The Common Good
July 2011

Temptation in the Consumer Wilderness

by Fredric L. Quivik | July 2011

What Matthew 4 has to say to the age of climate change.

In Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, the devil asks Jesus to convert stones into bread, to leap from a pinnacle, and to worship him. Living with this gospel story has inspired me to reflect on humanity's role in climate change. As a Christian and a historian of technology, I've realized that each of Jesus' temptations can reverberate for all of us living in the age of fossil fuels -- because there is a powerful analogy between those three temptations and the temptations humanity faces in using those fuels.

In Matthew 4 we read that the devil first tempted Jesus by saying, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." Jesus refused, but we have, in a sense, taken the devil up on the offer: "Petroleum" means "rock oil" -- and in our American agricultural system we now burn about 10 calories in fossil fuel for every calorie of food we produce and deliver to the supermarket.

Such inefficiency is far from the system of food production that God created. On the third day, according to the Genesis account, God created plants; on the fifth day, birds and fish; and on the sixth day, humans. All animals, including humans, depend for their livelihoods on the solar energy photosynthesized by plants into stored chemical energy.

With the conversion to coal during the Industrial Revolution, people learned how to tap into a vast savings account of chemical energy in plant and animal tissue that the Earth had accumulated from the sun, across geological time, in the form of fossil fuels. In the 20th century, we substituted gasoline-powered tractors for the muscle power of horses, and then after World War II drew upon the resources of the petrochemical industry to produce the pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers that have radically reshaped farming practices. (Rolf Peter Sieferle's The Subterranean Forest is a great place to learn more about the energy transitions during the Industrial Revolution, when humans shifted from forests to underground coal for fuel.)

Although God created a sustainable system for providing all animals, including humans, with the energy we need from the sun, we are now clearly engaged in unsustainable practices. As food journalist Michael Pollan writes, "When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases." We are turning stone into bread.

When tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread, Jesus responded, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"

Next, the devil took Jesus to the top of a pinnacle on the temple and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down," indicating that Jesus could rely on God’s angels to bear him up.

In a November 2010 editorial, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman echoed this image by asserting that denying human-caused climate change -- that is, denying that all of the carbon we are injecting into the atmosphere will have severe consequences for the global climate -- is like jumping off an 80-story building and believing one can fly. We now have accurate scientific data about the overall concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through the distant past, and about how much it has risen since 1950. For hundreds of thousands of years, prior to the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide concentration fluctuated between about 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm), and those fluctuations corresponded to average global temperatures. It is now about 390 ppm, and rising as humanity's consumption of fossil fuels continues to increase. We know that average global temperatures are going up. And we know that glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting at alarming rates.

Each year we now inject into the atmosphere, through the burning of fossil fuels, an amount of carbon that it took the Earth more than 500,000 years to sequester. Each time that much carbon was taken out of circulation, millions of years ago, the Earth's ecosystems had 500,000 years to adapt. Now we are reversing the process by putting that much carbon back into circulation each year.

We also know the consequences of climate change will be devastating. Sea levels will continue to rise due to melting ice, inundating heavily populated coastal areas. As climate zones shift, many species will be unable to adapt as human-made barriers block their migration. Current weather patterns conducive to farming will be disrupted. Yet we have so far failed to make meaningful changes in the ways we do things.

Jesus responded to the temptation of throwing himself off the pinnacle by saying, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." We're acting as if we believe we can fly, or as if God's angels will somehow bear us up in the coming calamity. We are putting God to the test.

Finally, the devil took Jesus up a mountain, showed him all the world's kingdoms and their splendors, and said, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." As we worship the golden calf of consumption, we have succumbed to a similar temptation. We gaze covetously at the splendors Madison Avenue sets before us, and we burn fossil fuels so we can indulge our desires. Certainly this is bowing to the devil. When the rest of the world sees the splendors we in North America have provided for ourselves, those nations also bow down, burning fossil fuels in expectation of possessing the splendors we have.

For thousands of years, since the time known as the Neolithic Revolution, humanity has, through agricultural toil, devised ever more complex ways to manipulate nature. Through cultivation and the domestication of plants and animals, humans have increased the resources that a given area of land can yield from the sun’s energy to satisfy human needs and build thriving societies. We need not overly sentimentalize the hard work involved to appreciate that in the past -- before the widespread use of fossil fuels -- human efforts to carve livelihoods out of the environment were often sustainable.

In contrast, humanity crossing into the era of fossil fuels was like a farmer who worked hard through his life, living on what he could produce, until one year he discovered a distant ancestor's vast savings hidden beneath the floorboards of the house. He began to tailor his living habits to drawing from this inheritance. We are the descendents of that farmer -- people who have known no life other than living off savings. Even though we now realize that the hoard will soon be depleted, few people seem to remember how to live within sustainable means.

Jesus had the wisdom and strength to resist the devil’s temptations, responding, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'" We, having succumbed to the three temptations Jesus faced, must learn how to turn from our habits of converting stones into bread, believing we can jump off tall buildings and expect God to save us, and worshiping our own desires for self-aggrandizement.

Disavowing our use of fossil fuels is a daunting calling, because ours is a complex world, and we have cast our practices into concrete -- the energy extraction, transmission, and consumption infrastructures we have built on the landscape. It will take us decades to replace our present fossil-fuel infrastructure, even when and if the nations of the world begin to make a concerted effort to do so. Yet we can start to make a difference with every fraction of fossil fuels reduction we achieve, whether by insulating our dwellings, setting the winter thermostat lower, buying locally and sustainably grown food, living near where we work and shop, or advocating for urban and suburban developments in which our home, work, and community lives once again take place nearer to each other. The total of all those fractions can be truly significant; sustainable-energy advocates call this the "wedge approach."

With many small changes added together and helping to build support for much-needed changes in the infrastructure of our communities and in nations' public policies, we can begin to resist temptation and address the calamity we face.

Fredric L. Quivik is a historian of technology at Michigan Technological University and a member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Houghton, Michigan.

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