Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute
(image source: bbc.co.uk)
Quite often I get asked, “Why should I bother trying to stop climate change when hardly anyone else is?”, and “Where is the hope for the planet?”, two different and highly important questions.
This is the second of two articles which are my attempt at answering them, by exploring the world from the point of view of the Christian faith. Part 1, which you may find helpful to read first, treated the subject of motivation; this one will look at hope. As you’ve probably gathered, the articles are based on certain ascientific premises such as the existence of God, and as such I am not expecting everyone to agree with the underlying assumptions and hence the rest of the articles but I hope you find them interesting. As always if you have any questions or comments then either post them at the end or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
a) Where we’re at: the groaning earth
To describe the world’s current state, I’m going to refer to the following passage from the Bible:
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8 verses 19-22)
‘The creation’ here means the physical universe, but especially the bit we are most familiar with: the earth and everything in it. It is described amongst other things as being in bondage to decay, and groaning.
The environmentalist and the physicist in me both observe ‘decay’: it seems that we are depleting natural resources and making irreversible changes to the biosphere (e.g. making certain species extinct, and potentially turning off the North Atlantic Drift which keeps Britain’s climate warm, believe it or not). Added to that is ‘decay’ in the physical sense of increasing entropy leading to an ultimate future of everything at the universe being at the same temperature and therefore nothing happening.
As for the earth ‘groaning’, it is easy to imagine this given the stresses we are putting on the planet’s systems. It could also be argued that the earth is groaning to be looked after properly – groaning for humans to take seriously their mandate (see Part 1) of maintaining it in good condition and not using it as our plaything.
But the phrase ‘as in the pains of childbirth’ suggests that decay is not the end, and that something new is going to emerge. So what is coming next?
The childbirth metaphor above represents a transformation from a ‘broken’ to a ‘working’ state of affairs…
b) Transformation from broken to working
The following two diagrams are an expression of the way I see things…
Consider humans, God and everything else. For these purposes, it is useful to set humans apart from the rest of physical things even though we are part of the ecosystem. This is because people are different in some ways – including being the only species to hold responsibility for looking after everything else.
This is what a ‘broken’ state of affairs looks like:
Sustainability is to do with one of these relationships: that between humans and the planet. This relationship being broken is one of three, and the breakages stem from the same reason: essentially humans’ desire to rule their own lives and take the place of God. What does this have to do with the environment? Wanting to be the centre of everything leads us to living our lives as if we are, which means we get what we want when we want it. This doesn’t satisfy us though, and we keep wanting more, yet the world has finite resources and our systems are set up to release climate-harming gases as a by-product of making stuff or going places. We consume, and the rest of the planet suffers.
I’m not saying that people who believe in God are any better. Perhaps they’re worse, as they (I) believe that God should rule their (my) lives but would rather rule their (my) own, thank you very much. Recent examples of my negative impact on the environment due to putting myself first are: I can’t be bothered to find a shop where jeans made using fair labour and sustainable material are sold; I like imported food and exotic fruit and am in no way prepared to cut down on the vast quantities of chocolate I eat. I like the fact that my rubbish goes away out of my sight and I don’t have to think about what happens to it – I’d rather not know. On top of this, the media is playing on my insecurity – telling me I have to buy X to be like Y, where X and Y change every year as defined by fashion.
Let’s turn to an alternative picture: how things could be.
This is what things ‘working’ looks like:
I truly believe that sustainability is an integral part of everything working. In this picture, humans are so secure in their identity (I believe as children of God) that they don’t have to excessively consume resources to feel better or fulfilled. They also don’t consider themselves as better or more deserving of natural resources than everything else on the planet.
What would the working version of things be like? Here are some snippets from a picture of this given in Isaiah 65:
“They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” – local living off the land.
“No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.” – no exploitation!
“The sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more” – partly as a result of no exploitation.
“My chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands”
It’s an image of harmony between God, people and the rest of creation. Humans do domesticate the land, but they ‘long enjoy the works of their hands’ – that is, they domesticate it in a way that does not produce just short term gain at the expense of future generations.
A second picture of the working state of affairs is in a different part of the Bible, and it’s the principle of Jubilee. Every fifty years, land was given back to its original clan and given a year off. This was partly to make sure that people couldn’t accumulate wealth over a long period, and such that the gap between rich and poor didn’t grow too large. Another reason was to ensure that the land could recover and thus be more fruitful in the long term. I’m not an expert on Jubilee but I don know that the relationships between people, land and God were more important back then: Jubilee was about rest, restored relationship with the land, and restored relationship with God. That is, where people’s identity had started to depend on things outside of God, it was important to come back to him.
Transformation between the two
In terms of the process of getting from the broken state of affairs to the working one, I won’t go into the details, partly because I don’t understand them. However, there is a kind of mini-metaphor in the story of Noah. Maybe you’re familiar with this story from childhood – Noah being told by God that there was so much evil in the world, it was time for a purge. But some things were not going to be destroyed – each species was to be retained into the post-flood era.
This was all good, apart from it didn’t last long – pretty much straight afterwards, people started causing harm again. And anyone who hasn’t lived the most sheltered of lives knows that evil is still with us today, in a big way. The story of Noah was not the end of evil, but it points to the final purging of evil and lasting of good. Within that definition of good is biodiversity – every species is valued and kept into the next age.
At the end of the day, we’re still here in the ‘broken’ state of affairs, but the point I’m about to make is that it’s important not to sit around moaning and waiting for something better. Why? Time to go back to Jesus…
When Jesus’ disciples were standing on a hill, after his resurrection, confused and wondering what the heck to do about what they’d just seen, some messengers came up to them and asked them why they were just standing around! They had an important task: to be in the world, living the same kind of life as Jesus did, but since his resurrection symbolised the transformation from a decaying to an eternal body, it was also a symbol of the eternal age to come. It’s also up to Christians to symbolise and live according to the age to come. What does that mean? Well, if the transformed earth is a sustainable phenomenon not in bondage to decay, and our lives should foreshadow that, then we should live in a sustainable way in the following ways and more:
– Consume as few as possible resources which will not replenish themselves at the rate that we use them – sustainable consumption.
– Consider where we find our identity: in ‘things’ or in God, since ‘things’ do not give sustainable fulfilment. (I like the following book on this: http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/the-freedom-of-self-forgetfulness)
The Bible says: ‘for the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable’. We’re still very imperfect. Live out of the good news that already happened (see Part 1), and as a foreshadowing of the restored and sustainable world to come.
These two articles have taken a very wiggly tour through the Bible to demonstrate:
– It’s easy to lose motivation for caring for the environment and the rest of humanity if our motivation depends on future results.
– If our motivation depends on something already done – I argue Jesus’ example of life and sacrifice – then we may have more of a chance of keeping it.
– Things aren’t as they should be (obviously), and humanity is to blame (again, obviously), but unsustainability is a consequence of humans putting themselves in the place of God.
– Christians believe that the earth will be restored to a more sustainable state, and in the meantime they are to live as if belonging already to that era to bring good news of hope to others.
I hope that you have found the two articles interesting and have understood the worldview presented. I’m still figuring out my opinion on these things so if you want to chat about them let me know!