Unselfish gardeners? Christianity and the environment

Human degradation of the natural environment is a great tragedy of our time. One of its major drivers is selfishness leading to over-consumption and waste. Despite growing concern about the environment, the majority of us struggle to forgo convenience and consumption for the long-term good of the planet.

We find it easy to signal environmental virtue by giving up disposable coffee cups, but harder to give up holiday air-travel. It is easy to ask a government to tax petrol, but harder to resolve an ensuing “yellow vest” protest from the people hit hardest.

Conflagration of plastic fruit crates at a packing centre in south-east England

We face the tragedy of the commons. Why should individuals sacrifice ease and indulgence to make a tiny contribution towards averting a future common catastrophe? A catastrophe that may not occur until our own life with all its luxuries or inconveniences is gone.

We all know we should do our bit, but we easily to descend into hypocrisy. We burnish our green credentials with a hybrid car but choose to live an unnecessarily long commute from work. We eschew palm oil but upgrade our phone each year.

But if I see through this selfishness and hypocrisy, and genuinely try to do my bit, where do I stop? Do I give up all travel, all new possessions, all energy consumption? Do I cut all my carbon dioxide emissions? Even my own exhaling breath?

Pushed to a logical extreme, the most environmentally-friendly thing I can do is die. To be fully pro-environment, I become anti-human. How can I get a healthy balance? Or do I need to live with a perpetual guilt for my own existence?

We need an approach to environmentalism that provides motivation to individuals to do their bit despite the possibility that they may never themselves see the benefits of it. We need an environmentalism that cuts through selfishness and hypocrisy. We need a coherent way of being pro-environment but not ultimately anti-human.

The Christian Bible might seem a strange place to look for this, given that it was completed long before humans had the technical capacity to cause rapid and wide-scale damage to the natural world. But I will argue that several aspects of its teaching can help resolve the moral and motivational conundrums of environmentalism. In essence, it tells us to live the lives of unselfish gardeners.

According to the opening chapters of the Bible, the attitude that God intends humans to have towards the natural world is that of gardeners. They are to tend the world as a gardener tends a garden. They are doing God’s will if they cultivate their natural environment to provide for their material needs, and at the same time nourish its beauty and diversity.

Reforestation in Madagascar

This care for the natural environment is echoed many times throughout the Old Testament. God told Israelite farmers to leave all their land fallow one year in seven. Every 50 years all land had to be returned to its original owner or his children, breaking up agricultural conglomerates or preventing their development. In times of warfare, fruit trees could not be cut down: “Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

If we love God – which Jesus said is the first and greatest commandment – the we will want to live up to the gardening responsibility he has given us and care for the natural world.

Furthermore, Jesus calls his followers to live unselfish lives. They must love their neighbours. They must live lives that are not self-indulgent or overly-luxurious. Jesus teaches us to be content with the basic necessities of life. “Do not lay up treasures on earth…do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:19-33).

The primary motivation Jesus gives for unselfish lives is our relationship with God and our fellow humans. But such lives inevitably benefit the natural environment: we will not spend inordinate quantities of natural resources on luxuries and conveniences that are far beyond the basic necessities of life.

Jesus’ teaching should also make Christians highly sensitive to hypocrisy. “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven,” he warns (Matthew 6:1). “Woe to you…hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected…justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23). That should give me pause for thought if my only efforts towards environmental-friendliness are a Tesla and a reusable coffee cup.

Jesus is teaching us that if we get our relationship with God right, then everything else will follow. We can cut thought the tension of environment-centeredness versus human-centeredness by being God-centred. This allows us to have unselfish attitudes that will benefit everyone and everything round us.

The Bible presents Jesus as the supreme example of a self-sacrificial life in coming into this selfish world to bring salvation through this death. His death not only accomplished redemption for humans who trust him but also ultimately for their environment. The apostle Paul teaches that Jesus will return a second time and “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). This should give Christians a deep optimism about the ultimate worth and future of the natural environment.

I struggle to see why Christians could ever justify being unconcerned about the natural environment, or be satisfied with a self-indulgent or hypocritical lifestyle. In fact, the teaching of the Bible, and of Jesus himself, could help all of us, whether we identify as Christians or not, to live more environmentally-friendly lives.