“Did you know that 25% of your carbon footprint comes from the meat and dairy in your diet? And that almost all the deforestation in the Amazon is because of the meat industry?” I probed gently during a conversation on care for creation. Climate change is the biggest ecological crisis, and probably the biggest societal crisis, of our time. There is a long list of catastrophes attributed to climate change: hurricanes, droughts, water conflicts, sea level rise, climate refugees, extinction of species, heat stroke deaths, etc. If we had a silver bullet to slash our emissions by 25%, would we not gladly accept it?
Pope Francis writes (Laudate Deum #69): “It is necessary to be honest and recognize that the most effective solutions will not come from individual efforts alone, but above all from major political decisions on the national and international levels.” He is right. Climate change is too big of a problem to be solved by individuals. After all, individuals cannot completely change their energy sources. We leave it at that, wash our hands of the matter, and continue with our lives with heads buried in the sand. Perhaps, COP 28, Pope Francis or Greta Thunberg will find some solution that will solve the problem while demanding nothing from us.
In many eco-conversation circles, there is a pervasive sense of helplessness on a personal level, and a tendency to place the ball in the court of ‘the system’. I have no objections to getting systems to change. National and international policies that move us to renewable energy sources will drastically reduce our carbon footprint. However, it is unclear how we want the system to reduce the large carbon footprint of our meat-heavy diets. Fortunately, we can stop consuming meat and dairy without any government action. Moving to a plant-based diet is entirely in the realm of personal choices.
In the fight against climate change, our personal actions matter. Firstly, it is a simple fact of not participating in evil when we can do so. If we know something is bad and we can avoid it, we ought to avoid participating in it.
Secondly, we encourage others through our actions. As St Francis of Assisi said, “preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” Pope Francis writes (LD #70), “Efforts by households to reduce pollution and waste and to consume with prudence, are creating a new culture. The mere fact that personal, family and community habits are changing is contributing to greater concern about the unfulfilled responsibilities of the political sectors… we are helping to bring about large processes of transformation rising from deep within society.” In other words, Pope Francis believes that you and I can make a difference in the efforts to limit climate change by changing the culture through our individual actions.
Additionally, our concrete actions guard against the charge of hypocrisy. Pope Francis writes (LD #56), “We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes.” We cannot appear to be concerned about climate change, and then do nothing about it. Our concern about climate change needs to lead to concrete changes to our lifestyle. Otherwise, we will be hypocrites that undermine the moral authority of Church teaching on care for creation.
Furthermore, Pope Francis notes that every little bit counts. He believes that (LD #70) “avoiding an increase of a tenth of a degree in the global temperature would already suffice to alleviate some suffering for many people… (we) need to realize that there are no lasting changes without cultural changes,… and there are no cultural changes without personal changes.” There is wisdom to the adage that every drop makes the mighty ocean. In the fight against climate change, we need to look beyond the all or nothing approach. If we can reduce our personal carbon footprint by 25%, we ought to do so.
Finally, by practicing care for creation through our everyday action of eating a plant-based diet, we will become caring people naturally disposed towards showing care and concern for others. On the other hand, ignoring the harm we are causing makes us comfortable with being apathetic to the injustices in the world, especially those injustices that stem from our apathy. The act of avoiding meat multiple times a day will remind us to care for others.
Climate change may appear to be an amorphous and powerful enemy that is destined to crush us. We are paralyzed by confusion and fear, and as a result, we accept defeat without even putting up a fight. In other cases, we fall victim to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ mentality. When we see everyone else enjoying the fruits of large carbon emissions (steak dinners), it seems futile and foolish to choose to miss out on the apparent pleasures of life for the sake of the common good. But it is neither foolish nor futile because our actions in reducing our carbon footprint matter.
Our lives as Christians are about being disciples of Jesus Christ who invites each of us to follow him through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Whether the system has changed or whether those in power have followed Jesus as yet does not matter. Our discipleship of Jesus is a response to a personal call from Jesus. Obviously, we do not live in a vacuum, and neither is being a disciple of Jesus a solitary endeavor. Jesus calls all of us to be his disciples. But to be part of the collective, one must exercise one’s agency to join the collective that lives the life of discipleship of Christ.
Saint Ignatius asks us to meditate on three basic questions: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ? Consequently, if the discipleship of Jesus Christ includes care for creation and concern for humans who suffer from the results of climate change, we ought to ask: What have I done to care for creation? What am I doing to care for creation? What ought I do to care for creation?
There is no one-size-fits-all in the goal of reducing our carbon footprint. We ought to understand the lives of people around us and encourage them to care for creation in their respective contexts. Perhaps, indigenous people in Central Asia with limited food options do need to eat meat for a healthy life. But we cannot use their context to justify eating meat twenty times a week in suburban Boston when we are surrounded by a plethora of healthy, tasty, and affordable plant-based food options. If we can slash our carbon footprint by 25% by converting to a plant-based diet, we ought to do so.
The future is unknown. Perhaps, a new technology will save us from the impending climate change catastrophe. Or perhaps, all of the dire warnings about climate change will come to pass unleashing tremendous suffering. In either case, it will be immensely consoling to reflect that on learning about climate change, we had identified the major causes, and had taken action to reduce our contribution. No matter the outcome, we will be able to take great consolation in having tried our best to mitigate the effects of climate change.
I believe that it will be worth it to have answered Jesus’ call to care for creation even if we are doomed to live in a hotter and more dangerous world.
The 25% reduction in carbon footprint is a summary of the data in this article. According to the authors, food contributes 34% of our carbon footprint, and vegans have one fourth the carbon footprint of meat eaters.
Other corroborating data can be found in the following links:
A summary of the issue is presented here.