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14th May, 2007

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What have we done?

Two things seem very clear when it comes to the story of man and his environment: 1. God intends for us to utilize nature's bounty for our material benefit; 2. we have failed in serving as faithful stewards of the glorious environment God has given us.

Beyond those two certainties everything else seems unclear. Believers cannot point to biblical passages to explain exactly what man has done wrong in his treatment of the environment. Sure, some things seem obvious. Through utter stupidity we ate up all the dodos, Steller's sea cows, great auks (and I'm ashamed to confess that one of my ancestors was involved) and passenger pigeons. Similar stupidity led to the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger — since they were suspected of eating a few sheep they were classed as vermin and a bounty was put on them. They didn't have a chance. And we all know that the wealthy West's double-barreled selfishness — lust for the trappings of wealth and refusal to forego the convenience of cheap energy — has oiled the slippery slide of environmental deterioration. Such obvious follies should be loudly condemned; we in the wealthy West need to acknowledge our sin and take drastic steps to reduce our demand on the world's natural resources.

However, much of the ruin we have worked would seem almost beyond human control — population growth and the natural desire for progress and economic development can hardly be damned in their own right. Nobody made a conscious decision to drive the wolf and the bear to extinction in Great Britain. As populations grew folks had to cut down more forest for farmland and villages, progressively robbing bears and wolves of their habitat until, like a man losing just a few hairs a day eventually goes bald, it was all gone. Defending the realm can also be fingered for its fair share of guilt for environmental degradation. Britain's oak forests were consumed in a race to build the ships needed to defend against invasion. Who could condemn the authorities of the time?

Other environmental upheavals seem utterly unavoidable in hindsight. The May edition of National Geographic has a riveting

account of the consequences of European settlement of North America. Charles Mann, the author of the article, “America: Found and Lost”, explains how historians have coined the term “the Columbian exchange” to describe the massive changes that occurred in the first centuries of settlement. He describes its effects:

The Columbian exchange… is why there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and hot peppers in Thailand. It is arguably the most important event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs.

Who in Europe can imagine living without tomatoes? Should Americans be denied orange juice for breakfast? Certainly, the original inhabitants of North America did not pine away for citrus fruit, just as, on the other side of the world, Henry VIII put on fabulous banquets without tomatoes or corn. Scripture nowhere warns against moving species around the world. However, the same freedom of exchange has created huge problems and wrought destruction that we simply cannot fully grasp simply because we don't have the benefit of going back in time and seeing what the world was once like. Rats have been carried all around the world and driven numerous other species to extinction. Untold thousands of plants have turned into noxious weeds in their new homes. Nature today is a very pale shadow of what Adam and Eve knew. Who could possibly have foreseen and prevented such disasters?

When enterprising folk discovered the superior energy-producing power of coal compared with running water and put it to use in those "dark, satanic mills", who could possibly have foreseen the dire consequences hundreds of years later?

One day the earth will be healed and return to its original pristine state. Hallelujah! In the meantime, even if believers have no practical insights to offer mankind in the cause of reviving our planet, they should take every opportunity to help their neighbors see the glory of God in what is left of nature. Yes, indeed, the whole earth is still full of His glory (Is. 6:3).

Want to keep up-to-date with developments in the way we humans treat our planet? See "Diary of destruction and healing"


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