Playing Jenga with the planet

We have an urgent part to play in nurturing God’s creation


The game of Jenga starts with a tall tower being built with wooden blocks. Players take turns to remove blocks, one at a time. The player who removes a block causing the tower to fall loses the game. If I wanted to end a game of Jenga quickly, I would clumsily pull out a block from the bottom of the tower, causing it to topple. That is what we are currently doing to life on this planet.

I became a Christian long before I became a biologist. As I contemplate care for the planet, I see my understanding of the Bible and biology intertwining like the strands of the DNA molecule.

Our planet has a rare capacity to sustain life that comes from the composition of the soil, an abundance of water and an ideal combination of gases in our atmosphere. Plants take carbon dioxide and convert it into sugars that provide energy for plants and the creatures that feed on them. Plants and animals respire, replacing the carbon dioxide withdrawn from the atmosphere. These are some foundations upon which the pyramid of life is built and where all life forms are interdependent on each other. At the base of this pyramid, there are plants and insects. At the highest levels, we have mammals, including us. It stands to reason that if we erode the base of the pyramid, it could collapse like a Jenga tower.

My grave concern is that we are assaulting the base of the pyramid. There are about 5.5 million different species of insects on earth. The “poster children” for insects are honeybees because we appreciate that, without bees and other pollinators, we could not feed the world. But insects provide a wide range of other ecosystem services including being a food resource, recycling nutrients and pest control. It is therefore alarming that populations of land-based insects are shrinking by approximately 1 per cent a year. This in part accounts for decreases in the size of bird populations. In the US, bird populations have decreased by 30 per cent since 1970.

My grave concern is that we are assaulting the base of the pyramid.

Why are insect populations shrinking? There are many contributing factors. One of these is the collateral damage to beneficial insects caused by insecticides. Global warming is also a factor because insects are unable to control their body temperature. Other threats to insects include land clearing, urbanisation, air and water pollution and introduced species. We are destroying habitats and changing the composition of the soil, the air and the water on which insects depend.

This has consequences for those of us who live at the top of a wobbling pyramid. It also tells us that while addressing climate change is vital, we also need to reduce many other environmental assaults that threaten all life. Adaptation to environmental change is slow, while our destruction of the environment has been rapid, with most of the damage happening over the past 200 years. There is an urgent need for radical change based on a shared understanding of our relationship to life on this planet.

The ruling mandate of Genesis 1:28 is not a licence to do as we please; we cannot ignore God’s plans for the planet. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve are depicted as gardeners and caretakers of the extraordinary gift of creation that they are to love and cherish. It is noteworthy that Indigenous peoples around the world have come closest to being faithful to this commission.

What does it say about us if we actively tear his creation apart or passively stand by, refusing to intervene to stop it from happening?

There is a conspicuous absence of some permissions in the creation chapters of Genesis. There is no mandate given to tear down forests or to kill animals. In 2022, God must weep at what has become of creation and how we have failed as caretakers of the precious gift we have been given. Creation is “groaning” (Romans 8:22) and it reads like humanity’s reversal of God’s orderly creation (Genesis 1:2).

Jesus our Saviour is also depicted as the Creator (Colossians 1:15-17) “who holds all things together.” I am haunted by the question that if this is true of Jesus, then what does it say about us if we actively tear his creation apart or passively stand by, refusing to intervene to stop it from happening?

Colossians 1:19-20 goes on to speak of the reconciliation of all things in Christ. As an act of obedience, followers of Jesus are called to be part of that work of reconciliation and restoration because all life, not just human life, is precious to God. For too long, many of us have not heeded that call. To heed it will require lifestyle changes and sacrifices from all of us, but this is what Jesus consistently asks of his followers.

Professor Philip Batterham is a fellow of ISCAST (Christians in Science and Technology) and Fellow and Professor of Genetics in the School of Bio-Sciences, The University of Melbourne. 

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in The Melbourne Anglican. The topic of this article was presented in 2021 at the ISCAST–NZCIS Conversations, an online series where experts present on themes at the science-faith interface. Prof. Batterham’s presentation can be found here. Details of the current ISCAST Conversations series on Creation Care can be found here.