Genesis, chapter 1
Earlier this month, a American expedition made what was only the third ever dive to the very deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. They took a submersible to the floor of the Mariana Trench: at 35000 feet, it is a mile deeper than Everest is high. The Mariana Trench is found where the western Pacific Ocean floor subducts under what is known as the Mariana Plate. It is a long, long, long way down. Their descent into this abyss took four hours. And deep in the icy cold, black, unbelievably pressured waters, they found: arrowtooth eels, grenadier fish, cusk eels, snailfish, and four unknown species of shrimp. And they found plastic rubbish. We are, as a species, now polluting even the remotest places on the surface of the planet. I’m appalled by how much plastic I put out for recycling each week, with no real proof that it actually gets recycled. That could have been my discarded water bottle that they found six miles down.
Most plastic packaging is single-use, yet it can persist for centuries. But we throw away much more than plastic packaging. Built-in obsolescence ensures that so many things that we buy can’t be repaired when they go wrong. There are expensive mobile phones for which you cannot even change the battery without wrecking the device.
We praise God for the beauty all around us here, and rightly so. Yet though we live in the sunlit uplands of a beautiful county, we cannot ignore the rest of the planet. But we seem powerless to change the way our fellow humans behave. What can I do to persuade people the other side of the world to use lass plastic? And of course, it is other people who should change their lifestyle, rather than me. Do you remember learning about irregular verbs in school? Here’s one: I am supporting the economy by the what I consume. Whereas you are irresponsibly making unsustainable choices. And he is wilfully destroying the planet. It’s called ‘The Enemy Narrative’, apparently. The way we look at creation depends upon our point of view.
There are so many difficult issues intertwined in our views of creation. And many of you here know far more about their problems and complexities than I do. You might feel very strongly about them, you might feel that I’m misrepresenting the facts. As I said, the way we look at creation depends upon the point from which we view it.
Two more contentious issues, then. One is energy. We all burn much more power than we did fifty years ago, with our cookers, dishwashers, mobile phones, computers, televisions, vacuum cleaners, powered lawn-mowers. We drive greater distances, and more of us fly more often to far-away places. But how best to supply all this energy? Should we opt for wind power, or champion nuclear? Should we dam more valleys to generate hydroelectric power, or fill our fields with arrays of solar panels? Oil supplies are finite. Coal is recognised as one of the most polluting ways of generating power. But we used to have a coal industry in the north east that provided tens of thousands of jobs for people; and with that, income, wealth and community.
And secondly, use of the countryside. Should we reduce the amount of meat we eat, because being a carnivore consumes more resources than being a vegetarian? But our neighbours’ livelihoods depend on raising stock on their upland hill farms. Should the fells around us be used for raising grouse for sport? But wildlife and jobs could be lost if all this peatbog were exploited in other ways. Should we preserve the natural habitat to ensure diversity of species, or do homes for people to live in, and roads and railways to travel and trade along take priority?
Oh, and one last thing. As a species, we will keep on having children! In 1900 there were 1.6 billion of us. Now there are 7.75 billion.
A few years ago you could reasonably debate whether or not climate change is taking place – now, there is no serious scientific doubt. The data are out there for all to see. So are the tropical storms, the floods, the melting glaciers and the rising sea-levels.
And all these issues quickly become political! There are so many interested parties, who will be affected by the choices that we make and the stands that we take. Opinions harden. Barricades go up! And often we stop listening to each other and dismiss what we don’t want to hear.
Every wildlife documentary, every report, every pressure group, delivers stark assessment of the state of creation, and dark warning about the future we bequeath to our children. Yet I’m aware that my credentials as a climate scientist or an eco-warrior don’t stack up. And I know there are people in the community, and in this church today who understand these issues far better than I do; who take into account factors that I haven’t even noticed. It is very easy to feel defeated by the obstacles, drowned in the data, and strangled by the complexity. It would be easy to despair.
In that great vision of creation that we read in Genesis chapter 1, it is God who creates, and orders creation, and sees that what it is good. God intended his creation to be beautiful, good and intricately ordered. Not despoiled, ugly and polluted. These commands in Genesis about having dominion over the earth and subduing it: we’re coming to realise that we discharge these obligations as God’s agents. Our stewardship involves responsibility, to him, and to those with whom we share this planet. And if we cannot care for it to reflect his glory, at least we should do so for the sake of our children’s children.
But there is much hope. Actions do make a difference – clean air acts did away with the old London pea-soupers, even if the problem has now moved on to car and van emissions, rather than solid-fuel domestic fires. Cities are now experimenting with congestion charges and electric powered vehicles to reduce particulate pollution. We have reduced our dependence on coal, said to be the most polluting fuel, and renewable sources of energy are now making a significant contribution to the national grid. A simple charge has encouraged people back to using proper shopping bags the way we always did, and reduced the number of plastic bags being thrown away by millions. Research into effective ways of reversing climate change is underway.
Across the world awareness is growing. Children are taking to the streets to bring pressure on governments to act. It only takes a few thousand signatures on a petition to trigger a debate in parliament. Companies that recklessly pollute or exploit creation are named and shamed, and forced to change the way they operate. Even the so-called stone-age peoples of the Amazon are using the internet to make the world aware of illegal logging, mining and deforestation.
And individual actions make a difference too. I’ve told some of you the story of the boy rescuing starfish. Thousands of starfish have been stranded on the high tide line by a storm, you see; and will die when the sun bakes them. And a man walking along the shore finds a boy, picking them up, one by and throwing them back into the sea. ‘You’re wasting your time, young man,’ he says. There are far too many starfish here. You can’t possibly make a difference.’ And the boy bends down, picks up another starfish, walks down and throws it into the sea. And turning round, he says to the man, ‘I made a difference to that one.’
God has given us brains to perceive the problems and come up with solutions; and consciences to rein in our selfishness, greed and lack of care for others or the future. There is much hope, for he is faithful to his creation. Perhaps the most difficult task he has given us is not caring for creation after all. It is working together in order to do so.
© Jon Russell 2019