Sunday, June 5, is World Environment Day: the United Nations’ day to highlight care for the environment.
However, some Christians (including me) think “environment” is a pretty vague word. Care for the planet is really about care for the creation.
Other Christians ask, “Why bother caring for the planet? God is going to make a new heaven and a new earth.”
Let me tell you about the amazing work of a Melbourne missionary agronomist and why he thinks Christians should take World Environment Day seriously.
The story of Tony Rinaudo, the forest maker
At ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology), we’re thrilled to publish a Christian story that’s finding its way into the hands of people who never go near the doors of a church. It’s the story of Tony Rinaudo, a missionary agronomist from Myrtleford in northeast Victoria, whose work has revolutionised reforestation across Africa and beyond.
In his 17 years in Niger, Tony discovered a simple method of regreening land by reviving damaged trees rather than planting new ones. This technique not only alleviates poverty and soaks up carbon, but it also comes at a fraction of the cost of planting trees from scratch.
There are now over six million hectares of regenerated African landscape because of Tony’s method, which he named Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). With World Vision Australia, Tony promotes FMNR as a major climate change mitigator, with the potential to be implemented on over one billion hectares of the planet. But for Tony, it is not just about climate change; it is about the holistic picture of restoring the landscape, increasing agricultural productivity, rebuilding livelihoods, and, in the end, giving people hope.
The book of this inspiring story was launched last week at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, after an online launch, attended by people from 23 countries. The book is The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis.
So, what would inspire an Aussie Christian to dedicate their life to regenerating the sub-Saharan landscape and reforesting the desert? Here are four reasons.
1: It’s God’s stuff! It’s not “environment”; it’s “creation.”
The Psalmist reminds us that “the earth and everything in it belong to the Lord (Ps 24:1). When we talk about “the environment,” as Christians, we mean “the creation,” the works of God’s hand. God, the Lord Almighty, has absolute sovereignty over everything as Creator and Lord of the universe.
Think too of the words of the Apostle John or the writer of Job. John tells us that all things were created through the Word (John 1:1–3), and God reminds Job of the vast gap between humans and the creator of all things: “Where were you when I established the earth?” (Job 38:4-7)
For Tony Rinaudo and for Christians down the centuries, caring for the land, for the creation, has been part of recognising and worshipping the Creator.
2. Creation is valuable in itself
God in Genesis 1 affirms six times, before the creation of humanity, that “it was good.” It is good not just because it can serve another purpose; it was declared good in itself. It is not good just because humans can make use of it.
So too, when it comes to redemption, the biblical picture is of a universal redemption, not only the redemption of individual souls. Romans chapter 8 tells us that “the creation itself will be set free from the bondage to decay.” (Rom 8:21)
According to the Apostle Paul, creation will be liberated: God has a plan for it. The creation matters and will be redeemed.
3. Humans are to exercise responsible dominion
In Genesis chapter 1, God gave instructions to humanity to fill, subdue, and rule over the earth. But what do filling, subduing and ruling look like?
The biblical concept of stewardship is relevant: the steward cares for something on behalf of the owner. Human beings are called to participate as stewards in the divine ordering for all of creation’s flourishing.
For Tony Rinaudo, his calling as a missionary was to care for the planet in the name of the Creator and to teach farmers to be good stewards.
4. It’s about justice: Love your neighbour – here and there
Perhaps Christians don’t need reminding about the Old Testament commands to care for the foreigner in the land or about the message of Jesus’ most famous story. Loving our neighbour is our calling and Christians have never been in any doubt about the responsibility to care for those in need, whoever they are.
Sea level rise has already caused some Pacific villages to be relocated. Pacific Islanders are our neighbours; what does it mean to be a neighbour to them?
Africans suffering from the encroaching Sahara are also our neighbours. Tony Rinaudo has been a neighbour to them and their children and the generations after them. An African chief in Ghana told Tony, “This is a gift from Almighty God. Everywhere you visit you bring life and joy.”
Australians are privileged – by some measures we are the richest country in the world, and we have survived COVID better than any other country. We can afford to build higher sea walls; we can buy more air conditioners; we produce enough food for our own population. It’s all too easy for us to ignore the issues and to ignore our neighbours’ plight.
It cost the Samaritan to care for the man in need: it cost him time and expense, and he put himself at risk. It cost Tony Rinaudo and his family to live in Africa for 17 years. It will cost the wealthy of the world to make the changes necessary to care for the poor of the world in this climate change century.
Christians have good reasons for celebrating the creation today, and for being at the forefront of offering hope for a planet in environmental and spiritual crisis.
Chris Mulherin is the Executive Director of ISCAST–Christians in Science and Technology. Tony Rinaudo’s book, The Forest Underground: Hope for a Planet in Crisis can be bought directly from ISCAST or from Koorong. Proceeds contribute to Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration.