Mar 13, 2019 | Julia Bartel
You may have read the recent report from the United Nations stating that humanity has ten to twelve years to make some major changes before much of the planet becomes unlivable. The National Resources Defense Council cites global warming as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. With global temperatures rising, causing flooding, droughts, and other natural disasters, every single one of us will be affected—but it’s the world’s most vulnerable and poverty-stricken populations who will be the most at risk.
It’s also sobering to note that 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from 100 companies, according to a 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project. Knowing this makes me feel sad and scared for the world. How do we reverse the tide of such cataclysmic change? Is it even possible? Does it mean anything to care?
At P2C PLUS this year, I attended a workshop on the gospel and the environment. Afterwards, I spoke with the speaker about how discouraging it can feel to watch all this happen. I told him about my recent efforts to buy less, create less waste, and to be more mindful about the way my life impacts the environment. “But what does it matter if I recycle a coffee cup?” I asked. “That’s not going to stop global warming.”
The speaker asked me, “Who is it hurting to do those things?”
I was stunned by the question. I said, “No one.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Small acts of goodness are not wasted. Even if you’re not stopping climate change, those good things add up to cause an impact. Plus, you’re being obedient to the way God has called you to care about the world.”
Climate change is a sin issue
The conversation revealed to me the deeper implications of our climate crisis. Christianity Today, in an article published two years ago, made note of a statement by Gus Speth, an expert on natural resources and conservation:
“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Even if I disregard the ways in which industrial consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are affecting the planet, there’s no denying that my choices – on a macro level – also have rippling (and often negative) impacts on the world around me. The clothes I buy, more often than not, are being made by underpaid, overworked women living in poverty on the other side of the world. The stuff I eat can take enormous amounts of water to produce. Not to mention that the wrappers of my favourite and oft-munched-on snack (jalapeño cheetos) are destined to sit in a landfill. I feel like I’m failing the sea turtles every time I use a plastic straw. So with all of this considered, how can I be a better steward of the world in which God has placed me?
The solution to our environmental crisis isn’t just to buy secondhand or to call on my university to divest from fossil fuels. Those things may help, but they won’t fix us; our disregard for the environment is a heart issue. As Christians, we are well acquainted with the brokenness of the world and the “selfishness, greed, and apathy” that lives inside us, affecting the things and the people we love most. It wasn’t just humanity that fell in Genesis—the natural world broke, too. Evidence of this is all around us. But that’s not where the story ends: while we know brokenness, we also know the one who brings transformation.
Jesus died for all of creation
God so loved the world that he came to us in the person of Jesus to redeem it back to himself. As broken as creation is, God saw fit to pay a great price to restore it—a price that he himself would take on by dying on the cross.
Often when we think of God loving the world, à la John 3:16, we think of his love for the people whom he placed in it. But God loves the environment, too—he lovingly infused every animal, plant, and cell with evidence of his character. The Psalmist wrote that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV); further, we know that “the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1 NIV). In the book of Job, we see God detailing to Job how his own ultimate sovereignty is on display throughout nature, reminding Job that his knowledge and care for his own life—and for all of creation—pales in comparison to God’s:
“Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: ‘Who is it that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. When were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?’” (Job 38:1-7 NIV)
This passage, and the entire book of Job, emphasizes the sovereignty of God over the earth. But within that realm, God also gave humanity a divine sovereignty over creation in Genesis 1:28:
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (NIV).
From this mandate, we can see our own God-given responsibility to care for creation: not to exploit it, but to enjoy it as God’s gift to us. And, as we can see from the statistics I quoted in the opening paragraph, we have largely failed in this regard.
Where do we go from here?
I’m comforted by the words of Jesus in John 16, his last monologue to his beloved disciples before he was taken away to be crucified. “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace,” he told them. “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
If I allow sadness over the state of our environment to discourage me and keep me from acting, I’m letting brokenness control me. But in Christ, all brokenness is defeated—now and forever. Jesus’ atoning death has wiped the slate clean for all who put their trust in him. Further, his perfect life empowers me to go into the world and love as he loved, the true outpouring of my faith in him. As John wrote, “by this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments… For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (I John 5:2, 4 ESV)
So how does this apply to global warming? First, it means that I can look forward to the day when all of creation is made whole again. This is Paul’s encouragement in Romans 8:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children 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 freedom and glory 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. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.” (Romans 8:18-24)
Christians, along with all of creation, eagerly await the return of our Saviour. Until then, he asks us to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). This means that, as stewards of creation and as followers of Jesus, we should be taking individual steps to care for the environment. It also means that in the brokenness of the every day and in the moments when those natural disasters strike, we should be present, getting our hands dirty, to care for the vulnerable and to love the world as Jesus loves it.
As that speaker at P2C PLUS told me, no good work done for the sake of the gospel is ever wasted. Not only do small acts of goodness and love reflect our trust in Jesus to the world around us, but they align our individual hearts with God’s larger restorative plan for the world.
So now it’s up to you: have you ever thought about the ways your behaviours affect the environment? How can you be taking steps to better love the world God created or the people in it? Do you want some tips to help you get started?
You’re in luck! Here are some:
- Re-evaluate your shopping habits. Is the stuff you buy needed? Is it sustainable? Do the brands you regularly buy from employ ethical methods of manufacturing? Could you buy secondhand, buy less, or stop buying altogether? Before throwing something away or passing it on to someone else, think: is there a way you could reuse or repurpose it?
- Become a better recycler. A lot of stuff that ends up in the trash—and then in a landfill— could be recycled or composted instead. Also, check out programs that make new things out of hard-to-recycle items.
- Try creating less waste or no waste altogether. Use reusable bags, cutlery, beverage containers, or visit zero-waste stores, to keep more waste out of landfills and oceans.
- Get educated. Even though climate change feels like an insurmountable problem, there are so many things you can do to take action!