Feb 25, 2011

Revenge of Gaia? Christians and global warming – part 1

A few years back Greenpeace produced a leaflet that went as follows:

Planet earth is 4,600 million years old. If we condense this inconceivable time-span into an understandable concept we can liken the earth to a person of 46 years of age.

Nothing is know about the first seven years of this person’s life and whilst only scattered information exists about the middle span we know that only at the age of 42 did the earth begin to flower. Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear, until one year ago, when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived only 8 months ago and in the middle of last week. Man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend the last ice-age enveloped the earth.

Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man discovered agriculture, the industrial revolution began a minute ago and during those 60 seconds of biological time modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise

He has multiplied his numbers to plague like proportions, caused the extinction of 500 species of animals, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant gloating over his meteoric rise to ascendancy on the brink of war to end all wars.

A human life in this timespan lasts a mere 18 seconds. Let’s not waste anymore precious time.

I wonder what you would say as a Christian if a Greenpeace spokesperson knocked on your door and pushed that leaflet into your hand.  As you sat down together over a herbal tea I guess that whilst you would disagree on much you would want to agree on that one statement of theirs:

Modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise’.  We would agree that human beings really are to blame for spoiling a good world.

Human beings cannot escape the fact that together we have exploited the creation – harmed and abused it – plundered its resources, and so on. But as we munched on our carrot cake together we would want to help our Greenpeace activist to think a little bit further – for we would want them to see that at the heart of the environmental crisis is actually a spiritual crisis.

1.  Environmental crisis or spiritual crisis?

For the message of the Bible is that behind our treatment of this world lies a bigger issue – our treatment of God.  This world has been made by God and belongs to God.

‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ – Psalm 24v1

‘For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine’. – Psalm 50:10-11

If you’ve ever hired a car, maybe on holiday or something like that you know about the inspection.  To ensure that you return the car in the condition you received it before you drive off you walk around the car with the clip-board inspecting it – looking for bumps, dents and scratches.

But imagine that when you come to hire a car your luck is really in  – you are the first driver of a brand-new hire car – there it sits in pristine, mint condition, and you sign off the paper work.

You enjoy your holiday and a week later you return it – but as you hand the keys back you have to confess it’s not quite the car it was. You have to admit to being a bit reckless in the way you’ve driven it, a bit careless in how you parked it because the fact is that it is almost unrecognisable as the same car you drove away.

Now the damage done to the car is a real shame, and you’ve certainly spoilt the pleasure for future users by your selfish behaviour, hopefully you’ve not damaged the car beyond repair for future users. But the man at the Easycar counter will probably have a more immediate concern because the real offense is not against the car itself it is against the owner of the car. Easycar will seek some kind of recompense.

And that is the problem behind the problem.  That is why the environmental crisis is really a spiritual crisis. Human beings made in the image of God were given responsibility to rule over the creation. To bring glory and honour to God by making this good world fit for purpose – to display the goodness of God as we work it under his rule.

In Genesis 2 Adam is told to work the earth and take care of it. He is to develop the world by working it and conserve the world by taking care of it.  And we have failed in our duty.

So as we look at what we are doing to our world we need to remember that our problem is not so much our CO2 emissions as our  S-I-N emissions. When we damage our world by harming our environment we are sinning against God.

The BIG inconvenient truth is not that we are destroying the planet but that we are demonstrating our rebellion against God and our resistance to his rule.

As we grapple with questions of climate change and what on earth is really going on we need the creator to help us interpret the creation.

Jesus  said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? – Luke 12:54-56

Today across the world millions of pounds is being spent predicting weather patterns and evermore complex models are being written to try to forecast further into the future but Jesus’ warning is that it is possible to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky and yet not know how to interpret the present time. In the Palestine of Jesus day they knew that a westerly wind meant rain was coming  – as moisture from the Mediterranean sea carried by the clouds would fall on the land as rain. But southerly winds meant something different – heat from the desert was on the way and temperatures would rise. Yet without God’s word to interpret God’s world they could make no sense of Jesus.

But Jesus point is that it is possible to understand the world around you and yet miss the bigger picture – the fuller forecast. That’s why the church equipped with God’s word need to speak into the issues of our day. One church leader put it this way,  – the church is ‘to understand the events of earth and seek to address them with the message of heaven

James Lovelock and the revenge of Gaia

Lovelock is the author of The revenge of Gaia a book Andrew Marr described as ‘probably the most important book for decades’. John Gray in the Independent described it as ‘the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis’

Central to the book is the warning that our relationship with the world is a delicate, two-way or symbiotic relationship between humanity and the world.

It is a relationship that can work for good or ill. When we care for creation – the creation cares for us. Its systems are ideal for human flourishing and when we work with the world we are blessed by the world but when we abuse the creation we find that those very self-same systems act against us and so to speak creation pays us back in kind. But when we chop down a forest or chuck CO2 into the atmosphere it has an effect on the environment which in turn has an effect on us.

Lovelock has coined this ‘the Gaia theory’ – because the entire earth functions as a single living superorganism. Or to put it in Lovelocks own words ‘The earth behaves as if it were alive…’. And so if the earth is a living breathing super-organism we human beings causing untold damage to our planet function like a disease – poisoning the planet.

What is the consequence?  Well, like all organisms, when threatened by disease the earth fights back. According to Lovelock Gaia’s revenge is that in order to protect it’s own existence it must rid itself of the disease.

In the end, Lovelock argues Gaia will eliminate those that break her rules. His urgent message is that as human beings we have the choice to accept this fate or plan our own destiny within Gaia. And the situation is very serious. Earth is very sick and about to take urgent action against the parasite.

Just a few years back, in one newspaper interview, he stated :

before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.

In the concluding chapter of his book he writes:

What should a sensible European government be doing now? I think we have little option but to prepare for the worst, and assume that we have passed the threshold.

So for Lovelock, Gaia will have its revenge and humanity will pay dearly for its selfish abuse of the planet. I guess if Lovelock were to walk around the bullring shopping centre in Birmingham with a sandwich board around his neck it might just read ‘the end of our world is nigh.’

And what I find striking is that this is not the word of one maverick scientist. The press release that accompanied Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth read as follows:

Humanity is sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the vast majority of the world’s scientists are right, we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction.

Tony Blair in his last full year in office said:

This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime. Unless we act now…these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible.

Here are people having a go at interpreting the appearance of the earth and sky – measuring temperatures and depth of ice and coming to some pretty shocking conclusions.

Those reading this blog will range in their views along a spectrum of positions from those who share full-square the conclusions of Al Gore and James Lovelock right the way through to thorough-going sceptics.  I confess to being towards the sceptical end – not least because I’m not persuaded that human beings can know enough about our world to predict the future with such certainty. It is a far more complex creation than our minds understand and I suggest there is a degree of hubris.

Let me give two illustrations by way of example. Pretty much everyone is agreed that the planet has warmed a little in the last 30 years but the models used by the IPCC failed to predict in any way the fact that surface temperatures have failed to increase at all since 1998.  CO2 emissions have continued to rise and rise at a phenomenal rate and according to their own models so should surface temperatures – yet for the past 10 years the temperature of the surface of the earth has not risen.  No climate change model predicted it nor account for it.

A further example comes from the film An Inconvenient Truth in which Al Gore argued that 20 of the 21 hottest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years.  But such claims have subsequently been retracted. In fact in the US the hottest year on record is actually 1934 and four of the 10 hottest years on record occurred in the 1930’s compared to 3 in the last decade.

Those kind of facts make me a little nervous of the claims of a James Lovelock. But wherever you stand on such issues I hope, like me, that you find it striking that a narrative is developing in our culture, an account of our world that at points is strikingly similar to the message of the Bible: the world is a good place, we have messed it up and we will have to pay a price for it.

What then is our response as Christians?

How can Christians speak into this global concern?

I guess we want to say to anyone and everyone ‘if you are worried about the future of our planet and if you fear for our future as a race that is a profoundly good thing.’

For the Bible says we should be concerned. As Christians we want to say ‘yes the world is groaning’ and those who here it’s voice do well to listen but this is not the revenge of Gaia this is the judgement of  God.

Paul writes in Romans 8;

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Paul insists that the futility and the decay and frustration of our world is nothing new and it is signalling something.

The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.

The word ‘frustrated’ means unable to fulfil the purpose for which it was made.  That means the world is not as it should be. And what’s more the earth is experiencing, v.21, ‘the bondage of decay.’

The Bible says the world is groaning, it is frustrated and it is decaying and all of this – not by choice – but by the will of the one who subjected it. God has, for a time and for a purpose, allowed the world to share in mans suffering. It was God who said to Adam ‘cursed is the ground because of you’ – Genesis 3v17.

Rather than think of our relationship with the world as Lovelock does as something like this;

Paul, in Romans, reminds us that this is just one side of a more complex picture for as we zoom out we realise that this is a triangle of relationships.

So why is the world the way it is? Because God has subjected it to frustration and he has done that because of our sin.

If man had obeyed God, he would have been blessed and been a blessing to the earth but that one act of rebellion has had repercussions through out the whole created order

When we see a tsuanmai on the news we hear creation groan and we are to remember – How great our sin must be for God to subject his world.

Our fallen world bears witness to our spiritual crisis. And it is a problem that all the money of all the governments in all the world cannot put right. The solution to a spiritual crisis must itself be spiritual.  We must be restored to God through his son Jesus and only then can be restored to this creation.

And the great news of the gospel is that creation is longing for our restoration. It is groaning in hope. In the knowledge that God will one day put his whole world right when he completes his great plan of salvation.

Lovelock can hear the groaning of the world but he does not interpret it correctly.  For the world is not crying out for revenge but redemption.

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