Is Sustainability a Christian Imperative? 
Editorial by Robert S. White, FRS
Some Christians have taken the view that God has given the resources of this world primarily for humans to enjoy. They argue that since we have been given dominion over the world (in Genesis 1:28) and that the world will be destroyed in the Apocalypse then we should not worry overmuch about the consequences of activities such as burning abundant fossil fuels, seemingly small climate changes caused by human activity, intensive agriculture that changes ecosystems, and taming/destroying the wilderness for the sake of human expansion. Other Christians agree about the goodness of God’s creation but also point to the aspect of human responsibility for care of that creation acting, as it were, as God’s hands on earth. They see the new creation as a renewal of the earth rather than as a replacement, and point to passages in the Bible that draw attention to the continuity between the present and the new creation of many of the good aspects of human endeavour. They argue that ‘sustainability’ is a good shorthand for the way we should approach our interactions with the world.
It is increasingly evident that Planet Earth is a finite resource. So we have to live sustainably if our children and grandchildren are to enjoy the same benefits as us. That is not always easy: for example, most people agree that global climate change is occurring, yet make little change to their own lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint. They may say that their own actions have only a trivial impact in the light of global problems, so there is no point.
The Bible describes a creator God who revels in his creation, who is pleased with it and pronounces it to be very good, and who wishes his people to care for it in a way which caters for the good of others and which gives glory to him . Ultimately, theological and ethical commitments and are more likely to engender change in lifestyles of individuals and communities for the sake of others than are raw scientific facts.
Sustainability: the long view
Planet Earth has never had a long-term unchanging environment over its 4,560 million year history. But it has sustained a surface temperature between 0°C and 100°C for almost all its existence, despite the sun’s intensity increasing by 25%. The surface water (of which there is a finite supply) has never boiled off into space nor completely frozen. That in turn has allowed life to thrive. Indeed, it is likely that interaction between living organisms and the planet is what has maintained a habitable, though changing environment. This is often called the Gaia hypothesis . Organisms change the environment by their very act of living, a fact which has been taken to extremis by modern humans. Geological history shows that at the level of species there is little long-term stability even in the absence of humans. Over 99% of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct: an estimated 5,000 million species.
Sustainability: the human timescale
Humans are now by far the largest modifiers of Planet Earth. Every year we move 35 billion tons of rock and soil, more than all geological processes put together. In the twentieth century nearly one third of the arable lands worldwide were destroyed by chemical and physical degradation, and by soil loss from wind and water erosion. There are 30% fewer wild animals than there were just forty years ago . Only 3% of terrestrial vertebrate flesh is wild, the remainder being one third human and two-thirds domesticated animals. Humans have increased the extinction rate by an estimated 10,000 to 100,000% .Every year we release carbon into the atmosphere which took a million years to accumulate: we have raised greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to levels not experienced for over 3 million years, causing rapid global climate change at a rate never before experienced by humans. The many changes are so great and so abrupt that a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (‘Age of Humanity’) has been proposed .
An enduring feature of humans is their ability to invent technology: starting with weapons and hand tools to assist in catching and dismembering wild prey; then cooking meat, which provides more energy than eating it raw; followed by animal husbandry and agriculture, with selective breeding, allowing humans to provide a reliable year-round source of food. The remarkably stable climate over the 10,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age enabled civilization to develop and prosper. Rapid climate change in the last 50 years now threatens that stability, and could foster conflict over refugees, and supplies of food and water.
Technological fixes to unsustainability?
The availability of synthetic fertilisers, high-yielding hybrid crops and fossil fuels to power machinery led to the ‘Green Revolution’ of the mid-twentieth century. This staved off a chronic shortage of food that would otherwise have resulted from the tripling in global population since 1950. But it caused many negative environmental effects, including soil erosion, pollution of ground and surface water, public health problems from pesticides and a doubling of the nitrogen cycle of the entire earth which has led to eutrophication of terrestrial and aquatic systems, global acidification and stratospheric ozone loss .
Underpinning almost all advances in the way humans use new technology is energy : for most of history people relied on their own muscle power, fuelled by food; this was supplemented by domesticated animals; then water mills from the third century BC; windmills from the seventh century AD; coal for steam engines from the sixteenth century; coal generated electricity from the 1880s; and nuclear power, solar photovoltaic and wind generated electricity from the late twentieth century. But the big game changer was oil. The first commercial oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, USA in 1858−59. By 1886 internal combustion engines were developed to drive the first motor cars, then ships and aeroplanes.
The energy from one gallon of petrol produces as much work as one month’s labour of one person. People in high-income countries like the USA, the UK and Germany rely on the equivalent of 200 human labourers to maintain their lifestyles. An estimated 7‒10 kilocalories of oil energy are expended for every kilocalorie of food consumed in the USA: we are essentially eating fossil fuels.
This can’t continue indefinitely: we are close to the peak in conventional oil supplies, although there is sufficient coal to last at least another century. Hydrocarbons are complex polymers that can be used for a huge range of plastics and synthetic materials. In the future it might well be seen as a crime that humanity simply burned such a valuable polymer: its rather like burning the family heirloom Chippendale furniture just to keep warm for a few hours one evening.
Burning fossil fuels has another arguably even more criminal side-effect: it causes global climate change which is the biggest danger facing humanity in the coming decades. Already heatwaves, floods, extended droughts and extreme weather resulting from climate change are claiming tens of thousands of lives every year, and it will only get worse . We need to find ways to continue the improvements in living standards that have accompanied technological progress without irrevocably damaging the planet: this is particularly important for low-income countries which have generally not benefitted from massive fossil fuel burning in the past, but which are the main victims of the climate change it caused.
Those of us in high-income countries, who have benefitted from burning cheap fossil fuels, have a moral duty to help those in low-income countries, who largely are the people who suffer from climate change. The latter neither caused the problem nor benefitted from the increase in standard of living bought with widespread fossil fuel usage. Many disasters are related directly or indirectly to climate change, including heat waves, floods, droughts, landslides and changes in weather patterns that impact agriculture and may lead to famines . An ethical response would be for rich nations to reduce their on-going greenhouse gas emissions while also helping those suffering the effects of climate change by enabling them to mitigate and adapt to those changes.
As in many decisions in life, there may well be actions that we could take, and are able to take given our socio-economic and technical circumstances, but that we eschew for the sake of others. This brings us to another perspective which interacts with these decisions and our world view of how to make such decisions, which is the theological aspect.
Theology and Sustainability
A theological perspective on sustainability is based on the three-way relationship between God the creator, his creation, and us his creatures. Although humans are uniquely special in that they are made ‘in the image of God’, we are still intimately connected to the rest of the biological order through our evolutionary history. There is no sense that we should spiritualize our lives to the extent that we should believe that the material world is to be shunned, or is less important in God’s sight.
The first command given by God to humankind was to ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’ (Genesis 1.28). This is a command to sustainable living: but it is rather more as well. The necessity of having dominion over creation carries connotations of keeping the earth in good order, of having to work to do so, and of using our understanding of how the natural order works to, for example, contain or eradicate disease.
Humans have been set the task as God’s image bearers of caring for his creation as vice-gerents in its governance on his behalf. Part of that task includes using our scientific understanding not just to care for the material world, but also to care for other people and other living things. Our ability to understand the created order is part of God’s grace to us: we do not live in an unpredictable, chaotic world, but in a world upheld moment by moment by God’s word (Colossians 1.16–17). The early founders of The Royal Society, which arguably was when modern science was first instituted, had a clear view that by understanding the natural world better they could help the lot of humankind. For many of the early Fellows of the Royal Society this dual aim of giving glory to God by using scientific understanding for the good of humankind fitted exactly with their religious and ethical perspective of the world .
How then should we care for creation? There are many images in the Bible of God caring for his creation with all its complex interactions which can act as a model for us. And its not just all about humans. For example, God ‘water[s] a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass’ (Job 38.26‒27). According to Psalm 147.9, God provides food not just for cattle but ‘for the young ravens when they call.’ Psalm 104.21 tells us that when lions roar, they seek their food from God.
Since God values what he has made, then we ought to value it too. The ‘intrinsic’ value of a created thing – of something that owes not just its material make-up but its very being and even the possibility of existence to a creator who ‘calls into being things that were not’ (Romans 4.17; Hebrews 11.4) – is rooted in the value that is bestowed upon it by that creator. A biblical theology of creation, as well as a biblically-derived environmental ethos, is rooted in the affirmations in the Bible that it is God alone who establishes, upholds and sustains all of creation.
A direct link is drawn in Scripture between the breakdown of the relationship between humans and their creator God and the breakdown of our proper relationship with the earth .
The Old Testament prophets warned that human evil and injustice could lead to environmental degradation and prevent the land being as fruitful and bounteous as God intended it to be. Often this was expressed as the land ‘mourning’ (e.g. Isaiah 33.9; Hosea 4.3; Jeremiah 12.4), an idea that Paul picks up in the New Testament to describe the entire creation as longing to be set free from its ‘bondage to decay’ and its ‘groaning as in the pains of childbirth’ because of human sinfulness (Romans 8.21‒22). The Bible warns us against the folly of presuming that God would not allow us to suffer the consequences of our poor treatment of his creation. But the Bible also sets out clearly the sure and certain hope that we have in Christ for restoration and a setting of all things right in the new creation.
The Christian gospel is that the broken relationships between people and God are restored by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that in the fullness of time the return of Christ will usher in a new creation where there is no more sin, no more death, ‘no more mourning nor crying nor pain’ (Revelation 21.4). Though we can’t understand the physical basis of the new creation, there will evidently be some continuity in that the best of human creativity will be found in it: ‘the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it’ (Revelation 21.24). In addition to shady streams there will be a city, the new Jerusalem. And cities are places of human community life, of creativity and social order.
In the meantime we live in that in-between period between Christ’s first coming and his return, a period of ‘inaugurated eschatology’. Biblical hope in the new creation challenges Christians to faithful, righteous living that embodies God’s promises in the here and now. That includes the imperative to live sustainably, even as we see all around us the crisis of environmental degradation .The Christian hope gives an incentive to work in this world today to right some of those wrongs, because there is a long-term future for creation, and because we ought by our lives attempt to live out those values of the Kingdom of God modelled by Jesus in his life .
DCreation care, and the imperative to live sustainably, is inseparable from the Christian gospel . In many areas the ethical concerns of those with different religious beliefs, or with none, align closely with those derived from a Christian worldview . Christian theology provides a firm underpinning to endeavours to promote sustainable living: it points to the inherent worth of the material world in its own right, rather than treating it in an instrumental means for fulfilling our own desires; it legitimizes the proper use of science and technology to understand and to use the natural world for the good of humankind; it points to the need for self-sacrifice or restraint for the sake of others, such as strangers suffering from the effects of climate change on the other side of the world, or as-yet unborn future generations; and its insistence that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ (1 Corinthians 10.26), provides a perspective that sustainable living is not just an optional extra but a core part of our proper response to the world in which we live.
Robert S. White, FRS
Published March 2021
Robert S. White, FRS, is Emeritus Professor of Geophysics at Cambridge University and Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
 This is an abbreviated version of White, Robert S. (2019). Sustainability: Interaction between science, ethics and theology, in: Lehmann Imfeld, Zoë & Losch, Andreas (eds.), Our Common Cosmos: Exploring the Future of Theology, Human Culture and Space Sciences, Bloomsbury: London, pp. 83−94.
 Douglas J. Moo & Jonathan A. Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 2018). 144 pp. ISBN 978-0-310-293743
 J. E. Lovelock & L. Margulis, ‘Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis’, Tellus, Series A. Stockholm: International Meteorological Institute, 26 (1974): 2–10; Toby Tyrrell, On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) p. 209, ISBN 9780691121581
 Lynas, M. (2011), The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, p. 32
 See www.whole-systems.org/extinctions.html.
 This term was proposed by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, ‘The “Anthropocene”’, IGBP Global Change Newsletter, 41 (2000): 17–18.
 N. Gruber & J. N. Galloway, ‘An earth system perspective of the global nitrogen cycle’, Nature 451 (2008): 293‒96.
 Stephanie Pain, ‘Power through the ages’, Nature, 551 (2017): pp. 135–137.
 D. A. Pfeiffer (2006), Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture, Gabriola Island (New Society Publishers).
 Robert S White (2014), Who is to Blame? Nature, Disasters and Acts of God, (Oxford: Lion Hudson), 207 pp. ISBN 978-0-85721-4737; Mora C. et al. (2017), Global risk of deadly heat. Nature Climate Change, (2017): 7,501–506. (doi:10.1038/ nclimate3322).
 Nick Spencer & Robert White, Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, (SPCK, 2007), 245 pp.
 R. S. White, ‘Take Ten: Scientists and their Religious Beliefs’, in Wisdom, Science and the Scriptures, hg. von S. Finnamore and J. Weaver (Oxford: Regents Park College, 2012), 157‒179.
 Hilary Marlow, The Earth is the Lord's: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues (Grove Books, 2008).
 White, Robert S. (ed.) (2009) Creation in Crisis: Christian Perspectives on Sustainability, SPCK, ISBN: 978-0-281-06190-7.
 Jonathan A. Moo & Robert S. White, Hope in an Age of Despair: The Gospel and the Future of Life on Earth, (Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, 2013), 224 pp.,ISBN: 978-1844748778.
 Colin Bell and Robert S. White (eds.) (2016) Creation Care and the Gospel: Reconsidering the Mission of the Church, (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2016), 350pp., ISBN 9781619707252.
 Colin Bell, Jonathan Chaplin and Robert White (eds.) (2013), Living Lightly, Living Faithfully: Religious Faiths and the Future of Sustainability, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge, ISBN: 978-0-9559074-3-2.
 See also Deuteronomy 10.14; 1 Chronicles 29.11; Nehemiah 9.6; Psalm 24.1; Psalm 104.24
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