“If you care about people, you have to care about the planet”
One million species are threatened with extinction, a UN report warns. Ruth Valerio, Global Advocacy and Influencing Director of Tearfund, shares ideas about how to care for creation through everyday actions.
LONDON · 07 MAY 2019 · 14:26 CET
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) of the United Nations has published a major report on the state of our planet.
Based on reviews of around 15,000 scientific and government sources, it shows that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction.
“We tried to document how far in trouble we are to focus people’s minds, but also to say it is not too late if we put a huge amount into transformational behavioural change”, said David Obura, one of the main authors on the report. “This is fundamental to humanity. We are not just talking about nice species out there; this is our life-support system”.
“We need to take steps in our own churches, but we also need to engage in advocacy, in speaking up about the big issues and the policies and practices coming from business and corporations”, she says.
“Whatever the future holds, I know that God has created us in order to look after everything that He has made, both humans and species”, the environmentalist adds.
Question. You have a particular interest in environmental issues, where does this passion come from?
Answer. The passion came from the start of my adult life, when I was studying theology at the university and I learnt a lot about God's heart for the poor and for justice, and our call as Christians to be engaged with that.
While I was at the university, someone lent me a little book that just looked at what the Bible does say about caring for the environment. That was the bottom line, I had never come across anything like that. It was just like a second conversion, and it complemented the thinking I was doing about justice and poverty.
The first stage was me coming to the recognition that we cannot care about people and issues of justice and poverty, without also caring about the air they breath, the land they live on, the sea they fish in, and so on... If you care about people, you have to care about the planet.
Q. Do you think Christians can read the Bible, believe in God, care about people, but ignore creation care?
A. I think Christians can do all of that, and many do. But I do not think a Christian should.
If we care for people and we want them to hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus, and we want to look after their needs, but we do not look after the world at the same time, we are missing a crucial aspect of what the Good News of Jesus is all about.
We sometimes talk about holistic mission, meaning evangelism and caring for people's needs hand in hand, which is great. But for me that is not holistic mission. Holistic mission is evangelism, social justice, caring for the poor and caring for the environment, all in one package together.
Q. How can local churches and Christians communities apply this vision?
A. The Eco-church scheme was something I set up precisely to answer that question, to help churches really think through and then to put it into practice. How can we care for the world around us, right through our church program?
Eco-church looks at the church's theology and teaching, to get you thinking about what happens in your church. Do we have to pray about environment? Do we ever have a theme looking about that? How is it featured in our church understanding? And then, thinking about church buildings, any land that we may manage in our churches, with little tips and ideas for things that we can do.
But it goes beyond that. It is not just having a building that is environmentally friendly, it is also thinking about the personal lifestyle of our members, how do we actually live.
And finally, to think about our community and our global engagement. If we want to respond to the problems that we got, we need to take steps in our own churches. But we also need to engage in advocacy, in speaking up about the big issues and the policies and practices coming from business and corporations.
Although Eco-church was for churches of England and Wales, any European country could join the scheme. You can go to the website and see all the resources, that will you give many ideas about what could you do in your churches.
Q. The UK banned the use of plastic cups for coffee, and other countries in Europe are taking similar intiatives. How important are decisions like these taken by politicians?
A. Totally important. The way I sometimes look at this is if you imagine a river, and you are walking along the river with some people, and you see people in desperate need, drowning, what would you do? You would go to the river and start to pull them out and help them.
But if these people keep passing by, and you keep seeing people drowning, you may at some point ask, what is actually going on further up stream in order to cause all these people to fall into the river in the first place? Maybe then we might go back along the river, to see that there is a bridge which is broken and it makes people fall into the river. It is a really simplistic picture, but it is a helpful way to explain what advocacy is all about. It is about going back up to the bridge and asking what is the problem in the first place.
It is also a mixture of the way we live our lives, consuming more resources that the planet has, and government and business practices that are not putting the planet first.
If we really want to see change in a big scale, we just need to do more than just taking our own plastic bags back to the supermarket. We need to be pushing all government and business to bring about systemic change, big changes in the issues that cause poverty in the first place.
That is why advocacy is so important. That is what we do at Tearfund, through an international campaign called Renew Our World.
Q. You have written about changes in our everyday lives. One of the things is to buy food produced with sustainable systems, but this is often more expensive...
A. It is a challenge. When we start looking at these things, we go into areas of social justice. We need to ask, why people cannot afford good food? Why are there no fresh and healthy alternatives?
There are many schemes around that are enabling that to happen. In the UK, for instance, there are really good city schemes around community food growing, finding little parcels of land, to maybe keep chicken together, in order to get meat and eggs.
The fact that there are some people in society who are not able to make certain decisions, that does not mean that none of us should do so. It cannot be an excuse. All of us can try to find ways to live and eat ethically, within the means and the different situations that we have.
For most of my adult life, because of the decisions that we made as a family, we have lived with a really low income, and I have learnt how to live ethically on a low income. I found that the ethically alternative is usually more expensive, but what we have done as a family is to change our whole diet, out whole approach to food.
You can predominately have more vegetables and grains, and eat meat only every now and then. Processed and packed food is usually more expensive anyway, so you can cut that out of your diet.
You can live really well quite simply, on a not very high budget. So let's be careful to say too easily: 'This is very expensive and only some people can do it'.
Q. What can we do in the area of transportation, especially when it comes to flights?
A. That has been a huge challenge for me. I have not hardly flown in about 17 years, and now that I got this job at Tearfund, my flights are not the way I feel comfortable with.
For me, there is a recognition that most of us are going to fly sometimes. I would always say: challenge yourself and ask yourself if you really need to make that trip. Maybe you can make a rule not to fly on holidays, or you can fly on holidays once in every 3 or 5 years.
Within Europe, as much as possible, do not ever fly, try to go by car or public transport.
When you do fly, there is a really good organisation called Climate Stewards that you can give some money to, to help offset the damage and the emissions that you have caused through flying.
But the best is not flying at all.
Q. How can we help companies to be more accountable with the way they are polluting?
A. I think it is important to practice what you preach. Do not expect others to do things you are not doing yourself.
It is great that cheap flights mean all of us can go on holidays really easily, but I do not think that it means we have to do it every year. It is about limits and discipline.
Some are also pushing our governments to take steps to put high taxes on fuel. That is really unpopular, but the cheaper the flights get, the more we are going to fly.
So let's push for more taxes on fuel so that the flights are not that cheap, and encourage them to put the money that comes from that in developing much better public transport schemes, creating a culture where it is easier for me to get a train than to take a flight.
Q. Is there any country in Europe that is doing things very well regarding environmental care?
A. I have not really looked into this in detail, but my impression is that Scandinavian countries are much better. In fact, Scandinavian countries rank more highly in what is called the Happiness Index, which links economic development with social and enviromental facts, and it recognises that the levels of well-being are also tied to relationships and the society.
Germany has been making some good steps as well.
Q. How do you see the future, in general and among Christians? Are you optimistic when it comes to creation care?
A. That is a really difficult question. I have no idea if I am optimistic or not. I have read all sorts of things.
We are facing really challenging times when we look at the trends about climate change, or when we look at the issue of plastic, there are massive problems, but I also know that, as a Christian, my role is to be getting on with it.
Whenever the apostle Paul talked about the future and about Jesus returning to this Earth, his response always was: so then, what should we be doing in the present?
I think that, whatever the future holds, I know that God has created us in order to look after everything that He has made, both humans and species.
I know that we live in a world that God created and He absolutely loves, so that, whatever is going to happen in the future, my role now is to be getting on taking care of what He has created, and that is what I want to focus on.
This interview was conducted in May 2018, and an audio version was published then.