Climate Warming in the Light of an Ethic of Responsibility

Petrus has written a paper for the Catholic Lutheran Dialogue, outlining the reality of climate warming, biblical and theological responses, and concluding with a checklist expressing human responsibility.

I was born in 1938 and migrated to NZ in 1967. I studied economics both in the Netherlands and at Victoria University in Wellington and worked as an economist in Wellington for 30 years. In 2007 I graduated from North West University Potchefstroom South Africa with a PhD degree in philosophy under the supervision of Prof. J.J. Venter and Prof. Egbert Schuurman (Netherlands) with a thesis on the impact of technicism and economism on agriculture. I am a trustee of the Reformational Christian Studies Trust (website: http://reformationalchristianstudiestrust.org.nz). 

Although there is unanimity about the warming of the climate, there are still people who deny that it is humanmade, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. The situation is very serious inasmuch as tipping points seem close, including the thawing of permafrost in Siberia and Canada and large land-based icesheets in Greenland and the Antarctic. The goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C or 2.0 C since 1780 appears optimistic.

The impasse has its roots in the Western ethos of a technological world picture or technicism, meaning that what can be made scientifically and technically should be made, regardless of consequences. It can be said that such actions amount to attempts to develop a counter-creation. This ethos can be changed only through repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. A way towards this, open to all people, is an ethics of responsibility, of caring for the life of all creatures, present and future generations.

A Biblical reflection

‘In the beginning, the Lord God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1). God speaks seven times the command to exist: ‘Let there be’. It means so much as this is how it will be. And God saw that everything was very good (Gen. 1:31).

He made human beings in his image, to reflect his love in the created cosmos by developing it to His glory (Gen. 1). Humans are charged with doing things in history. In Gen. 2 this is elaborated as the cultivation of a garden, the naming of animals (which implied stating what their being entailed and would have initiated a loving bond with them) and protecting it against the intrusion of evil (Gen. 2).

The cosmos would be a home for all creatures. The garden in paradise should develop to a communal home, eventually a city garden (Revelation 21). Human beings should deploy all their functions in this task, with their hearts open to their Creator and to the ordering, the law, to which He has everything subjected.

The earth was created to be our home

The amazing relationship between our planet, the moon and the sun, shows God’s fine-tuning. The distance between the sun and the earth is 150 million kilometres. If the earth were closer to the sun, oceans would evaporate; if farther away, they would freeze. Climate warming means that we have been busy destabilising the finely tuned relationship between warming and cooling of the earth by transforming stocks of fossil fuels into greenhouse gases. 

Another wonderful example of the thesis that God made everything just right, is photosynthesis. Photosynthesis shows how the kingdom of inorganic things serves the kingdom of plants. In turn, that kingdom serves the kingdom of animals. Together they form the substrate of human life. Humans should live responsibly so as to maintain the integrity of the other kingdoms. CW means in fact that we are doing the opposite by making the earth less habitable.

An ethic of responsibility

On-going lack of foresight, the unquestioned belief in science and technology, as a means of progress, or as an attempt to improve upon the creation, even as a means of salvation, have conspired to make the world a very tortured and dangerous place. Is there a way out?

The answer to this question should be affirmative. It is a way of questioning the technical picture of the world by an ethics of responsibility. The ethos associated with the metaphor that the earth is a machine requires office-bearers in government and industry to obey a technical imperative: what can be made should be made. Each of the examples given in the preceding section (using coal and oil as energy and basis for chemical industry; chemical fertilisers; nuclear energy; the Internet) showed this imperative at work. The imperative can be described as a perversion of the greatest commandment of love (Matthew 22:37-40), as summarised by Schuurman: 

“Be as effective as is technically possible,” and the second like unto it is, “Be as efficient as is economically possible.” The breadth and depth of a technological-materialistic culture hang on these two commandments (2005: 22).  

If we repent of this perversion and, by the grace of God, seek to find the way of the greatest commandment, we should be inspired by the metaphor of the garden in the beginning that should lead to the earth as a communal home that is promised to become a garden-city. This puts the emphasis on the services that technology can provide to keep and make the earth habitable for all people, present and future generations, and this involves that the kingdoms of inorganic things, plants and animals retain their integrity and ability to reproduce (Schuurman, 2005).

We are exhorted to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. By obeying or disobeying this commandment we direct our functions toward either good or evil. In Christ, in principle, we begin to obey rather than disobey.

To implement the law of love, human office bearers, in states, families, business enterprises, trade unions, schools, universities etc. should issue laws and regulations under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, taking into account the structural law (including the modalities). In our brokenness, however, we tend to direct things toward evil rather than good. 

Nevertheless, when problems arise, we are compelled to change course. This is an important effect of the lawfulness of the creation, and it inspires hope that an appeal to change might be heard. 

Proposals to combat climate warming should be examined as to whether they are consistent with the idea of the earth as a communal home or would take us further down the path of environmental destruction and human suffering. 

The meaning of ethics is seen most clearly in friendship, marriage and family. All three flourish by practising troth. Troth should colour all of our other functions.

I believe that this is consistent with Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, where he used the word ‘care’ rather than stewardship to designate how we should relate to the earth and to our fellow humans. 

Conclusion

What began in the Renaissance, the rule of humans, based on autonomous science and increasingly applied in technology (the mechanical world picture; technicism) has given rise in our time to a rule by powers such as portrayed in the prophecy of Daniel (Chapter 7, especially verses 19-27). Verse 7:19 shows a fourth beast: ‘so very terrible and different from the others, devouring and crushing with its iron teeth and bronze claws, and trampling with its feet what was left’. In verse 7:20 we read about a ‘horn with the eyes and the mouth that spoke arrogantly’, but when the court of heaven is convened (7:26,27):

‘his power is taken away by final and absolute destruction and ‘the kingship and dominion and majesty of all the kingdoms under the heavens shall be given to the holy people of the Most High, whose kingdom shall be everlasting; all dominions shall serve and obey him.

The Book of Daniel ends with these encouraging words: ‘Blessed is the man who has patience and perseveres’ (12:12a).  

As people of God, whether Roman Catholic or Lutheran, we can witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in the midst of climate warming, whilst serving our fellows via all of our callings. We should call our society to repentance from the technical world picture and all it stands for, pointing to the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with us all the days of our life until He comes (Matthew 28:20b). Through Him, the creation is never lost, not even in the darkest days of intense groaning. Climate warming can be countered meaningfully by applying an ethics of responsibility. 

View full paper here.

You may also like

Tribute for Rod Oram: A Climate Warrior, a Public Intellectual, a Compassionate Activist 

Tribute for Rod Oram: A Climate Warrior, a Public Intellectual, a Compassionate Activist 

Moe Mai Rā, Rod Oram.
Living in the ‘Good’ World of Inherent Pain and Suffering

Living in the ‘Good’ World of Inherent Pain and Suffering

Emma Belcher examines half of life time of pain and her own journey in understanding it in light of a good God.