Posted by: aediculaantinoi | July 15, 2013

The Environmental Impact of Spiritual Practices…

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.


  1. I do make candles for each god when I am home (too many hobbies, I guess), but I travel for work and haven’t been able to make a batch for a year and a half. I like doing it, though, because I can customize the candles to scents that seem to match the gods. I have bought expensive hand made candles before, but I am saving up for land and have switched to dollar candles from Wal-Mart, figuring the glass they come in can be reused or recycled. Candle lighting is pretty much my only ritual right now, along with prayer and leaving an offering. Not sure what I would do if I gave it up…

    • Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I certainly wouldn’t suggest giving up such practices, especially if it is a core part of what you do, by any means. (And that you can make your own is really good!)

      But, for myself, I am questioning it along the lines above, especially when it comes from a mass produced context. Hmm…

  2. I get what you’re saying, and I do think it’s worthwhile to examine every single thing we do (and buy, and use), including those for religious purposes, and consider its impact. However, the effect of a few burning candles seems relatively negligible compared to the much more impactful actions most people, including pagans, are still engaging in on a regular basis. For instance, if you drive a car everyday, will stopping burning a few candles make up for it? Should we deny the gods offerings while we consistently indulge our own comfort and convenience at the expense of the environment? It would be far better to change our everyday habits – starting with those that have the most negative impact – before we stress too much about the smaller things. That being said, if one *can* make one’s own natural candles, or at least buy them from a local craftsperson, one should – and that goes for every other thing one can possibly think of, religious or not.

    • I certainly do get that–and being a non-driver myself, and someone who uses public transport a huge amount, I am probably in a better position on this matter than most.

      What concerns me, though, is if all of these activities–while not being “equally harmful”–nonetheless add up. Sure, driving a non-hybrid car that gets crappy gas mileage 300 feet to the corner to get one’s mail (as I see people around this area do on a regular basis) is very bad, and might amount over the course of a year to being, let’s arbitrarily say, “300 bad-points.” But, what if burning candles on twelve festivals in the year only adds up to “1 bad-point.” My concern is: it’s still a “bad-point.” And if it is, then we can’t say “It’s only one…”

      Of course, that basically means that if this type of consideration and the taking of “harm none” were taken to a comprehensive level and included environmental degradation concerns to the point that it completely altered things for many modern pagans, then (for starters) pretty much any/every regional festival that one can’t travel to on foot should be cancelled…and, personally, I am not very willing to say that should occur…and, thus, I realize my hypocrisy in this regard, and I’m willing to call it hypocrisy and to sit with the fact that it isn’t an optimal situation.

      On this particular issue, though, there are some solutions offered that seem like a “fix” and a “pass” but which really aren’t: offering carbon credits at PantheaCon (which is itself a kind of scam–the program, not that PantheaCon offers them) to help to offset the impact of the thing is sort of the equivalent to making a donation to a rape crisis center in advance of a whole pile of people going on a rape spree…while that’s a strong metaphor, where the earth is concerned, it’s less and less a metaphor every day, alas.

      I personally start to get worried when my “It’s religious, so it’s OK” self-justification instincts kick in, because that opens doors to all sorts of things that aren’t particularly good. In my honest self-reflection and self-examination, though, this red flag has come up, and I think it thus needs to be at least discussed, even if it doesn’t lead to any changes for me or anyone else (which I strongly suspect it won’t).

      • On the driving issue – unfortunately, a large percentage of the US does not have mass transit. I should probably have looked up the statistics before posting, but I have never lived in a small town with public transportation – they can’t afford it. Even many mid-sized cities can’t justify the cost – I have lived in cities where that was an issue during elections. In small towns,one may think well, it’s small enough to walk everywhere, but people who get off work close to midnight or go to work close to midnight (there are shift workers even in small towns – I am one of them right now) definitely don’t want to walk two miles at midnight. Carpooling only works if the people happen to live on the same side of town – otherwise, you might as well drive separate cars, the distance covered will be the same.

        This is why the ecovillage model makes sense to me. I suppose it’s extreme and not for everyone, but A) it will definitely work on healing that patch of the earth, and B) hopefully if there are people who need to work in town, they can all carpool…

      • My concern is: it’s still a “bad-point.” And if it is, then we can’t say “It’s only one…”

        True. But since there’s no way we’re going to eliminate all such “bad-points” from our lives, I would prefer to start with the ones that are just connected to our own comfort and convenience, rather than the ones that might take something away from the gods. While I get why you worry about the “it’s religious so it’s okay” justification, I fear that more people would have the attitude “it’s just religious so it’s easier to forego this thing for environmental reasons than to forego something I personally want/need” which has its own problems.

      • While I get why you worry about the “it’s religious so it’s okay” justification, I fear that more people would have the attitude “it’s just religious so it’s easier to forego this thing for environmental reasons than to forego something I personally want/need” which has its own problems.

        Very important point, Dver, and thank you for saying it!

  3. Frankly, open flame frightens me, so I don’t light candles or incense at all.

    I pour out a glass of water (originally tap, but filled from the filtered pitcher) under the apple tree every morning. I’m told that tap water is a terrible offering, and spring water is preferable, but I’m not exactly close to pure headwater springs. I suppose I could scoop up pails of river water and offer that, but then I have pails of skanky river water sitting around, and I don’t think anyone else in the household would go for that. Or I could drive up to the mountain springs and burn a lot of gas and emit loads of carbon.

  4. This is actually something I’ve been greatly considering. One of the large part of my practices is to burn incense and light candles. However, I also work with some local land spirits and they happen to have a specific hatred of humankind because they’ve watched us for thousands of years and to this day, now, their waters are so polluted and destroyed, but no one is actually HELPING them. (Despite some desire to, no help is working, honestly. Over the last 30 years, there’s been a big push to help save it, but it hasn’t been as successful as we’d like. Far from it, in fact. In many places here, it’s actually done nothing.) They’re angry and they BARELY tolerate me, but I feel it worth the effort to help and to understand what is happening and what to do. One of my issues is how to practice with them in mind.

    One thing I have in particular for is a love of bees (to the point that when possible, I would like to own my own colony) and I happen to live in a perfect area to purchase local beeswax and other local things. I’ve been hoping to start making my own candles, rather than rely on the ones I find “out there.” Often, admittedly, my practice has started involving “scrounging” more than me buying things–donations from others, usually. I have a LOT of candles, yet most of them were donated in some form (a lot of my friends also donate wax to me).

    Honestly, working with nature in mind is one of the hardest things one can do. After all, we’re flooded with ill information as well. Business want to make money off of this green craze and we buy into it. Currently, I’ve been studying and meditating on the ties of communities and how it all works, and one of the things I’ve found is that we’re all human. Almost all the separate communities I’m in all fall into the same problems. (One of which being that we fail to see how our communities interlock.) I realize throughout my entire day, everything becomes a part of my practice. (I don’t always openly say so, of course.) It saddens me, really, but some of my local polytheist friends LIKE nature, yet the lives they lead is so rampant in destruction OF nature because they’re unwilling to sacrifice what they like in every day occurrences. (Sometimes in destruction of themselves as well. A few smoke and also litter their cigarettes.) I keep sacrificing more and more, but then, I’ve come to the point where even housework in my apartment is a devotion (as my apartment is my fulltrui’s) and is done in a specific way. A lot of my friends sometimes think me weird because my actions are “typical American.” It makes it hard to change a practice like that… The desire to fit to norms destroys us.

  5. On the driving issue – unfortunately, a large percentage of the US does not have mass transit.

    True, but one could make the argument that if a person was really dedicated to such a lifestyle, that person could choose to live in a place that supported the lifestyle. In other words, no one is being forced to live in a place where they have to have a car. All major cities and many smaller ones (mine is about 150,000 people) have mass transit. Those places are also more likely to have, for instance, grocery stores that allow you to buy things in bulk and refill containers rather than constantly generating more trash, as well as other environmental advantages. It’s certainly not the only way of living low-impact, but it is an option.

    • In my definition, 150,000 is not a smaller town.🙂 The one I am currently in is 15,000. And the town I was thinking of where there was a huge fight over whether or not they would bring in mass transit a few years ago was closer to 300,000. But most of America is still small towns and outlying suburbs. They can’t all move to the city. And for those who do care about the impact, quite a few of them (myself included) don’t want to deal with the pollution of a city large enough to have mass transit, or may not want to cut social/familial ties simply to be able to take a bus or train to work every day, not to mention quitting their current job, moving, possibly selling an existing home… none of that is fun, and just to take a bus? In my case, I am looking for land about a half hour to an hour commute of the city where my family lives (with small towns closer by) – lower pollution, closer to family, but a space to build a new community. I’ve found quite a few that fit the bill, just saving so i can buy it.

  6. I think a lot of modern pagans (and people in general) have utterly forgotten that 150 years ago, you couldn’t just walk to a shop and buy a month’s worth of candles for the price of a cup of coffee. Wax candles were for rich people, and most of those rich people hoarded them, bringing them out only for “best”. Tallow candles were foul and smokey and stinky, but cheaper. CheapER, not cheap. Until mere decades ago, incense was a luxury item that had to be imported from Exotic Far Off Lands.

    The idea that for pagans, every spirito-religious movement should be accompanied by candles and incense is terribly modern (which is amusing, for religions that claim to be “resurrecting/restoring The Old Ways”). I haven’t researched it specifically, but I suspect it’s a product of the fact that the modern neo/pagan movement traces back to gentleman scholars of the cluttered, materialistic, Victorian era – the heyday of Imperial trade and cheap, unfettered factory labour – and those gentlemen had the money and trade connections for such things as copious candlelight and imported incense. More traditional use of consumables (Catholic votive candles, buddhist joss sticks, etc.) may have been much more “special occasion” than most modern people have been led to believe (espeically as it’s been depicted in film and so on).

    Personally, I leave candle-lighting and incense to special-occasion, as-needs-must work. If I need to burn something specifically to cleanse a space, I do – but I don’t use disposables/consumables just to praise my Gods, or talk to my ancestors, or do regular practices. If I do need to go with a consumable, I try to source locally-and-ethically-made – as Dver said above, better I pay more for a better product, and go without some unnecessary comfort of my own, and if I’m paying $8 for a candle, it’s not such a big deal when I’m only doing it a few times a year. That is the nature of sacrifice to the spirits – not driving to the dollar store to buy some made-in-China paraffin tealights every month like clockwork, but giving up something you need, because honouring the Gods or asking for Their help is more important than having new clothes/snacks in the cupboard/enough petrol to visit friends this weekend.

    I think neo-majick books have a lot to answer for, in planting the idea that EVERY majickial working or blessing MUST be accompanied by a candle of the correct colour, dressed with such-and-such an oil, and the correct incense, and blah-blah correspondences and so on. Yes, such things can add power to whatever you’re doing *when it’s necessary*, but how can anybody think that the average joe bloggs in ancient Rome, neolithic Ireland, 16th century Europe, etc. could *access*, let alone afford, candles and incense every time they approached their spirits? Mind-boggling… o.O

    • You’re totally right – however, we must also remember that in most of those places/times, people also had more direct access to FIRE in their homes – they would have a cooking/heating fire going almost all the time, most likely. They could also easily build a fire outdoors for ritual use. Whereas now, the only way most of us will have a fire inside is in the form of a candle flame, and even outdoors there are plenty of restrictions (if you don’t own your own land). So in that sense, candles can be useful in a way they wouldn’t have been before.

      However, it’s true that they don’t automatically need to be a part of every offering or rite. For me, lighting a candle on one of my shrines seems to “activate” it in a useful way, draws the attention and invites the deity. But I do use only handmade beeswax candles for this. Incense can simply not be a part of most of my indoor rituals, because I am too sensitive to the smell. I am planning however to start making my own incense cones (for outdoor use) so I can control the ingredients and make the offering a more personal one.

  7. This reminds me of an eco-journalist I heard lamenting the millions of cook-fires in Africa for the CO2 emissions. Also, there was an article in the Vancouver Sun a few years back about the environmental damage caused by depleted-uranium ammunition. In both cases, the larger, more obvious damage is missed for something minor, something symbolic.

    Regarding candlemaking–It’s incredibly easy (really–I’m utterly unskilled and yet churn them out) to make one’s own candles. One of the tenants of several Druid orders is specifically avoiding consumeristic, mass-produced, industrialized products in return for the “old ways” (which, really, aren’t even all that old). In addition, Candlemass (Imbolc) was a yearly feast for centuries where people brought their candle stubs to be re-forged into new candles. I’ve been able to make most of the candles I use from recycled wax. Not just because it’s better for the environment, but because it’s cheaper (and older).

    But on the larger issue–we should not miss the massive causes of damage to our world by worrying about the Co2 output of devotional candles. Attacking the engine of the destruction seems a lot more useful (though a lot more work and also a lot more life-changing) than sitting in the dark.

    • Although it should be remembered that Candlemas is a Christian holiday that was developed quite independently from Imbolc, and their proximity (Imbolc: Feb. 1 vs. Candlemas: Feb. 2) is rather coincidental, even though some small aspects of them are relatively close in meaning (e.g. purification being a traditional focus of each).

      While I do agree that fossil fuel dependency and other factors are a much more pressing and destructive issue, at the same time, I think we need to be serious about everything that we do, and to take the environmental impact of any and every aspect of our lives in a considered manner. In light of these thoughts, would it be better, perhaps, to switch to butter lamps than candles, for example? Hinduism requires butter lamps for many of its practices, even though some people prefer to substitute candles. In absence of any facts and figures on the actual environmental impacts of any of these things, though, it is still good to be aware of the fact that they do have an impact, and that’s all I’m trying to emphasize here; there is no suggestion whatsoever that anyone give these things up and reform all their ways along these lines, I just hope that people think about it and are honest about it.

  8. […] what can you do? A few weeks back my good friend Sufenas wrote up e’s own post on such matters though I do not know if e is aware of the reason why candles are so specifically […]

  9. So…. I hung on to this post but did not want to say anything until now. I agree with the idea about not doing anything spiritual just because it falls under that umbrella and being very aware of the impact of the actions on all levels. Hence my series on Pagan Activist and today the candles post is live:
    You might be interested.

    • Indeed! Thank you for writing that!

      I had not found the health impact information previously, so that is extremely useful and good to know…

      I had also not realized that paraffin was an oil product…it’s John Michael Greer’s peak oil all over again, it seems…

      • I wish I had a brain like JMG sometimes, it would make my writing so much easier in some ways.
        And it’s scary how much we are not told about common objects in our lives. Being KO comes with a certain level of purity requirements, most of which apply to acceptable incense. The rules have some overlap with Shinto purity rules.

      • Very interesting…I wasn’t aware of that, either.

        Speaking of writing and KO matters–what is the likelihood that you might be able to write the piece on Wepwawet before the end of August? (And “before the end” can mean “send it to me on August 31st,” if you like!) As things stand now, we don’t have enough submissions to make it a real devotional, and so I want to hold out for yours (and Faoladh’s as well) as long as it will take to get them in…

      • I will make myself a big sign to do it, so yes.

      • Awesome!

        I still have more work to do on it than I’d prefer, but if more pieces come in, that will be an incentive to not put it off any longer…

        And, with having written another Hermanubis poem last week, there’s that much more stuff I don’t have to do for it (but still, about three or four essays to write, and at least one more poem, I think…plus, I also have to re-type a few submissions that were previously published from a certain quasi-famous someone who has written a lot about cynocephalic deities before).

    • And, you know, now that I think of it, there’s another area of fringe interest that thus might be impacted by these matters: fetishists, specifically people who are into candle wax play. One shouldn’t use beeswax candles for that practice, as they burn much hotter and can scald the skin, so paraffin is suggested because it gives the necessary sensation but won’t burn one. Crikey…!?!

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