Lichen, Guilt, and the Grace of God
How carbon footprints trap us in guilt, and how lichen shows us the way back to God’s grace
By Marnie Klassen, A Rocha Manitoba Communications and Admin Assistant
August 31, 2022
By now, we’ve nearly all heard the term carbon footprint.* Like double-double and selfie, the term has become ubiquitous, especially among those of us who spend our time taking care of the earth. As I think through the next few months in my own life, I find myself wondering if I ought to cut out one of my flights home, realizing that I’ve gone over my carbon budget for 2022. With IPCC reports coming out the wazoo, extreme weather events making the news each week, and climate anxiety making its rounds on social media (and in our hearts), it’s all too easy to feel responsible for the climate and the earth, and to feel guilty.
But what if we listened to the voice of creation?
I love to think about lichen. Lichen is a symbiotic relationship between ‘algae or cyanobacteria’ and fungi.** Lichen is often found on trees and rocks, biotic and abiotic parts of an ecosystem. Trees + rocks + algae + fungi does not equal an ecosystem, but it does equal a sliver of an ecosystem – a system that is made to function a certain way, to grow and thrive and support a variety of organisms, even as some compete with each other, and as populations rise and fall. An ecosystem is designed for equilibrium, for balance.
We’ve been tossing an idea around the Manitoba office lately: systems are not broken, but rather function the way they are designed. Allow me to play with this system for a moment – the symbiotic relationship of lichen is a system designed to function for growth and mutuality. But, the system of carbon footprints is also designed a certain way, and it’s functioning the way it was built to.
Unfortunately, the idea of the carbon footprint was co opted in the early 2000s to change the story we told about climate change – the responsibility was placed not on industry, corporations, and government as well as individuals, but now the responsibility was entirely placed upon the individual. The system of the carbon footprint is designed to make us feel guilty.***
Now let me be clear! I am not saying that it is a waste of time and energy to calculate your carbon footprint. This is a helpful tool. BUT… it is a tool meant to be used alongside other tools, tools that don’t tell us that climate change is solely our fault, but that remind us that it is our collective responsibility.
The point is this: climate change and ecological degradation are a shared responsibility between us (individuals) and systems. Not only that, but we walk hand in hand with God on the journey to care for creation.
Creation theologian Colin Bell says this:
“Our work is not to save the planet, or to bring about the kingdom of God by our own efforts. We are rather called to live as instantiations of the kingdom of God, members of a resistance movement against all that would destroy God’s creation, trusting in his grace for the future.”****
Does this mean that we don’t have work to do? Not at all! We get to work alongside God in God’s great task of redeeming creation. So do we need to feel guilty for not doing enough to lower our carbon footprint? No!! We get to do the work without carrying the responsibility solely on our shoulders.
So where do we go from here?
Think about a system you’re involved in, and then think about what kind of influence you might have over that system. Maybe you’re a teacher – consider how you can help implement better composting practices at your school, or advocate for more energy efficiency in the building. Many of you reading this attend a church – while a church is a community, it is also a system – consider how you can influence your congregation to care for creation! Believe it or not, this is systemic change. By working together, we take the guilt off of our shoulders and replace it with cooperation, with momentum, and with hope.
Just like lichen, a small system that works the way it is meant to, we too can speak into the systems we are a part of, helping them to carry the weight of creation care with us.
*Carbon footprint refers to the equivalent amount of greenhouse gasses produced by one person’s lifestyle, per year. See arocha.ca/get-involved/climate-stewards-calculator to learn more.
Featured photo: Hannah Mae Henry
Photos of moss, fungi, and lichen in this post are from ARBC’s Brooksdale Centre and from ARMB’s Boreal Ecology Centre