The environmental crisis

By Raymond Pelly, Wellington Cathedral

In this presentation I’m going to approach the Environmental Crisis that we (as world citizens) face from three angles: a biblical, a political, and one that is theological/ethical.

1. Biblical

In 1967 an Episcopal layman called Lynn White Jr. published an article, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ (1) in which he said that the Judaeo-Christian tradition is largely responsible for it in that it is fixated on humanity and its redemption to the neglect of the creation and the active care it now requires. White’s thesis has been summarized as follows:

White claimed that Judeo-Christian tradition …, owing to its sense of the human as a subduer of the earth with a divine injunction to have dominion over creation, provided the moral, cultural, and spiritual foundation for the birth of aggressive and environmentally harmful technologies. (2)

With Lynn White’s question in mind, let’s look at what the Bible actually says about Creation.

Relevant are Chapters 1-11 of Genesis. This is not the place to attempt a full exegesis, but one overall theme stands out: that of the harmony (or integrity) of Creation, its fracture and disharmony (the Fall), leading to questions about its restoration or redemption. Fundamental to the whole story – the ‘key’ in which it is set – is the notion of Gift. The wonderful order of Creation that is extolled in Genesis 1, and declared by God to be ‘very good’ (1:31), means that all this is the gift of God. This alone is enough for all created beings to exist in thanks and praise to God. Hard on the heals of praise comes ethics. Creation requires that ‘everything in all creation’ – as its particular acknowledgement of the gift-like nature of its own existence – is called to be gift to every other part of Creation: fundamentally, God to humankind; but then man to woman & woman to man – to be gifts in self-giving the one to the other as part of the true fullness of life; but also the animal and material creation as gift and sustenance to humankind, yet this in reciprocity, a reciprocity that requires care and responsible stewardship for the material and animal creation on the part of humankind. God as primordial Gift is the lynchpin of this reciprocal gift-giving harmony – what in Samoa they call ‘kinship’ – a style of divine gift-giving and harmony that then reverberates back and forth throughout the entire cosmos.

The author(s) of Genesis, however, is a realistl. As s/he looks around it is clear that the original (& originating) harmony has broken down. With humankind – via the Tree of Knowledge – trying to outsmart God, what is basic to the whole shebang, the invitation to gift and reciprocity, is lost. The consequences are dire. Now the original harmony or blessing breaks down, fractures in all directions. The relation between women and men breaks down into lies and mistrust; childbirth and work become painful and hard; animals – in the form of the snake – become a threat and source of temptation; murder enters the picture (Cain & Abel); language – or as we should say, communication – breaks down (Babel); and in the flood we have perhaps the first account of a world-engulfing ecological crisis that only a few will survive.

What started as gift, original blessing, paradise has quickly degenerated into the world we actually inhabit. ‘Welcome to the real world’ says the author. But in telling the story in this uncompromisingly realistic way, Genesis leaves us with a question: Now that we understand what has gone wrong, how do we put it right? If the original gift-like harmony has broken down, in what will its restoration (or redemption) consist? In other words, we need a doctrine of the Fall – just look around you, says Genesis – but more importantly, we need both a doctrine of Creation (what the whole thing is about anyway) and a doctrine of Redemption (given the mess we’re in, what is – or what are – the way (s) forward?).

To summarize: God’s original figuration of Creation (the ‘key’ in which its original harmony is set) is GIFT. We, like Genesis, are now all too aware in what its disfiguration consists. We are left asking, In what will bring about its transfiguration?

Here we pick up the theme of our Seminar: Infinite God, Finite Resources. In a secular world – i.e. one with no space for God – we’ve gotten things scrambled: We imagine we live in a world of Infinite Resources, but with God limited to vanishing point. Perhaps now we are in the painful process of learning that the world is the world, not some kind of God; nor are it’s resources (like God’s) infinite. It’s as though we have to learn the hard way that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’.

I will come back to the questions all this raises – what kind of a God is God; in what does a godly life in relation to the environment consist – in a moment. First & since we are talking about the real world, a word or two about politics – because in our world ‘politics’ is the way things get done.

2. Politics

Here I presuppose there is a worldwide ecological crisis, one that directly concerns every man, woman & child on this planet. A couple of examples: the present drought and famine in the Horn of Africa engulfing around 10m people is caused by changes in weather patterns which in turn are caused by the warming of the Indian Ocean. Something similar is beginning to emerge in the Tasman Sea, a swing between what are called ‘extreme weather events’, meaning both droughts and floods. All this information is now freely available in print and on the Internet.

OK, let’s look at some political scenarios.

  • Only one minor Party – let’s say the Greens – gets the message.  They are written off as ‘the looney left’, but they do a valuable job in public education. The pseudo-wisdom of the average person, however, is that really there is no cause for alarm. The sun will rise tomorrow, the sea and land are still there, no shortage of food exists, and ‘hey wasn’t it bloody cold last night?’ And anyway, if there is a problem, it’s so huge that I (or a little country like NZ) can’t do anything about it.
  • But then the crisis deepens – rivers overflow, whole cities are inundated. One or more of the major parties decides to do something. An emissions trading scheme (NZ), a carbon tax (OZ) is enacted into law. But all along the Parties concerned are cautious. They can’t afford to get offside with the Electorate. Their actions are confined to ‘the art of the possible’. But like a Greek Chorus, there are a whole bunch of knowledgeable people (in Universities, the Scientific Community) who are saying, ‘In terms of the real crisis, this is too little, too late’. When the next Tornado/Flood/Drought/Sea Level Rise arrives on your doorstep, it won’t respect these political niceties.

Now we are faced with a fundamental question about a free, democratic society such as ours. In a way it’s the old question about ‘sticks & carrots’: Can a Government (any government) impose legislation which, in the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, ‘nobody has voted for’? In a real crisis, then, is democracy self-defeating, a recipe for inaction?

Not necessarily. Suppose people realize that the crisis is so serious that the nation is put on a war footing, that all Parties agree to belong to an All Party Coalition Government with a mandate to address the crisis realistically, what then? Does this mean that democracy goes out of the window? Do we now have a dictatorship in all but name?

Again, not necessarily. This move to effective Government (in relation to the real crisis) would have to be accompanied by two things: a vigorous and nationwide educational campaign to acquaint the electorate with the facts about what is happening. At present, there are far too many people who haven’t yet got the message. Just look at the number of gas-guzzling SUVs on the road.

But then, and this is where carrots rather than sticks come in, the Government needs to invent policies that are in people’s best interests to comply with. What sort of things do I have in mind? Here let me quote bits of what I said in a Conference three years ago. Basic is the question, How can Government enable a functioning Green Economy? – conspicuously missing in this year’s Budget as in Labour’s recent proposed tax changes.

So: coming back to carrots rather than sticks, ‘Suppose the agenda for the ordinary person includes: installing solar panels, re-insulating their house, buying a rainwater tank, sharing or owning a wind generator, buying a more fuel-efficient car, cutting air travel by half, re-training for a new job in a ‘green’ or eco-friendly industry … his or her first reaction might be: That’s all very well, but I can’t afford it. Here, to get the ball rolling, therefore, the Government would have to put in place a whole raft of well-targeted subsidies.

Take, for example, solar panels. For many people, these are a nice idea, but unaffordable (quite apart from their availability). My suggestion is that there should be two types of subsidy (or tax-break) to address this problem: one to enable people to buy and install solar panels on their homes; and another to fund research, development and manufacture of cheap and effective solar panels for the general market.  If this were to happen, a ‘win-win-win’ situation could be created in which the self-interest of all parties would benefit. For the householder, it would mean reduced power bills; for the economy and the job market it could create a growth area (with further implications for the tax-take); and for the overall problem of climate change, a progressive reduction in the domestic consumption of energy (as generated and provided by power companies). If domestic consumption could be self-generated by energy derived from the sun (or wind), then energy similarly generated by sun, wind or water (hydro) could be available for all other purposes (mostly industrial). This, for New Zealand would be a politically realistic exercise of ‘the art of the possible’. Not only would it effectively address the real issues of climate change, it would also avoid the dilemma of ‘coal versus nuclear’.

What about sticks? ‘Sticks’ in my judgment are a last resort, but may be necessary. If an appeal to people’s self-interest and good sense fails, the urgency of the onset of global warming may necessitate the banning (or punitive taxation) of such things the burning of coal (as in the US, China, India, Australia – and NZ!) to generate power; or the use of grossly oversized or fuel-inefficient vehicles or aircraft.

To connect this with the ‘carrots’ approach: this kind of ‘sticks’ taxation might be one way to raise the revenue needed to fund the tax-breaks and subsidies necessary to kick-start a flourishing green economy. (3)

3. Theology & Ethics

Recently there has been a lot of new thinking on how Christians talk about the mystery of God (aka, the Trinity). I have summarized it like this:

Basic or primordial is the Father as original or originating gift or blessing. But it is the essence of a gift to be given by someone to someone or some others. In this case, the Father’s gift is equally to Son and Spirit. In this act of giving, the Father is constituted as the Person that God is: the One in whom Gift and Giver are one, for the true gift is the gift of self. Entailed therefore in the notion of ‘gift’ is that there should be a giver, a gift and a receiver (or receivers). Further entailed is the notions of ‘person’ and ‘relation’. It is of the essence of true gift-giving that it sets up relationships between giver and receiver i.e. between ‘persons’. In other words, we are talking about a primordial and fully relational and reciprocated giving and receiving of love. This is the gift: what makes the persons what they are. (4)

This move from a top-down, hierarchical model of the Trinity to one that is lateral and relational has all sorts of implications – in effect the model through which we interpret reality. For example, in the way we understand the relationship between women and men, people and animals. For our purposes here we are asking a further question, How we understand the relationship between humankind and the natural environment. If – as per Lynnn White – we have suffered from a top-down, male-dominated, hierarchical undestanding of God (and so of reality), do we not now need to move decisively to one that is lateral, relational, reciprocal, and based on the notion of gift? Here we re-connnect what I said earlier about the Genesis understanding of Creation.

Finally, something about ethics and spirituality. A key New Testament text for understanding the person of Christ is Philippians 2:5-11. As we troll through the text, we often come up with three words (to reproduce the original greek kenosis). They are: self-emptying, self-limiting, relinquishment. These are all good words, but the trouble is they don’t all mean the same thing. So let’s take a brief look at each in turn.

  • Self-emptying. This is psychological: how we empty ourselves of language, religion or culture that might get in the way of our ability to love or to confront reality – in this case the eco-crisis.
  • Self-limiting. This is about the decisions and choices we need to make: what sorts of purchases (car, house, travel, job & etc) will lead to our life-styles becoming eco-friendly, part of the solution, not the problem? How – voluntarily – do we limit ourselves and our life-style?
  • Relinquishment. This is the hardest of all: What do we personally or as a family have to give up (relinquish) to head off a fossil-fuel driven global warming crisis? The big SUV? The all-too-frequent flights to OZ or elsewhere?

But then, in this pattern of self-emptying, self-limiting and relinquishment, may we not be seeing the emergence of the new man or new woman in Christ that is so desperately needed in the 21st century? ‘For the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God’ (Romans 8:19). May this not be our answer to Bonhoeffer’s insistent question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’


  1. Science 155 (1967): 1203-7.
  2. Stephen B. Scharper: The Ecological Crisis. Essay in, The Twentieth Century, A Theological Overview, Ed. Gregory Baum, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 1999, p.222.
  3. Conference address, ‘We the People’, Rutherford House, March 2008.
  4. ‘Trinity, icon of God, icon of life’. Upublished Paper, December, 2010.

Raymond Pelly has an MA in Theology from Oxford University and a Doctorate in Ecumenical Theology from the University of Geneva. Besides serving in numerous parishes, he has taught at Westcott House, Cambridge, St John’s College, Auckland, and the University of Massachusetts (Boston Campus). He was also Visiting Scholar at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., in 1982/3 & 1995/6. He now works as Honorary Priest Associate at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Wellington, New Zealand where he has a ministry of counselling, spiritual direction and education. He is twice married and the father of six children.