Planting With Purpose
By scott sabin
March 17, 2010
“Daddy, when I grow up, I want to help you save the rainforest.” My daughter, Amanda, then five, looked at me with an expression that made me melt. For a fraction of a second I thought we were completely in tune. Then she added, “I could be a butterfly or a fairy and fly around pollinating the trees.”
It wasn’t quite the kind of help I was looking for, but it does serve to underline an important problem. Once we understand the state of the world and our call to be stewards, what can we do? Where do we start? The problems are vast and often seem so far away.
As each of us considers how to respond to the groaning of creation, there is much that can be learned from Plant With Purpose’s story. The entire world faces vicious cycles similar to the one we recognized involving deforestation and poverty. And there are undoubtedly other virtuous cycles that can address two problems with one solution. Each vicious cycle we confront presents an opportunity for a corresponding virtuous cycle.
Two of the biggest problems in the world are environmental degradation and widespread poverty. There are 3.14 billion people living on less than $2.50 a day. If the poor are recognized as a resource rather than an obstacle, can a virtuous cycle be discovered in the midst of this? Is it possible that the poor could become leaders in solving the enormous environmental problems the planet faces?
Van Jones, in his book The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, makes the case that this is possible in the United States. He advocates putting the unemployed and underemployed to work to create a healthier, more sustainable country. Jobs can be created weatherizing homes, installing solar panels and improving energy efficiency. As Jones says, we need to do everything we can to aid and encourage business and eco-entrepreneurs to develop market-based solutions to solve environmental problems. This is similar to what Plant With Purpose is doing internationally.
We must also look for opportunities to create smaller virtuous cycles in our environmental and economic solutions. Nature is designed to function as a series of virtuous cycles. But most often, our attempts to address the problems are linear and finite. Recycling is one step toward closing the loop to sustainability—but it is only the beginning.Solutions must be empowering. Everyone, from the church member in Michigan to the farmer in Haiti, has a role to play. The rural poor must have a role in the stewardship and restoration of the land, and the urban poor must have a role in greening and redeeming their neighborhoods and cities.
Any real solution must take into account both environmental and economic considerations. I once walked miles into a protected national park in Indonesia that was filled with illegal cinnamon plantations and crisscrossed by paths used by illegal loggers to get deeper into the park. The national park was set aside with the best of intentions. But without corresponding changes in the incentives for the people who rely on the land, nothing will change.
The same applies to solutions in the United States. Economic incentives must be aligned with environmental outcomes. At a national level this means changing the way farm subsidies are applied. It means incentives and standards for improved fuel efficiency for cars. It means investment in alternative energies. It also means finding creative ways for local communities to participate in and benefit economically from the health of their surrounding environment.
Finally, any viable solution must have a spiritual dimension, because ultimately the problem is a spiritual one. The Church must lead the way, offering the hope we have and setting an example with our own stewardship. We must forsake the wanton consumerism that has overwhelmed our culture and which is ultimately suicidal. And we must offer a healthy alternative based on biblical values of worship, contentment, community and Sabbath.
How then should we respond as individuals? First, we as evangelicals need to get over our suspicion of science and learn what we can from it. Unless we understand our environment and how it works, how can we protect it? And we must learn not only from the scientists but also from our brothers and sisters on the front lines: the farmer in Tanzania who can no longer count on the rain, the Gabra elder who can no longer graze his animals, the Haitian family who has seen firsthand the devastation that comes when life-support systems are wiped out.
Second, we in the church should realize how much we have in common with the wider environmental community. They value creation, in part, because they hunger for the Creator. We should engage in dialogue with them, but we must begin with an attitude of humility. We have been absent from the conversation for too long to be brash.
Nonetheless, we have something important to offer: hope in a place where there is a dearth of good news. A former colleague at Plant With Purpose told me he became a Christian partly because of the despair he felt as an environmental-studies major. The problems were too vast. The solutions proposed by science and government were draconian or came up short. As far as he could see, there was no hope for the world, except in Christ. Of course, that is what we believe: that Jesus is the hope for the world.