Discussion of the environment is usually framed in impersonal terms. We quantify the problems facing us with terms like parts per million of CO2, millimetres of sea-level, dollars per barrel of oil, miles per gallon of fuel, kilowatt hours, degrees Centigrade per century, and so on. We often see the issues as something to be dealt with almost exclusively by scientists or politicians, rather than as our responsibility. However, questions about the environment are ultimately questions of justice. How we treat the environment has a profound impact on others. Those in low-income countries are disproportionately affected by the decisions we make in the comparatively wealthy West. What we do now will have a huge impact on future generations, too. Climate change, pollution, the use of non-renewable resources, decreasing biodiversity and other environmental issues are the result of a consumerist mindset that puts our own desires ahead of other people’s or of responsibility for the planet as a whole. Environmental problems are, at their heart, theological and relational issues.
In the Bible, the injustices highlighted by the prophets often reflect inequalities between rich and poor. It is those who are already wealthy and prosperous who can afford to gain more by oppressing others, further increasing the gap between rich and poor. Harm to the environment is one of many injustices that result from our wealthy lifestyles. One of the serious issues for the near future is what happens as low-income and industrialising nations catch up with the levels of consumption we are used to and view as our right in the West. China’s levels of CO2 emissions per capita are still only half those of the US, and the country’s population is four times as large. Brazil’s and India’s per capita emissions are a fraction of those of the US and Europe. The limits that the Bible places on the financial system – including the ban on interest, the cancellation of debts every seven years and the return of land to its ancestral owners every 50 years – were designed to prevent spiralling inequality and ensured that no one was allowed to grow wealthy by oppressing others. Leaving the ground fallow in the Sabbatical year was also a form of care for the land. Our economy is driven by consumption, and our approach to the environment is partly informed by the global inequalities that enable us (in the West) to enjoy a lifestyle that few others can. Runaway consumption turns a blind eye to how we get the products we want. Pollution, deforestation, displacement, child labour and more indiscriminate mechanisms like climate change are some of the different forms of collateral damage. All of these affect the world’s poor more than the rich.
Environmental issues are not simple. They affect all of us, and they are created by all of us. Faced with such seemingly intractable and international problems as climate change and air pollution, our default position is to look to experts to find solutions and government to enforce change. While there is a role for policymakers to limit our worst excesses, we need to move away from thinking about the environment in narrowly financial, technological or political terms. As well as holding government to account for the promises they make on our behalves, we need to take greater responsibility and look at care for the environment in terms of our own choices, behaviour and relationships. Fundamentally, this involves a change of mindset. Instead of the me-focused consumerism that is our culture’s chief ideology, we need to regain the sense that we are part of a network of relationships and that what we do affects other people – whether or not we know them or can see them.Environmental issues are primarily relational issues, and there are relational solutions to them, too. Individualistic lifestyles – solo living, solo travel, solo eating and the consumption that provides much of our identity in such a fragmented culture – have an environmental impact.