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Fall 1992    Vol. 21 No. 2    pp. 54–59 

The Environment: What Can Christians Do?

Dave Hubert

A German children’s song revels in the goodness of God’s creation of stars and planets, fish and animals, and in children too. The song, “Weisst du vieviel Sternlein stehn an dem blauen Himmels Zelt?” appropriately sets the stage for Christian thinking about the environment. The children sing about God’s joy and pleasure in all creatures and creation. For changing the environment, Isaiah’s words are apropos: “And a child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6 NIV).

CALLED TO CONSERVATION: NON-HUMAN CREATURES HAVE INTRINSIC VALUE

Before Christians will do much to salvage a deteriorating environment, they will need a theology of environment. The creation account concludes with the evaluation that what God had created was good. All of God’s created handiwork was declared good, a priori, without reference to its utility for human beings. If Christians want to do something about the environment, they must begin with the realization that the created order has value and worth quite apart from the needs and wants of human beings. Creation has standing and merit in its own right, and needs no human help to give it value before God.

Church and City: “Conserving creation; creating employment”

The natural world receives God’s care; in {55} turn it has its own calling to praise God. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. All you have made will praise you, O Lord” (Ps. 145:9-10a, emphasis mine). John writes: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things and for thy pleasure they are and were created” (Rev. 4:11).

God created the world, the plants and the animals, good. He created with compassion, love and beauty; with intelligence, infinite variety and reproductivity; with interdependence, commonality and sustainability. And then, according to Waldemar Janzen, a professor of Old Testament, He created human beings to care for this creation in His place, to care for it as He had created it. 1 My father, a husbandman and tiller of the soil, warned me that if I did not care adequately for the farm animals, if I neglected or abused them, they would accuse me of this neglect before God.

CALLED TO CONVERSION: REORIENTATION OF THE CORPORATION

The Apostle Paul writes of principalities and powers. Hendrik Berkhof and Walter Wink, among others, help us to understand that these principalities and powers are organizations and mindsets that give structure, direction, and meaning to our lives 2. They make life bearable and tolerable. These principalities and powers were created by God through Christ (Col. 1:16). They were created to lead human beings to God, but in their fallenness they usurp the place of God, and become idols instead. If wholeness and shalom are to be restored to God’s good creation, organizations as well as individuals must be converted.

Modern corporations are principalities and powers that need conversion.

Millions in the Western world devote their lives to the corporation which provides unity, structure, direction, meaning and a regular paycheck. But the ultimate purpose of most corporations is not the enhancement of human life or the preservation and development of God’s good creation, let alone investing in eternity. The ultimate value of almost all corporations is financial profit for the shareholders. In serving the corporation which is devoted to the maximization of profit (i.e., greed), private vice has been turned into public virtue in the name of competition. Competition turns human beings against human being so that some may get larger homes while others are homeless, some may gorge themselves while others starve, and some may clothe themselves to excess while others must live in castoffs. These principalities and powers have the mark of death, rather than of the life abundant about which Jesus spoke. {56}

The church is charged not only with calling individuals to repentance and conversion, but also with calling principalities and powers to repentance so that these might fill the roles for which God created them. Paul says that God’s “intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10-11 NIV). Many persons who are converted and who wish to honor God, nevertheless give their best efforts to principalities, the corporations, which are ruled by the power of death. Conversion is indispensable. As part of that call to conversion, the church must provide biblical models that these principalities and powers can emulate.

CALLED TO CREATION: A MODEL OF A CHURCH IN ACTION

In Edmonton, Alberta, through the efforts of a church-related entity, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Employment Division, there has been formed the Edmonton Recycling Society (ERS). Publicity in 1988 about its beginning featured the biblical text: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). The proposal by ERS to the city of Edmonton to recycle its household waste, was prefaced with: “Seek the welfare of the city . . . for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7 RSV). ERS has a contract with the city to collect recyclables from 65,000 homes in north Edmonton. The creation of ERS grew out of concern for the environment and the unemployed, particularly unemployed with mental handicaps. Its objective is not the maximization of profit but rather, in the words of its motto: “Conserving creation; creating employment.” Because maximization of profits is not its primary function, ERS has deliberately developed a labor-intensive rather than a capital-intensive approach to operations. It has a regular workforce of 75-80 people and goes out of its way to hire people with physical or mental disabilities, refugees, native people and people who are on social assistance (welfare). Just because profit is not a primary consideration does not mean good financial stewardship is optional. It isn’t. Sound management is critically important. Financial surpluses at the end of the year are to be allocated according to a policy established by the ERS Board prior to submitting the proposal to the City. The five priorities for disbursement of financial surpluses are:

  1. Profit sharing with employees,
  2. Recycling additional commodities.
  3. Providing work for more people.
  4. Research into recycling more commodities. {57}
  5. Return of funds to the City.

In negotiating the contract, the City stated it wanted 50% of the surpluses returned before the other four priorities came into play, and to date ERS has returned over $300,000 to the City in the form of profit shares.

Involvement of MCC and ERS in the environmental agenda has had a number of interesting by-products. The environmental benefits have been significant. For example, from January 1989 to December 31, 1991, 401,900 trees were spared and 165 million gallons of water saved from pollution by diverting newsprint out of the 71,000 cubic meters of landfill. The savings from power generation from recycling this newsprint conserved 15,700 tons of coal which would have been converted into 27,600 tons of C02, 59,000 kg of nitrogen oxides and 105,700 kg of sulphur dioxide. 3

Because marketing the recyclables collected has proved difficult at times, ERS took the initiative and pressed hard to have a de-ink paper mill established in Alberta for recycling newsprint. Alternatives have been sought for other paper products, glass and plastics.

An Increasingly High Profile

In the case of plastics, ERS personnel have taken leadership in establishing the Alberta Plastics Recycling Association (APRA), with representation from major polymer producers, plastics manufacturers, plastics users and recyclers. Membership consists of firms such as Dow Chemical, Shell, Nova, Safeway and Colgate-Palmolive. The goal of the APRA is to make Alberta a model of effective plastic waste management. It has taken leadership in calling together the plastic stakeholders in Alberta to determine how to solve the problem of waste plastic. The stakeholders include the petrochemical companies, the plastic manufacturers, the retail sector, the three levels of government and the environmental sector. All are becoming more committed to greater responsible use of waste plastic and better stewardship of creation.

The high profile of ERS has also generated other kinds of opportunities. An environmental idealist with a vision for recycling building materials, but who had limited experience in business or administration, requested and received assistance from MCC Employment Development in establishing an organization to reuse and recycle used building materials. This effort now provides employment for seventeen people, keeps many tons of building materials out of the landfill, and provides economical building products for people who often cannot afford to buy new materials. The effort has become a model for the building materials Re-Store {58} run by Habitat for Humanity in Winnipeg and for a similar undertaking in Toronto.

Finally, ERS gave the inspiration and impetus for the formation of the Alberta Recycling Systems Society (ARCS), which has taken leadership in decontaminating and recycling used appliances (refrigerators, stoves, washers, and dryers) and plastic products. ARCS, like ERS, is a nonprofit, charitable organization, with its own board of directors, and is now beginning to collect polypropylene baler twine from farms in Alberta. It is also investigating other plastic recycling alternatives. If these plans can be successfully implemented, the activities of ARCS will generate earnings that will be allocated to the charitable activities of MCC, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and possibly other charities like MEDA and Habitat for Humanity. One of the objectives of ARCS is to have the corporate model serve the needs of the poor and marginalized of this world by preserving and conserving God’s good creation.

Public response to ERS has been highly gratifying. The ERS contract with the City requires a 70% participation rate of citizens in north Edmonton, but the participation rate exceeds 90%. Many business and community leaders have complimented ERS for effectively combining environmental, social, and business goals.

Although the private waste management companies were skeptical about ERS when the contract was awarded in 1988, these companies are now actively courting the organization. Additionally, ERS has attracted visitors from all over the world, and almost all comment on the effective way in which environmental, social, and business goals have been integrated.

Jesus taught that those who sought greatness in the Kingdom of God must be prepared to be the servants of all. In Edmonton, a small group of Christian people have applied this understanding to preserving the environment and providing employment for the disenfranchised. Others, with a vision of Christian service and the compassion which God requires of all, and a willingness to apply the claims of Christ to career choices, are doing similar things elsewhere.

Can Christians not collectively gain the vision of conserving creation, calling people (including Christians) and organizations to conversion, and becoming partners with God in creating models that will demonstrate to the fallen principalities and powers a future that is worthy of the reign of God? {59}

ENDNOTES

  1. Waldemar Janzen, “The Theology of Work From an Old Testament Perspective,” unpublished paper, 1988.
  2. Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1977).
  3. Statistics generated from data provided by Edmonton Power and World Watch Institute.
  4. Calvin DeWitt, “Responding to Creation’s Degradation: Scientific, Scriptural and Spiritual Foundation,” unpublished paper, 1987.
Dave Hubert, based in Edmonton, is Director of Employment Development, Mennonite Central Committee, Canada.

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