Many years ago, the director of a Christian foundation, his voice dripping with sarcasm, began our conversation saying “I hope you are not someone who is going to tell me that God cares as much about trees as people.” This was going to be a tough sell, but it was not an uncommon starting point. “No,” I said, “what I will tell you is that people need the trees.”
Over thirty years ago, the founders of Plant With Purpose were seeking lasting solutions to problems faced by the residents of shantytowns surrounding Santo Domingo. Relief efforts following 1979’s Hurricane David had done nothing to change their fundamental situation.
Surveys revealed that an overwhelming number were recent migrants from the countryside. In an attempt to understand why they left, Plant With Purpose followed the problem literally and figuratively upstream and discovered an intimate relationship between environmental degradation and poverty. Poor families struggle to bring sustenance from barren hillsides. When the soil is exhausted they move deeper into the forest seeking fertile land or selling charcoal.
Completely dependent on the health of their environment for their survival, their only real assets are their soil and the rain that falls on it. Both are vulnerable to the effects of deforestation, which dramatically increases soil erosion, and degrades water resources. Trees function like a sponge, allowing rain to infiltrate the soil, replenishing the water table and keeping the ground damp.
Once trees are cut, the soil washes away and wells dry up. Rivers become seasonal, dry and dead through much of the year, and subject to flash floods during a rain. Many villages where we work sit beside expansive dry washes - once healthy, life-giving streams, which have since become deadly.
Ironically, the desperation of the farmers has often forced them to make decisions that further degrade the environment, leading to a vicious cycle of deforestation and increasing poverty, until ultimately they abandon the land altogether.
It was out of a desire to end this cycle that Plant With Purpose first became an environmental organization. Serving the physical needs of the farmers, and alleviating their poverty necessitated environmental action. The people needed the trees.
The question as to whether “efforts to protect the environment are worth it” implies that somehow the environment is a luxury rather than foundational for life. However, poor farmers are acutely aware that the land is their life support system. The farmers in Haiti live with the unfiltered consequences of their environmental actions. Virtually all would choose to be better stewards, if not for the desperation that keeps them focused on immediate needs. There is much we can learn from them.
In the United States we have long been able to pay to keep our negative impacts at arm’s length, making them less obvious. My own environmental footprint extends to the coalmines of Appalachia, the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, the factories of China and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, none of which I see. Our impact is transferred out of sight and on to others. Nonetheless we are damaging our life support system as surely a Haitian farmer. Unlike the farmer, we have options.
However, the justification that we should plant trees or care for creation merely to meet the needs of humans is admittedly utilitarian. I still won’t claim to speak for God’s priorities, but in the years since that conversation, I have learned that God also cares about creation for its own sake. This theme, though subtle, is present throughout scripture.
In the first chapters of Genesis, God repeatedly pronounces creation good, although one might argue that it was good primarily for humans. However, in Job we get a glimpse of God’s unique relationship with creation, independent of any human utility. When Job and his friends each claim to speak for God and/or question his justice, God points them to creation and reminds them in no uncertain terms how little they actually understand of either him or his creation. In that passage we get a sense of a very intimate and even tender relationship between creation and Creator, as well as a much-needed reminder to practice humility.
The more we know about creation the more we sense this relationship. Millions of incredible stories are being played out every day by plants, animals, insects, and even bacteria. These are stories that even science has barely begun to grasp, but whose author we know. Personally, learning some of these stories has been a bit like visiting a friend and discovering a whole side of them you never knew existed. Imagine visiting a colleague and finding out he is a great poet or perhaps a piano virtuoso. You would realize that you haven’t fully known who he is. God’s glory and endless creativity can be seen at every level of his creation. Even the most accomplished naturalist has only learned to appreciate a fraction of it. The earth is worth protecting because it is the Lord’s.
Thankfully, God gives us the opportunity to do much more than merely protect the environment. Christ has given us the ministry of reconciliation. While we most often think of this in terms of the relationship between God and people, we know that Jesus is reconciling all things to God. We too, can seek ways to work with, rather than against creation, and begin to restore and heal that which has been degraded. This may be one fundamental way that “creation care” differs from secular environmental thinking. Human beings are more than just the problem; we have a positive role to play in bringing restoration. Here too, we can learn from poor farmers.
The farmers with whom we partner have taught me that win-win solutions, bringing both prosperity and restoration, are possible. Poor communities throughout the mountains of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Tanzania and elsewhere are farming in ways that closely mimic creation, improving both yields and biodiversity. They are planting millions of trees on a voluntary basis, because they take seriously their call to tend and keep the creation. As a result, streams once again flow with clean water and hillsides have been restored to fruitfulness. Protecting the environment is a necessary start, but we can do much more.