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Are we on the edge of biodiversity renewal?

We’ve turned into a new calendar year, with all of its cultural energy around newness. And Christians carry on into the church year begun at Advent, and the newness brought into history in the incarnation. 

So it’s a good time to see afresh the entire world, object of God’s love, theater of God’s glory, and our miraculous home. And not only ours, but of the entire community of creation—human and ‘beyond human’ creation. 

When we look around at this marvelous world in 2023, however, it’s painfully clear that the slate has not been wiped clean. Creation still groans—and we with it. And yet there are many signs of newness in the living world, which we can see, uplift, and participate in as part of our callings to live as beloved creatures, co-creators, and followers of Jesus. 

Let’s look at all three angles: the losses, the wins, and how we might live amid both. 

Let’s start with the difficult truth: we are in a biodiversity crisis that is inseparable from the  climate crisis that is actively harming our neighbors near and far. (Check out these biodiversity stripes for a visual; also above.*) 

These days, we hear of overwhelming loss of life in the world. 

We hear that in the last 50 years, the world has lost almost 70% of all living animals, a trendline one commentator calls “a fast-emptying ark.” 

Today, according to Our World in Data, only 4% of the world’s mammals are wild; measured in terms of biomass, there are nearly 12 times as many cattle and pigs. 

A huge amount of the world’s habitable land—27% of the planet, the size of North, Central, and South America!—is currently used for livestock, which is currently a major driver of deforestation (especially cattle). This is land that could be sequestering carbon and providing homes for other living beings

You can no doubt think of other losses. Theologian Rowan Williams named the resulting kind of “species loneliness” well when he said: “We are homesick for the rest of creation.” If you feel this, as I do, it is understandable and worth attending to. 

But there’s more to the story than loss. 

Although recently our human economic and political systems have not, by and large, not been a blessing to other species, that’s of course not true of all humanity. For one, ecological impact tends to increase with wealth. And many Indigenous peoples have lived in symbiotic relationship with creation for centuries; though only 5% of the world’s populace, they protect a remarkable 80%(!) of its biodiversity

And here’s more good news: 

In last month’s global biodiversity treaty, most of the countries of the world agreed to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030, a critical step toward staving off biodiversity loss and rewilding the earth. (The U.S., unfortunately, did not sign on.) As Christian climate scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe put it: “every one of us has just received the best possible gift for any living thing who depends on this planet for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the resources we need.” Amazing!

We know pledges do not automatically mean action. International climate diplomacy has shown how difficult it can be: despite a recent breakthrough toward climate reparations, fossil fuel interests and their petrostate backers still rein in the process. But at the same time, a global treaty like this one is precisely how the nations of the world came together to begin to heal the ozone layer in 1987 (in Montreal, it turns out, the same city that just hosted the biodiversity pact). Could we be living at a turn toward regenerating the earth?

Late 2022 also saw Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva oust Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, running on promises to halt the destruction of the Amazon. (Sadly, Brazilians Protestants largely, but not completely, backed Bolsonaro instead.) This was seen as a huge win for the living world and another reminder that in our interconnected world, elections have global consequences.

There are similar signposts of healed creation, demonstration plots of regeneration, all over the place. Do we have eyes to see?  

If you’re skeptical of global diplomacy or politicians’ promises, fair enough: there’s a lot being done more locally to regenerate the earth. Even as land is lost to industry appetites or degraded due to climate pollution, there are beautiful experiments in restoration and rewilding happening all over the world

Closer to home: gardens, yards, and farms can show forth a better way of living in relationship with the world rather than merely over it. All over the U.S., the Homegrown National Park movement is taking off as more people recognize that the land around them can be put to use for the larger web of life. 

Near where I live in Michigan, Plainsong Farm connects people, place, and God, “making a place that nurtures belonging and the radical renewal of God’s world.” Nearer still, there are people of color-led urban farming and land reclamation efforts underway, as well as a Freedom School offering youth a hands-on food and racial justice education through community gardening. 

No doubt your own community has similar experiments, sites that offer a different way to relate to the living world and one another. There are similar signposts of healed creation, demonstration plots of regeneration, all over the place. Do we have eyes to see?  

Calvin professor Debra Rienstra calls such sites places of “refugia.” In her book Refugia Faith, Rienstra writes about refugia as small places that weather hardship and from which new life spreads. She sees a calling for all of us to be “people of refugia.” (By the way, check out this conversation with Rienstra and the Climate Witness Project.) 

This post has been more about the greater web of life—plants, ecosystems, and animals— than climate change, though of course it is all connected: we can no more separate climate change and biodiversity than we can separate peoples' well-being from the rest of the living world. I think it’s vital for followers of Jesus to take climate action as part of what discipleship looks like in the 21st century. (See Kyle Meyaard-Schaap’s brand new book on this exact topic.) Climate action is a key way to love our neighbors, who will all—if unequally—be affected; many are already. There are many ways to do so: here are five for starters, with more in Kyle’s book

Sometimes, though, “counteracting climate change” can sound overwhelming and…less than inspiring, like a double negative rather than a positive. So echoing others, I think “regenerating life on earth” or “participating in God’s regenerative work in the world” perhaps provides a more energizing vision toward the same ends: working toward the good of neighbors, human and beyond human, for the good of the entire community of creation. This is a hopeful and visionary vocation, not merely avoiding the bad, but bringing forth the beautiful. 

How can we participate? 

Some practical ideas: volunteer with a local organization that will get your hands in the earth, taking care of trees, cleaning watersheds, removing invasive species. Join efforts to conserve wild places near you. Advocate for tree planting or rewilding in your community. If you have land, convert turfgrass to native perennials. Eat less meat and dairy and choose its sources carefully. Pressure and refuse to invest in companies that practice deforestation.

These are ways we can begin to heal the world, but also our alienation from it—an alienation wrought by how we see and relate to the living world. Too often this has been a worldview of supremacy and an extractive economy that commodifies “natural resources” but does not value a thriving biosphere. 

We need to relearn that we do not exist beyond creation. That we are part of it, not over it. That harming the biosphere not only harms us directly, it harms the web of life in which we are inextricably embedded. So much is shaped by our vision.  

So foremost, let’s see ourselves as part of the web of life. Let’s take joy in, let’s let ourselves be re-enchanted with the living world.  

Yes, we will continue to face loss around us. Yet we also are alive at a time of enormous opportunity: to be part of creation’s renewal. As this stunning interactive piece puts it to all of us, “can we find a way to share the planet with the rest of its inhabitants?” 

In this new year, I pray we will participate in the “yes” being answered by places and people of refugia all over the earth. That in this way we may be part of renewing this beautiful, life-giving, biodiverse world. That in this way we will follow the one who says “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21). 

Photo Caption: These biodiversity stripes “show the variety and abundance of nature over time. ​From greater in green to less in grey.” 

*Source: Data source: LPI 2022. Living Planet Index database. 2022 Note that products derived from LPI data for financial gain are prohibited without written permission of ZSL and WWF. UK stripes use public sector information from Defra, UK, Biodiversity Indicators 2021, licenced under the Open Government Licence v3.0.


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