Lent. The word is spare, the final t sound sharp, like an aural slap. Awake! We are in Lent, the slow sacred season of gray waiting and somber reflection, before the forsythia bloom and the tulips pour their gift of red and purple over bare patches of earth. Around the world in other spiritual traditions this sacred season is also being observed and goes by other names: Holi, Vaisakhi, Ramadan, Passover, Vesak. It is a time when we hold our breath and wait in the dark for the resurrection of life.
When I was a child growing up in a working-class town on Long Island peopled by families with mostly Irish or Italian last names, everyone observed Lent. We were clear what the fasting and abstinence of Lent would consist of: we would give up eating meat, just as we did on Fridays during the rest of the year. I never questioned the rule, never wondered why we weren’t asked to give up eating buttery crumb buns from the German bakery around the corner or Sensmeyer’s chocolate candy or why my father didn’t have to give up his shot of Irish whiskey.
Why meat? Giving up meat for Lent has an interesting history that began when Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and a middle class became the economic equals of nobility and could afford to eat meat. Thus, meat was associated with social class, with having made it out of the peasantry and poverty. Being able to abstain from meat as a spiritual practice indicated you had enough wealth, enough plenty. Not eating meat was a sacrifice you could afford to make.
No one had to be cajoled into going meatless when I was a kid—it was just what you, your neighbors and friends did. Despite the dreaded tuna casserole, or maybe because of it, meatless days in Lent managed to focus my attention to the message of rebirth, renewal, and the sacredness of life delivered from the pulpit on Sunday mornings. Children are born, I believe, knowing about the interconnection of worms and frogs and saltmarshes to the sacredness of life. But soon, too soon, that deep knowing is erased by our culture of unlimited growth and mindless consumption of stuff.
In the fifties, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere began its invisible steep climb, but oil was cheap and the big black cast iron oil burner in the basement of our house chugged day and night. We were warm and happy and blissfully unaware of the price we would soon pay for the great leap into consumption fueled by the steady flow of oil and gas and coal.
The deep knowing I had as a child about my own relationship to pussywillows and polliwogs, lost for a time, has returned and in this moment I wish for some sacred act of rebirth and renewal. I will not find that act inside a Church. I no longer am a member of the Catholic Church and have deep arguments with Christianity’s colonialism which continues to this day, despite Pope Francis’ brilliant and beautiful plea for the planet in his encyclical Laudate Si.
All this has been on my mind this week as the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week and my hope, written about here a few weeks ago, that the national security implications of our reliance on fossil fuels would build political momentum around a transition to alternative energy, has faded and died. On Friday, President Biden announced that the United States would step up its supply of liquid natural gas, lng’s, to Europe, to which Bill McKibben responded with these words:
This is a terrible mistake, perhaps an epochal one. As research makes clear, a concerted clean energy push in Europe could wean it off most Russian gas by 2025. Instead we seem likely to lock in a generation’s worth of new infrastructure on either side of the Atlantic. And to waste what may be our last decision point on energy this decade—the decade that scientists have assured us will be decisive one way or another.
As I read those words, I feel grief for what is lost in this moment of turning. We could have turned away from fossil fuels and united as a country around democracy and climate change, a movement could have started along McKibben’s idea of Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom. But I don’t see any signs the movement has caught on and Biden’s move to increase our supply of liquid natural gas might as well have been a wish list written by the Petroleum industry, giddy with joy that they get to drill baby drill in the name of democracy.
Maybe you’ve figured out, readers, where this essay is leading but most likely you wonder what I am going to pull out of this top hat packed with so many different ideas: lent, grief, hope, rebirth, polliwogs, lng’s, epochal mistake. Are you ready? Here’s the four-letter word: meat.
I’ve been reading about the connection between meat and climate change all week, obsessing about finding the right data about how much it would matter to the atmosphere if we all stopped eating meat. I think one of the reasons meat is not mentioned more often (it was not mentioned once in the Maine Won’t Wait climate action plan) as the number one action we can take is that the numbers for how much greenhouse gas would be saved by going meatless vary widely depending on what factors are considered.
If you just consider cows burping methane, you come up with one number, but if you add in the fertilizer used to grow the corn to feed the animals, the trees cut down to grow the corn to feed the animals, the amount of plant waste that is generated in the production and harvesting of the corn, the oil used for tractors and factory farm equipment, the transportation of corn to the meat growers and the transportation of the meat product to market, and the packaging that the meat is wrapped in— the number skyrockets so high my head spins!!
So high that I’ve started to have what we mental health people call “rescue fantasies.” So much for last week’s essay about being a small old lady peering at moss tendrils! I’m ready to save the world by preaching vegetarianism!
I sent an email to the leader of our Food Action Group here in Freeport, a woman who is a dear friend of many years, and working very hard on setting up FreeportCAN’s Farmers Market. In it I extolled the idea about having a campaign in town to change the way people eat: that we could start something here that would spread to other towns, that I’d found the answer to our powerlessness over corporate banks and the petroleum industry and politicians. I went on with such fervor that I wouldn’t blame her if she suspects I am having a manic episode.
But listen!! Meat could save us!! Or not eating meat could save us. This simple act! I have read different numbers from 30% to 70% reduction in carbon tonnage if the whole world were to shift in some degree to a plant-based diet. I hate to blame the cows, poor things with their miserable daylight deprived lives on factory farms. Or the chickens, whose faces are burned after they are born so that they are blind to their surroundings, or the pigs who can’t turn around in their cages. I have to blame our cultural beliefs about meat: that eating that luscious red blood, or white flesh shows our wealth, our progress from plant eating peasant to wealthy modern man, our blessed dominion over the beasts and the fishes of the sea (which we now grow in giant pens and feed millions of pounds of tiny fish which further depletes the ocean).
I’ve made it! I can eat cheeseburgers whenever I want!!
But what if we could shift our cultural blindness to meat eating so that eating a plant-based diet shows our love for the world, for all its creatures, for all the future generations of every species who need our love now. Love. Every meal would be a ritual of love and hope for life on the planet! Readers, this week, will you join me in a meal of love, will you hold hands with me next time you sit at the table and mindfully eat a plant based meal, holding the hope for our future and the belief that together, in this ritual of plant-based eating, we can, literally, resurrect life on earth?
Thank you for your Lenten reflection Kathleen. Giving up meat to save our planet is worth a try❤️.
I'm not ready to give up on LNGs for Europe yet, Kathleen. At the very least, I think we should be making a lot of noise about this issue. I've written to Bill McKibben suggesting a March on Washington this spring. I can imagine a Third Act Working Group organizing it, perhaps along with Sunrise, 350, and other climate groups.