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A Christian Response to Eco-anxiety

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.”[2]  This type of anxiety can lead to insomnia, exhaustion, and depression.[3]  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.[4]

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.

THE CONS

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.[5]   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.[6]  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.[7]  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”[9] 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.[10]

THE PROS

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.

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[1] Larger animals such as deer, elk, and coyotes; or if you happen to be in Africa perhaps an elephant or ostrich

[2] The American Psychological Association first defined this term in 2017

[3] Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change

[4] Fagan, M., Huang, C. A look at how people around the world view climate change

[5] Shellenberger, M. Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong

[6] Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. 

[7] As suggested by activist Bill McKibben

[8] International Union for the Conservation of Nature

[9] As stated by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

[10] Shellenberger

 

Works Cited

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

coronavirus_world_map

Coronavirus, Show-Stopper or Conversation Starter?

It turns out plenty of things get cancelled in a pandemic. Fortunately, my flights home were not among them. Anyway, flights are a small issue in the big picture. Much graver is the cancellation that brings our term on earth to a halt: death. Mortality will be in many people’s thoughts and feelings due to COVID-19. While death is universal, the way different people think of it is worldviews apart.

God’s revelation in the Bible does not address every curious question, but it accurately covers what is important for us about death, and how death is related to other matters. Death is an enemy and a consequence of sin: ‘sin … gives birth to death.’ (James 1:15) This is a truly integrated worldview, because it connects morality with death—and thus affirms the importance and reality of morality. Christ defeated death (Hebrews 2:14), rising so that we might rise, too. Knowing that Christ came to solve our sin problem (and our related death problem) is the ultimate reassurance that God cares about us: ‘[God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Christ’s resurrection is his major confirmation of his authority and deity. So many aspects of the Christian hope—goodness (morality), God’s love, Christ’s identity, and salvation—are linked to a Christian understanding of what death is and means.

As always, doctrine has applications. To briefly cover one application: a Christian view of death, and a Christian hope, grounds an attitude of holding ambitions loosely and putting treasure in heaven. The daily life of faith and obedience can content us—in fact, it is hugely important in God’s sight. When fear distracts us, God lovingly reminds us that he is in control. C. S. Lewis put it well: ‘All schemes of happiness that are centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration… If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.’ On the other hand, there is great value in the simple daily walk of a life ‘humbly offered to God.’

This is from Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time”. In it, he talks about the fear of death and sense of crisis arising from the onset of World War II. He emphasised that the crisis did not change the fundamental realities of death (or of resurrection either). If this wisdom holds for Lewis’ World War II environment, then it holds for other widely-experienced crises, especially a comparatively smaller one like COVID-19. But how is this wisdom, or its Christian foundation, to come out in our speech? (Within the restrictions of whatever alert level is current, of course).

When it comes to speaking about crises, Jesus’ example in Luke 13 sheds some light on the subject. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus spoke of some bone-chilling recent events (“Pilate’s Gruesome Executions in Galilee”, “Tower of Siloam Disaster”). It is worth noting that Jesus had already earned a reputation for compassion. That gave him the mana to make a point about the events without seeming to do so gleefully or sensationally.

The point Jesus made was, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ (just like the victims of Pilate etc.) (Luke 13:5). He did not make this point out of the blue, but led up to it:

  1. First was a grounding in the here-and-now: people were presenting him with a recent event. Jesus often based his teaching in concrete experiences to make them memorable.
  2. Jesus identified the issue that this event raised: Were these victims ‘worse sinners than all [their neighbours] because they suffered this way?’
  3. Jesus addressed the issue with the truth and a call to action: ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ That is to say, the victims are not necessarily extra bad sinners, and we should remember our own vulnerability and state in front of God.

The audience’s attention to the victims in Galilee and Siloam made them more ready to think about the issue in (2). It brought up their current way of understanding the issue. More than that, it put their understanding to the test. Here were disasters—raw, recent, and vivid. Would it be satisfactory to trot out a current view—say, that God must have singled out these people as extra bad, and one should pat oneself on the back for being safe? Or would that fall flat? The time was ripe for Jesus to present the wisdom that ‘you will perish, too.’ It was—and is—a truth that is more comfortable to ignore. And yet, if the topic of death is raised, so can the other parts of the Christian story mentioned above: goodness, God’s love, Christ, resurrection, and salvation. Apologetics comes in along with that. Once we are talking about the Christian hope, we can ‘give a reason’ for it (1 Peter 3:15) when that is helpful.

What does it look like to have a conversation involving the coronavirus, death, and the gospel? It depends on who is having the conversation. God provides us with a range of friendships and opportunities with people at various points on their journeys. However, Jesus’ comments on the Galilee and Siloam disasters can illustrate some general principles, illustrated in the below stages.

1. Be Grounded in the Here and Now

It is fascinating and comforting to swap stories about a massive shared experience like a lock down. You have opinions that you itch to share, and feelings which require comfort. Give others the kindness of being a good listener. My conversations about the virus in Thailand recently covered points like, ‘My son’s school closed!,’ ‘In my home area they’re still more worried about malaria,’ ‘I wonder if my Mum in China will get the virus?’ In New Zealand, there will also be other angles; for example, ‘masks feel like a sinister sign that the public square has turned into a hospital’.

2. Identify Relevant Issues

This article has focused on mortality. The sense of crisis will make people more open to talk about it, or even bring it up themselves. (That is merely a general observation—still try to speak with sensitivity, as always). Here are three possible routes from the topic of COVID-19 to the topic of mortality:

  1. The elderly are vulnerable, and that is relevant to everyone, whether it means us or our parents/grandparents. What is the hope of an elderly believer?
  2. No age group is invincible, and ‘Death as an equaliser’ is another classic theme. Kiwis might take to it, since equality in general is a Kiwi value!
  3. Coping mechanisms, or what you do to help you get through, are the stuff of many conversations (‘I like to do x’ … ‘you should reward yourself with some x’). Cultivate Christ-based ways to cope with things, and then they can come up in conversation.

3. Address the Issues

Hope, for the elderly and for all, is based on God’s promises. The foundation that helps a Christian to cope with life relates to the above-mentioned attitudes like placing a high value on simple daily faith and obedience and recognising God’s control. Those, in turn, are founded on the incarnate Son of God’s victory over sin and death.

Remember that everyone’s current understandings of the issue of mortality could come up in stage two ‘Identify relevant issues’. Worldviews surface … and so do the unsatisfactory points of a worldview that does not fit God’s world. Consider Biblical truth on mortality (or whatever the issue is), and that will give clues for Addressing the Issue (stage 3).

There are many shapes and sizes of crises in the headlines or in our lives, whether in Galilee, Siloam, the UK, or NZ. The God who is able to ultimately heal this world is also able to bring truth to our lives. This truth is meaningful both here and now and also forever. We can learn from Jesus’ example of engaging with a current crisis and pointing to deeper things.

Luke Williamson is studying a Master in Linguistics at Payap University in Chiang Mai. When in his hometown of Hamilton, he helped run Thinking Matters events there (Mining for Truth). He combines his passion for apologetics with elements from his background including linguistics, literature, children’s ministry and evangelism.