And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:20-21
In 2017, I accompanied World Relief Kenya Country Director Elias Kamau to visit Turkana County. The people of Turkana have been living in this area for hundreds of years, relying largely on their livestock for food. What I saw on my trip was devastating. Over 90% of the livestock in the county were dead. Children were suffering from malnutrition. And after two failed rain seasons, the Turkana people were starving.
This is a far cry from the picture of God’s creation we see in Genesis 1 – a picture of life in abundance, a creation overflowing with birds, fish and animals of every kind. A world that God declared very good.
Creation is both a beautiful gift for our pleasure and joy, and an essential part of the very sustainability of our planet. Yet sadly, the incredible biodiversity that is celebrated in Genesis 1 is no longer as visible as it once was.
Though some may still dispute the degree to which climate change is being caused by humans, few would dispute that it is impacting our world. Wherever you may stand on this issue, as Christians, we should be able to agree that scripture is clear. God gave humans dominion over the earth “to work it and take care of it ” (Genesis 2:15).
Indeed, creation care is one of the core tenets of Christian witness. But today, there is mounting evidence that we are failing badly in this responsibility.
In his new Netflix documentary, “A Life On Our Planet,” natural historian David Attenborough, now 93, documents this decline and the reasons for it in vivid and disturbing terms. We, God’s chosen stewards of His Creation, are quite literally destroying the creation that makes our own lives possible, living apart from nature rather than being a part of it, and thus bringing forward what could be the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the world if we continue on current trends.
If that seems exaggerated, consider the following. In 1937 there were 2.3 billion people on the earth and 66% of the world was wilderness. By 1997 there were 5.7 billion people and 46 % of the world was wilderness. Today, in 2020 there are 7.8 billion people and only about 35% of the world remains as wilderness.
This matters because the sustainability of our planet and our lives depends on the delicate balance of rainforests, grasslands, oceans, ice caps and the rich biodiversity contained in them. As the planet warms, as populations grow and as we destroy wilderness to fuel our consumption-oriented lives, the cycle of destruction accelerates. As a result, since the 1950s, wild animal populations have halved. And it’s expected that unless we make dramatic changes, in the next twenty years the Amazon rainforest will become dry savannah and the arctic will be free from ice in the summer.
At World Relief, we see the effects of this directly in our work around the world, as climate change shifts long-term weather patterns, bringing more destructive climatic events such as severe flooding. This especially impacts the poorest of the world’s countries, where food and water insecurity and environmental disasters have forced migration and increased conflicts and violence all across the developing world.
While in Turkana, expected rains have been replaced by months of extreme drought and resulting famine, we’ve seen the contrary in Malawi and parts of Sudan where severe flooding has been far worse than in years past. In places like Haiti and Nicaragua, we’ve seen an increase in both the frequency and intensity of tropical storms and greater suffering as a result. Most recently, we experienced the devastating effects of the worst hurricane season on record across Central America as Hurricane’s Eta and Iota struck the region just weeks after one another, causing extreme vulnerability and devastation. And on our U.S. Southern border, we’re beginning to see an uptick in environmentally-induced migration as families flee environmental pressures in search of a safe place to rebuild their homes.
Much of our programming aims to combat the consequences of this devastating climate change.
In places like Sub-Saharan Africa, our Agriculture for Life programming uses conservation techniques that help reverse the man-made consequences of over-farming and deforestation. By working with the land rather than depleting it, we are finding different ways to farm that are better for the environment and give farmers better long-term crop yields.
In Turkana, we are also working on range rehabilitation through the development of Conservation Areas. These areas are fenced off portions of communal land which are protected from livestock and treated with high-quality grass seeds for a period of time. When the dry season arrives or drought hits, the conservation areas often provide the only viable pasture for livestock to feed on, ensuring selected herds are cushioned from the drought shocks and that the Turkana people can continue to rely on their livestock for food and milk through harsh periods of drought and famine.
In Haiti, we have just begun a new waste management project in partnership with Tearfund UK and Arris Desrosiers — a social enterprise company based out of the capital of Port-Au-Prince — which aims to change beliefs and behaviors around waste management and recycling through lessons in creation care and environmental stewardship. The project hopes to connect over 15,000 beneficiaries to proper waste collection and recycling, significantly reducing the waste flowing into the ocean and improving the health and well-being of thousands of families in the Port-au-Prince area of Carrefour.
In the coming years, World Relief is committed to working toward environmental stewardship and climate sensitive policies both internally and throughout more of our programs around the world.
In truth, it will take the whole world; governments, scientists, businesses and each one of us to reverse the trends. We all have to do our part.
We must not rest in denial just because the impacts of climate change are not on our own doorstep. That denial fails to honor God and the wonders of his creation.
Change will only happen when our own hearts are moved so that we have eyes to see and ears to hear. It will happen when we cease to allow climate change and care for our environment to be seen purely through the lens of politics or economic self-interest and bow in submission to our duty of care for God’s creation — a creation to which we are all connected; when we reduce economic inequality and education disparities in the developing world so that we can bring population growth under control; and when we recognize what we do “over here” affects people “over there”. Whether in small or big ways, each one of us can make a difference in building a better world today, tomorrow and for generations to come.
It is time — if not past time — to attend to our Lord’s business.
Tim Breene served on the World Relief Board from 2010 to 2015 before assuming the role of CEO in 2016. Tim’s business career has spanned nearly 40 years with organizations like McKinsey and Accenture where he was the Corporate Development Officer and Founder and Chief Executive of Accenture Interactive. Tim is the co-author of Jumping the S-Curve, published by Harvard Publishing. Tim and his wife, Michele, a longtime supporter of World Relief, have a wealth of experience working with Christian leaders in the United States and around the world.