I released a short book today, A Beautiful World. Reframing our Relationship to Creation. It’s just four chapters and 70 pages long, plus a study guide at the back. The aim is for it to be short enough that a pastor could comfortably build a sermon around each chapter; that those who don’t regularly read books may find it surprisingly manageable to read a chapter a week and then join a small group using the discussion guide at the back; but that it will prove substantial enough that both voracious readers and those who don’t read much will find plenty of food for thought.
The book asks the question, what does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus in the age of “the Anthropocene”? The Anthropocene is the term a number of scientists are using to describe the age in which we live. It identifies humankind as the most significant natural force on earth, the species that has become so widespread and powerful that we are reshaping key environmental systems on which we all depend for survival. Our greenhouse emissions are changing the climate; our insatiable demand for land on which to live and farm and build is one of the chief culprits in the terrifyingly rapid decline of wild animal populations; our oceans are acidifying; and nitrogen that we artificially create is leaching into the rivers and lakes creating large algal blooms that suck the oxygen from the water.
For Christians there’s a lot of catch up. Most of us are the heirs of a theological tradition that undervalues the earth and its living creatures. This tradition taught us to see the drama of history as the struggle for the salvation of the human soul. The planet on which we live is but the stage on which this drama is played out and the nonhuman living creatures mere props designed to serve the real focus, which is the relationship of God and humanity.
I argue that from start to finish the story told by the Bible is far broader, richer, and exciting. The earth is imagined as the temple of God; the place God is to be found and that reflects God’s gracious and loving character, unrivalled wisdom, and extraordinary power. In the biblical universe God’s love blazes for every living thing and God’s attention is turned towards every living creature.
Far from the earth being merely the stage upon which the great drama of history is played out, it is part of the drama. Salvation is not God taking us from the earth and from our bodies to an immaterial heaven, but the work of God to make all things new, to bring everything to unity and completion under the reign of Christ – people, communities, planet, animals, environmental systems, and anything else you can think of. The image of eternity that it offers me is not an angel on a cloud playing a harp but whales dancing through oceans; humans in bodies, minds and hearts that are turned towards love, generosity, kindness and justice; a God whose presence is as tangible as the touch of a lover.
If this be the case, humankind’s commission to rule and subdue the earth must be understood through the biblical lens of service. Our responsibility is to secure the well-being of the planet and its living creatures and of one another, to be God’s representatives in this temple that is the world, caretakers of God’s creation.
In the age of the Anthropocene we bring a vision that is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric but theocentric. Our engagement with the earth is an opportunity to know God and to experience God’s love; to love and serve God; to participate in the joy of God; and to love our neighbour.
The book has been published by A Just Cause as a preaching, Bible study, and reflection tool. Before publishing we sought feedback from an Old Testament scholar, a scientist working on the environment, and an environmental activist, who all offered useful critique and helpful suggestions. Any flaws of course are mine.
You can buy the book in digital version at Amazon and Kobo ($8.00 AUD), and a paperback version at ajustcause.com.au ($9.99 + postage). .
Over the course of my life I’ve had the thrill of seeing some of the amazing forms of life on this earth. I have dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Australia; been delighted by fairy penguins making their way en masse from the ocean to their burrows in the sands of Phillip Island; been mesmerised by the giant sea turtles that haul themselves across the sandy beach of Selingen Island to dig a nest and lay their eggs, and then watched as hatchlings pop-up from the sand, furiously rotate their flippers and make their dash for the ocean; snorkelled the Great Barrier Reef with its kaleidoscope of colourful fish and corals; watched orangutans swing through the trees in Borneo; and spent a glorious day in a long extinct volcanic crater in Tanzania viewing lions, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, and hippopotamus.
Every one of these experiences has been an occasion for joy and wonder. It is a truly amazing world in which we live. Being a person of faith, this amazing diversity of life has pointed me to the wild imagination and stunning creativity of God.
It was with some dismay then that I recently read the Worldwide Fund Living Planet Report for 2016. It showed that between 1970 and 2012 the number of animals in the wild declined by 58%. Read that again. 58%. That’s over half the world’s population of wild animals gone in my lifetime.
The primary drivers are over-exploitation and habitat loss/degradation, along with climate change, introduction of invasive species and pollution. When it comes to over-exploitation, logging, hunting and over-fishing are the biggest culprits. With respect to habitat loss, the biggest contributing factor is land used for farming crops and livestock.
Not only are wild animal populations in decline, but many scientists believe we are experiencing the world’s sixth great extinction event. On five previous occasions the bulk of species on earth have become extinct. Today we are witnessing extinctions at 1,000-10,000 times the rate that would occur were it not for human impacts. What makes this extinction event different from the past is the rapid pace at which it is occurring and that humankind is the cause.
Of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75% were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both (often in combination with the introduction of invasive alien species). Climate change will become an increasingly dominant problem in the biodiversity crisis. But human development and population growth mean that the impacts of overexploitation and agricultural expansion will also increase.
If we ever needed a sign that there is something deeply flawed in how we are engaging the planet, surely we have it.
Bill Laurance, a research professor at Australia’s James Cook University, and Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at America’s Stanford University, argue that we need to:
1. Slow the rate of human population growth;
2. Reduce overconsumption and overhunting;
3. Save remaining wilderness areas;
4. Expand and better protect our nature reserves;
5. Invest in conserving critically endangered species.
What does that look like for me? I’ll continue supporting antipoverty projects around the world, for reducing poverty is the only realistic way to slow population growth. I’ll seek to reduce my meat consumption, for rearing livestock and growing the grains that we feed them require more land to be cleared any other form of food production; I’ll make sure that I demand much better from my politicians; and I will weep at the loss to this earth.
We’re a cat family. Neighbours on either side have dogs, but we have a cat, a white and ginger cat named Mittens.
Earlier this week Mittens disappeared. Three days later we found her, lying weak and helpless in a section of our garden, one of her hind legs dislocated.
The vet concluded she had been run over. Run over! Someone had run over her and then left her wounded. Why didn’t they pick her up and take her to a vet? Cats are microchipped, so we could have quickly been found. Or did she scamper off before the driver could do anything? If so, why didn’t the driver knock on a few doors to see if any of them owned a cat?
$680 later we have her back. Maybe that’s the reason the driver didn’t act, the worry of a large veterinary bill.
I don’t know, but the episode highlights to me how much relational connections shape our ethics. The driver, I surmise, did nothing in response to a wounded cat. We spent $680 and a bunch of emotional energy. Both might give readers pause to wonder. $680 on a cat! On an introduced species that does its fair share of killing native birds! Better off to leave it for dead.
Yet relationship changes everything, trumps reason every time. Mittens has been part of our family for a number of years. We have laughed at her silly antics as a kitten, shouted at her when she clawed at the lounge, assumed responsibility for her care. And that builds connection and empathy. Yes, she might just be a cat, an introduced species that is a danger to native wildlife, but she is ours.
And the principle applies more broadly. Why are we happy to cart refugees off to degrading conditions on Nauru or Manus Island? Why do we tolerate drone strikes in Pakistan that kill thirty innocents for every ‘target’ person? Why do we spend billions on unused presents when children are dying of starvation? Is the answer as simple as we favour those with whom we have relationship and have less regard for those outside our relational circles? That for purely subjective reasons we identify with some not others?
It’s a salient reminder that we need to expand our relational circles to include those who are not like us, to allow ourselves to build empathy. But even more so it’s a signal that where we tolerate violence, degrading treatment, or indifference, the problem probably lies not in the other but in our lack of relational connection with them. Should this not give us pause to ask searching questions about the morality of what our empathy, or lack thereof, tolerates?
David Attenborough today named the ten endangered species he would take onto a modern ark. He overlooked the well known endangered animals – tigers, polar bears, gorillas – for lesser known but equally spectacular ones. Two that strike me as quite amazing are the Olm Salamander and the Darwin frog. Like a creature drawn from the annals of science fiction the Olm Salamander lives to a hundred years of age, can go ten years without food and lives in almost complete darkness. Not to be outdone in strangeness, the male Darwin frog is the one who gives birth, receiving the eggs into it’s mouth and nurturing them in its vocal sack before spewing the young frogs out of its mouth!
Scientists estimate we are losing species at 100 to 1,000 times the rate than would otherwise be expected were it not for human intrusion on their habitats. As a Christian this gives me pause for thought. According to Genesis 1, we were created in God’s image and given responsibility to rule over the animals. Old Testament scholars report that the background to this was the habit of ancient Mesopotamian kings to place images of themselves throughout their realm. The images represented the king and all he stood for. In the same way we humans are the representatives of God.
So if God is loving, kind, just and good toward his subjects, so we ought be towards ours. And our ‘subjects’ according to Genesis 1 are the animals. Our responsibility then is surely to seek their welfare and protect their interests, which, as the extinction rate shows, is the exact opposite of what we are doing now.
What’s more, to rule over the animals is one of just two commands given to humankind at the beginning. It is thus established as one of the key components of our calling as human beings. The other command, by the way, is to multiply and fill the earth. So while we have succeeded spectacularly at one, we are failing dismally at the other.
John Stott once wrote that every generation has moral blind spots. Surely this is one of ours. It’s time we heard more about this issue in our churches. Maybe, just maybe, the church can create the tipping point that will see concern for animals become mainstream.
The Frillfin Goby is an ugly little fish, 10-15 centimeters long, that lives in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. You find them in rock pools. See a goby and you’re not likely to give it much thought. It’s not pretty like so many tropical species, nor is it impressive in size, nor is it any good to eat. It’s just an ugly, nondescript little fish swimming in rock pools.
But it is a remarkable creature. When you’re a fish living in a rockpool the biggest danger is birds who see you as a fine meal. Not really many places to run and hide. The goby however has developed an incredible technique to escape. It can fling its 10 centimetre body into a nearby rockpool, and if necessary to another, then another, and on and on.
The reason this is incredible is that the goby is jumping blind. It cannot see the rock pool into which it will leap, yet manages to jump with amazing accuracy.
How does the goby do this? Scientists have discovered that at high tide the goby swims around the rocky areas and makes a mental map of the landscape, noting where the depressions that will form rock pools are. It can do this with just one pass of an area! Then, from memory, it is able to leap from rock pool to rock pool.
The goby has a pea size brain, yet is able to accomplish this stunning feat.
I don’t know about you but the Frillfin Goby fills me with joy and wonder. It’s another reminder of the remarkable world in which we live.
Two days ago Sandy & I found ourselves travelling by speedboat to Selingan Island, a tiny island off the coast of Malaysian Borneo, famed for its turtles. We had just come from a night in Sandakan’s rainforest. There it was beautiful but I felt like an outsider. Here on the open water, with the buzz of an outboard in my ears and the salt spray across my face, I was right at home.
Selingan Island was breathtaking. Sandy shores, surrounded by a coral reef alive with fish of dazzling colours. Snorkelling in these warm waters was exhilarating. Lying on the beach afterward a large monitor poked it’s way past us, tongue flickering, searching for a meal of turtle eggs.
But it was the evening where the excitement really lay. Every night sea turtles up to a metre long and a hundred years in age land on Seligan island, haul their massive hulk across the sand, dig nests over a metre in diameter and 70 centimetres deep and lay up to 150 eggs. Rangers scour the beach and when one of these turtles is found a small group of us are invited to go watch. By dim torchlight we see 64 eggs dropped into the nest. They look like shiny, wet table tennis balls. It’s quite thrilling to watch.
Photo by Marcio Scatrut
We leave the mother to cover the nest and make her way back to the sea. It’s now time to see baby turtles that have hatched that day make their way into the ocean. Barely a few centimetres long they head to the sea, hauling their tiny bodies across the beach, the slightest indentations becoming sand mountains they have to climb. Once they hit the water they swim with astonishing speed. They are vulnerable, cute and very entertaining. I am wonderstruck by the fact that they know to head down the beach and swim into the ocean. How do they know to do this? When they get into the ocean they’re pretty much on their own. How do they know where to go? What to eat? What is dangerous and what’s not?
Psalm 104 says
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…
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works
I feel that two days ago on Seligan island I was caught up in the exultant joy of the psalmist; that if God indeed does rejoice in his works, that on that island I shared in God’s rejoicing. It was a wonderful experience.