Science talk on 'how can we save the planet'
How can a Christian world-view contribute to the priorities and practicalities of conservation and planetary stewardship? Over seventy people contributed to a lively discussion on this topic at a recent meeting of Science and Faith in Norfolk.
Report by Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin
The speaker was Dr Jeremy Lindsell, a distinguished conservationist with A Rocha International. He began by providing some vivid illustrations of the impact of human “civilisation” on the ecology of the planet. If you were to weigh all the animals living on the planet today, 36% of that total weight is due to seven billion human beings. A further 60% of the weight is due to domesticated livestock (cattle, pigs and sheep). This leads to the amazing fact that wild mammals account for only 4% of the total “biomass” of mammals on the planet!
In a planet with limited resources and delicately balanced ecosystems, the emergence of humankind as the single dominant species has had major environmental consequences. The destruction of wild habitats to make way for intensive agriculture has resulted in the mass extinction of wild species on an unprecedented scale: a 52% decline in wildlife populations since 1970, with Indian vulture numbers collapsing to 1% of the population alive in the 1980s. The oceans are polluted with plastic waste, the CO2 levels are increasing, causing global warming, glaciers are retreating, deforestation is proceeding and pollution is increasing at an alarming rate. Worse, the economic and social effects are likely to be felt most acutely in the poorest and most densely populated parts of the world.
In the light of these critical issues, what should be the Christian response, both in theological and in practical terms? What motivates us to get involved with conservation projects? And how do we maintain hope when faced with such a massive and complex challenge?
Dr Lindsell began by outlining what he saw as examples of “poor” Christian responses. In 1967, historian Lynn White claimed that the Western Christian worldview had displaced previous views seeing nature as spirit-filled and sacred – and this had encouraged the domination and exploitation of nature by humankind. Dr Lindsell noted that the professed Christian right-wing commentator Ann Coulter had used the language of Genesis to encourage people to “rape” the planet - “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.” Similarly, from an atheist perspective, there are some people who deny the importance of conservation ideas. For example, R. Alexander Pyron published an article arguing “We don’t need to save endangered species. Extinction is part of evolution.”
In contrast, Dr Lindsell noted that a theology of creation stewardship is now thoroughly mainstream. The papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ from Pope Francis, which he personally gave to Donald Trump, encourages care for the planet as our common home. Similarly, the Anglican Communion, as part of its Five Marks of Mission, is committed “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the Earth”. The evangelical Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Movement (2011) states that “Creation Care is a gospel issue within the lordship of Christ”. The Genesis texts about dominion and subduing the earth are to be understood in the context of God creating humanity for the care of the Garden of Eden. God’s dominion is clearly one of gracious, compassionate, faithful care for creation (e.g. Psalm 145), which humans in his image and likeness should reflect.
What then are the key priorities for sustainable development? From an ethical viewpoint, we need to meet environmental challenges while recognising the need to provide food, water, health and education to the broad spectrum of humanity across the world. Environmentalists have tried to outline a safe zone, balancing the needs of humanity and the planet.
Creation Care (or Planetary Stewardship) can be expressed through small, personal acts or decisions that collectively contribute to a greater commitment to conservation – for example, our choice of life-style and diet; and our commitment to sustainability and re-cycling. Dr Lindsell outlined the international projects supported by A Rocha and mentioned the activities of Eco-Church communities which seek to explore the challenges of conservation through local and global campaigns. At a national and global level, church-based agencies need to influence multinational companies, NGOs and government organisations to act as stewards of creation.
Following the talk, there was animated discussion in small groups leading to open questions, covering such diverse topics as interpreting Genesis; the possibility that the Church of England’s General Synod should take a lead in withdrawing from investments in oil companies; the Swansea tidal barrier project; and the different motivations and interests of the developed and developing countries of the world. It was an interesting evening!
The next event organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk will be held in Norwich Anglican Cathedral on Wednesday 3rd October (7.00 – 8.30 pm). Professor John Wyatt will give an open lecture entitled “Artificial Intelligence: hopes and fears for humanity”. All are welcome.
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Contact Professor Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org ;