You guys asked some really tough questions of Scott Sabin for “Ask an environmentalist,” but Scott rose to the occasion with some wise, winsome, and informative responses.
Scott is the Executive Director of Plant With Purpose (formerly Floresta), a Christian nonprofit organization that reverses deforestation and poverty by transforming the lives of the rural poor in six countries. He is the author of the recent book, Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People. Enjoy!
From Suzannah: I feel like most people are clueless about the human cost of environmental degradation. How do you demonstrate that environmentalism is central to loving human neighbors when many dismiss it as being about whales and trees?
My own introduction to environmental issues actually originated from concern for my neighbors, specifically for the poor of Central America and the Caribbean. Since that was the lens through which I first considered problems like deforestation, pollution and lack of clean water, the recognizing the human cost was a key part of my own journey.
When Plant With Purpose was founded, we were not necessarily motivated by environmental concerns. Rather, our founders wanted to get at the root causes of the poverty they saw as they were working in the shantytowns of Santo Domingo. They followed the problem upstream, both literally and figuratively, and eventually realized that deforestation was destroying the livelihoods of rural farmers who were migrating to the slums in search of better opportunities.
Most people know that thousands die daily from waterborne illness. For some reason, they often have a hard time realizing that this is an environmental problem. Many people are rightly concerned about the lack of access to water around the world. Connecting that to the health of a watershed takes another logical jump.
One of the problems may be that we tend to be very insulated from our environment here in the US. It doesn’t seem to have much direct impact on us. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we can often miss the human connection. Instead, much of our environmental activism in the US and Europe is focused on conservation of wilderness or nonhuman species, which can make it seem like a luxury concern. Whales and trees can seem more marginal than people who are literally dying from the impacts of environmental calamity.
From Rhea: Are you an environmentalist BECAUSE you're a Christian, or do you just happen to be an environmentalist who is also a Christian? If it's the former, can you explain to us how being a Christian led you to also being an environmentalist?
I would have to say that I am an environmentalist because I am a Christian. Nearly twenty years ago, while I was studying Spanish in Guatemala, God opened my eyes to issues of poverty and justice and I felt called to serve the poor. Returning to San Diego and volunteering at Plant With Purpose helped me to realize how much the poor depend on the health of their environment and ultimately how much we all depend on it.
Nonetheless, my approach was very utilitarian for many years. I would tell people that, “ We plant trees because the people need the trees.” As I have dug deeper in scripture and grown in my relationship with the Lord, my understanding has evolved considerably. I have come to realize how much God loves his creation and how much scripture talks about his relationship with all that he has created.
And how can we talk about environmental justice or environmental racism in a way that doesn't alienate conservatives?
This is tough. I think you often have to abandon those terms if you want to be heard. I had a similar discussion with my publisher, Judson Press, over my book, Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People. They originally proposed the title "Tending to Eden: Eco-justice for God’s People." I was pretty sure that if we went with that title, the conservative audience to which I was writing would never pick up the book.
I think one of the key ways for people to become familiar with environmental injustice is through building relationships with those who suffer from its effects. Short-term trips can potentially serve to create some understanding.
From Sarah: Is environmentalism a concern only wealthy countries can afford to take action on? For example, some say that enforcing things like a certain percentage reduction of greenhouse gas/carbon emission unfairly penalizes emerging economies (like China and India). What do you think?
In the end, [environmentalism] is a concern that we all must take action on. We can’t afford not to.
However, fairness is undoubtedly an issue.
Working with individuals, we are often faced with an analogous situation. We are constantly confronted with people who simply cannot afford to take a long view because they are faced with choices of immediate survival. Haitians have a proverb that roughly translates as “this tree must die or I will die in its place.” They know they need the forest – in the long-term - but the short-term perspective wins out. That is, unless we can develop creative solutions to help them to improve their immediate situation.
That is one of the reasons that microfinance and improved agriculture practices are key to our work. They allow people to benefit in the short-term and give them the luxury of taking a longer view.
The analogy isn’t perfect of course. However, there may be something to be learned from it. I think there are a lot of win-win opportunities for both wealthy countries and emerging economies. For example, developing clean energy solutions can help control emissions while allowing an economy to grow. (China is already taking a leading role in the development of solar energy.) Other mechanisms, such as debt-for-nature swaps or REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), may help. Ecotourism may provide economic incentives for caring for land.
The answer also depends a great deal on what type of environmental actions we are talking about. Most countries can afford to undertake at least some actions. The Dominican Republic has long subsidized propane for cooking as a way to reduce deforestation. Haiti has been encouraged to do so as well. On the other hand, reducing greenhouse gases is an action that would have far higher costs, especially on a rapidly growing economy like India or China. There the trade offs between long-term and short-term health and prosperity are starker. I have to admit that this is a very difficult question and perhaps one of the reasons I have focused on applying myself to small-scale grass roots solutions with more easily observable outcomes.
From Dan: What do you think is the best way to address the mindset prevalent among many Christians that views the earth and its resources as something to be subdued and exploited rather than nurtured and protected?
As I mentioned in my answer to Rhea, I think I originally saw the environment in that way. At the very least, I saw it as primarily for the use of humans.
However, as I studied (and listened to others, like Dr. Cal DeWitt) I began to see how scripture talks of God’s interest in his Creation and the delight he takes in it. Scripture tells us that he pronounced it good. Throughout the Bible we learn that the earth is the Lord’s. (Exodus 19:5, Job 41:11, Psalm 24, I Corinthians 10:26) He placed Adam in the garden to “tend it” (abad) and “keep it.” (shamar) (Gen 2:15) A lot has been written on the implications of that verse and the meanings of those Hebrew words, but one of the amazing things to me is the fact that from the very beginning God was involving humans in what he was doing in the world. We weren’t the center of the story, but we were given an opportunity to participate in God’s plan. That continues into the New Testament, where we learn that Christ is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20) and has called us into the same ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18)
In Psalm 104 and in Job 38-40 we get a glimpse of God’s relationship with creation, independent of humans, and in creation itself we begin to see the depths of God’s creativity.
That has been one of the greatest personal gifts I have received in this journey – an opening of my eyes to the wonders of God’s creation. It is easy to go to a place like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, and stand for a moment with mouth open at the beauty of the scene, but that is a superficial perspective on the incredibly, unimaginably detailed tapestry of creation. Paul says that God’s divine nature is revealed in creation (Romans 1:20). I have been captivated by the fascinating stories God has authored in the lives of his plants and creatures – stories that we have barely begun to learn. (Look up the Clark’s Nutcracker, for example, or remember the story told in March of the Penguins.) There are millions and millions of stories like those that God has lovingly crafted. We know so little about them that it strikes me as very arrogant to assume that they are for us.
From Rachel: How can we environmentalist help challenge and change the notion that environmentalism is about politics? As a an environmental scientist, I find this attitude to be very frustrating but I do not know how to graciously combat it.
I think the idea that it is all about politics may come from the way issues are framed in our own intensely polarized domestic political dialogues. I have tried to go beyond this by starting the conversation around environmental issues faced by the poor in developing countries and around small-scale non-political solutions. (It helps that this is also what I am most familiar with.) I am not sure that this is totally effective but I do find that people are more willing to listen. Also, the policy solutions in those situations are not always “liberal” solutions.
For example, environmentalism is often depicted as being against private property. Yet at Plant with Purpose we have found ourselves advocating for property rights in several countries. Poor farmers who have the right to use wood and products from trees they plant will be much more likely to plant and care for them in the first place. Similarly poor farmers are more effective stewards of land that they are assured of being able to use in the future.
Once people hear this, I think it allows them to let their guard down and consider other environmental problems and solutions more objectively and creatively. At least that is my hope.
The other thing that helps, I think, is hearing voices that come from outside of our narrow political perspectives. That is something we have tried to do by amplifying the voices of our partners. For example this video from our program in Thailand is very hard to argue with, and allows a wider conversation:
Similarly, the voices of those being directly affected by climate change are very compelling. One of the stories that helped to sway my thinking was the story of the nomadic Gabra people who have had much of their way of life fall apart due to changing climate. (This is covered in a bit more detail here.) Tearfund, the evangelical relief and development agency from the UK has done a lot of work in this area. See their Dried Up, Drowned Out video and associated materials.
From R. Lee Bays: I'd love to hear your thoughts on why white Christian evangelicals in particular, are signficantly more likely to be global warming deniers than the population at large?
I wish I knew. As I was considering this though, I thought that while Christians are often criticized for taking a cafeteria or ala carte approach to Christianity, we seem to take our politics from a set menu.
From Jaime: What are some ways I can help the environment that I might not be aware of? I hear a lot about recycling, avoiding plastic, conserving water, etc from large campaigns, but I am interested in an individual's take on things.
I think one of the biggest things we can do as individuals is to buy less stuff. The amount of stuff we accumulate and/or use once and throw away in the West is astonishing, but we have become blind to it because it is how everyone else around us lives. A visit to Haiti or Burundi drives this point home pretty quickly. This is an area where I need to do a lot more work myself.
Realizing that, it is easy to feel guilty or to become an “environmental Pharisees”. Instead, I think it is like much of the Christian life, in that we take one step at a time out of obedience. Once we ask, “How much is enough?” or condemn another for their choices we may have lost sight of the spirit in which we are to live.