Written by Dr Sarah Harris
This semester I am teaching Romans and in preparation for engaging the text in Romans 8 I have started to consider a Christian response to ecology and especially the challenge of global warming. N.T. Wright says that at the eschaton “Jesus is coming to plant a tree.” I think he is right. This wonderful world we live in is God’s good creation and it is being redeemed and saved much like humanity. While there is a particularity about humanity in creation (it is “very good”), the earth is not merely a place for humans to exist. The earth has intrinsic worth for all creation is loved by God, and there is an interconnectedness to God’s world where we depend on each other.
We are most likely acquainted with the enormous challenge of climate change where God’s world ecologically speaking, is in crisis. Jonathan Moo (an ecologist and biblical scholar) and Robert White (Professor of Geophysics, Cambridge, UK) in their book Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Eschatological Crisis (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014) discuss this within a helpful theological framework.
They first address the growing world population noting that it is taking place in urban and not rural areas. They suggest the world’s current population of 7 billion is the upper limit that the earth can sustain, yet the population is increasing at a rate of a quarter of a million people every day! (26). The human footprint on the earth is also of primary concern. Humans move six tons of earth material for every person on the plant; this is twice as much earth and rock per year than all the natural erosion processes. This is changing our climate at a rate never seen before in the geological history of our planet. In turn our biodiversity is at risk, and while we may not be averse to the odd creepy crawly dying off, we fail to realise the impact of the careful balance God has created in our world. I have begun to wonder: how can God’s image bearers have let things get so bad?
An important first step may be to be reminded that this is God’s world and not ours. Many of the decisions taken concerning the earth are for economic reasons – we want more money and better lifestyles – and while economic considerations are not all bad, but they must be balanced with other equally valid parts of the equation. I know God is calling me to play a more active part in the discussions that are taking place in my community and in New Zealand. I also know that at my peril I ignore global decisions that impact the world and its ecosystems.
What is God saying to you?
A primary component in our lives and world is the need for water. My daughter wrote her Masters thesis on the human right to water. I was astounded to find that water is not considered a human right in NZ and in many other countries. However, water is essential for any form of life; not just clean water to drink but for animals and crops – all forms of organic life. God’s earth is blessed with great supplies of water that enable habitation, yet we are late in coming to the party in realizing that water is a finite resource and we need to treat its supplies with greater care. We have been polluting our seas and waterways with rubbish and chemicals and this is changing its acidity resulting in a high level of greenhouse gas emissions. Moo and White note that “so much water is extracted from rivers that already a quarter of the world’s river basins run dry before they reach the sea” (38). The earth has a water crisis.
The world is also at risk because of its high nitrogen production. Human’s breath air which is 78% nitrogen (a delicate balance), and soil requires nitrogen for plant growth, but we are now creating too much for a sustainable ecosystem. In the early 20th century there was a significant endeavour to produce more nitrogen for fertilizer and so produce higher crop yields. The Haber-Bosch cycle, a chemical method which extracts nitrogen from the atmosphere was invented by Fritz Haber for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918. While this has been an excellent way to produce much more food, the high production and use of synthetic fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels now adds 160 million tons of nitrogen to the environment every year; we have doubled the turnover rates of the nitrogen cycle! This is identified as one of the top ten challenges the world faces, we now must reduce the volume of nitrogen that is produced and find better ways to help food production.
Food production is another area of concern as humanity has tended to use many processes that have negatively dominated the biosphere. Cooking food itself uses fuel (hence the growing raw food movement), and selective breeding of plants and animals has allowed growth in the population, which in turn has created more need for inorganic fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels. Mechanization is a blessing and a problem. Humans rely heavily on machines and fuel to produce our food supply. We are also demanding higher levels of food for consumption and this is not only putting demands on production but is affecting health as we pick and choose food that appeals to us. Further, the developed world wastes one-third of all primary crops! This figure is made up from food which is not consumed as it is surplus to need, and food that is thrown out or rots. Our stewardship track-record is simply appalling.
Crops aside, meat and dairy production is directly affecting the climate. “It is estimated that 18 percent of human-induced global climate us produced by greenhouse gas emissions generated by livestock, if the entire cycle from farm to market is taken into account” (45). In the western world we know that our (red) meat and dairy consumption is negatively affecting heart health, yet many of us only make personal changes if the doctor insists that we make healthy changes. We have a tendency to make decisions only if they affect us oblivious to the fact that we are like frogs in the proverbial pot of water which is slowly heating and we are blissfully unaware.
Advocates for climate change are not asking that the world becomes vegetarian or vegan, but that people limit the quantity of meat and dairy we consume; they are asking for more responsible eating patterns. There have been attempts in NZ to encourage us to have a meatless meal once a week, a decision I remember I made and then forgot about. In preparing for this Romans class, I have been challenged again to make choices not only for my health but for the sake of God’s world. They are also asking we reduce our use of fossil fuels. It may be time we caught the bus or got out our bikes. In so many ways it is a win-win where God’s world and our bodies both make positive gains.
Another way Christians could respond is to deliberately listen for how God views the earth in Scripture. Norman Habel and a scholarly team are involved in the Earth Bible Project. This is a great resource for Christians who want to become wiser in how we live in God’s world.
The Earth Bible Project has developed six ecojustice principles which we could meditate on and consider how we might change our attitudes and way of living. These are:
- The universe, Earth and all its components have intrinsic worth. All creation is loved by God.
- The Earth is a community of interconnected living things that are mutually dependent on each other for life and survival.
- The Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice.
- The universe, Earth and its components are a part of dynamic cosmic design within which each piece has a place to play in the overall goal of that design.
- Earth is a balanced and divine domain where responsible custodians can function as partners with, rather than rulers over Earth, to sustain its balance and a diverse Earth community.
- Earth and its components not only suffer from human injustice but actively resist them in the struggle for justice.
You will note that these principles personify Earth which we may or may not be comfortable with, but it is a helpful way to help humans see the earth as more than an inanimate object to consume and dominate. The created world is to be stewarded and protected for as Wright says, “Jesus is coming to plant a tree.” Sally McFague describes the need for humans to empathize with the earth as attitudinal changes lead to transformational change. If we can remove ourselves as the centre of our life hermeneutic (which it should be as Christians anyway), we may be enabled to make greater change in our thoughts and actions. Habel goes so far as to suggest we allow Earth a voice by reimagining the creation narrative (and other Scripture) told from the perspective of the earth (“Introducing Ecological Hermeneutics”, 5). I leave you with the Earth’s voice as Habel imagines it:
I am Earth. I was first revealed when God summoned the primal waters to part. I came forth from the waters as a living domain with the potential to give birth. I count this as a great honor and grounds for celebration. I am a valuable part of the cosmos.
At the request of God, I brought forth, like a mother, all the flora that covers the land. I gave birth to vegetation that has the capacity to reproduce. After the flora that comes from within me is interconnected with me and is nurtured through me.
At the request of God, I also brought forth, like a mother, the fauna that lives on the Earth. They are my offspring and depend upon me for subsistence. All fauna depends on the vegetation I produce for their survival and enjoyment of life. I am Earth, the source of daily life for flora and fauna that I have generated from within me.
Sad to say, there is another story that has invaded my world, the story of the so-called god-image creatures called humans. Instead of recognizing that these god-image creatures were beings dependent with Earth and other Earth creatures, this story claims that the god-image creatures belong to a superior class or species, the god-image creatures claim a mandate to crush me like an enemy or slave…
Sally McFague, A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
Robert Shore-Goss, God is Green: An Eco-Spirituality of Incarnate Compassion. Eugene: Cascade, 2016.
Nicola Hoggard-Creegan and Andrew Shepherd, Creation and Hope: Reflections on Ecological Anticipation and Action from Aotearoa New Zealand. Eugene: Pickwick, 2018.