Seeing the Whole Picture: Creation Care

Extreme Poverty and Environmental Issues are Linked
What came first: deforestation or poverty? Well, both. Plant With Purpose is a nonprofit working toward reforestation in Haiti. Here, Executive Director Scott Sabin explains why poverty and environmental issues are inextricably connected—and how both are spiritual matters.

You can't separate extreme poverty from the environment

“Haiti is probably one of the best known examples of that intersection between extreme poverty and environmental degradation. The vast majority of people in Haiti make their living off the land. Imagine starting your life with two or three acres of steep hillside that’s now been eroded to bedrock, and your only assets are what still remain on that and whatever rain falls on it. If you cut the forest, the soil quickly erodes, the rain no longer soaks into the ground and replenishes the aquifer, but rather runs off as these flash floods or landslides. It’s a pretty stark and obvious example of how environmental degradation is exacerbating extreme poverty, and there’s a cycle that takes place as the poor are forced to lean on the environment for survival.”

Caring for the environment is not just a political issue

“[People] tend to see creation care through American political lenses—as a left-right issue—and it transcends that. There are all sorts of examples I could give where environmental concerns help the poor, and some of the solutions may even counter our preconceived notions of making land off-limits, or that sort of thing.”

Creation care issues do not affect the U.S.

“We can insulate ourselves from the immediate feedback of the environment. We have a drought here in the United States and our water bill goes up—that’s the extent of it. They have a drought in the Horn of Africa, and thousands of people start to die, because there’s not that layer of insulation that we can afford to fall back on. But all the same principles apply, and we are just as dependent on this life-support system as the Haitians are.”

Addressing economic and spiritual issues is just as important as planting trees

We have to address the economic issues that force people to utilize the environment in unsustainable ways [and] we have to address the spiritual issues, which often undercut any sort of progress. In John 4, Jesus talks to the woman at the well and says, ‘Drink this water and you’ll be thirsty again, but I can give you water and you’ll never be thirsty again.’ Jesus has given us living water to share, and it would be a shame if all we shared was the watershed restoration, and didn’t share the living water.”

The local community must be invited to personally invest in the changes

“Tree planting by itself is often just futile, and even counter- productive. I remember when I first came to Plant with Purpose, one of the first stories I ever heard was of a massive tree planting campaign in which 10 million trees were planted, and they were all cut in the first year or so. It’s because it didn’t involve any sort of buy-in or ownership from the local community—there was no ultimate benefit the local communities would see, other than an abstract benefit which they may see downstream. So, a very important piece is having buy-in and ownership, and a direct benefit to the local communities. In our case, oftentimes people say, ‘How do you keep people from cutting the trees in Haiti?’ You don’t. In fact, if the people have the authority to cut the trees, [but] they see more long-term benefit, [then] they’re much more likely to protect those trees and see them to maturity. Whereas if they have no ownership and someone from the outside comes in and plants them, there’s no long-term benefit they can see, and they’ll cut them before they get established.”

Environmental problems may seem insurmountable, but little changes do make a big difference

You hear about environmental problems, and they seem so big, so intractable, and the immediate thought is, ‘How can we save the planet?’ We can’t save the planet, but we can do small things. I’m reminded of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, and the little boy who had five loaves and two fish. What he brought was wholly inadequate, but it was everything he had, and it was the raw material for a miracle. We need to see [the changes we can make] less in terms of saving the planet and more in terms of, ‘What are our five loaves and two fish?’ Having said that, there are many, many things, and a lot of them we already know about—recycling, buying locally, buying less, driving less, etc. In economics, we see our culture as consumers, and God has told us to be fruitful. Being a consumer and being fruitful are almost diametrically opposed, so I think that’s one of the lies of the world, that we’re here to consume. [But we can make a difference] if we shift our perspective a bit and say, ‘How can I be fruitful?’ and live much more simply [by] looking to be a net contributor instead of a net consumer.”

Getting to the root of cultural knowledge is the main way to create a culture of change

“There is a Haitian proverb that says, ‘Either this tree dies, or I die in its place.’ People understand the connection, but they also realize that their desperation trumps any education or knowledge that they might have. By addressing the economic needs through microfinance, through improved agricultural techniques, you can reduce that reliance on creation or on the environment.”

1 Comment

Joshua

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Joshua commented…

Great article Ashley, my name is Joshua Peete and I'm a cause curator at Live58: and write content for Environmental Stewardship. Our alliance partner is Plant WIth Purpose, so I really enjoyed coming across this!

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