May The Climate Crisis Be A Moral Opportunity to Build The World We Are Called to Build
The human story begins in a garden. So does mine.
As a kid, my favorite place was in my backyard with my mom, planting potted lilies and marigold seeds in my little garden. I would diligently water the hostas every evening and transplanted volunteer Roses of Sharon, which proliferated around our yard like weeds. My garden was the place I felt fully myself. As I aged, I outgrew my small tin watering can and my ten-square-foot garden, but gardening stayed with me. With my hands in the soil, the same soil with which God created life, I can feel the mystery of our human existence and our interconnectedness with all of Creation and the Divine.
I find comfort that God and I share a love for gardening. In the Genesis 2 creation story, God is portrayed as a gardener, who planted the Garden of Eden. Like any good gardener, God understands that it's not only the work of our hands that bears fruit. It is also the work of the spirit. In the beginning of that chapter, God bends down to the newly-formed soil, gathers a handful and breathes into it the breath of life, the Hebrew word ruach, which means air, breath, and spirit. Out of this concoction of spirit and soil, God forms the Adam, the first human. At the root of the word Adam is adamah, the Hebrew word for soil. God created humans from the humus.
The God places this newly-formed dirt person in the place where he belongs, the garden,
and God gives Adam his first instruction: till and keep it. This phrase "till and
keep" goes beyond the interpretation of agricultural production. The Hebrew words,
abad and shamar, are often used in the Bible to connote service and protection. Ellen
Davis, a scholar of the Old Testament at Duke Divinity, offers this translation: "And
YHWH God took the human and set him in the garden of Eden to work and serve it, to
preserve and observe it."1
God's central instruction to humans, in this oldest Creation story, is this: to work, serve, preserve, and observe this world that is entrusted to us to steward.
Unfortunately, we have largely failed in this task to care for our garden. Nowhere is this more evident than through the effects our pollution is having on our world. Our reliance on dirty fuels to power our homes and sanctuaries is causing our planet to warm, risking the lives, health, and wellbeing of our neighbors around the world. The effects are numerous and widespread. Hurricanes like Michael and Irma, heatwaves like the record-breaking European ones in 2018, and wildfires like the ones Woolsey Fire in Pepperdine's backyard, or the fires in the Amazon, are intensified by global climate change, transforming "natural" disasters into unnatural catastrophes. There's a litany of other impacts, like increases in global diseases, devastating famine, and deadly flooding. Millions of people are expected to be displaced or killed2 because of the impacts of climate change.
You may ask: why is this an issue of faith? Because our actions, which are indisputably driving global temperature change, are endangering those we love, even in our own backyard. Humans are responsible for the devastation around the world caused by climate change. We are destroying our garden and we are failing to love our neighbors.
But there is hope. Any good gardener knows that growth only occurs through the work of our hands and the grace of God. In the garden, we gain an understanding that growth happens through the partnership of human work and the grace of God. Through the work of our hands and the grace of God, we can have hope that restoration is possible, and we can work to bring restoration to the earth.
In this age of climate change, as humans we must act on their call to care for our garden, this world, and trust in the grace of God to germinate the seeds we cultivate. With the immensity of the task before us, it is easy to grow hopeless. By scientific estimates, we have 12 years to take meaningful action on climate change to prevent ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. It is truly a biblical task. If we cling solely to hope in the act of human hands, only despair awaits. Only by the sacred partnership between us and God can we heal this garden.
In my work, I see the role faith communities play in responding to the climate crisis. Nearly every sacred text of our world's religions include a provision of stewardship for the planet. I work with groups of all faiths -- not only Christians -- in responding to the call to care for our world. Climate change is not merely a scientific or political crisis. It is a moral crisis. At Interfaith Power & Light we strive to cast a moral and religious vision for a renewed world. A world where we're not only responding to the crisis, but building a more beautiful and just society along the way.
We take this approach because it is the only way out of this problem. The root causes of climate change and environmental destruction are spiritual problems. We have lost our true place on Earth: in the garden serving and protecting. What is needed is a remembering of our place; recalling our membership in the ecology of Creation, each other, and God. Only this, which heals the roots of our problem, will bear fruit in our climate-changed world. We must work together, as gardeners created imago dei, to heal the world. In Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, he writes, "The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home."3
Our story begins in the garden; our bodies made of soil and spirit; our task to serve and protect this world. May the climate crisis be a moral opportunity to build the world we are called to build: one that is renewed with love and interdependence.
Avery has worked for the US Geological Survey, doing stream ecology research in the
Santa Monica Mountains, Sojourners, where he focused on environmental organizing and
advocacy, and Interfaith Power and Light, where he mobilized faith communities in
support of local and federal climate campaigns. He currently serves on the board of
the Center for Spirituality in Nature.