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Developing Climate Virtue

By James Crocker
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Last Wednesday I threw away a paper towel tube. I could have recycled it, but recycling would have taken extra effort, so I didn’t. Recycling is a habit, and in me it is a habit half-formed.

If I had recycled that cardboard tube, it could have continued to be of use. Now, it will likely end up buried in a landfill, where anaerobic bacteria will transform it into methane, a greenhouse gas thirty times stronger than carbon dioxide.

I put short-term convenience ahead of long-term good. In my faith tradition, we confess that wrongdoing occurs ‘through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.’  This is how I think about our environmental crisis.

It is easy to start reducing carbon emissions. We can often make significant improvements with minor changes to our habits, at little expense, and sometimes in ways that save money. This is good for our world and our wallets. After all, a kWh saved is a kWh earned. Conversely, excess carbon emissions are bad for us all, and disproportionately impact the most poor and vulnerable. But if we know how to do what is right, and it is easy to do it, why don’t we?

Medieval theologians would say that it is because we are ‘vicious’. That is, we are creatures of vice. We are prone to, and have accumulated, many bad habits. Bad habits are hard to break.

A lot of wrongdoing results from bad habits. A lot of everyday goodness happens as a result of good habits. Habits are good when they help us to flourish. Among other things, flourishing means to live content, healthy, and free. In our great philosophical and religious traditions, a good habit goes by another name — a virtue.

When we live virtuous lives, we live well. When we live vicious lives, we live badly. That is why great thinkers in the ancient world, like the Roman Senator and Christian philosopher Boethius, said that virtue is its own reward, just as vice is its own punishment.

This means it is not merely good to be virtuous, it is rational. Nevertheless, being rational does not come easy. We spend decades in education laboriously training ourselves to reason well. So too we need support to be morally rational.

Faith communities support us in developing virtue. They provide us with loving communities where we can grow and learn without being condemned. They provide us with fellow travelers who can support us through difficult times, and rejoice with us in victories large and small. They provide us with forgiveness as a weapon against despair at our own wrongdoing.

Our faith traditions can help us develop climate virtue - habits which lead to a stable climate and a healthier world for us and our children. That is why Blessed Tomorrow is partnering with faith organizations across the country, providing them with the resources they need to support their members as they strive to get in the habit of doing God’s work in a warming world.

Dr. James Crocker is the current Blessed Tomorrow intern. He has a doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford and previously worked on the Test of Faith project at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge.