May 31, 2023
Summertime conjures up good memories of years past and excitement about plans for a multitude of activities. Backyard barbecues with hamburgers and steaks. Sparklers and fireworks in the back yard for the Fourth of July, after a delicious dinner from the charcoal grill. A road trip in the car or travel by plane to a national park or historical site. S'mores around a campfire. An afternoon at a baseball game with hot dogs and beer. While each family does things differently, a combination of activities and expectations have long made summertime in America American.
While even just the mention of these traditions often brings back warm memories from years ago, few of us may have thought about the climate impact of these traditions. As carbon emissions grow and climate change causes increasingly worrisome weather catastrophes, though, it may be time to look at the climate impact of our traditions and pause for a rethink.
Let’s start with that backyard barbecue. Producing a hamburger takes about 450 gallons of water and results in about 90 pounds of carbon emissions, about the same as a three-hour shower and a 90-mile drive. A one-pound steak causes about 40 pounds of carbon emissions. And traditional charcoal, which is produced by cutting down trees and burning them in kilns, releases about 11 pounds of carbon emissions per hour. If each of the 38 million owners of charcoal grills in the US fires up their barbecue for just one hour on the Fourth of July, they will collectively release more than 427 million pounds of carbon dioxide on that day alone.
Along with releasing carbon dioxide, fireworks cause health problems. Fireworks use black powder, also known as gunpowder, which is made from carbon or charcoal, sulfur and potassium nitrate. Studies have shown a drastic drop in air quality at the first rocket’s red glare and bomb bursting in air. "If you happen to be downwind from a big fireworks event, it is very hazardous," according to Paul Walsh, Meteorologist and General Manager of BreezoMeter.com, as "fireworks also release fine particulate matter, which includes something called heavy metals, which is really bad to breathe in."
And that long trip for your vacation has an impact too. Let’s say you decide to drive to Yosemite National Park in California, 893 miles from Seattle, rather than flying to Boston. While the impact differs depending on whether you’re driving a Hyundai or a Hummer, emissions average about 0.7 pounds per mile. You’d release 1,250 pounds going back and forth. If you decide to have a campfire to cook dinner and s'mores, emissions from burning wood include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and benzene.
So, what can we do? It turns out that small changes can make a big difference.
Take that barbecue, for instance. Switching from beef to chicken can reduce carbon emissions by about 75%. Tofu, mushrooms and eggplant are great on the grill. And using an electric grill rather than charcoal or gas reduces carbon emissions tremendously. Alternatives to fireworks include blowing bubbles or creating a laser light or drone show. And consider driving 106 miles to North Cascades National Park, rather than to Yosemite, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1,000 pounds.
Changes like these can easily seem too idealistic. Altering long-standing cultural practices and traditions can feel impossible. If we look at the Bible, though, we can learn from individuals who propelled change when catastrophe loomed.
When Noah faced a calamity, he and his family made radical changes. In Genesis 6, we read that “God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out…' Noah did everything just as God commanded him.”
When Egypt faced the potential catastrophe of a famine, Joseph changed the entire culture of how Egypt produced and stored food. As Genesis 41 says, “Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout Egypt. During the seven years of abundance the land produced plentifully. Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the food grown in the fields surrounding it. Joseph stored up huge quantities of grain, like the sand of the sea.”
Noah, Joseph and other leaders in the Bible upended traditions and may well have faced disbelief or criticism as they prepared for a coming catastrophic event. They overcame culture, ridicule, and more to do what was right and literally saved humanity from disaster. These decisions can be difficult, but this path can lead to growth and renewal both for the planet and for us as individuals. As God says to Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 29, "For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me, I will hear you." In other words, as one commentator reflecting on this passage has written, “while change can be hard, we can grow in our faith when we learn to embrace it. When we trust God's plan, He transforms us each and every day as His followers.”
Just as leaders throughout the Bible have done, we too should embrace change and shift our traditions to care for creation and avert a catastrophe. Starting new summertime traditions can create new memories and help us to care for creation at the same time.