Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jesus and climate change VIII

But what’s the problem?
Now, I’ve been speaking of how good God’s world is, but that’s only part of the picture. Things have also gone dreadfully, tragically wrong, as we can see with climate change, if we hadn’t already noticed it elsewhere. Instead of humanity caring for God’s world, receiving his gifts with thanks and sharing them with others, all too often our experience is of a me-first world, both in our attitudes and in how we have set up our societies. Many of us presume that we deserve our standard of living, or vote for politicians who will maintain and increase our affluence before all other considerations. We are often greedy and envious, wanting to hoard and consume more things than our neighbour. Or we might be apathetic about the suffering of others. Or just unthinkingly wasteful. And so often we are simply thankless.

Jesus said that our life is more than the abundance of possessions (Luke 12.15), that loving God and our neighbour are more important than financial security or chasing our dreams or the perfect romance or the pursuit of happiness (Mark 12.28-33). Yet our society often assumes that bigger is better, that everything must be sacrificed to economic growth, that the creation is merely a pile of ‘natural resources’ to be exploited for increasing our material comfort and affluence.

In fact the climate crisis that we face today is a classic symptom of what the Bible calls ‘sin’. Sin is a bigger problem than simply the actions of any one individual. It is an addiction, a deadly habit, found in each of us and woven into our social fabric. Climate change is a classic symptom because like many of the world’s problems, it is not simple. There is no single cause and no magic bullet solution. Instead, we’re faced with a complex series of related problems arising out of many causes, such as the small actions and inaction of millions, habits based on ignorance, pig-headed short-sightedness, greed or fear that refuses to see size of the problem, the desire to maximise our short-term gain without regard for the future. Or simply false beliefs: that the planet’s resources and ability to adapt is effectively infinite, that human actions don’t add to much, that the problem and its solution lie elsewhere. All these contribute to a mega-problem.

Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, has said ‘Sin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes. It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions.’ Abuse of the natural environment is a consequence and symptom of human sinfulness. It is a symptom of disobedience to God’s command to care for his world. This is both a personal and a collective failure. It is something to which we all contribute and yet something from which we all suffer, into which we were born and raised without being consulted. We are all both perpetrators and victims. And we are not the only victims. Creation itself is groaning in intense pain like a woman giving birth because of its bondage to decay (Romans 8.19-22).
Photo by ALS.
Series: I; II; III; IV; V; VI; VII; VIII; IX; IX(b); X; XI; XII; XIII; XIV; XV.


Looney said...

I remember first visiting Taiwan over 25 years ago. The treatment of the environment was terrible. Twenty years later, the people were much richer and tremendous efforts had been made to clean things up.

People who are poor and desperate are the ones who care least about protecting the environment. They simply can't afford to when each day is a struggle for survival. Is this sin? It is only the rich who can afford environmentalism.

Now I live in the San Francisco Bay area which is surrounded by well protected nature preserves by the most environmentally astute people in America. Is this really a virtue? Could it not just be an extension of the Versailles gardens mentality? Give me a spectacular environment to enjoy and let them eat cake ...

Anyway, I am a bit reluctant to bring sin into the discussion of what is the wisest course of action for preserving the environment. Things are just to complex for us to start casting stones and bitter accusations.

byron smith said...

Looney, I think we must speak in terms of sin, but note that in this discussion I speak both in terms of guilt, responsibility and being perpetrators on the one hand and of being trapped, caught up in systemic failures and so being victims on the other. Both sides of the sin problem are important, though they might have different weights in different situations. In general, I suspect that those most trapped are the ones with least and those most guilty are the ones with most (= us!). A discussion of sin is not intended simply to distribute blame (though that may need to be part of it), but to reveal the theological realities that underlie this problem. Ironically, I believe it is only by talking about sin that we can begin to grapple with the complexities of this issue. This is not simply failure of education.

It is only the rich who can afford environmentalism.
Environmentalism is not simply the preservation of areas of iconic beauty (though many of the high profile campaigns have taken this as their focus, because it is what the rich could be more easily persuaded to care about). Caring for our world, the condition of our continued social existence, is not a luxery. In the long term, there can be no competition between ecology and economy because the economy is a fully own subsidiary of the environment. The problem is not simply that we are destroying priceless and irreplacible unique ecosystems (thought that in itself is bad enough - it is a grave mistake of western instrumentalist rationality to believe the worth of something is purely related to its value for human use). The problem is that we are also destroying the food we eat, the air we breathe, the materials that make us rich, the created order through which God sustains life and human civilisation on this planet.

Anonymous said...

small thing - The bishop of London is Richard Chartres not Charles

byron smith said...

Anon - thanks, my mistake. I've now corrected it.