Eagle Scouts building a nature trail on our church property by Daniels Run.
The observance of Earth Day on April 22 began in 1970 as part of an emerging environmental movement and has grown steadily since that time. At first environmentalism seemed like a fringe cause. People in the farming community where I grew up thought that people opposed to pesticides like DDT and the pollution of our streams were a little unhinged.
There has been lots of environmental progress since then. On the national level it includes the landmark Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Last November representatives of 195 nations meeting in Paris reached an historic accord that, for the first time, committed nearly every country to lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change.
On Earth Day last week, those nations gathered at the United Nations in New York and signed this far-reaching accord. It promises to make a significant difference by gradually weaning us from the use of greenhouse producing fossil fuels along with other measures. Yet it may be too little too late. The past three months have been the warmest on record by a huge margin. Still, these steps give me hope.
Anyone who has studied the environment has seen those dismal graphs charting the historical trajectory of things like unsustainable population growth, the depletion of natural resources, the extinction of whole species of animals, and environmental degradation, including global warming. These line graphs show a gradual, almost indiscernible, negative trend throughout the centuries, and then begin to accelerate during the industrial revolution.
Around 1950, the year I was born, they veer sharply upward and have continued to accelerate since then. For example, the human population was about 2.6 billion in 1950 and it’s about 7 billion today. A related statistic is that the world’s car population has grown five times as fast as the human population over the last 50 years. We can’t continue like this. We face the specter of a complete environmental collapse unless we make radical changes. Wendell Berry expresses the distress we feel:
It is the destruction of the world
in our own lives that drives us
half insane, and more than half.
To destroy that which we were given
in trust: how will we bear it?
It is our own bodies that we give
to be broken, our bodies
existing before and after us
in clod and cloud, worm and tree,
that we, driving or driven, despise
in our greed to live, our haste
to die. To have lost, wantonly,
the ancient forests, the vast grasslands
in our madness, the presence
in our very bodies of our grief.
This sounds frighteningly apocalyptic. We need to honestly face such grim possibilities, but becoming doomsayers announcing that “the end of the world” is hardly going to be much help. Instead, we will want to consider how we as a people of faith can be part of the solution and not just part of the problem. A proper appreciation for God’s providential care, as reflected in the ecological balance of nature, can help us chart a different path.
An ecological reading of Jesus’ teaching to not become preoccupied with the necessities of life and to instead consider God’s care for the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field” (Matthew 6: 26-30) draws our attention to the relationship between our lives and all other living things. In our determination to provide ourselves with so much in excess of our basic needs, we have allowed our economics and technology to get out of touch with the needs of the environment.
In response, faith communities will want to practice commemorating Earth Day each year in their worship services. We will also want to consider our place in creation from a faith perspective. And we will want to put our faith into action in our faith communities and in our personal lives.
My own Mennonite faith tradition has a rich heritage of living “more with less,” mutual aid, and sustainable farming, which we will want to draw on. Other faith traditions have yet other resources to draw from. Let’s try to buy locally as much as possible and take the time to shop for produce at farmers’ markets even if we have to pay a little more. It’s a good way to learn to know our neighbors along with reducing our environmental footprint.
Along with this we will want to pray with our feet by speaking out and joining others in public action as appropriate. Finally, we want to celebrate God and God’s good creation. As in Psalm 148 we join the whole creation in praising our creator God.