This is the essence of a talk recently given to first to an ecumenical men’s breakfast and then to the Leopold Probus Club (slightly altered for a non-religious group), the Geelong Parkinson’s Group and others. Originally it was entitled, “Discovering Ourselves as God’s Gardeners”, but in trying to think of a non-religious title for the ProBus Club, I settled on “Evolution Stops HERE!” (It really doesn’t, of course) or “Ecological Self-Discovery”. A useful subtitle for all of the above might be that familiar line from Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy being green,” except that I’m not sure it is all that hard.
After some three and a half billion years of the evolution of life, something funny happened about 3 million years ago. Evolution, that random process by which everything now living came to be, resulted in a being that would take the randomness out of the process. By virtue of human intelligence there is now a part of creation (us) that has the capacity, not only to flaunt evolution, but to control it. With our adaptability and cleverness we have learned to modify genes in order to shape the evolution we want. In our human stupidity we have also garnered the means to destroy creation. Human beings decide whether or not creation prospers; whether or not it even continues.
This evolutionary aberration was not lost on the authors of Genesis. Our reason for being may be found back in Genesis, chapter 2, v. 15, one of those verses we tend to just gloss over, but which actually defines our purpose as human beings, and therefore, the role in which we will find meaning for our lives.
This verse is preceded by one of the two stories of human creation:
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed…Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and protect it.” There you have it. The God-given role of human beings is to take care of God’s garden, which in this context means the whole of the world that God created. To fulfil this role is to discover the meaning and purpose to one’s existence. This is the answer to one of the two great philosophical questions: What must I do? This is the great ethical question.
I recognise Genesis does not contain history. The scientist in me knows how human beings came to be, and it certainly wasn’t as described there, but the author of this passage did not intend to describe how human beings evolved. He didn’t have a clue, but he did have an understanding of the relationship of humanity with God and with the created order, and this understanding was important to communicate, both for the good of his people and the good of the earth. In fact, the Book of Genesis is all about relationships.
This has had a practical application in my life. No great revelations! I just blundered into an opportunity – the sort of thing we all do regularly – and I took the opportunity, which is something that most of us don’t do regularly enough – certainly I don’t. But in that taking up of an opportunity I was given a little portion of grace. And as is the case with most such gifts, it came with a task and a responsibility. I’d like to share something of this with you.
The portion of grace I was given was an answer to the other basic philosophical question, Who am I? the ontological question.
The Bible has offered some help. In addition to being God’s gardeners, Genesis 1 tells us that we were made in the image of God. Of course, God does not have an appearance, so in what way is the human being an image? I can offer two answers.
One answer comes from the experience I have when I am at the business of creating, whether it is preparing this talk, building a coffee table, writing a computer program or composing poetry. When creating, I feel enormously complete – fulfilled – as though I am in touch with the core of my being. And this tells me the image of God that I, a human being, reflect is creativity. I am a co-creator with God.
Or when I am at work sitting alongside someone who is grieving or rejoicing with someone and helping them to relive a joyous moment, I am reminded that the image of God I am reflecting is concern for another. Those are just two examples of being an image, i.e. something that reflects the source.
The second understanding of being made in the image of God comes from an understanding of stewardship. In the Middle East of 3000 years ago, it was common for boundaries of a country to be marked by images of the ruler of that land. So to be an image of God is to mark the boundaries of God’s kingdom. As people who live under the Bible, we are defined as God’s stewards. People cannot see God, so all they know about God, and about the boundaries of God’s kingdom, come from observing those who are God’s stewards on Earth. We represent God.
Now I have known this much for a long time, but it was knowledge-about more than real knowing. I hadn’t yet realised who I am, because I cannot be who I am in isolation.
Albert Einstein once said that man’s greatest delusion is that he is an individual. My problem was that I had been searching for my identity as an individual. I was stuck in the great delusion along with, I think, the vast majority of people.
Psalm 133, often used on the Sunday after Easter, speaks to us of the life-giving quality of unity, i.e of relationships restored. (Read Psalm 133). It ends with a reminder that this unity conveys God’s blessing: life forever more!
Life in its fulness is available “When brethren dwell together in unity”….but who are our brethren? Go back to Genesis, where man was made from the dust. The writer knows he is not made of dust as such, but he wants to remind his readers that, when it comes to the identity of humanity’s kin, they include every part of the Earth, including the dust. This is written in the context of a book that is all about our estranged relationships, not only with our present sisters and brothers in the human race, but with those who are yet unborn, with our kin among other species and with our Mother Earth.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that one cannot speaking of ‘being,’ only ‘being in the world,’ for who we are is a function of our relationships. When our relationships are broken, our very lives and identities are broken. All of these broken relationships are manifestations of an estranged relationship with the Ground of Being that the church calls sinfulness: the life-sucking condition that denies us the fullness of life.
I have discovered that working as a gardener for God isn’t something that must be done out of a sense of responsibility, although this is the starting point for many people, but that as one recognises one’s kinship with the Earth, and recognises and repairs one’s relationships, life comes as the resultant gift, and we go beyond the delusion of individualism to discover who we really are: an integral and responsible part of the great web of life.
Now to some of the problems facing Gods’ Gardeners:In 1990 the late Dr. Carl Sagan spearheaded a joint appeal to the religious and scientific communities for environmental action on behalf of humankind. It was signed by thirty-two Nobel laureate and other scientists. Two hundred and seventy-one well-known spiritual leaders from eighty-three countries: patriarchs, lamas, chief rabbis, cardinals, mullahs, archbishops and professors of theology also signed the appeal. Now Carl Sagan was an atheist. Why would an atheist send an appeal to the religious communities? Because he recognised the root cause of the various environmental problems facing the world, particularly the potential for catastrophic climate change, to be a spiritual one. And if the cause is spiritual, then the best place to start fixing the problems was through religious bodies.
The essence of this spiritual cause is our awareness we will die one day. We are perhaps the only animal that can imagine a day when existence will cease. It is the source of what is called ‘existential anxiety,’ and we have invented a myriad of ways to avoid it, often with negative side-effects, Both Jesus and Buddha, among others, recognised this aspect of the human condition, and taught that concern for one’s own existence was life-denying, and would therefore undermine any striving to avoid death.
Hence we have Jesus’ teaching that anyone who would save his life would lose it, but whosoever loses his life will gain it. Often called ‘the Great Paradox,’ it really is an accurate statement about how life comes in abundance when one stops being concerned about it. If I was a psychologist instead of a minister, I would talk about the unconscious and addictive behaviour, but the end message would be the same.
In the face of the finiteness of being, people try to fill their lives with all sorts of things to ostensibly bring peace, happiness, security, self-esteem, et al. Consumerism is the religion of our time and money is our God. It all seems quite reasonable and natural to the unexamined life… until we realise that it doesn’t work, and we look at what it is doing to our relationships in the web of life.
In the theory of evolution, species evolve because of competition for scarce resources. Human beings are no different from any other organism in this respect. When the going gets tough, the tough get going….and beat up on those who are weak. Of course, war is an obvious example, but for the most part, the tough are more subtle these days, finding ways to get more for themselves, and thereby depriving others of their fair share. You need only look at the rapidly increasing gap between the rich and the rest of of the world. Wealth is power and so the wealthy have the power to arrange the system to garner an even greater share of what the earth has to give. Who are the powerless who are disadvantaged? Those who have no voice and no one to speak for them: the poor, the unborn, other species and the earth itself. I will try to speak for them here.
Earth Overshoot Day is that singular day each year when humanity’s demands for resources outstrip the planet’s ability to regenerate them; the day we go into environmental overdraft. When I started talking about such things about 15 years ago, this day occurred in early October as I recall. Last year, we faced our ecological debt on August 2nd, the year before on August 13th. This year, it was July 29th, and next year? It has not been calculated yet, but you can rightly assume we will reach this milestone a couple weeks earlier, as we have done every year since first crossing this threshold in the 1970s.
Overshoot Day is estimated every year by the Global Footprint Network, an international think-tank that synthesises data on Earth’s depressingly dwindling resource supply.
An ecological footprint is a measure of human impact on the earth. It’s typically measured in the area of the Earth’s surface, land and sea, that is required to supply all of the natural resources consumed each year by the human population. This includes the area needed to assimilate human waste. Ideally we would take from the earth no faster than it can replace what we take. For example we would use no more fresh water each year than is returned by annual global precipitation.
In 2007 it was calculated that the people of the world have been using the Earth’s natural capital 1.6 times faster than nature can renew it. This ‘biocapacity’ of the Earth has been estimated at 2.1 hectares per person, i.e. all of the natural resources, air, water, minerals, food, etc for one person can be supplied by 2.1 hectares. Australians are currently using the resources of 8.3 hectares per person, so if everyone lived like the average Aussie, we would need 4 planet earths to support them. Clearly this is not going to happen.
You might wonder, given that the people of the world use resources 1.6 times faster than the ability of the planet to replace them, how they manage to get away with it. After all if we run out of money in July this year, yet continue to spend, eventually there would have to be a reckoning. And that’s just the world average; Australians use resources at over 4 times this rate; in other words, sometime in March Australia ran out of its 2019 environmental capital, so where do we get our resources for the rest of the year?
From others in the Future: We take from the unborn, for they will have to do with fewer resources, because they already will have been used by us today. Even things that we assume will always be there, such as arable land, will have been built upon or drained of its mineral goodness or used as rubbish tips. To make matters worse, we leave a mess for them to clean up, having polluted the air, the water, the land.
From others in the Present: Note that most of the countries on the graph below use less than 2.1 hectares per person. They are poor countries, and one of the reasons they are poor and will stay poor, is that those with the power such as Americans, Europeans and Australians take resources that, in a fair and just world, would belong to the poor.
From the Past: Energy from the Sun collected millions of years ago and stored as fossil fuels cannot be replaced for millions of years more. Trees that took hundreds of years to grow are being turned into toilet paper. Land that became fertile over generations has been overused and its generosity has been taken advantage of so that its goodness is failing and more and more and more fertilisers, themselves gifts of the past and subject to depletion, are required to maintain crops.
From other species; The current extinction rate of other species is anywhere from 1000 to10,000 times higher than the background rate, i.e. the natural rate due to evolution; all because of human activity. The reason for the imprecise nature of this figure is due to the fact that we don’t know how many species are out there. Science has a better idea of how many stars are in the universe than how many species exist on our own planet. About 2 million have been identified, but there may be 100 million. For example, in studying only 19 trees in Panama, 1200 different species of beetles were found, 80% of which were previously unknown to science.
In the worst estimate, a whole species becomes extinct every five minutes. In the best case, we still lose a species every four hours. ‘Extinct’ means a species will never exist again. And since it is thought that the vast majority of species are as yet unidentified, we will not know what has been lost. It may be a species of plant that, within its cells, harbours the cure for cancer or some other currently incurable disease. It may be a species of animal whose blood has a chemical that stops the build up of plaque on the nerve endings that leads to Alzheimers. It may be the critical link in a food chain that currently keeps the planet from being overrun by some potential pest. We just don’t know.
Our Relationship with the Earth
Far from being good gardeners for God – good stewards of God’s creation – as a species we have abused it, depleted it, endangered it.
When he was Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd proclaimed that climate change poses the greatest moral challenge of our time, particularly for Australians who, per person, are the world’s biggest creators of greenhouse gases. Scientifically speaking, Mr Rudd was not exaggerating. There is no greater threat than climate change to the ability of the planet to support us and hundreds of thousands of other species, so as a moral challenge it doesn’t get any bigger. But even if we find a way to deal with climate change, there are plenty of other examples that demonstrate the depletion of earth’s resources; fresh water, fossil fuels, critical minerals, arable land, fish. And all this is caused by the one species given the responsibility to tend and protect garden Earth.
A radical change of direction required; and this is the only change that will save the world from us, save us from ourselves, and restore the web of relationships that will make creation whole, as God created it to be. Realistically, to expect human beings to change their basic nature is not a good bet. If history is any guide, human beings do not make such changes until they have no other choice, and in the case of something like global warming, such a change will be too late. Even if we stop producing greenhouse gases right now, it will take hundreds of years before the climate returns to its pre-industrial revolution state.
And yet, the only hope for the restoration of a stable ecosystem that will continue to support life is for human beings to change or, alternatively, to become extinct. A few people making huge changes isn’t going to cut it, but billions of people making small changes will work miracles, and it is here that the world’s religions have a potential to make a difference. Even if only Christians lived by the tenets of their faith, the impact would be immense. We, in the church, are in the business of changing human beings, so we’d better get to it.
What can we do?
Looking at the scope of the problems, it is easy to be overcome by despair and frozen in inaction. But we have a chance because, in this game, everyone has a role to play and everyone can make a difference.
The single most damaging thing the average Australian does to the environment is drive a car. I doubt if we will ever give up our cars, but we certainly could give up the big SUVs, share cars more, and drive more efficient cars. Many people even would be better off having no car; travelling by public transport or riding bicycles or (heaven-forbid) even walking. So let us tell our leaders to stop spending on roads and spend more on railroads and bicycle paths.
The next most damaging thing we do to the environment is live in houses. Of course, we will continue to do so, but do they have to be so big? Australians, on average, have the biggest homes in the world, even bigger than the Yanks. Perhaps you, like I did, grew up quite happily in a 12 square bungalow with 5 other people, and thought it was pretty darn comfortable. That was the average home in Australia in the ‘50s. Now, even though families are smaller, the average house has more than doubled to 24.5 squares, and 40+ square McMansions are all too common. Houses require resources to build, maintain and heat, yet big houses provide no more essential shelter than did the small homes when we were growing up.
Not only could houses be smaller, they also could be considerably more energy efficient without adding much to the cost. I designed the house in which my son now lives in Highton. It won the energy-efficient home of the year in Victoria in 2001, but it used only common materials and required little extra cost. It just took a little awareness and concern for the environment that most home buyers still do not possess. My son sells new homes for Geelong Homes, and I was at a gathering a few nights ago at which he had invited his competitors from other firms. I asked these men, “Have new home buyers shown greater interest in buying homes that are more energy efficient?” Instantly and unanimously, they replied with a definite “No!” This is despite the fact that doing so would save home buyers much more money than it cost.
It is also necessary to stop building houses on arable land. Australia’s soil generally is poor, and the percent the nation’s area which is arable is relatively small; so it is ecological folly to use land for houses that could be used to grow food. Yet it is happening all the time; a great example of the stupidity that comes with greed.
The third most damaging thing that we do is eat meat. Meat is a very inefficient way to get our protein, and the average Australian eats 3 times the amount needed for a balanced diet. Just the water required to produce a hamburger is about 32,000 litres, which for occupants of a dry continent, seems less than a sensible way to eat.
Fourth on the environmental damage ‘wanted list’ is eating at all. Clearly we must eat, but it can be done a lot more intelligently. In Australia 20- 40% of all food is thrown away – wasted. Can you believe that? And this is not counting the food that is not harvested.
One-third of the world’s food is thrown away. This means that one third of the water, energy, arable land, fertilisers, etc that were used to produce, package, store and transport that food, plus all the greenhouse gases that resulted as a by-product were unnecessary. Add in the unnecessary packaging in even the food that was not wasted and you have plenty of potential for reducing our ecological footprint with no change at all to our standard of living.
Then there is energy production. Coal has got to go. It has got to the point where burning coal is immoral, and fortunately it does seem to be on its way out. But on top of that, we use too much energy to do what we do. On average, a European uses about half the energy an Australian uses, yet has a similar life-style. In addition, we have tremendous potential for generating more renewable energy: sun, tides and the so-called ‘hot rocks’ in South Australia. The only limitation is our lack of will….and of course, the effect of lobbying by the fossil fuel industry. Clearly, we have a great deal of room to reduce energy without compromising our standard of living one little bit.
I would be greatly surprised if there was anyone here who could not reduce their own impact on the environment to a significant degree, plus we all vote. There is plenty of low-hanging fruit to be picked. The challenge is to make people aware. Give most people an opportunity to do something for the planet that does not cost them much and they will do it. In fact, in many cases, living a cleaner, greener life will save them money as well.
This is where the church can play a part. I spoke earlier about the portion of grace that I stumbled upon.
It started when I met and made friends with the people who started OzGREEN, two teachers who quit their jobs, sold their house, and used the money to start this NGO to educate children to conserve water resources. It was quite a risk they took, but OzGREEN became a roaring success. They now run all sorts of programs for both young and old that have had significant improvements to water use and resourcing, not only in NSW where they began, but all over Australian, in Timor, New Guinea and India. That these two people could do this impressed me, and it also guided me into an awareness of various environmental problems and their causes. When I was doing volunteer work for them I noticed I felt very fulfilled, which I took as a sign that I had stumbled onto who I was and why I was at some deeper level.
I was in the Southern Highlands of NSW at the time, as minister of the Bowral Uniting Church, when I started to emphasise the environmental responsibilities posed by the Bible, and although some in the congregation were suspicious of my ‘green’ tendencies, I was able to use the church as a base for reaching out into the community about environmental matters.
With a couple of friends, a public meeting was organised to canvas support for a community group to explore ways of reducing greenhouse gases in the area. To our utter amazement, 300 people turned up to listen to talks on the subject. Over 60 of them agreed to start a permanent group to raise awareness of climate change and educate people about how to live more lightly on the Earth, and CANWin was born. That was about 12 years ago and it is still going strong. (You can explore what they are doing on the internet if you wish. Go to
It would take too long to run through all that CANWin did in my time there, but it culminated in a discovery of the Transition Towns movement, at the time, the fastest growing volunteer organisation in the world. Essentially, the Transition Towns exist to support, train and encourage people to live more lightly on the planet, i.e. to reduce their ecological footprint to a sustainable level. We invited and paid for the English founders of Transition Towns to come to Bowral to run a training conference for prospective trainers in transition, who would then go on to train Australians to create their own transition towns. I was one of 18 people from across Australia to become a trainer for transition. I helped to start Transition Wingecarribee in my own area as well as training people in several other areas of NSW. By the way there is a Transition Towns, East Geelong, should you be interested in getting involved.
I want to emphasise that all this seemed amazingly easy and gave me more energy than it took from me. I had found a spiritual home. The church was supportive in this process. For example, the Bowral church hosted CANWin’s Candidate Debates, which I moderated. Whenever an election rolled around – Local, State and Federal – all candidates were invited to participate in a debate about environmental matters. In 4 elections, only one candidate ever refused to participate (He didn’t get elected).The high point of this ministry – for that’s what it was, a ministry – was “Bundy-on-Tap” in 2009. You may have even seen it on the news, because it got world-wide media coverage. In the town of Bundanoon, where I lived, we gathered a few people together and got all the businesses to agree to stop selling bottled water.
It was more complex than simply stopping the sale of bottled water, for we had to create the infrastructure to make good quality water freely available, but we did it. It was the first community in the world to do so, and so the world heard about it – and I do not exaggerate in the least – and responded positively.
There have been many who have since copied, most notably the city of San Francisco. New Scientist magazine in 2009 included a map of the world, showing 8 places that had made the most significant impacts on behalf of the environment. One of those 8 places in the whole world was Bundanoon, a town of 2500, for its successful war on bottled water.
The point I am trying to make is that significant change resulted from ordinary people getting together and making a difference. It is very east to get overcome by the enormity of the problems we face with God’s Garden. But when you start to do a little, to be joined by others who each do a little, you start to see a change. You realise you have made a difference, and the rewards are immense. The voiceless; poor people, unborn people, other species, Earth itself and, of course, God all will thank you.
This is a paraphrased summary cited in H Eves, Mathematical Circles Adieu (Boston 1977)
A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest; a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.