When I was a child, my grandparents had an album of black-and-white photos from their early years on their North Dakota farm. One I especially remember showed black drifts piled up against the house and barn, nearly covering the fences. It was taken in the 1930s, my grandfather said, during a prolonged dry spell. He told me how huge windstorms would come up, roiling the rich black North Dakota soil into the air like an enormous thunderstorm. Without any moisture, the soil drifted like snow in a blizzard. Topsoil that had taken hundreds of years to form from the humus-rich prairie was stripped away, leaving just yellow clay subsoil, in just a few hours.
Yet year after year, they tried to farm in the same way: digging up the soil until it was rich and soft and leaving it unprotected, and the wind blew it away.
Wind isn’t the only culprit in such destruction of the earth. You may have seen pictures of deep gullies left from unmanaged drainage; coastlines eroded away; cliff-top houses, built close to the edge for scenic vistas, surrendered to the waves; mountains stripped bare of trees, leaving nothing to hold the soil in place.
Nature, left to itself, will produce destructive changes: weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, and fire—all would go on without us. But our human presence on the earth has accelerated environmental change. Wherever human beings have repurposed the earth without regard for its limits, we are likely to destroy some of it. And often, it can never be restored.
In Matthew 25:14–30, Jesus told a parable about an employer who entrusted each of three of his employees with a portion of his wealth to invest while he went on a journey. Two of them did as they were asked and increased their employer’s net worth during his absence. The third, frightened and risk-averse, did nothing and was appropriately dismissed.
It’s from this parable that the concept of stewardship comes, which means appropriately taking care of and improving property that belongs to someone else. The stewards weren’t owners. They were working on behalf of their employer but with the promise that they and their children would continue to benefit from the master’s success because they did their work responsibly. The steward who doesn’t do that not only cheats his master but threatens the future for everyone in the community.
At the creation of the world, God made human beings stewards of the earth: “Be fruitful and increase in number,” He said. “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” (Genesis 1:28). Yet we aren’t, except in a human legal sense, the owners of our planet. The psalmist said, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it/ the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). “For every animal of the forest is mine,” says God/ “and the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).
As stewards of the earth, we should be caring for it. And too often, we aren’t.
Dirt, air, water and life
An elderly friend of mine grew up on the Ohio River in the heart of America’s so called Rust Belt. When she was a child, she told me, the steel mills employed tens of thousands along the river. Below their feet, coal was being mined to feed the mills. Yet from her home on the bluffs, she could rarely ever see the river for the heavy black smoke that enveloped the valley. “Every morning when we got up,” she told me, “we would sweep a couple of inches of ash and cinders off the car, the path and the porch.”
“Wasn’t it horrible to live there?” I asked.
“Yes, but we were just glad to have employment,” she said. “We put up with the filth, the danger, the respiratory illnesses, because it was how we stayed alive.”
Today the mills are deserted, but the ground is still polluted with their waste, and now and then an abandoned mine collapses a road or a house into a sinkhole. A few people still pine for the mills and the mines, even with their smoke and fumes. But now, this kind of misuse of the earth has moved elsewhere.
Shanghai, one of the largest cities on earth, lives under a cloud of perpetual smoke, its residents unable to go outdoors unmasked.
Norilsk is a polluted hell in Siberia where four million tonnes of copper, lead, cadmium, nickel, arsenic, sulphur and other toxic chemicals go up into the air each year. In Norilsk the river runs red, the snow is black and pollutants have sterilised the earth of vegetation in a 30-kilometre radius around the city.
Clean these places up, we say! Why make people live like that? And yet if it weren’t for Shanghai’s toxic air, you may not be able to afford the multipurpose mobile phone you’re holding in your hand right now. And Norilsk produces 50 per cent of the world’s palladium, an element used in catalytic converters that keep cars in your part of the world from polluting your atmosphere. Are you willing to give these things up?
Economics is the reason why we’re often such poor stewards of our planet. Misusing the dirt, air and water helps some people make money, even if it’s at the expense of those working in places like Norilsk, where only 4 per cent of the population is considered healthy. When the environment suffers, so does life of all kinds: human, vegetable and animal.
I hear it from all corners, but as a Christian myself I am often surprised to hear other Bible-believing Christians arguing against environmentalism. Sometimes it’s simply ignorance and indifference. The biblical maxim to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31) is easily ignored when the horribly polluted places of the earth are far, far away from us.
Some Christians associate environmentalism with left-wing idealism and so reject it without very much thought and even less investigation. Aren’t environmentalists usually evolutionists, they argue, fussing about minor species somewhere in the web of life? God gave us the earth and put us in charge of it, so we should exploit it. We Christians believe in prosperity, so why should we get in the way of business and industry creating jobs for people?
"Economics is the reason why we’re often such poor stewards of our planet."
Yet those who argue against environmental care risk becoming deaf to the voice of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God;/ the skies proclaim the work of his hands./ Day after day they pour forth speech;/ night after night they reveal knowledge” (Psalms 19:1, 2). If the heavens are obscured, nature destroyed, the sea and rivers filthy, can God still speak clearly to us?
I’ve even heard people argue that with the return of Jesus the earth is going to come to an end sometime soon anyway, so why worry about it?
The Bible—as though anticipating our current environmental problems and carelessness—addresses the question of stewardship of the earth at the time of the end. The apostle John had a vision in which he saw an angel carrying “the seal of the living God.” The angel called out, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God” (Revelation 7:2, 3). Even as life on this old globe is wrapping up, God commands that no-one destroy His creation until His people are safely rescued.
Environmentalists have coined the word sustainability to describe our relationship to the planet, and here the Bible makes a case precisely for that. Since “about that day or hour” of His return “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36), it’s wise for us to live on the earth in such a way that life can continue until God decides to end it.
For only God who created the earth has permission to destroy it. The Bible says that a day is indeed coming when He will cause “the heavens [to] disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Peter 3:10). But He does that only so that He can create “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (verse 13), and humans are at one with their environment and God.
And, be cautioned; those who misuse this old earth of His (and ours) today are unlikely to be given use of the new one.