(originally published in Insights online)
Monday 22 March was Australia’s Overshoot Day for 2021. This is the day that Australia has used up its yearly allocation of the earth’s resources. What should have taken 365 days has taken Australians 81 days. We are the seventh worst offender in this regard and if every nation lived as we did this year, we would need 4.5 planets. In 2020, the Earth’s Overshoot Day was 22 August. This was the date that the earth’s ability to regenerate last year was exceeded by humanity’s demand for ecological services and resources.
We are currently in the Anthropocene, a geological period of time commencing around 1800, where human presence and activity is ‘actually changing the direction and course of the evolution of the planet’. We are seeing mass animal extinctions, deforestation, heat waves and catastrophic fires, glacial and polar ice melting with corresponding rising ocean levels, indiscriminate mining and fracking, air pollution, floods and extreme weather events on an unprecedented scale. These are not naturally occurring, but are the result of human interaction with the planet. How did we get to this destructive place?
At a recent Mayoral Reception in Adelaide, Uncle Mickey Kumatpi Marrutya O’Brien, a Senior Aboriginal man and descendant of the Kaurna (Adelaide Plains) and Narrunga (Yorke Peninsula) people observed that white people often have a hierarchy with humans at the top. This meant that humans saw that everything else existed to serve them. For Indigenous Australians, however, this hierarchy is completely inverted. The land actually stands at the top because it gives everything else life – the plants, the animals and finally humans. As such, humans are there to serve and care for everything else, because land is the provider of life.
If Second Nations people in Australia shared this attitude, would our Overshoot Day be as early in the year? Where did this white understanding of human relationship with creation come from?
Part of the answer lies with Christian theology.
Our theology often determines our behaviour. In simple terms, if we have a theology of domination, we are more likely to view creation as a resource for our benefit and we can thus use it any way we see fit. We will see the earth purely as a collection of commodities to use– trees to be cleared, minerals and ores to be mined, water to be wasted, land only as a place for development. Humans have long thought of themselves as living on earth. As Professor David Rhoads points out, For 20 centuries, virtually all Christian traditions have focused on the relationship between God and humans and between humans and humans. In so doing, we have given scant attention to God in relation to nature, nor our human relationship with the rest of nature, nor our relationship with God in and through nature’). We and, more concerningly, future generations are paying for this oversight.
Part of the reason for this is the understanding of Genesis 1:26-28, where God makes humans, blesses them, and gives instruction concerning the rest of creation. The Hebrew word kabash has been translated to subdue or to subjugate and the word radah as have dominion, rule or dominate. While the original writer may not have had violent or human-centred intentions when they first wrote it, over time, this translation has resulted in a very anthropocentric framework for understanding human relationship with nature. It was something created for humans and to be exploited as such.
If we have a theology of stewardship, hopefully we will see creation as actually belonging to God and we are to care for and protect it. We need to have a concept of humans being embedded in earth, that we belong to this planet. Human beings are mammals and have evolved alongside many other species. We are deeply reliant upon the earth for our survival. Clean air, drinkable water, sustainable food are necessities and we cannot produce these without the earth’s interaction.
New understandings of Genesis 2:15 may offer a more positive way of interpreting our relationship with creation. God puts the man in the Garden and he is to look after it in some way. Traditionally, the words abad and shamar are translated work and keep respectively. These are agricultural terms. Other translations for abad are serve, and for shamar are guard, watch or preserve and have more a sense of acts of worship. In this sense, the land remains God’s and we are to care for it in such a way to keep it pristine and nurtured. If we have this as our theology, then our behaviour should respond with protecting, sustaining and wisely sharing the earth’s resources because they are not actually ours, they are God’s.
Another area of theology that impacts our understanding of human relationship with creation is eschatology. If we understand that this planet is not our ‘real’ home and that God is going to whisk us away to heaven for our eternal life, we are less likely to care for the earth now. There is a sense in which God is going to destroy this earth anyway, so there is little point in humans caring for creation. If this is not the case, however, and God is moving toward a restored and redeemed earth and sky, which Christians are participating in, we are more likely to nurture and care for our planet and its creatures.
Another resource is the Earth Bible Project, where scholars read Biblical passages through the lens of ecojustice principles of the intrinsic worth, interconnectedness, voice, purpose, mutual custodianship and resistance of the universe, earth and all its components. By doing so, they try to set aside a history of reading scripture through an anthropocentric and patriarchal framework.
By valuing creation, seeing it as precious and humans as a dependant part of a complex whole, perhaps Christians can be part of changing the date of Overshoot Day.
Dr Katherine Grocott
Grateful thanks to Rev Dr Vicky Balabanski, Director of Biblical Studies at Uniting College in Adelaide, for her insights.