Earth Subdued … and Then Some

My brother had rabbits when we were kids.  He and my dad built a luxury hutch in the back yard.  Two bunnies, two males.  Or so we were told.  One morning, as you supposed, there was a whole litter of bunnies in the hutch.  Immediately, they took the mother bunny and the babies inside; they made a space for them in the basement not far from the woodworking bench.  OK, bunnies are hard to sex, we knew that.   What none of us were prepared for was the fact that mother rabbits can actually save fertilized eggs for a second litter.  Sure enough, one month later there were nine more bunnies.  It’s cliche, of course.  We all know that rabbits are a symbol for fertility.  In backyards, however, there can be too many rabbits.  Mike and Dad had to quickly give away the bunnies and build another hutch.

So, God says on the sixth day of creation:

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Be fruitful and multiply.  Fill the earth and subdue it.  Mission accomplished.  One of the things the economic boom of industrialization brought to the planet is the ability to fill the earth and subdue it.  We’ve more than filled; and we’ve more than subdued.  We are now at the point that we seriously need to consider the fact that there are planetary boundaries to growth.  We cannot just build a new hutch.  At least, not yet.

Growth has been considered a worthy goal for millennia.  These last three hundred years, though, have seen unprecedented population expansion; we have realized that the earth is finite and what we do makes a huge impact on the planet.  Professor Sachs stated, in this week’s lesson:

“Economic growth is complicated, but sustainable development is even more complicated. To achieve sustainable development, countries need to achieve three goals simultaneously: economic growth, broad-based social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. While many countries have “solved” the growth puzzles, few have succeeded in achieving all three aspects of sustainable development.” [The Age of Sustainable Development Coursebook, p. 182]

Planetary boundaries

Planetary boundaries

We listen to the financial reports every day to evaluate how our economy is growing. But are we taking into account the many other “costs” we share in the economic “growth” we experience?  Like every pyramid scheme in business, eventually it breaks down.  There is a limit to growth. Our limits face us in the nine areas defined by the chart at the right, including air and water pollution, ozone depletion, land use, climate change, and loss of biodiversity.  In many ways, we have not only “subdued” the earth and its creatures, but we are exploiting them.  There are ways, however, for us to be more faithful in our stewardship of resources.  That is the goal of the sustainable development.

The good news is that there appear to be ways to reverse the doom and gloom, apocalyptic forecasts for our future.  We can effect a turn-around if we consider sustainability routinely and place value on working together to 1) decrease fertility rates around the globe to a sustainable, replaceable number of two children per woman, 2) develop energy sources and conservation so that we are much less reliant on fossil fuels, 3) provide limits for agriculture and industry that maintains the vast number of species of animals and plants on the planet and 4) develop new technologies in energy, agriculture and health that can help.

In the church world, we share the notion that growth is synonymous with health.  We tend to value the large church over the small church; we think, if we could only get new members, we’d be healthy.  The memories of the last century’s boom in church growth haunt us in assessing ourselves and our future. These are the societal and cultural boundaries we are hitting up against: a population with less leisure time, large buildings with increasing costs to maintain, a more religiously diverse population, the lack of racial/ethnic diversity within our congregations, the over-simplification of Gospel, generations of people who are excited by impact and not bound by duty.

Could it be that the decline we’re seeing now is the result of non-sustainable development in the church for decades?  Could it be that our five year strategic plans were dependent on an assumption that there would be continuous growth of people, leadership and money?  Could it be that part of the solution is to re-evaluate ourselves in light of the three areas of sustainability: economy, environment, and equity … or income, impact, and integration, that is, the full integration of faith and life for members and the congregation as a whole.

Bottom line.  We live beyond our means to sustain us right now.  We have no trouble seeing that when we look at personal, church or presbytery finances.  We can no longer keep consuming the earth and its creatures for our comfort and quality of life without considering and planning for the needs of the other species with which we share this planet, and the planet itself.  Likewise, we cannot make decisions about our future Church based on income/expense reports and budgets, without also considering the impact we have on the community as well as the work we’re doing and nurturing spiritual health and integrating our faith with our lives.

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