Love thy neighbour, love thy planet

Why the environment is an inherently relational issue

by Hannah Eves, Thursday 16th May 2019

Katharine Hayhoe, esteemed Climate Scientist and Christian spoke in Cambridge yesterday. She said, ‘caring about God’s creation – the people and other living things that are already being affected by climate change today – is a genuine expression of our faith, a faithful acceptance of our responsibility, and a true expression of God’s love.’[1] Climate change is not a scientific abstract, it impacts the most vulnerable all over the world. This impact is unjust, while industrialised countries built their economies on the back of fossil fuels, those who are the least culpable are facing the worst consequences. As the UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, Mary Robinson, says, ‘this injustice – that those who had done least to cause the problem were carrying the greatest burden – made clear that to advocate for the rights of the most vulnerable to food, safe water, health, education, and shelter would have no effect without our paying attention to our world’s changing climate.’

At the Jubilee Centre we’ve been thinking a lot about food, relationships and the environment and we’re publishing a report on the subject soon. We are also putting on several events in Northern Ireland, Cambridge and London to explore this issue and develop patterns of thoughtful and sustainable eating. This has been a challenging subject, but one of the key insights has been that there is a relational dynamic between God, humanity and the non-human creation. The environmental crisis of the current age is symptomatic of a deeper relational crisis; I argue that it illustrates a failure to love God and to love neighbour.

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ Matthew 22:37-40

A responsibility to love the planet – Love thy God

A biblical view of creation recognises that both humanity and non-human creation were carefully crafted by God for his glory. Therefore, right relationships between humanity and non-human creation require respect for the intrinsic worth of the environment. The human vocation to cultivate and care for the environment requires that individuals attempt to see creation through God’s eyes – as before humanity is created he declares the creation to be ‘good’ (Gen. 1:12). Creation and provision is a gift from God, this is clearly expressed in Psalm 104:14-15:

‘He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate –
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.’

How can we respond to this with apathy and degradation? Writing in the 1970s, Christian farmer and poet Wendell Berry commented, ‘every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy – and our economy’s first principle is waste – we are causing the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his [or her] life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet.’[2] Taking responsibility for this crisis is a key element of loving the planet and honouring it as a good gift from God. More sustainable forms of energy and agriculture are key, while individuals can contribute by cutting down on waste and approaching consumption (of food and of products) more thoughtfully.

A responsibility to love the poor – Love thy neighbour

Christians are also called to love neighbour. Lower income countries with less resources to mitigate these effects are more vulnerable to extreme weather changes; this is an injustice that Christians must contend with when approaching this issue. Climate change exacerbates extreme poverty, food insecurity and threatens livelihoods across the globe. The 2017 flooding in South Asia, mostly in Bangladesh, left millions displaced and claimed the lives of over 1,400 people. Climate change increases the frequency, intensity, and impacts of extreme weather events, poses new threats from rising seas and exacerbates existing food and water insecurity. Haiti is another well-known example. Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in October 2016, and according to UN statistics 2.1 million people were affected, with hundreds left dead. This was followed by a food security crisis due to the destruction of agricultural land and food systems.

In March 2019 Cyclone Idai devastated Southern Africa affecting nearly 3 million individuals in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe with a death toll that exceeds 843. A warmer atmosphere made the rainfall that preceded the storm more intense, the extreme drought of recent years increased runoff by hardening the soil, and finally the rising sea levels made the coast more vulnerable to flooding. Jeff Wright, World Vision’s Cyclone Idai response director said: ‘Cyclone Idai has shown just how vulnerable people are to these kinds of disasters that tear down homes, destroy crops, displace hundreds of thousands of people, and force untold numbers of children out of schools that are damaged or that become evacuation centres.’ The human cost of climate change has become more and more striking.

In the words of Katharine Hayhoe, this knowledge is frightening, and fear may trigger gut responses of sympathy and pity, but we need a vision for the future which hopes. We need a vision for understanding how to honour God by caring for his planet and loving our neighbours – not only today but intergenerationally, not only our geographical neighbours but our global neighbours, ‘for God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind’ (2 Tim. 1:7). We must take action (for we have power), we must love, and we must challenge ourselves to grapple with the science and truth of the situation (for we have sound mind).

Hannah Eves is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with an MA in Governance and Political Development.

Food, relationships and the environment is also the theme of this year’s Social Reformer’s Summer School. Apply now to join us here in Cambridge and discover a biblical framework for social transformation.


[1] Katharine Hayhoe (2019) Christians, Climate and Culture, Faraday Institute Lecture – 15 May 2019

[2] Berry, Wendell (1970) ‘Think Little’, in Berry (2018) The World-Ending Fire, UK: Penguin Random House

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Category: Blogs

May, 2019

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