The television series last year, the Blue Planet, and more recently the climate change protests in London have put green issues and the care of our planet back firmly on the agenda. One of the focuses of the protests was on carbon reduction (though you wouldn’t necessarily have realised that when seeing them blocking and preventing public transport working properly), yet carbon reduction is only part of the challenge. Christians have been in on the action, joining with many others who care about our planet.
Yet Christians historically share the guilt for the plunder of our earth. This has been for two theological reasons, as well as an innate selfishness shared by all of fallen humanity. First, there is the understanding of what is meant by God’s instruction in Genesis for people to dominate or subdue the world, to rule over it (Genesis 1:28). This has been taken to mean that the planet is there for us to do what we want with it, come what may, that it is there purely to serve our needs. It is now better understood in terms of stewardship, especially put together with Genesis 2:16, where Adam is told that he is put in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. The earth is, at its best, stunningly beautiful and wonderful, yet I think it is at its best when people and God work together: God creating the animals, plants, trees and insects, and people carefully looking after them. I love exploring the lovely Derwent Valley here, with its mixture of farmland and woodland, river and hills, and parkland, where people have worked alongside nature to create something accessible, with a huge variety of trees, with deer and red kites; yet there are also places for people to walk, cycle and enjoy our natural environment, and also produce food to eat and support businesses. A place of heavy industry has been turned into stunning parkland with the help of the council. It’s not perfect: the heavy traffic through Rowlands Gill mars the clean air found elsewhere, for example, yet is an example of how people can work together with nature.
The second problem with theology has been its understanding of heaven. If earth is just something that is going to disappear, as the hymn Amazing Grace states, ‘The earth shall soon dissolve like snow, The sun forbear to shine’, then what’s the point of looking after it? If we’re just passing through on our way to a disembodied heaven, then what’s the point in caring for it or even our own bodies? Yet the Bible, in reality, points to a different reality. There is a place, it appears, in heaven, when we die, yet this is not our final resting place. No, the Bible talks of a ‘new heavens and a new earth’ (Revelation 21:1). It talks of us being resurrected. It is a place where things will be put right. Isaiah 11:2-9 speaks of a new order of things, where animals live in peace with each other, speaking of an ecology in harmony, alongside justice for the poor of the earth, as opposed to the injustice we see now. Isaiah 35:1 speaks of the desert and parched land being glad; the wilderness rejoicing and blossoming.
My question is, when God remakes the heavens and the earth, are we going to be part of that renewal and re-creation? Are the lessons we’ve learnt in this life going to be put to use as the earth is remade? Are we, in fact, going to have a lot of hard work to do?!! It’s not an unreasonable question. If God gave Adam the job of caring for the garden and naming the animals, was he not made a partner in God’s work? He was given a good brain, creativity, and an ability to love. In Luke 19, the parable of the 10 minas, the servants who had been responsible with the resources the king had given them were given the charge of cities. Are we going to be given responsibility only if we have been good stewards of the resources God has given us, which includes this planet, the greatest gift God has given us other than the life and forgiveness given us by Jesus through his sacrifice?
We are made for nature, and nature is made for us – again, it’s a partnership. Not only do we need nature’s clean air to breathe, nature’s clean water to drink, and its food to eat, science now has proven that woodlands and gardens are good for our mental health and wellbeing too. But we need to care for it properly; it needs us too.
Yet, through science, through mistakes we should learn from, and through learning from the ways our ancestors cared for the land, we have what it takes to heal our world. We may not be totally there on clean forms of fuel and energy, but we’re moving that way. It’ll take an enormous amount of coordinated effort on a monumental level to clean up our oceans from the plastic pollution, but it could be done. People could choose food that has been produced sustainably and not buy items and clothing they don’t need, considering both the care of nature and how to avoid exploitation of workers in other countries. One of the biggest environmental challenges is desertification, including the destruction of forests and jungle and peatbogs, something which is underreported. This contributes enormously to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, as the forests and jungles remove carbon put in by other sources. Take away the trees and it becomes impossible to remove the carbon built up in our atmosphere. Yet it is possible to reverse desertification.
Watch the TED talk above (or through this link) by Allan Savory, who has worked tirelessly for many years to prevent desertification in Africa, but who has now realised that most of his efforts have made the problem worse. He is now proving that grazing animals in a way that reflects how they grazed in years long ago can turn desert to useful land once again, with remarkable effects. Do watch it; it’s an eye-opener. It’s possible to also use science to allow desert land to produce crops, as shown in Israel. Mistakes have been made along the way, including an overuse of herbicides, in Israel, which has caused problems, just as mistakes have been made in a different way here in Britain with the diesel scandal, where the government encouraged the purchase of diesel vehicles, as they were more fuel efficient, only to discover that they are the worst polluters. We are still suffering the effects of this now. But let’s not let mistakes put us off – we need to learn from them.
The problem is, man’s (and woman’s) greed and selfishness endeavour to spoil these attempts. And this is where renewal is needed more than ever. This is where we need the Holy Spirit to move, to open our eyes and make our hearts loving again, love not just for our family and friends, but for the whole earth and everything in it.
If, when Jesus comes again, his work for us will be to renew this world alongside him, will we be ready? Will we be able to say, a little like the servants in the parable of the ten minas, that we used his world and resources well, that we only used what we needed, recycled, used green energy, tidied up litter in our village, made sure things we bought came from places that didn’t harm the environment or people, and looked after the birds and the wildlife. Perhaps we could have done even more. Will he then say, ‘Well done, my good servant, because you have been faithful in a very small matter, now help clean up the ocean … or replant the rainforests … or make sure everyone in this city has access to clean air, water, food, good housing and green spaces’? I don’t think our eternal future involves us sitting on clouds singing songs, wonderful as music and sung worship is. I think we’ll have work to do, but work that will not overburden us, or tire us, or stress us, or cause us harm – but work that uses our creativity and knowledge and ability to nurture the world and its people, fulfilling us as we work in partnership with the God who gave us those abilities.