By margot starbuck
March 2, 2011
Having witnessed the damaging effects of drought, deforestation, pollution and urbanization while growing up in Singapore and Malaysia, environmental activist Ben Lowe is on more than a personal mission to save the world. Through the Renewal Project and his book, Green Revolution, Lowe is inspiring and equipping the rest of us to join him.
From your experience abroad, is there a difference in how Americans relate to the environment, compared to others around the globe?
Many of those in the developing world have a much better grasp on how interconnected they are with their ecosystems. While we tend to get our food from the grocery store, rural developing communities harvest or hunt for most of their food. While we flick on a switch to turn on the lights or power a stove, they cut down trees for firewood and charcoal. It’s sometimes easier to make the important connection in communities that are so visibly interdependent with their ecosystems.
What needs to change in order to create a new environmental reality?
First, the thinking that “the earth is ours and revolves around us” must shift to an authentic appreciation that “the earth is God’s and revolves around Him.” Lifestyles, which are insulated from the natural consequences that they have on creation and our neighbors, must be transformed in order to live more compassionately toward all that God has made. Cultures which value being over-busy and over-productive must learn to make room for community and Sabbath rest. A mistrust of science, based on a belief that it’s a secular discipline that tries to disprove God, must be relinquished. Rather, science must be viewed as a spiritual discipline that helps us uncover more about how God created and sustains life to flourish and bring Him glory. Finally, we must let go of the false dichotomy that caring for the environment comes at the expense of caring for people. Christians are meant to embrace a much more holistic paradigm, specifically that caring for people and the planet are integrally connected.
Can you paint a picture for us of the kind of world that activists today are working to achieve?
I believe that we’re working for nothing less than the Kingdom of God in all its fullness, a world where shalom abounds: where there is no more injustice, where life can freely flourish, and where right relationships are once again renewed between God, humanity and the rest of creation.
Many of our biggest challenges today—droughts, famines, epidemics, natural disasters—are environmental problems and will require environmental solutions. But they also have spiritual roots that need to be addressed. I started to wonder why much of the Church wasn’t stepping up to shine the light of Christ into the dark crises of creation. When I realized just how timely and relevant the needs are, I felt called to make creation care a priority both in my life and in my generation.
You work with the Renewal Project. Describe what’s happening with that.
Renewal is a growing network of Christian students across the United States and Canada who are actively caring for God’s creation. We’re building a movement throughout our generation that will lead our communities in Christ-centered environmental stewardship. We do this through prayer, service and advocacy.We’ve been around less than a year, but we’ve already pulled off a highly successful student summit at Eastern University, spearheaded the 2008 Day of Prayer for Creation, launched an ever-expanding website full of resources and much more. We started out as a group of 12 students and recent grads but now work with hundreds of students across more than 30 different campuses, many of which we visited on our recent Green Awakening Campus Tour. Some of the other core initiatives we’re working on include regional leadership training retreats, a campus creation care report and a postcard petition to the White House. Since Renewal is student-led, our board is made up entirely of current undergrad students who provide leadership and direction for the larger movement.
Is reducing consumption and recycling enough? Why does organizing matter?
Making personal changes like reducing consumption and recycling are vital, but they are only the beginning. Heroic individual effort is of limited good until we understand how to engage one another and work toward effecting change together. This is why organizing is so important. It has taken masses of people to deplete the world’s fisheries, overdraw the underground aquifers, clear-cut the rainforests and even modify the climate. It will also take the masses to turn this trend around.
Richard Foster sums it up well in his classic work, Freedom of Simplicity: “While individual effort is good, it is always limited. There are things that we can do together that we cannot possibly do alone. God has so arranged human life that we are dependent upon one another to come into all that He desires of us.” By organizing a movement of creation care efforts, we can more faithfully re-imagine every aspect of our lives in light of how God creates us to live with each other on His earth.
Eugene Peterson calls this environmental movement both Genesis-based and Jesus-based. You mentioned the mandate given in Genesis. How is it Jesus-based?
Renewal puts out a bumper sticker that reads “we hug trees for Jesus.” We really see creation care as an integral part of our relationship with Christ.
The Apostle Paul writes, in Colossians 1:15-20, that “all things” in heaven and on earth are created and sustained through Christ, and that He is on a mission to reconcile “all things” back to Himself through the cross. This means that when we are good stewards of creation, we are really serving Christ and partnering with Him as agents of reconciliation in His Kingdom. Another one of my professors taught me that, though the stewardship we offer is intended to benefit God’s creation, the offering itself is one we direct toward Jesus Christ, who comes before all things.
Are there signs of environmental transformation today?
Yes, a “green awakening” continues to build and spread across campuses and churches around the USA. Thousands of us are starting to take creation care seriously and are living it to make a difference. I just heard from folks at the Vineyard Church of Boise, Idaho—where they have a large organic vegetable garden to help feed low-income neighbors—and they are getting swamped with inquiries from other churches who are trying to start gardens of their own. I share many other stories in the book, such as the inspiring work of the Christian sustainable development ministry, Floresta, planting millions of trees and providing microfinance loans.
What’s the one message that you want people to hear?
If we really believe the planet belongs to God—God’s water, God’s soil, God’s animals—how should we be living on it now? Seek first the Kingdom of God.
A version of this article originally appeared in Neue Quarterly 04.