JESSICA HETHERINGTON, Ecotheologian

The Climate Crisis, Individual Change, and the Abundant Life

In my most recent newsletter to subscribers, I talk about the value in maintaining our current vehicles, most of which are gasoline powered (internal combustion engines) for as long as we can, before buying electric vehicles, because of the significant embodied carbon costs in building new cars, whether they are conventional or electric vehicles. In writing that note, I pointed out that the way of the future is for all vehicles to be electric; we have to move away from fossil fuels completely. This is not my opinion alone; it is the consensus among climate scientists and activists about the way forward in the world.

The Future is Clean Electricity

The point that I made about the future being electric was raised by a friend of mine, who asked me good questions about how we do so, if an increased demand for electricity leads to increased pollution (from coal-fired plants). In the city they live in, the current electrical grid can apparently only accommodate a few electric vehicles per neighbourhood.

Our conversation touched on the complexity of the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating global warming to only 1.5°C by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050 (the limits called for in the most recent report by the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change). We have to move all electricity production to clean power, through wind and solar power (the question of nuclear power is a complex one that requires further discussion). We have to leave oil in the ground and stop using natural gas, which is not a popular idea, especially in places like Alberta, where the oil and gas industry is huge.

We Need Less Than We Have

We also have to realize that the solution is not simply about replacing every vehicle on the road with an electric vehicle. We will not reach the goal of 1.5°C warming in 2030, and net zero warming by 2050, if we simply keep consuming at the rate we are doing. We need fewer vehicles on the road, fewer large single-home dwellings, fewer commutes to work, less meat and dairy, and an overall radical reduction in our consumption levels. We have to move to a world in which we are satisfied and happy with less than we currently have, a world in which we recognize that it is not what we consume that makes us happy, but our relationships with each other and with the wider Earth community that bring us meaning, contentment and joy.

Individual Actions, Government and Big Business

In the conversation with my friend, we touched on the relationship between the individual actions that we can take, and the work that is required by governments and big business. The fact is that the technology to move to clean electricity exists now; what is lacking is the will. Governments, big business, and citizens ourselves are lacking the will to stand up, forcefully, to the oil and gas industry and to all who profit from it. The will is lacking to stand up to the forces of compulsive consumerism and the desire to consume more and more. Those forces exist in marketing and in government policy; they also exist within our own homes and psyches, where we have come to identify our sense of worth and who we are with what we buy.

Individual actions can be difficult to make, in a world that is built for high consumption of everything from gas to food to disposable products. They asked me what they can do, beyond consolidating car trips, living close to work, carpooling and taking ‘staycations’.

There is more that can be done; I am currently working on a review of the book Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle by Lloyd Alter, that seeks to answer this very question.[1] It is important to realize (and Alter gets at this) that the answer to what more can be done is complex. The relationship between our individual actions, the changes we are capable of making in the face of the climate crisis, and the systems and structures that have set up our current way of living is multi-layered. We have been greenwashed by industry to believe that it is up to us as consumers – Buy this organic t-shirt! Recycle more! Use this reusable tote! – and that these actions are sufficient. They aren’t sufficient, and the big changes cannot be undertaken until we have government changing policy, businesses being encouraged and, if need be, forced, to make changes.

We Need a World that Looks Very Different

The fact is that we need a world that looks very different than the one we are in now. We need a world in which we focus on sufficiency, not efficiency. We need a world in which the most vulnerable are taken care of, a world in which we live within the biophysical limits of the Earth, a world in which there is far less disparity between rich and poor. We need a world in which the abundant life is based not on how much we consume or what we own, but on the quality of our relationships with each other and the natural world.

An Abundant Life

This is the world that Jesus calls us to, as people of faith. We are promised an abundant life, but it is not the abundant life pictured by free market capitalism. It is an abundant life defined by love, compassion, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is an abundant life marked by relationships of humility, vulnerability and love. It is an abundant life in which no one, human or nature, is not our neighbour. It is an abundant life in which we are called to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.

In the course of our conversation, my friend asked about those who live in rural communities, especially in cold parts of our country. While this is a context, among others, taken into account in the IPCC report on Climate Change, the fact is that we don’t know, exactly, what the world will look like if we manage to mitigate global warming to 1.5°C. We don’t know, exactly, what the structures and systems will look like. Some people in power have used examples like this as an excuse for inaction. But the fact is that we can, and we must begin to make the radical changes necessary to mitigate climate change and reduce fossil fuel emissions.

We Make the Road by Walking

In the Gospels, Jesus calls for an entirely new way of living, one of love and compassion, of the least being first and the humble exalted. He didn’t tell the disciples that such a world was in the future; he invited them to come along and begin to build that world right away. While we don’t have all the answers, yet, to what a 1.5°C world will look like, we can begin now. “We make the road by walking.”[2] We build it as we go; we don’t need to know what the future will look like, to begin.

As people of faith, we know this story. Let us begin now. The technology is there; we only need the will. The will to make the individual changes that we can, the will to push our governments and big business to make the changes needed to mitigate climate change and move toward a healing, instead of harming, world. Let us make the road by walking; let us walk toward the abundant life.


[1] Lloyd Alter, Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle: Why Individual Climate Action Matters More than Ever (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2021).

[2] This phrase, used by educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, comes from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

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