Reduce, Reuse, Redeem?

Reduce, Reuse, Redeem? – Exploring the relationship between Environmentalism and Christianity

It is typical for some Christians to give something up during the season of Lent. The forty days leading up to the death of Jesus are a time for solemn remembrance and contemplation; making a personal sacrifice, albeit small, can be a physical way to recognize Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross. Usually, the things we give up are temptations, such as indulgent foods or bad habits, like smoking. But for the Lenten season of 2018, the Church of England did something a little different: it gave up plastic.

Spurred by news that eight tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every minute, the Church of England took an uncharacteristic stand for the environment.[1] They encouraged members of their congregation to eliminate or reduce their plastic waste and provided calendars complete with daily envirocentric Bible verses and helpful tips like, “Bring your own reusable bags,” and “Use bar soap instead of liquid hand soap.”[2] Was this movement simply the Church of England taking a socio-political stand, or was their encouragement hinting at something deeper?

A similar movement was seen in 2018’s frenzy to ban plastic straws. In a few short months, plastic straws went from a handy tool to a scapegoat for wasteful plastic consumption. In the wake of public concern, companies like Starbucks and cities like San Francisco have taken a noticeable stand against them.[3]

At the heart of these efforts is a pressing issue: oceanic plastic waste. Take a look at the Pacific garbage gyre, a swirling mass of plastics in the North Pacific containing 87,000 tons of debris.[4] These plastics break down into microplastics which hurt aquatic life once ingested. Recent research from Cornell even showed that plastics can damage coral reefs – pesky bacteria in plastics transmit diseases to these already-threatened ecosystems.[5] Single-use plastics do not simply “go away,” and on our current trajectory, our plastic problem will only get worse.

The proposed solution by both the Church of England and supporters of the straw ban is a change in our patterns of consumption and, in turn, a change in our behavior. Behavioral changes are never an easy task, especially when behaviors are widespread and culturally supported. We are always trying to make our lives easier with convenient technology and to voluntarily add a constraint to our lives goes against this. Why should people take on such daunting challenges to change their behavior?

Many environmentalists, including myself, care about the environment because they see distinct value in it. But Christians have a unique perspective on the issue, one that secular environmentalists cannot apply: Christians see the world as God’s creation. The natural world is something we are called to steward. This call makes our motivations for caring for the environment (such as consuming fewer resources) reach a deeper level.

To compare these two views, let us look at two hypothetical people: Francis and Bill. Francis is Christian and Bill is not, but both are environmentalists. One reduces plastic waste for the sake of the sea turtles because he understands some value in them; the other does it for the sake of the sea turtles because he knows their value. To Francis, sea turtles are a created being. That understanding motivates his action: creation is something he is called to care for and steward.

The ascription of meaning and value are necessary for lasting behavioral change. In environmental science and conservation a specific dilemma often comes to light: How do we value nature? This question touches everything from the park down the block, to the wolf in Alaska, to the sea turtle in the Pacific – what do these things mean to us?

Ask an economist about nature’s value and they will give you a few options: you value these things because of their use to you, because you like to go to the park. In the economist’s eyes, you might also value them for their future use for both you and future generations – because you (or your grandchild) might someday see the wolf in Alaska, or perhaps, you are content to simply know that the wolf exists somewhere.

All of these ways to value things have one thing in common: their value has been ascribed by humans. But imagine, for a moment, that humans never existed. Would trees, the wolf, or a clean ocean still be valuable?

Some would say no, that value is nothing more than a human construct. This is how our world mostly operates, and for the most part, it works. After all, we can only ever be inside our own heads. We are not all-knowing beings, we are humans who use our human minds to understand the world. Our societal structures like economics and law are built around human problems; they are anthropocentric. Because of this, the view that humans assign value to nature fits in nicely.

But others would say that the natural world has its own value. Instead of people valuing nature for its utility, they can take a step back and value it for itself. It is a value that comes from its existence and distinct other-ness: it was not created by man. This kind of intrinsic value comes from it being alive and created, just as we are.

What does it mean to understand the natural world as something that is created? It is first evident in its beauty: a landscape that brings the viewer to tears, the calming presence of a rolling stream, the color of birds, the diversity of flowers.

It is also evident in its mystery. You can break every natural thing in nature down to the smallest of parts, add them all up again, understand each individual piece, and yet would never understand how those pieces come together to form life. To be alive is to be something greater than the sum of one’s parts. And it is the act of creation that makes it greater, through the spirit that is given to it.

As it is written in the Old Testament book of Job,

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.

Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.”[6]

In the Christian tradition, God is believed to be the intentional, intelligent designer and Creator of all things. In understanding that the natural world is created, and we (also created) are part of the natural world, we can change how we value the environment.

Liberty Hyde Bailey (the namesake of Cornell’s Bailey Hall and the first dean of CALS) wrote in detail about the Christian theology of creation in his book The Holy Earth.[7] In this work, he writes a new ethical framework for how humans should interact with the environment, centered on the belief of creation. He wrote, “If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it.”[8] These words promote stewardship and stewardship urges us to act with care in each interaction, in a way that gives God glory. The command was given to us from the beginning, as it is written in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible and home of the Christian Creation narrative: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”[9]

This care is different than other kinds of work. We might put a lot of work into a class we hate so that we can get a good grade in the end. In the same way, we might put a lot of work into abiding environmental regulations, so that we can have a clean ocean in the end. But stewardship means that this work is infused with the motivation to honor God. The steward follows environmental regulations not simply for the result of a clean ocean, but because of the love of creation from the love of a Creator. In short, stewardship is an act of worship.

We approach stewardship with the kind of joy and wonder that is written in the book of Psalms, “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small.”[10] It is this joy that sets stewardship apart from environmentalism. When the steward knows that they care for a created world, and that they are serving the one who created it, they are filled with a joy that continues to motivate them.

What does it mean to bring stewardship into our interactions with the environment? It means we make wise use of the resources we take from the earth: our gas, wood, food. It means we make wise use of the land we live on: gardening, avoiding pollution, protecting watersheds. It means that we reduce our harmful habits of plastic use, finding other ways to carry groceries and drink iced coffee. It means using only what we need, which for most people means using less.

With stewardship in mind, we would more readily take other living things into account. We would take a step back from the notion that humans are the center of it all, and instead, understand that we are a piece of all living things. Most centrally, we would do this all with joy. This is not to say the world would be in some ideal peace and harmony, but perhaps that we could be more thoughtful in our actions, more careful of our impacts.

The Christian environmentalist, being a steward, turns their reducing into worship, their study of ecology into gratitude, their conservation efforts into love. It is more than consuming less plastic. It is deeper, and the picture is so much more complete when pairing environmentalism to God’s creating hand.

 

1 “Lent Challenge.” Church Care. February 13, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018. http:// www.churchcare.co.uk/about-us/campaigns/ news/1081-lent-challenge.

2 “Lent Plastic Challenge.” Accessed October 10, 2018. http://www.churchcare.co.uk/images/Plastic_Free_Lent.pdf.

3 Brueck, Hilary. “The Real Reason Why so Many Cities and Businesses Are Banning Plastic Straws Has Nothing to Do with Straws at All.” Business Insider. September 21, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://www.businessinsider. com/plastic-straw-ban-why-are-there-so-many-2018-7.

4 Albeck-ripka, Livia. “The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ Is Ballooning, 87,000 Tons of Plastic and Counting.” The New York Times. March 22, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018. https:// www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/climate/great-pacific-garbage-patch.html.

5 Friedlander, Blaine. “Oceanic Plastic Puts Coral Reefs in Peril.” Oceanic Plastic Puts Coral Reefs in Peril | CALS. January 25, 2018. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://cals.cornell. edu/news/oceanic-plastic-puts-coral-reefs-peril-spring-2018/.

6 Job 12: 7-10 (NIV)

7 “A Brief History of CALS.” Cornell CALS. Accessed October 10, 2018. https://cals.cornell. edu/about/history/.

8 Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Holy Earth. New York, NY: CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS, 1916. July 15, 2010. Accessed October 10, 2018. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33178/33178- h/33178-h.htm.

9 Genesis 2:15 (NIV)

10 Psalm 104: 24-25 (NIV)

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