I went for a walk the other day, down Regent’s Canal. It was one of those times, spent alone, where your mind is free to wander, take in what’s going on around you, make little connections you didn’t expect. I like those kinds of environments, where grey, angular urban meets the less predictable water, plants and animals. As I walked, big grey clouds blew over and it started to rain, rippling the canal water. A break in the clouds ahead let golden sunlight shine through. Mallards and moorhens got on with their day.
A bit of a preoccupation of mine at the moment is what it means to be connected to the environment we are a part of, and how far it feels we have managed to isolate ourselves from everything we’re surrounded by (even in our language – we talk about ‘the natural environment’ as if it’s something distinctly different from ourselves). I was half-thinking about this, while I enjoyed the rain. As I walked, I was surprised to find my mind had settled on some words of scripture;
“You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
(Actually, it’s not a huge surprise that these words came to mind; they’re one of the few bits of the Bible I’ seem to have memorised, and the few words I’ve underlined in my beaten up copy of the book.)
Though not one of the obvious references to the environment (in my ‘green’ bible, which highlights references to the environment in green ink, these words remain resolutely black…) I think there’s something important in those words that can help us to shape an understanding of our current relationship with the earth.
I find a sense of presence of the divine in the natural world – I don’t know if I believe in any God that exists beyond the material world we live in; that doesn’t seem very important. For me, there is as much of God in the connections and inter-reliance between beings in the biosphere as there is anywhere; our sense and relationship with God could be derived from how well we participate and live in relationship with the other living things on this planet, the utter complexity of it all, in the material and the mundane. I don’t want to look beyond or away for God, I want to look to the very here and now.
It seems at the moment though, we’re often making choices which amount to serving money and finance, not an earthly and present God, and that’s because we’re on a trajectory – kick-started in the industrial revolution with the advent of the fossil-fuel powered engines – which has led us far, far away from any sense of interdependency with our environment.
In her new book ‘This Changes Everything’, Naomi Klein talks about the ‘sacrificial zones’ created for tar sand extraction (vast landscapes negated to hold the waste of this utterly polluting form of fossil fuel extraction); a more recent example of how capitalism has pushed ‘nature’ further and further into a corner. “If it doesn’t turn a profit, then it has no value” is the mantra of modern-day, hyper-capitalism. If we can’t extract vast amounts of minerals, or oil, or wood from a landscape, then it’s future is of little consequence, it has no inherent worth beyond our own financial valuation. We’ve spent a long time teaching ourselves to believe that we’re on the top of the pile, that things only make sense through their utility to us. Our economy has become ever more reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels and ever increasing levels of consumption. To my mind, we spend a lot of time serving money, not God.
However, we know this doesn’t fit well, that we’re running on borrowed time. We know that the Amazon and other rainforests are the lungs of our planet. We know that our plants and animals rely on each other. We know that the wonder of creation isn’t just the individual species, but even more the vast tapestry of connections and interdependency that exists in the biosphere.
A few years ago Friends of the Earth ran a publicity campaign to promote bees and to stop activity threatening their future, with the tagline “Bees: they need us almost as much as we need them.” This did a beautiful job of reminding us that we are reliant on the ability of these little creatures to pollinate plants, that we need them more than they need us, that we have a relationship. Of course, it’s our brutal attitude towards nature that has meant that bees are finding it hard to survive; our extractivist mindset finds it hard to understand the value of a wildflower meadow on it’s own terms, and at the same time the extractivist culture takes all the honey, leaving the bees just sugar water to survive on. Take everything, fuel the economy, return nothing.
I believe there’s a response though, and I don’t think we need to overly ‘spiritualise’ it – I think we need to take concrete action to rebuild our relationship with the earth, to live more interdependent lives with each other and other non-human living things, to recognise and love those relationships. It’s not about what happens in a church building – it’s about having mud under your fingernails. It’s about making compost, growing plants, eating the produce (and making compost out of the bits we don’t eat or digest). Taking what we need, leaving the rest. Growing flowers that bees and other animals love, even if we would never eat them outselves. Not digging the soil. Remembering – when we harvest – to say thank you for what we have been served. Not looking up for heaven, but looking down.
Peter Rollins’ interpretation of the film Wall-e (which I love) is a lovely illustration of this process – of alienation, of separation, and of a more genuine return. In case you haven’t seen it, the film is a bit of a dystopian future, where humanity has had to abandon planet earth because of the un-Godly mess they’ve made of it. The humans managed to create an entirely synthetic environment – a huge space ship that is literally disconnected from the earth, where all their needs are met. Wall-E is the last surviving robot tasked with cleaning up after the human’s ancestors mess. You can’t help but feel sorry as the fat blobs float around, being endlessly fed with crap food and mindless entertainment, all because they’re ancestors were so horrifically violent to the planet they had to leave, because their consumerist, hyper-capitalist society couldn’t be contained in the closed biosphere, because those generations before them chose to live lives of such complete disconnect (so maybe I’m extending the metaphor…) For much of the film, they’ve entirely forgotten what it means to have a relationship with the earth.
The film ends hopefully though, with the humans returning to the earth, and they begin planting plants; there’s a sense that they’re taking the first tiny steps of reconnection with what should actually sustain them. From where I’m sat, the last scene, in which the captain of humanity’s alienation-ship plants one of those first plants back in the ground – looks a little bit like a vow to serve God, not money.