In October I had the (slightly daunting) opportunity of sharing a speaking platform with Dr Rowan Williams. The discussion was on ‘Faith and Finance in a Time of Crisis – Church Action for Tax Justice’ and was hosted by Janie Oliver, Justin Thacker and Rosie Venner of The Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility. My talk started at 34 minutes.
In September earlier this year I had the pleasure of participating in a panel discussion at Duke Divinity School. The session was on ‘Naming the Unspeakable: Faithfulness for a Planet in Crisis’. It was a great panel and we had some very interesting conversations. Here’s the video recording of the session:
For Harvest Sunday this year I was delighted to speak at St Martin-in-the-Fields. You can watch the video of the service below. My talk starts 34 minutes into the video recording.
I was recently asked to speak in Ghana to a gathering of leaders from across West Africa about human health and the environment. I had to do it virtually of course – great for my time and carbon emissions but I did miss the interaction and learning I get from chatting with participants.
It hardly needs be said how apt a topic this is for our current time. It’s so obvious but somehow we keep forgetting this basic fact:
Human life depends on the health of the environment
If the health of the environment is damaged, this has direct and indirect impacts on the health of human beings and also on our levels of wellbeing and happiness.
It can be easy to think that the ‘environment’ is something ‘out there’, away from and disconnected to human beings. But, the way God has created the world is that human beings are deeply connected to, and in ongoing interdependent relationship with, the wider creation around us. Our actions affect the world around us, which, in turn can have drastic impacts on human health.
As part of my talk I asked people to ‘chat’ about the problems they see around them in their contexts. The answers probably won’t be much of a surprise:
- Huge deforestation
- Intensive & polluting agricultural practices
- Animal poaching and trafficking
- Dirty energy from diesel generators and overall no clean energy
- The impact of mining
- Air pollution
- Overwhelmed by plastic
- Overfishing and pollution in the seas…..
I looked at five particular areas in which the health of the environment impacts human health.
1 – Air pollution
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 90% of people worldwide breathe polluted air, and around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particles in polluted air. To put that in perspective, breathing polluted air contributes to 1 in 8 of all deaths.
One study shockingly claims that there are more deaths every year from air pollution than tobacco smoking.
2 – Water disasters, quality and variability
The global water cycle is intensifying due to climate change, with wetter regions generally becoming wetter and drier regions becoming even drier. According to UNESCO, an estimated 3.6 billion people (nearly half the global population) live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this population could increase to some 4.8–5.7 billion by 2050.
The flip side of water scarcity is flooding. UNESCO forecasts that by 2050 nearly 20% of the world’s population will be at risk from flooding. Increasingly variable rainfall patterns are likely to affect the supply of fresh water. A lack of safe water can compromise hygiene and increase the risk of diarrhoeal disease, which, according to the WHO, kills over 500 000 children aged under 5 years, every year.
3 – Availability of nutritious food
When the biodiversity of land and soil degrades, this has a direct impact on the ability to produce nutritious food for people. The UN has stated that over half of the land used for agriculture is moderately or severely affected by soil degradation.
The UN has reported that 23 hectares per minute (!) are lost due to drought and desertification, amounting to 12 million hectares of land each year. That equates to 20 million tons of grain that could have been grown. That’s a lot of food that could have fed a lot of people!
4 – Climatic variation
Human actions have intensified climatic variations, causing droughts and extreme heat.
Extreme high air temperatures contribute directly to deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease, particularly among elderly people. In the heat wave of summer 2003 in Europe for example, more than 70 000 excess deaths were recorded. Globally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60000 deaths, mainly in countries in the Global South.
Sadly, the WHO currently expects that from 2030, there will be 38 000 additional annual deaths due to heat exposure in elderly people.
5 – Patterns of infection (especially zoonotic diseases)
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has argued what I’ve been saying: that this Covid-19 pandemic is not a ‘natural disaster’, but rather is the result of human activity.
Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
IPBES has reported that more than 70% of all emerging diseases affecting people having originated in wildlife and domesticated animals, and that animal-to-human diseases already cause an estimated 700,000 deaths each year.
UNEP have observed: “The illegal trade in wildlife continues to pose a serious threat to ecosystems and wildlife populations. Not only threatening species survival, the illegal trade in live animals also exposes humans to zoonotic diseases associated with the traded species.”
Climatic conditions strongly affect water-borne diseases and diseases transmitted through insects, snails or other cold-blooded animals. The WHO projects that changes in climate are likely to lengthen the transmission seasons of important vector-borne diseases and to alter their geographic range.
The picture isn’t pretty. BUT, if we are the problem then we can be the solution too. Alongside this dark and gloomy picture are many signs of hope – where people are living and acting differently.
We have learnt so much through this year about how our health depends on the health of the wider natural world. Let’s continue making the changes in our own lives to establish a better relationship with nature, and let’s keep pushing our government to act in the right way too.
I hope this blog brings sharply into focus what lies in the balance as we interact with the wider creation, and I hope it encourages you to keep taking action to look after the glorious gift of God’s wonderful, yet wounded world.
I was delighted to write a feature piece in Premier’s Christianity magazine looking at various ways in which individuals can be a part of building a better world after this pandemic. Below is taken from the article I wrote, which can be read in full on Premier Christianity’s website here.
As we in the UK slowly emerge from the initial extremes of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we are asking what might lie ahead. Crises of this scale give us, as a society, the rare opportunity to ask big questions about who we are and our place in the world. Historically, pandemics have led to dramatic societal changes, and the Church has often played a significant role in that transformation. Whilst the pandemic is likely to be a drawn out crisis, Christians and churches can play a vital role in shaping what happens next. As we consider the end of lockdown, what can you and I do to build a better world?
As Christians, our first call when we see the world in trouble must be prayer. Alongside intercession, there is a strong biblical tradition of lament where we cry out to God for the things that are not as they should be. Through the pandemic and the despair of seeing the impact of our broken relationship with the wider creation, I have realised afresh the importance of holding this space and not being afraid of it, of not moving on too quickly. There is huge significance in mourning the brokenness of the world; in acknowledging our role within that, even if unconscious or unintentional. From this place we can repent and look to move forward onto a new path, praying for the change we want to see in our own lives and the wider world.
We know we live in a complicated world with complicated problems, where we are increasingly connected to and reliant on people on the other side of the world. My actions have effects on people and other creatures I have never met. Part of our responsibility before God as Christians is learning about what’s going on in his world, so that the choices we make and the actions we take are conscious and well-informed. Tearfund has for many years been campaigning and taking action to address the climate crisis and help those in poverty who are most affected and you can learn more and get involved with our work by signing up to our Tearfund Action emails.
3. SPEAK UP
Proverbs 31:9 says “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” We are called as Christians to stand up for justice, asking those in positions of power to make decisions that protect the most vulnerable people and the earth we all rely on. This is not just the responsibility of those who work for Christian charities or advocacy organisations, but each christian is called to play their part in using their voice to help build a better world.
Among other things, we need to be calling on the UK government to reboot the economy in a way that prioritises the poorest, tackles the climate emergency and builds a better world for everyone. At Tearfund, our World Rebooted campaign helps you email the Prime Minister with some specific requests, and gives discussion material and an animation for you to use in your church.
As well as asking others to act, we must look at our own lives and lifestyles, considering where we can make changes to be kinder to the planet and the people and creatures we share it with, taking responsibility for our part in creating the climate crisis we are now in through our own consumer habits and high resource use. Being part of the problem means we can also be part of the solution! There are lots of steps we can take in our ordinary lives to make changes and help resolve these issues. Changing our eating habits is one area where we can make a big difference. Meat production is a big cause of greenhouse gas emissions, so let’s switch to a predominantly vegetable and grain-based diet, buying local and seasonal produce and prioritising organic products wherever practical.
The lockdown measures have forced many to embrace a simpler way of living. Going forward, will we get back in our cars and allow the road traffic and pollution to build up again? Will we pick up our old travel habits or make different holiday choices and do more of our work meetings virtually? Will we rush back into the shops at the weekend or take more time to go out as family? Will we find ways to continue connecting with and looking out for our neighbours? It’s our choice!
The way we choose to spend our money shows what we value.
With the money that we keep, we should think about our bank accounts, investments and pensions – are the places where we are storing our money doing so in an ethical way that does not harm other people and the earth? Many banks invest in unethical industries which are contributing to climate change and deforestation and bolstering inequality and injustice.
How about the money we spend and the things we buy – are we considering how to be ethical consumers, making decisions that respect our global neighbours and the natural world?
For the money we give away, are we doing so generously? Our giving should reflect God’s care for the whole of his creation – people and the rest of the natural world – so donating to organisations that are addressing both is the best way forward.
Walter Brueggemann is a well known Old Testament theologian who has written about having a ‘prophetic imagination’. He calls us to allow the biblical story to so deeply shape our imagination that we’re able to envision the world as it should be. Our lives as Christians are to be motivated by that vision of the future that we glimpse in Bible texts like Revelation 21 and 22, of a time when God will dwell fully with us, in a transformed heaven and earth, where the wider creation flourishes with us. We know we won’t see it fully until Christ returns to this earth and he dwells in our midst, in the transformation of all things, but can we so deeply imagine this future reality that we embody its values in how we live today?
COVID-19 is a wake-up call to us all and the crisis gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape society and build a better world. We have seen that we are capable of adapting incredibly quickly as human beings and as a society. Fundamental renewal feels not only desperately needed, but perhaps even possible… Will you join me in imagining and working for a better world?
I recently had the privilege of contributing to a Grove booklet engaging the Covid-19 crisis from a Christian and theological perspective. The booklet discussed the pandemic and focussed on the environment, justice and the future.
My chapter is about the future – looking forward towards a better world. Any title with ‘COVID-19’ and ‘the future’ in it, should make us extremely tentative! Even as we progress further into the Covid-19 pandemic, there is still so much that is unclear and uncertain. History indicates pandemics can trigger major sociological shifts, but will that be the case here?
As Christians, we believe that suffering and sickness is not what God originally intended, and that we are to follow Jesus in bringing hope and healing to his world – responding to people’s needs at all levels and living in ways that allow the wider creation to flourish. We are to have a ‘holy dissatisfaction’ with how things are and a constant inner pull to be working for change and looking for a better future.
At Tearfund, we are exploring the idea of The World Rebooted. We have identified three positive shifts that have emerged during the lockdown:
- From ‘I, alone’ to ‘We, together’: We are deeply connected with one another and with the whole of creation, and our interconnectedness and our need for one another has never been clearer. the rapid spread of the disease has also demonstrated how the health and well-being of just one of us has implications for us all.
- From valuing productivity above all else to valuing life: In response to this crisis, we have seen those without homes being housed and individuals making huge sacrifices to save lives. Many have valued increased family time and a rediscovery of the natural world.
- From small tweaks to a new way of being: Many are realising that we have a chance to reshape culture and society. Fundamental renewal now feels possible.
As we look forward, there are three areas that are particularly key for us to focus on to use this opportunity to bring about long-lasting change:
1. Domestic poverty
Poverty existed in the UK before the pandemic, and COVID-19 will only increase its occurrence, with IPPR predicting 1.1 million additional people facing poverty by the end of 2020.A basic and fundamental change in the UK would be to end the five-week wait for universal credit, which has caused such hardship, and provide grants rather than loans for low-income families. Taxation is always an emotive issue, but, if the government introduced a progressive wealth tax assessed on the net worth of the top 1% of richest individuals in the UK, this would be enough to repay all the extra debt from the pandemic in ten years.
2. Global poverty
We must develop a fully-funded global health action plan that focuses on helping the poorest countries respond to the pandemic, with the WHO playing the central role as coordinator. The role of the Church and other faith communities is also vital here in building resilient communities at local level.
3. Environmental destruction, particularly climate change.
As Edward Perry, Policy Analyst for the OECD Environment Directorate, has said, “the COVID-19 response must be a holistic one that recognises the inter-connectedness of nature, human well-being, and the economy”. Central to this is ensuring that the economic stimulus package is consistent with a pathway to net-zero, to keep us within 1.5°C of warming. There are several proposals road-mapping such a net-zero emissions economic recovery (see here for example).
We may feel overwhelmed by the tragedies around us, but we refuse to give up, remembering the assurance of 1 Corinthians 15:58 that our labour in the Lord is not in vain.
The full Grove Booklet is available for purchase here. With this booklet, I had the privilege of collaborating with some remarkable people:
- The Revd Dr Timothy Howles – an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation and a minister in the Church of England, provided the introduction and conclusion of the booklet.
- Dr Martin J Hodson – a plant scientist and Operations Director for the John Ray Initiative with over 100 research publications – wrote the first section on the origins of Covid-19.
- The Revd Margot R Hodson – an environmental theologian, Director of Theology and Education at The John Ray Initiative, and Associate Vicar of the Shill Valley and Broadshire Benefice, West Oxfordshire – provided a section on ‘Environment and Justice during the COVID-19 Pandemic’.