Renewing the Earth

By Mark Hathaway
September 2000

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As people of faith, we see the whole of creation as the handiwork of God. Most of us experience the wonder of God as we walk through a forest, gaze out from a high place, or sit by the waterside. In our depths, we are aware that the greater community of creation sustains not only our bodies, but also in some way our spirits.

Jesus, too, seems to have experienced God in the midst of creation. He went out into the wilderness "with the wild beasts" for 40 days before beginning his active ministry, and every time the Gospels describe Jesus in prayer, he is once again outdoors. Jesus' parables and teachings are full of metaphors drawn from nature: the birds, the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, the fish in the sea, and the cultivation of the soil.

Just as "God so loves the world," we are called to love and care for the Earth and all its creatures. Yet, we are now living in a time of unprecedented ecological crisis. The entire balance of the intricate web of life that God created is being undermined, and this is happening as a result of human activity:

  • IN THE PAST 50 YEARS, humanity has released over 60,000 new chemicals into the air, water and soil. Most have never been tested for toxicity, but we do know that thousands of these substances are poisoning the processes that sustain all life.
  • IN THE PAST 25 YEARS, humans-particularly the wealthiest 20% who consume the bulk of the world's resources-have used up about one third of the Earth's total natural wealth.
  • IN THE PAST DECADE, we have experienced the warmest weather ever recorded. There is now a scientific consensus that greenhouse gases produced by humans are causing global warming and that average temperatures will rise by about 2°C over the next 50 years (and as much as 5°C to 10°C in Canada) provoking flooding and severe weather around the world.
  • IN THE PAST YEAR, between 20,000 and 100,000 species of plants and animals-each a unique expression of God's creativity-have been lost forever. We are experiencing the greatest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • IN THE PAST DAY, we have produced one million tons of hazardous waste.
  • IN THE PAST HOUR, we have converted 30 square kilometres of productive land into desert.
  • IN THE PAST MINUTE, pesticide poisoning has killed 50 people.
  • IN THE PAST SECOND, we have destroyed an area of forest equivalent to a football field.

The ecological crisis we face is so severe that, in 1992, a group of more than 1600 scientists, including 102 Nobel laureates, issued a "Warning to Humanity": "No more than one or a few decades remain' before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost, and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished... A new ethic is required--a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the Earth."

God is in all things

As people of faith, how should we respond to this unfolding crisis? All of creation can be seen as a revelation of God. The great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote nearly 800 years ago that we should, "apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God."

In this sense, the Earth and all its creatures deserve our love and deep respect. Each time we lose a species or a forest, each time we defile the Earth, it is as though we were tearing out a page of sacred scripture and destroying it forever. Of course, we all depend on other creatures for our survival-we must eat food, clothe ourselves, and build shelter. However, in doing so, we must respect the overall integrity of species, ecosystems, and the Earth itself.

The destruction of the Earth we are witnessing makes it evident that we are not living in a way that respects God's creation. We are called to radically change the way we think, live, and act. We are called to conversion.

In ancient Israel, the traditions of Sabbath and Jubilee provided a way to periodically right relationships. Every seven years, slaves were to be freed, debts cancelled, and the land given rest. As well, every 50 years-during the great "Sabbath of Sabbaths" known as the Jubilee -everyone was to return to their ancestral lands, even if these lands had been lost through debt or poverty. Jesus recalled this great tradition at the beginning of his ministry when he proclaimed release for captives, liberty for the oppressed, and "the acceptable year" of God (Luke 4:18-19).

In today's context, what does it mean to live out the Jubilee's call for righting relationships with each other and with the Earth itself? Certainly, the provision for inhabitants to return to their ancestral lands calls us to address questions of Aboriginal land rights both here in Canada and around the globe. It also calls us to learn from those Aboriginal peoples who have never lost their belief that the land belongs to the Creator and that all life deserves our respect and love.

Today, in a time of unparalleled ecological crisis, renewing the Earth will require more than simply letting the land lie fallow for a year. We need to actively seek out ways to heal our planet.

Making connections: justice & ecology

To do this it is helpful to understand the causes of our current crisis, including its connection to issues such as debt, injustice and poverty. Indeed, the same dynamics that impoverish people also impoverish the Earth. One of the key factors driving both ecological destruction and the impoverishment of peoples is a view which states that growth equals development or progress. Certainly, our societies and economy need to develop in the sense of improving, of becoming better. However, there is much evidence that 'economic growth' (which also means producing and consuming more and more) is undermining the Earth's capacity to sustain life.

The planet we live on is limited. There is only a certain amount of sunlight, dean air, fresh water and fertile soil. Yet, we are now surpassing these limits. We are essentially borrowing from future generations by consuming resources far faster than the Earth can regenerate them. Canadians are among the worst offenders-we consume at least five times more per person than what could be sustained for humanity as a whole.

Despite this, most mainstream economists insist that growth is necessary to reduce poverty. It is true, of course, that the majority of people do not have sufficient resources to live with dignity. The idea is that, if we keep 'making the pie bigger, the poor will eventually get more.

In practice, this has not happened. The world's economy is now five times larger than in 1950, while the population is about 2.5 times higher. Yet, the proportion of people living in poverty has remained the same. In other words, the benefits of economic growth have gone mainly to the wealthiest 20% or so of humanity.

Growth, then, does not alleviate poverty. The truth is that, given the fact that the human economy simply cannot grow further (and actually needs to shrink somewhat), the only way to reduce poverty is through a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. In particular, this means that those of us living in wealthier nations like Canada need to consume far less so that the poor-and the other creatures who share the Earth with us-may have more.

Accepting limits to growth, then, calls us to live more simply and practice radical justice. We must share wealth equitably so that all may live with dignity.

Debt & ecological destruction

The problem of debt, so central to the Jubilee, is another example of the link between justice and ecology. As a condition for receiving new loans, the world's poorer nations have been forced to accept severe economic austerity measures (often called "Structural Adjustment Programmes") that require them to cut government spending and increase exports. As a result:

  • The most productive land is converted to export production, often involving crops requiring high doses of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. At the same time, poorer farmers are forced onto marginal lands prone to erosion.
  • Forests are cut down for timber exports while new mines and oil fields open on pristine lands, destroying delicate ecosystems and the livelihoods of Aboriginal peoples.
  • Activities like shrimp farming destroy mangrove swamps while dams flood fertile valleys to increase power generation.

This kind of 'development' actually destroys the traditional livelihoods of the poor-particularly those of Aboriginal peoples-livelihoods which have satisfied people's needs for generations in harmony with local ecosystems. The majority of people, ecosystems, and the wider community of creatures are actually impoverished to create a kind of 'growth' that generates cash for debt repayment. A new debt-to the poor and to the Earth itself-replaces monetary debt.

The economist Herman Daly says that we are treating the Earth as though it were a giant liquidation sale. We are converting the real wealth and beauty of our world into an abstraction we call money-something that in and of itself has no real value. In the process, we are also destroying the traditional livelihoods of the poor. The writer David Korten astutely refers to this as a process of "money colonizing life."

Our values and beliefs

On a deeper level, this whole process raises questions about our values and our beliefs. How do we see the Earth itself-its water, soil, air, its living creatures, its diverse ecosystems? Are they simply resources for exploitation and profit? Do they have a deeper value that transcends money?

Often, we speak of the need to be concerned about the 'environment' as though it was somehow separate from humanity. Yet, we live a deep interdependence with the greater community of life that shares this planet with us. As Wendell Berry writes, "The world that environs us, that is around us, is also within us. We are made of it; we eat, drink, and breathe it; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh."

What then, is our place as human beings in this world? Many have interpreted the first chapter of Genesis to mean that humans have the right to control and dominate other creatures, to use the Earth as our personal property. A closer look at the text in Hebrew, however, does not justify such a reading. In fact, Genesis 1 portrays humans as dependent on all that has come before them.

True, when God creates women and men, creation enters a new phase: God gives humans the power to act consciously and make choices, to differentiate and diversify. In no way does this give us a license to exploit or destroy. Instead, the text calls us to a strong sense of the responsibility that comes from participating in God's creative action.

The creation story in Genesis 2 deepens these teachings. The first human is formed from the soil of the Earth and is called adam-a word that in Hebrew is derived from the word for soil, adamah. According to Jewish theologian Arthur Waskow, the Earth is part of us, and we are a part of the Earth. We are intertwined. Yet we also have a special quality. God breathes the breath of life into us, represented by the Hebrew syllable ah in adamah, the syllable vanishes from our name, "because it goes within: nostrils, lungs, blood, every inch of body. The breath becomes immanent."

Our relationship with the Earth

The biblical traditions of Jubilee and Sabbath further reinforce the call to right our relationship with the Earth. These traditions maintain that the land belongs to God: "Land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners of mine" (Leviticus 25:23). The Earth itself is seen-not as an object for us to manipulate and control-but as a 'subject' deserving rest.

Indeed, the core message of taking time for Sabbath is a powerful call in a society like ours. Instead of relentless consumption, activity, and pursuit of profit, we are called to trust in God and have faith that the Earth will provide for our needs if we respect it and care for it with love.

Throughout the history of Christianity, mystics like Saint Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, and Meister Eckhart have affirmed a similar insight. Human beings are intertwined with the Earth; they are part of a greater community of creatures. The animals, the plants, and even the sun and moon are in some way our brothers and sisters. Humans, by nature of their powers, may in some way be distinct, but this distinction means that we as co-creators with God have a special responsibility to care for all creatures.

Aboriginal peoples have often retained this insight-even while most of us in industrialized societies have lost it. As we attempt to right our relationship with the Earth, we need to also right our relationship with Aboriginal peoples who have often been the guardians of this tradition. We need to learn from their wisdom that land is more than a resource; it is a living community and a source of God's revelation.

Renewing the Earth

How then, are we to act to renew the Earth and right our relationship with all living creatures? At first, the task before us can appear to be overwhelming. The depth of the crisis we face, the threat that it represents, and the urgency that is required can make the challenge seem impossible. Yet, as people of faith, we can find hope in the belief that God loves creation and will help us if we commit ourselves to undertake this endeavour.

The severity of the ecological crisis may even represent an opportunity. Psychologist Roger Walsh notes that the situation we face could serve to "strip away our defenses and help us to confront both the true condition of the world and our role in creating it." It has the potential of leading us to truly profound changes in the way we live, think, and act; indeed, in the way we perceive reality itself.

In seeking to heal the Earth, we must be careful to avoid the trap of trying to motivate others to action through guilt and fear. These are more likely to lead to denial (it can't really be that bad), despair (it's too late to do anything), or empty escapes (diverting our attention through shopping, entertainment, and so on).

Where can we find the motivation to fundamentally change the way we live and act? Ultimately, we must be inspired by love, beauty, and awe. This is why we must begin by taking time for Sabbath, time to reconnect with the natural world, time to listen to the voices of the Earth-and the voice of God within those voices.

In recovering a sense that all life is sacred, that all creation in some way reveals the presence of God, we can find inspiration to act. Our love for creation can motivate us to reduce our consumption, avoid the use of dangerous chemicals, and advocate for policies needed to achieve both justice and ecological harmony. It is time that Christians, together with all people of good will, begin to re-orient our actions and practices to reflect the need to right our relationship with the Earth and to establish more just and loving human communities. (See jubilee Actions & Resources, pages 19-22.)

In doing this, we can also reconnect with what Jesus spoke of when he proclaimed that "the kingdom" of God is among us. In Jesus' language, Aramaic, the word translated as "kingdom," malkuthakh, points to God's purpose and vision for the world. It is seen as a hidden potential woven into the very fabric of the universe. It is what allows us to say "I can" in the midst of even the greatest of challenges. As we deepen our connection with the Earth, then, may the wisdom and power of God's malkuthakh empower us to work for the renewal of all God's creation!

Mark Hathaway, M.Ed., is a freelance 'ecologian' who specializes in the intersecting concerns of ecology, economics, cosmology, spirituality, and theology. He writes, facilitates workshops and retreats, and designs websites related to his areas of expertise. Email: m@visioncraft.org

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