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Are we stewards of the earth or consumers?

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The Church Times on October 12 boldly proclaimed “Cheer up: climate change can be stopped”. This optimistic headline followed the publication of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report suggests that containing the global temperature increase to 1.5°C is possible and will prevent the worst impacts of the warming of the planet.

The UK, along with many other countries, is moving to low carbon electricity generation. Electric cars are becoming more popular. Technology is helping high-emitting industries clean up. Even alternative animal feed is helping reduce methane emissions from cattle. There is no denying that there are signs for hope and that the issue of climate change is starting to get the attention it deserves. Nevertheless I find it difficult to share in the new found optimism with which the IPCC report has been received.

I worry that in our rush to solve one issue we may be creating other problems further down the line. For example it is not so long ago that governments were moving out of nuclear power. On grounds of both cost and safety, reliance on nuclear seemed questionable. With the focus now on low carbon emissions suddenly there is a rush back to nuclear. However, the issue of the safe disposal of nuclear waste remains not fully resolved. Safety issues will always remain and the cost of building the new nuclear power stations means that the future cost of electricity is likely to rise significantly. We solve one problem (carbon emissions) but run the risk of creating new problems yet to be faced.

What concerns me more, however, is that the whole debate around climate change seems to assume we must sustain our current lifestyles. Our present levels of consumption and our exploitation of the earth’s resources are not sustainable. We only get away with our present level of lifestyle because it is not shared by most of the planet’s population. As global poverty is reduced and hopes and aspirations (rightly) rise globally, Western levels of consumption will not be sustainable. The commitment to net zero emissions has to go hand in hand with us all learning to live more simply so that others may simply live.

And just as big a threat as climate change is to the future of the planet, so too is the issue of social justice. The continuing occurrence of mass migration and its impacts on both the emptying nations and the receiving nations, politically and economically, is sending shock waves through the global order. The profound inequalities in the distribution of wealth, and access to power and influence, are a current and immediate threat to the peace of our planet, besides being just plain wrong.

Christians may feel that with their focus on God as Creator of the World they are well placed to play a central role in facing up to the challenges of climate change. But what if we are in danger of being part of the problem and not part of the solution? The Genesis instruction to be stewards of creation often expresses itself as being masters of creation. The fruits of the earth and the resources of the earth are seen as there for our benefit and therefore ripe for exploiting and consuming. It is the lifestyle that has flowed from so-called Christian civilisation that has helped bring the world to the brink.

Many indigenous religions, and indeed Paganism, make greater emphasis on our inter-relatedness with the created order. It is this concept rather than the stewardship of creation that is more likely to help in the threat posed by climate change.

The idea of connectedness with the created order is to be found in what is loosely known as the “Celtic Christianity” tradition. Here you will find prayers for milking a cow, at the birth of a lamb, at the laying of a fire and for similarly ordinary every day tasks. Such prayers remind us of our connectedness with the created order, and through that, with the Creator. However this tradition never became the dominant tradition in the spread of Christianity. Even today, despite the prominence of the issue of climate change, eco-Christianity is far from being mainstream.

Maybe if the Church could be less concerned with its own survival and more concerned with the survival of this planet, and with peace and justice for all its inhabitants, people would be more drawn to the good news of the gospel. Our sin has not been just against our neighbour but against the very earth itself.

Perhaps we need to fall in love again – to fall in love with God’s wonderful, mysterious creation. We need to focus less on our stewarding/mastering of creation and more on understanding our profound connectedness with the created order. Only if we can live with a proper realisation of how our every action impacts on those around us and those further away, and on the very earth itself, might there be cause for optimism. The IPCC suggestions alone are not enough. It will require a deeper change in us, the way we live, our relation to creation and to one another.

I cannot say I share the optimism of the Church Times headline writers, but I am determined to try to tread more lightly on this planet, to try and play my part in making a difference, to be good news for a creation that is hurting.

This article comes courtesy of Network Norfolk.