Looking through the options for ‘religion’ in the 2021 Australian Census form, I was surprised that ‘Environmentalism’ was not listed as one. Based on the current rhetoric surrounding issues like climate change, food waste, and ecological destruction, doesn’t the fervour for environmental justice sound like that of spiritual revivals fifty years ago?
Environmentalism as a New Religion
Environmentalism, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as ‘an effort to preserve, restore, or improve the natural environment,’ has all the elements of popular religion. Its deity is Mother Nature. It is she who blesses us with awesome landscapes, intricate beauty, and the silent, seamless functioning of the world; Reminders of our inadequacy, and corresponding guilt, take the form of the single-use coffee cups we buy because of our laziness and need for instant gratification; Penance is bees-wax wrap, Keep Cups, and composting; Evangelism involves telling people about ‘the inconvenient truth’ and inviting them to join the zero-waste movement. Many people tell me they’re not religious, but then confess their green-themed failures to me as if they are.
I feel myself getting swept up in the green movement … I need to interpret even my most eager passions through what our God has to say.
I feel myself getting swept up in the green movement. I recently finished reading How to Go Waste Free; I doggy-bag all leftovers and donate food scraps to my neighbours. A sense of injustice wells up inside me when I think of how the bushfires and rising sea levels are affecting the poorest farmers and fishermen, not the affluent city workers.
And yet, I need to interpret even my most eager passions through what our God has to say, and in light of the salvation plan he’s executing through Jesus Christ.
When God created the Earth and filled it, he called it good (Gen 1:1-25). God then gave human beings the privilege and responsibility of ruling over the rest of his beautiful creation (Gen 1:28; Ps 8). However, the first humans decided they knew better than God and decided to rebel by disobeying his instructions (Gen 3:1-7). What we learn from the opening chapters of the Bible is that the problem with the world is deeper than raising temperatures or the practice of mining coal. Rather, the root issue is that human wills are bent against God: we refuse to believe in the good God who created this good world. We resist the one who tasked us with ruling and protecting this world in submission to him. We have toppled the hierarchy. The result? Anarchy. The environment is used and abused for our gain; we are the supreme rulers; and God is completely irrelevant.
Almost all the environmental and ecological issues we face today are the result of our greed, wantonness, laziness, and our skirting of responsibility. So, I relate a great deal with my non-believing friends about the destruction of forests. By God’s grace, they too recognise human wickedness and are repulsed by it.
It is right to shudder and mourn over news of natural disasters … but these are merely pointers to a greater, more ferocious day of fire.
But, unlike them, I believe that the one who will deal with human wickedness—both ours and others—is God himself (2 Cor 5:10). And when he does, it will be a terrible day for those not properly protected. The Amazonian fires will look pale in comparison to the fiery day of God’s wrath. On the day of judgement, God will engulf the world in flames and punish every one for every wicked deed against his creation—both people and the environment (2 Pet 3:10,12). As a Christian, it is right to shudder and mourn over news of natural disasters. But beyond that, I need to remind myself that these earthly disasters are merely pointers to a greater, more ferocious day of fire approaching, one that deals with both our spiritual and physical realities—the day the Lord Jesus will judge the world.
Knowing that harming the environment is an aspect of human wickedness, and God will judge, how then should we respond? Attend climate strikes? Lobby for a green agenda in our churches? Perhaps. But not as a first step. If the root issue is a human will in rebellion against God, then the true solution must be one determined by God. And he has provided one. He has given us His Son Jesus Christ to take our place as punishment for our wickedness. If we trust in Jesus, we will be properly protected from the day of wrath (John 3:16).
What grace! Every good deed done apart from faith—whether giving our money to Greenpeace, composting for life, or committing to net-zero, is insufficient to merit us any standing before God (Isaiah 64:6). Our only hope is God’s amnesty—made possible through Christ’s offer to give us his righteousness in place of our own.
If Jesus is my Lord and Saviour … there is a place for conscientious environmentalism.
What if we have already done so? If Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, then the Spirit is working in me to transform my life and desires. All my efforts—including green-themed ones—are an opportunity to thank God, worship Jesus, and serve his people. In that case, there is a place for conscientious environmentalism; for doing things like:
- Committing to a minimalist lifestyle because it reminds me that, as long as I have clothes and food in this life, I can be content (1 Tim 6:6-8).
- Reducing unnecessary purchases, which frees me to give generously to those who have less (1 Tim 6:17-19).
- Caring about how animals were raised before they were butchered, in recognition that there is intrinsic value in animal life (Proverbs 12:10).
- Composting to reduce waste and landfill, enabling land to be used productively, as God designed it.
Do these actions save me? No. Do they make me look better than the next (slightly more apathetic and wasteful) Christian in the eyes of God? Also, no.
But there is significance to such actions: If God convicts us of particular lifestyle choices, then our response to that conviction can have eternal impact—if it is done out of faith in, and thanksgiving to, God. As Lionel Windsor puts it in his book, Is God Green?:
… it’s not the compost heap itself that matters eternally; rather it’s the act of love, and the relationship with God and others that [the] act expresses. (pg. 41).
Whatever our zeal, we cannot save the world. The good news is, we don’t have to. Jesus has. When he comes again, it will be a great day for those who are properly protected! The life that comes after will be eternally productive, abundantly resourceful and zero-waste.
I cannot predict how the world will be in the next decade; I don’t know what would be left of the Earth’s resources for my grandchildren. But I do know that the God who was present since the beginning of time has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:1-5). I also know that he offers us a lifetime with him if we choose to come under his protection. This frees me to make better choices for the Earth without guilt, fear, or anxiety. I wait, toil. and compost with eager expectation.
Come, Lord Jesus.
The author recommends Lionel Windsor’s ‘Is God Green?’ for a concise yet thorough treatment of this topic.