When I started my Master’s degree in Conservation biology at Victoria University of Wellington, I had nothing but hope. When I finished it I felt weighed down by the many in my community who seemed to be politely reversing my efforts. In time I began experiencing an ongoing sense of debilitating grief at our environmental crisis.
The sensation described above is termed ‘Eco-anxiety’. Eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” This type of anxiety can lead to insomnia, exhaustion, and depression. In extreme cases it has been cited as the reason for substance abuse and suicide. Indeed, on a recent visit to British Columbia, a student approached me after my talk on ‘Going Green’ and told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore because of the oppressive eco-anxiety that had become a daily part of his human experience. This student’s story sounded like so many others I have heard on university campuses across the globe. A recent study revealed that, of the 26 countries surveyed, half of the population on average considered climate change as a “major threat to their nation” with some countries labeling it as the top threat.
The Bible teaches us that God commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28). Similarly, Isaiah 45:18 says, “God did not create the Earth empty, He formed it to be inhabited!” Yet God also clearly charged us with the care and stewardship of the earth. Thus, how should Christians respond to our ecological crisis, and the eco-anxiety it often causes? We will have to make an analysis of the eco-crisis phenomenon, which I like to picture as a mixed bag of lollies containing bad things, good things, and that one rolling around at the bottom, cemented to the wrapper, that you might be better off not even identifying.
On one hand, discussions about ecological crises often sift down into catastrophising rhetoric and misinformation. Climate scientists are pulling their hair out as false facts continue pervading the media sphere. These falsities do anything but help their cause and research. Eco-anxiety is a valid phenomenon that affects people all over the globe, and while putting words to our feelings is important, catastrophising language is never helpful. A study in Great Britain shows that this rhetoric is having a particularly damaging effect on children. One adage to remember: Facts first, feelings second. Many ideas are floating around the sea of media, some of these ideas are fact-based and some are plastic nets of emotionalism ready to entangle any passer-by. For instance, I recently read that koalas are now functionally extinct due to the fires in Australia caused by climate change. Claiming that koalas are functionally extinct is simply false. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List labels the koala as vulnerable, three levels less threatened than extinct in the wild. Many species are presently on the verge of extinction, and almost all of them due to two immediately ameliorable factors: habitat loss and pollution. Furthermore, apocalyptic statements such as “The world is going to end in 12 years” are not only inaccurate but they cause a lot of anxiety. We have yet to see any credible scientific research showing that humanity is on the verge of extinction due to environmental destruction.
On the other side of the eco-crisis coin we find many beneficial points. For one thing, societies are bravely looking into the haggard face of environmental damage. People are finding creative ways to cut down on waste and reuse materials. For example, Mexican company Biofase has created single-use cutlery from avocado seeds. Volunteers have removed a reported 5.3 million kilograms of rubbish from beaches in Mumbai. People all over the planet are taking action. It is good that we are grieved!
God himself is grieved at abuse and corruption of the natural world, often correlated with human wickedness. For instance, in Joel 1 we read a call to repentance: “All the trees of the field are dried up and gladness dries up from the children of man…Even the beasts of the field pant for You because the water has dried up.” We also see this connection between humanity and nature in the positive vein. Psalm 104:30 reads, “When you send forth your Spirit…you renew the face of the ground.” Biblically speaking, rebellion and wickedness led to a corruption of the natural world (Genesis 3:17) and repentance or ‘turning back’ to God leads to a restoration that also affects the natural sphere (Romans 8:19-23).
While it is good to be grieved at the destruction of our natural world, it is never good to be anxious. The Scriptures are replete with passages exhorting us to stand firm and not succumb to fear. Eco-anxiety may be a term coined in 2017, but anxiety is nothing new. The wrapper is different but it’s the same bitter lolly. In my childhood we were afraid of school shootings. In my mother’s childhood it was fear that an atomic bomb would fall out of the sky at any moment. In my grandmother’s childhood it was fear of want due to the Great Depression. There will always be troubles in this world that need fixing. But we are not meant to operate out of a spirit of fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Christians are equipped with a top-of-the-line spiritual panoply. The peace of God protects our minds and our hearts in Christ Jesus and allows us to transcend our limited understanding (Philippians 4:7). We have access to Jesus Himself, on whom we cast our anxieties, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). These facts do not provide us with the means of ignoring a crisis. We are not burying our head in the sand. On the contrary, it allows us to march with confidence into any storm. When we cast our fear on Jesus we are dressing ourselves in His perfect love. Thus we are equipped to face any problem with confidence and faith instead of debilitating fear and timidity.
Our concerns about ecological destruction are valid. Perhaps some of the fear we feel around a broken landscape stems from anxiety about our own impermanence and brokenness. Even if the natural world was perfect, it could never be a source of our ultimate security. Only the person of Jesus offers us that foundation. Therefore, let us face our ecological crisis head-on, knowing how deeply loved we are by the Creator of all. His heart is surely grieved by the destruction of our natural world, and it grieves us also because we share His heart. Praise God that we can face this crisis without the anxiety that catastrophises, and without the ignorance that perpetuates the problem. We can march into our generation’s hardships with truth, love, and confidence in Christ.
 Larger animals such as deer, elk, and coyotes; or if you happen to be in Africa perhaps an elephant or ostrich
 The American Psychological Association first defined this term in 2017
 Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change
 Fagan, M., Huang, C. A look at how people around the world view climate change
 Shellenberger, M. Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong
 Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children.
 As suggested by activist Bill McKibben
 International Union for the Conservation of Nature
 As stated by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. (May 01, 2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 5, 1-8.
Cummings, W. (22 January 2019) ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,’ Ocasio-Cortez says. USA Today. Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2019/01/22/ocasio-cortez-climate-change-alarm/2642481002/
Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 265-276.
Fagan, M., Huang, C. (18 April 2019) A look at how people around the world view climate change. Fact Tank. 2018 Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/
McKibben, B. “A thousand koalas were killed in Australia’s bushfires, and 80% of their habitat is gone. One expert says they are ‘functionally extinct.’ And yet big banks lend big money to big oil–more every year” 23 November 2019. Tweet.
Shellenberger, M. (25 November 2019) Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong. Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#5d9bfa4312d6