Planet care, people care, fair share

In a recent survey of 17,000 evangelicals from across the UK, 94% said that looking after the environment was the responsibility of Christians.[1]  Of course, environmental issues aren’t just for evangelicals but for liberals too; Protestants and Catholics; rich and poor; and those on every part of the political spectrum.  In fact, creation care is one of the defining issues of our time and one that should eclipse traditional divisions within the Church.  Because it isn’t just about tree- and bunny-hugging.  The natural world is the foundation for all human societies, cultures, economies and political systems.  Planet care is therefore about people care too, and about ensuring that the riches of God’s good creation are fairly shared between all.

Not just that, but we were created, in part, to care for creation.  From Genesis to Revelation there is a consistent and compelling biblical mandate for Christians to look after God’s world.  Colossians 1 provides a good overview of the main reasons for doing so, by setting out the relationship of Jesus Christ to all things, be they humans or hummingbirds.[2]  As His disciples, what is relevant to Jesus should be relevant to us too.  Jesus:

  1. Created all creation (v16a).  The world is not ours to treat as we wish, but God’s, to be treated as He wishes.  The dominion we have as God’s children and stewards is not domination; rather, with this great position of power comes great responsibility for what is His.
  2. Values all creation (created ‘for him’ – v16b).  You may never have heard of the Lesser Iron Gray dwarf lemur, the angwantibo or the kipunji, but God has.  The value of creation is not based primarily on its usefulness to humans, but on the fact that God values and delights in all of His works.  As such, creation’s main purpose – and ours too – is to glorify Him.
  3. Sustains all creation (‘in him all things hold together’ – v17).  The economic value of nature’s services to humans is greater than the entire value of the world economy.[3]  Creation is also an immeasurable source of inspiration and social benefit to us too.  God sustains all that He has made, and has provided enough for everyone and everything if it is shared fairly.
  4. Reconciles all creation (v20).  Sin corrupts the relationship between people and nature, just as it spoils all other relationships. Christ’s mission of salvation will reconcile and renew all creation, and as part of this process, our Great Commission should involve creation care, beginning now, and regardless of how and when Jesus returns.

If we can agree, then, that we should care for creation, the next question we need to ask is how do we care for creation?  The scale of the environmental problems we hear about in the media can seem overwhelming, but at the end of the day, and at the end of time, we are responsible to God for our own lives and our own actions.  We therefore need to take a long, hard look at our lifestyles and honestly ask whether they really care for creation.

On the balance of things the answer is no, they don’t.  We are part of the 20% of the planet’s population that consume 80% of its resources.[4]  From childhood we are steeped in a culture of over-consumption, and accept it as the norm instead of the exception.  This consumerism saps our focus, our finances and our faith.  We need to ask ourselves some questions: Do we really need a brand new phone every 18 months, or every Apple gadget ever invented?  Do we really need to buy our children cars for their 18th birthdays when 17% of African children don’t even get to their fifth?[5]  Do we really need 2 – 3 houses, 2 – 3 cars and 2- 3 foreign holidays per year in order to be happy and blessed?  I suspect the answer to all of these questions is usually simple: NO.

All of this over-consumption negatively impacts the environment, using up more than our fair share of energy and resources, and leaving little for the poor and the rest of creation.  But it’s not just about the quantity of our consumption; it’s also about the quality.  The truth of the matter is that cheapness often comes at a price.  Generally speaking, when we buy cheap stuff – be it food, clothes, consumer goods, etc – it’s not really cheap.  Much of the cost has simply been offset unto other people and things in the supply chain, through, for example, poor working and environmental conditions.

This can be difficult to hear when so many in Ireland are struggling to make ends meet.  But the answer is relatively straightforward.  If we reduce the quantity of our consumption we can afford to increase the quality: products and services that respect and care for people and planet, that are sustainable, humane and fair.  In short, we must ensure that our consumption is defined by our values, and that our values are not defined by our consumption.

Of all the parts of our lifestyle that impact upon creation, the single most important is the food that we eat.  Worth $4 trillion annually,[6] the agri-food sector is the largest form of employment across the world, involving more than 2.6 billion people.[7]  Sixty billion farm animals are farmed worldwide for food every year.[8]  It is also the world’s biggest form of land use[9] and, when linked issues like deforestation are included, the largest contributor to climate change.[10]

With the potential for such huge impacts upon God’s people, God’s creatures and God’s world, the food that we eat becomes not just an issue of preference, but an issue of discipleship.  And with 2.229 billion ‘Christians’ on the planet,[11] it’s not overstating the case to say that if we change the way we view, produce and consume food, we will change the world.  In particular, in order to care for creation we need to reduce the quantity, and improve the quality, of the animal protein we eat: meat, eggs, fish and dairy products.  That is because our consumption of livestock and seafood, especially from intensive systems, is arguably our single biggest impact upon God’s creation.[12]  Intensive livestock and seafood  production in particular is:

  1. Inhumane, treating animals like machines instead of living things.  Pigs are kept in crates where they can sit and stand but not lie down properly or turn around.[13]  Broiler chickens grow so fast that they suffer stress fractures and can barely stand.[14]  Dairy cows often last for only three or four lactations.[15]  And some fisheries, particularly for prawns, are so destructive that for every ton of seafood caught, up to twenty tons of dead and dying sea animals are thrown back into the sea.[16]  Let’s remember: these are all God’s creatures, not ours.  At the very least we owe them a humane life and a humane death.
  2. Unsustainable, contributing to environmental degradation and overuse.  The livestock sector as a whole is responsible for 18% of Greenhouse Gas emissions, a higher share than transport.[17]  Approximately 80% of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to cattle ranching, producing cheap beef for export.[18]  Much of the rest is connected with growing soya beans to feed livestock in Asia and Europe.[19]   It’s also resource intensive – producing a single kilo of grain-fed beef can use up to 13,000 litres of water.[20]  Let’s remember: this is God’s world, not ours.   We are to serve and care for it as His stewards and disciples.
  3. Unfair, taking valuable and limited resources away from the poor who need them most.  Illegal pirate fishing off sub-Saharan Africa alone, by industrialised trawler fleets from wealthier nations, is worth $1 billion annually, depriving coastal communities of vital protein and employment.[21]  In fact, a third of all seafood harvested annually,[22] and a third of all cereals,[23] are fed to livestock.  Three billion people could live on this grain;[24] many more on the seafood.  Sadly it appears that in the global economy the farm animals of the rich are more important than the children of the poor, simply because they have greater purchasing power.  Let’s remember: these are God’s people, our neighbours.  We are to love them as we love ourselves and our own families.

These processes contribute to meat, fish, eggs and dairy products that are financially cheap in the short term but are socially and environmentally costly in the long-run.  In fact, cheap animal protein can often be a bad thing – it means something else, someone else or somewhere else is paying the price.  So what can we do?  We don’t necessarily need to become vegetarian or vegan, although those are admirable choices, but we do need to become ethical omnivores.   As a former carnivore and recovering meat-addict myself, and with a young family to feed on a below-median income, here are a few things that we’ve implemented:

  • Eat less animal and more plant protein.
  • Eat organic meat, eggs and dairy products – particularly those certified by the Soil Association – and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seafood.  These are the most humane and sustainable options.[25]
  • Prioritise grass-fed beef and lamb instead of grain-fed pork and poultry.
  • Prioritise British and Irish produce instead of imported animal protein.
  • Spend less on unnecessary and status-related ‘stuff’ and more on food.
  • Buy direct from farmers and producers where you can.

One final and important point needs to be made: this shouldn’t be miserable rule-keeping but joyful simplicity; not legalism but love.  Because before care for creation must come love for creation.  And before love for creation must come love for the Creator.  It must be God’s universal and miraculous love that inspires our planet care, our people care and our fair sharing.  It must also be the simplicity and sacrifice of Jesus Christ that inspires our value-led consumption.

St Catherine of Sienna, a 14th century church reformer, put it like this: “The reason why God’s servants love His creatures so deeply is they realise how deeply Christ loves them.  And it is the very character of love to love what is loved by those we love.”[26]

An edited version of this article was published in the October 2012 edition of the Presbyterian Herald.

[1]    Evangelical Alliance. 2011. 21ststcenturysevangelicals: a snapshot.

[2]    For a good exegesis of this passage in relation to ecology see Bauckham, R. 2010. Bible and ecology – rediscovering the community of creation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd

[3]    Costanza et al. 1997. ‘The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital’, Nature 387, pp. 253 – 60.

[4]               UNEP. 2011. Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth.

[5]    UNICEF. 2008. 9.7 million: the number of children who died before their fifth birthday in 2006.

[6]               USDA. 2009. ‘Economic research service’ in Christian Aid. 2012. The rich, the poor and the future of the earth: equity in a constrained world.

[7]               UNEP. 2011. Towards a green economy: pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication.

[9]    FAO. 2002. World agriculture: towards 2015/2030.

[10]  FAO. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.

[11]  Mandryk, J. 2010. Operation World: the definitive prayer guide to every nation. Colorado Springs: Biblica.

[17]  FAO. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.

[18]  Greenpeace International. 2009. Slaughtering the Amazon.

[19]  Greenpeace International. 2006. Eating up the Amazon.

[20]  IFAD. 2012. Water facts and figures.

[21]  DEFRA. 2011. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

[22]  Safina, C. 1995. ‘The world’s imperiled fish’, Scientific American, November, pp. 46-53.

[23]  FAO. 2006. Livestock’s long shadow: environmental issues and options.

[24]  UNEP. 2009. The environmental food crisis.

[26]  Preece, R. 2002. Awe for the tiger, love for the lamb: a chronicle of sensibility towards animals. London: Routledge.

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