7 Ways People of Faith Can Up Their Environmental Game
Environmentalism and faith don’t always go hand in hand.
But they should.
In fact, people of faith should be at the forefront of environmental protection. They should be leading the charge to right environmental wrongs.
Why? The answer is straightforward: Environmental issues affect all people, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, as well as the rest of the natural world. All living things should have access to clean air, water, and soil. We must stand up for those who lack a voice, both human and otherwise, and who cannot access those basic necessities. And if those are not sufficient reasons, consider this: there’s an indisputable link between chemicals and sickness and poverty. We must acknowledge these links in order to best care for the sick, poor, and oppressed.
To put it in Biblical terms, care and concern for the environment is one way we “do justice.” (Micah 6:8). It’s how we love our neighbor (Matt. 22:39). It’s how we walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
Here’s seven practical tips for walking out your faith as a Christian:
1. Use your senses to detect environmental warning signs: Environmental problems often come to light because somebody noticed something wrong and spoke up. Use your powers of observation.
Sight: Do you see evidence of environmental decline around you? Are trees dying at an accelerated rate? Is there black or brown ash coating cars in your parking lot? Is there foam forming around the outfalls near waterways? What about the things you no longer see: fish or frogs absent where they used to be plentiful? Are caterpillar nests or other insects absent in places where they use to be prevalent? Remember lightning bugs - did you ever catch them in a jar and watch them glow as a child? Have you been back to that place and observed them there, or are they absent? The animal and plant life of a particular area – the biota – are often the first telltale signs of environmental problem.
Sound: Be sure to really listen to people. You might hear that your neighbor has a rare cancer, and so does your cousin and three of her in-laws who live nearby. Don’t dismiss their health concerns. It’s not easy to hear about someone’s cancer diagnosis and the multitude of other health challenges that accompany it. People’s concerns are important, and they could potentially reveal a larger problem. Instead, perhaps think about the connections on a local and larger level. Were they living near a steel plant? A landfill? Love Canal? Ask more questions!
Do you remember hearing Spring peepers in March? Are they still there? Their absence is quite noticeable, especially when they are one of the first signs of spring. Have you ever heard coyotes or raccoons screaming in the night- it’s a distinct (unpleasant) sound- are they still there? With deforestation and the urban sprawl, they may not be - maybe it’s time to pay attention?
Smell: Strong chemical smells when you pass by a landfill or a waterway are not normal, no matter how long they’ve been present. Make inquiries. Report these smells to your state department of environmental conservation. In New York, you can report environmental concerns here. Take things a step further if those agencies fail to act. They aren’t always correct.
Remember the smell of the Bethlehem Steel Mill burning in 2016?
The smell wafted over a thirty mile area and filled the air with toxic contaminants. At first, Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale R. Burstein (rather alarmingly) stated that “the [extremely unpleasant] smell may be aggravating, but the odor itself poses no health risk.” Common sense – another essential tool -- prevailed. Evacuations were ordered due to the toxicity of the fumes.
Taste: Have you ever had the taste of metal in your mouth? That metallic taste could be a side effect of medication, but it could also be caused by exposure to contaminants. Ask if others have noticed it, although consider the fact that many people in a high-exposure area have a reduced sense of taste and smell.
Ponder: Review the emerging research on environmental impacts- global climate change, deforestation, pollution, pesticide use, etc. We received a shocking warning in the form of the UN’s first comprehensive study on biodiversity loss. Our responsibility: pay attention. That way, we can educate ourselves, make different choices, and highlight concerns for others.
2. Pray about your next steps. You may find yourself drawn to a specific situation. Sometimes disasters get a hold of our hearts and we want to know more. We find ourselves Googling news stories about the Flint water debacle, following bloggers who live in an area of concern, or asking friends what they think about a troubling environmental situation. Don’t ignore that prompting. Ask God what He would have you do. Ask where you fit in to the big picture. Ask who, specifically, He has in mind for you to encourage.
3. Use Your Talents to Take Action. It’s not enough to ask God for direction; you must also be open to what God might be leading you -- through prayer -- to do. We are his hands and feet. He uses His people to show love to others, to care for others, and to act. You might feel led to give financially. Many people have responded to the water crisis in Sierra Leone by funding drinking wells. You don’t have the money? Raise it. These individuals started small, but now are global.
Do you write? Then highlight what’s happening. Spread the word. Do you paint? Perhaps you can capture on canvas the devastating effects of environmental defilement. Show the toll on people, animals, or the natural world. Or, volunteer to work with wildlife, and help conserve animal or plant populations. Whatever your calling -- remember to listen, then act.
4. Support an existing organization. There may be others that are trying to address a specific environmental wrong. Your contribution might be financial – helping to install clean water wells or promote good agricultural practices. Your support might also be through volunteer efforts (Catholic Charities, Friends of the Night People, Food Bank; the list is endless).
5. Provide moral context. As a Christian who cares about the environment, you’ll be asked a lot of questions that usually start with “why.” Why would God allow cancer? Why would God allow people to live in a contaminated house? Be ready to give an answer. God is not punishing people by giving them cancer or allowing a horde of locusts to eat crops. God is not poisoning people as retribution. Sometimes people, especially those harmed by the church, have a skewed understanding of God. The reality is that in many (but not all) situations where bad things happen to people there was a wrong or unethical choice somewhere up the line. Let’s say that a chemical company in the 1970s chose to dump chemicals in a hole in a ground. Those chemicals then migrate to nearby neighborhood, causing cancer in adults, children, and pets. God did not punish those residents by giving them cancer. The chemical company managers made a wrong choice that resulted in harm. There are other examples: people choose to cut corners or stay quiet about hazards, and then innocent people pay the price. Wrongdoing is at the heart of these harms, not God’s punishment. Ultimately, people have free will, given to them by God; sometimes they make the “wrong” choices, or maybe they weren’t even aware that their choices had any negative repercussions. We can choose to be AWARE and do better! Can you think of some personal examples?
6. Act with Biblical integrity in all the steps you take. Along with truth, justice, and action, let’s use love, gratitude, vigilance, and accountability as our guides. The Bible says to “put on…. compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12) In other words, we can confront wrong things with truth, but be guided by love. We can hold people accountable, but we can do it with integrity. It might mean that there are significant consequences when a wrong is done, but maybe those consequences (jail, monetary fines) will help change the person for the better? Maybe they will see the ethical or moral implications of their actions? Maybe the person selling illegal ivory will begin to understand the impact of his choices and ultimately find more sustainable ways to make a living? If we are on the receiving end of correction, that can be a tough pill to swallow, so let us pray and be receptive to criticism and ponder our faults - let’s put our hubris aside and humble ourselves.
And let us also practice forgiveness. Let’s forgive ourselves for mistakes we’ve made, and others for sins against us. Characteristics and actions like these exemplify our Christ-likeness.
Perhaps by following Jesus we can help push society toward a sustainable future that reflects the character of the One who formed us.
7. Do Business with Biblical integrity: As business owners, we can be intentional about doing business with transparency and integrity. Let’s be truthful about the contents of our products (such as the chemicals they contain), how they were made, and where they originated. Let’s consider holding our vendors to the highest sustainable practices. From where are your inputs sourced? If you use chocolate, is it purchased from the Ivory Coast, where there are concerns about slavery and child labor?
Consider alternatives to selling products that degrade the body or the environment. For example, why are mothballs still on the market? If spraying pesticides is necessary, as in some agricultural practices, can we incorporate the best practices so that there’s not overspray? We can do better from an engineering standpoint, too. Are we using the best available technology to filter emissions? People have the power to choose their vendor sources – it’s important to nail down what practices are in use in agriculture or manufacturing when making those choices. Let’s
hold ourselves and others to high standards when it comes to the protecting our environment.
These steps are not simple, but they do provide a roadmap for how a believer who cares about the environment might choose to walk out their faith.
What would you add?