Whether we want to admit it or not, our spiritual practices are connected to, and have implications for, EVERY aspect of our lives, from the ethical rules that we follow, to the way that we vote, to what lines of work we might choose to pursue, to what sorts of things we buy and how we spend our money, to even what clothes we wear or what cleaning products we use…and, far, far, far more.
Many modern pagans have written on this far more, and better, than I’ll ever be able to do, particularly in certain corners of the above totality. (T. Thorn Coyle’s latest is a good example of this, and one you should read if you have not already…) However, there’s one particular issue that, while I do suspect at least someone has written about it out there, I have not read anyone else discussing…and, it literally keeps me up at night on some occasions (although many other things do as well), and as it came up for me again recently, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the matter.
The fact is, modern pagans and polytheists are a very small minority. If we were to be very generous, we’d say that there are perhaps two million pagans worldwide; but, even though that number seems like nothing to sneeze at (and it isn’t!), that’s two million people out of more than seven billion…which really isn’t that many. Pagans aren’t responsible for most of the major corporate or governmental decisions which occur that contribute to the decay of the world’s ecosystems; and even if all of us switched to solar power, composted, and recycled our waste 100%, the wider world would have to do literally nothing to continue this degradation on the path it currently is, and we’d be powerless to stop it. While this is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, and I would prefer not to start on as much of a downer note as this, nonetheless it bears mentioning, just to put these things in context…
Nonetheless, not one pagan that I know personally (and very few that I don’t know personally) would disagree that it is still worthwhile for us as pagans, and especially because of the value that we place in nature, the earth, and the environment (for all sorts of good and valid theological reasons), that we do recycle, try to reduce our carbon footprints, and in various other ways attempt to live in better equilibrium with the non-human world than has been the tendency of modern humans in particular. I have no disagreement with this stance whatsoever.
The bit that does keep me up at night, though, is another question altogether, but one related to these concerns. And, it can be put in a rather simple and “smallest portions” manner along the lines of the following:
“Does lighting one candle make a difference?”
On a kind of metaphorical level, of course, we all rush in and say “YES IT DOES!” And we say those words to mean that every effort a person can make is useful, and even if it may not seem like much, it is often better than nothing to at least make these small efforts, which can add up to larger efforts. This, in itself, would be a good way to consider some of the issues I’ve mentioned already in this post. And with that, I have no disagreement whatsoever.
But, in this instance, I’m speaking quite specifically and literally: does lighting one candle make a difference? If the answer to the previous, more metaphorical, slant on this question is an unquestionable “YES!” then the answer to this one has to be a “yes” as well…and that is what bothers me.
Whether we like it or not, lighting one candle contributes to the overall amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is contributing to global warming (and I’m not going to use the more acceptable “climate change” term with this, considering the record high temperatures some places are experiencing as I write this, and over the last few weeks). Unless that candle one lights was hand-made by someone in their own workshop in the back of their house or something similar, it was probably made in a factory of some sort, which in itself takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of carbon waste; likewise, it was probably transported in some vehicle that burns gasoline to get to the store which is now selling it to you. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a hand-made candle of the sort I mentioned previously, even though I’ve seen them on a few occasions, because I generally don’t have the money to shell out for them, and it’s always cheaper and easier (especially for those of us on a limited income) to get fifty tea lights at Walgreen’s for $3 rather than a single hand-made candle for $8. (Those figures are rather arbitrary, but are based on actual prices that I’ve seen or paid.)
At various points over the last twenty-plus years that I’ve identified as pagan, I’ve gone for entire years without burning a single candle myself, which I suspect is shocking to some pagans who can’t do any sort of ritual without at least one (and preferably many more) candles. And, at present, I can’t burn any candles at or around my home shrine at all, due to restrictions that those who own the property have on such things being used indoors. The same is true of the Double Tree at PantheaCon, and it has required everyone to adapt to that situation to have flameless and smokeless options for both candles and incense, which pretty much everyone has done without too much difficulty. Fair enough…
But, again, using electronic candles is likewise something that may not be as environmentally-friendly as it may seem, either. No, there’s no major and direct conversion of a solid into a gas that then hangs about in the atmosphere as there is with actual candles, but the manufacturing efforts on electronic candles are at least equal to those of regular candles; and, there’s also batteries of the (often) smaller, watch-battery variety, which are made of various elements that are a bit more difficult, I think, to recycle easily…so, it’s sort of trading one set of problems for another.
I suspect I know what many people might be saying with this: “But PSVL, it’s all right! This is for The Gods!” Yes, I know…but, I don’t think that sort of rationality necessarily excuses the underlying issues, any more than a Christian telling a queer person that they can’t ever reveal their identity or express their sexuality because “It’s for Jaysus!” One thing that many of the polytheistic systems I’ve encountered demonstrate is that the laws of humans and the laws of the gods must match up: if they do not, there is a problem with one or the other, and thus what applies to humans should likewise apply to the gods, especially if the gods are as much involved in the world and in the elements as many modern polytheists say they are (and with which I’d agree).
Someone else might say, “But PSVL, because we’re so conscientious about our environmental impact in so many other ways, this little matter of our religious practice balances it out.” But honestly, I don’t know if that’s a very good rationality either. One doesn’t tell an alcoholic (and, as far as human societal impact on the environment goes at the moment, we as a species are absolutely raging alcoholics in this regard, alas) that one can not drink all year, but then one gets a free pass between Christmas and New Years to drink as much as one wants, and it will all be all right, because it “evens out.” If something is harmful, then it is always harmful; and since Wicca at least ascribes to the idea of “An it harm none, do as ye will,” that sort of brings up the question of whether these things do harm the wider world…
Those of you who are more academically minded, and who know a bit about the history of religions, or anthropology, or any variety of other matters, may then say “But PSVL, we get what you’re saying, but human religion has almost always involved some degree or other of conspicuous consumption–it’s just part of the game.” Yes, I agree…but, I don’t know if we can continue playing the game by the old rules any longer, since some excesses in that thinking have lead to exactly where we are now, even if those excesses did not take place in explicit religious contexts (although they sort of did…).
This kind of reasoned reflection might lead one eventually down the road that Jainism took where it comes to being non-violent (ahimsa), of first being absolutely vegetarian, and eventually fruititarian, and eventually only eating fruit that has fallen off its tree, and eventually also not walking too many steps a day, trying to prevent inhalation of small organisms by wearing a mask, and so forth. And, I do think that’s an excess of its own, as life does live on life, and I think denying that is not particularly useful…but yet, I think that considering some of these matters is useful.
This set of questions, hwoever, does not simply have to do with the matter of burning candles, incense, and other offerings; it likewise has to do with offerings that are placed into the water (whether rivers, lakes and ponds, oceans, or other natural bodies), and a variety of other matters that are concerned with the various “disposables” of pagan and polytheist practice. On the whole, very few pagans tend to break votive statues, vessels, and such these days, or inscribe spell texts on lead and deposit them in wells and such; but, candles, flowers, and other things do fall into this category, and deserve further consideration, I think…
This is something I started to think about very deeply when it comes to Shinto practice. I love Shinto, and I love its ideals in terms of attempting to live in harmony with Great Nature, kannagara. In doing this, many Shinto spiritual technologies–including almost all of the ones that are of a material nature (ofuda, omamori, ema, etc.)–have to be renewed on a yearly basis (if so desired), and that means that all of these objects come back to the Shrine by the end of the year, and they are thanked, purified, and then burned. There could be many lessons in this experience: the impermanence of things (even including spiritual things), the importance of renewal, the transformative nature of fire, and any number of other possible significances. But, the fact is also, at the end of the ritual when the smoke clears, there’s a whole pile of things that are burned up that contribute to the carbon in the atmosphere. While the rice paper katashiro that are placed into the river have less of an impact, since they dissolve and their nutrients can probably be ingested by any number of organisms in the river on its way to the sea (and likewise in the sea when it reaches it), one does worry about the ink that was on the paper before it was deposited as well…
So, it’s one of these issues that I suspect is one many of us haven’t contemplated, or even refuse to contemplate, because doing so might ultimately lead one down the road of “Okay, then: don’t do any religious activities whatsoever, because pretty much all human activity these days contributes to environmental degradation whether we like it or not.” And, unfortunately, that would be a logical conclusion to draw. However, I’m not about to give up my devotions, nor to suggest that anyone else do likewise…but, I do wonder about the use of candles and other such light-giving devices, and a variety of other things (including the use of fire, especially during the summer and times when there are burn bans on, but which might get religious exemptions, etc.) as well.
I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on these matters…I have no good answers myself, and more questions than anything, but nonetheless I’d be intrigued to hear how others have thought through these matters for themselves.