For the love of carbon

Christians are called to care for carbon.

In the Genesis 1 creation story, we are taught of a God who lovingly shapes the fabric of reality and declares it “good.” In Genesis 2, the Christian imperative to “stewardship” is fleshed out: the LORD God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to serve (abad) and protect (shamar) it.

So modern humans too, made in the image of God, are called to join God’s loving creation by caring for the world around us. We are privileged with the responsibility of participation in the flourishing of the life. And this life relies heavily on one element in particular: carbon.

Carbon, in all its forms, is critical to the cycling of matter and energy on and around Earth. Depending on its form in the environment, carbon plays different—but equally important—roles.

On the earth, Carbon is a basic part of all living things, including you and me. In the air, carbon dioxide is formed when carbon joins with two oxygen atoms. It is one of several greenhouse gases that help keep our planet at a hospitable temperature.

The environmental movement tends to unfairly, and unhelpfully, demonize carbon.

My friends in the Christian environmental movement care a lot about carbon—specifically the number of atoms being released by human activity as carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. They believe these atoms are bad, and so by extension those working in the extractive industry are often perceived to be bad, or at least making bad choices.

Conversely, many others emphasize our economic reliance on the extraction of carbon. I am an Albertan, and my friends—whether working in a McDonalds or on an oil rig—care a lot about carbon. Their livelihoods are tied to the going price of a barrel of oil.

From my Christian friends in Alberta, I hear that carbon might be bad, but it’s definitely necessary. And those environmentalists who oppose carbon-intensive industries may be perceived as bad because they don’t care about the people who rely on the extraction of carbon for their bread and butter.

Both of these prevalent Christian narratives care a lot about carbon. But they both forget that carbon is more than a pollutant or a commodity. It is a good part of God’s good creation, which we are called to serve and protect.

I propose a reframing: instead of commodifying, critiquing, condoning, or condemning carbon—let’s start caring for carbon.

When we care about carbon, it’s easy for us to forget our own participation in the carbon cycle. Our conversations can quickly become polarized by accusations and empty statistics. When we care for carbon, we start by recognizing the goodness of all forms of carbon: the carbon in me is good, just like the carbon in you, and the carbon dioxide in the air that we share.

Life as we know it rests on the careful balance of carbon in its various forms in the earth and atmosphere. And right now, humans are adding extra carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. As the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere exceeds the rate a which carbon can be sequestered in the earth, our earth’s atmosphere is heating up. And, as some of this extra carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans, chemical equilibriums are shifted towards the production of more acid.

Carbon is part of God’s good creation. But our relationship with carbon desperately needs reconciliation. By remembering the creation narrative, Christians can reclaim carbon as “good,” and in doing so shape climate action and economic development towards love and justice:

  • To support our economy, we currently rely on carbon extraction: let us do so tenderly, in awareness of how our activity affects earth’s entire atmospheric community.
  • To care for God’s carbon-based creation, we must limit our emissions of carbon into the atmosphere immediately: let us do so with compassion—with love and concern for those whose livelihoods are currently tied to emissions-intensive industries.
  • To construct a new, responsible economy, we must re-shape societies and economic assumptions dramatically: let us do so in community—with no one left behind.

Let’s not let bad dialogue about a good atom divide us. We can put our heads and hearts together to serve and protect our home by tending the careful balance of carbon in creation.

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About the author


Miriam Mahaffy is the climate policy intern at Citizens for Public Justice , a faith-based, member-driven public policy organization in Ottawa, ON.

About the author