you use daily, by replacing it with something reusable. (Avoid buying new stuff just for a Lenten fast! Use things you already have. Hint: a worn-out T-shirt cut into squares makes great handkerchiefs!) This conserves resources for more important uses, and it reduces the garbage going to landfills.
- fast from driving and riding in cars. (If you can’t do this completely, perhaps you could switch some of your everyday journeys to your feet, bicycle, or public transit; or carpool where you’d normally drive alone.) Gasoline is a limited resource, and burning it creates pollution. Walking or biking instead of driving just one mile each day during Lent would keep almost 45 pounds of pollutants out of the air. UPDATE: The page where I originally found that information is gone, but here are some impressive statistics on the environmental advantages of bicycling (most of which also apply to walking).
- fast from television or from recreational Internet use. Even a small TV set uses 55 Watts of electricity. Turning it off will give you more time for prayer and all those other things you’ve been meaning to get around to! Save even more electricity by shutting down and unplugging your electronics when not in use.
- fast from buying things made or grown outside North America. Every extra mile an object travels burns up petroleum and increases pollution.
- devote some of your spare time to doing something new, such as setting up recycling bins in a place that doesn’t have them and taking the stuff collected in them to be recycled. Keep a tally of the resources your project conserves–even if you decide you can’t continue it after Easter, you will have made a difference!
- fast from taking out the trash, or reduce your garbage by recycling more things, starting a compost heap, finding new uses for trash, and avoiding food waste. Remember that garbage is not gone when the truck takes it away from your curb: Either it goes to a landfill forever, or it’s incinerated and we have to breathe bits of it.
- fast from fast food. Not only is it packaged in a lot of garbage, but most chains use the least expensive ingredients available–that means factory farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, chemical runoff, and soil depletion–and standardize their menus by trucking food across the country.
- change the way you clean your house to keep carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals out of the water supply and your indoor air.
- fast from the clothes dryer by line-drying laundry. A typical dryer uses 4400 Watts of electricity!
Seek a fast that calls to you, that you know will make a difference in your daily life. I’ve learned, again and again and again, that when I think I’m making an unpleasant sacrifice, it often ends up leading me to new discoveries that actually improve my life as well as lightening my conscience! Lenten fasts that help the Earth work for me, and I hope they’ll work for you, too.
This diary of living on a poverty-level grocery budget during Lent is a great example of the kinds of things people can learn about themselves and their lifestyles by cutting back.
Copyright 2010 Rebecca Stallings. Please contact becca [at] earthlingshandbook [dot] org if you would like to reprint this article in your church newsletter or other publication.