Ten ways my family tries to love the planet
Be sure to check out the last one. It brings everything together
Today is the UN International Day of Families, and this year the theme is “Families and Climate Action”. As a Christian who wants to honour our gracious Creator by respecting the good creation and to follow Jesus into practical love of neighbour in an age of climate and ecological crises, what does it look like for our family to seek to be faithful on a warming world?
I have a PhD in ecological ethics and spend a good chunk of my time writing and speaking with Christians, trying to help join the dots between faith and caring for our common home. But what does this look like in practice in our family life?
Jessica and I have two primary-aged children, whom we’re seeking to raise in the love of God in all kinds of ways. And so we’ve tried to include ecological discipleship as one of the important facets of our family life. Here are ten of the ways we’re putting our faith into action.
1. Sharing delight and thanksgiving
God’s handiwork is amazing! We live on an amazingly beautiful, abundant and diverse planet, set amidst a cosmos of staggering size and of awe-inspiring age. Our every breath, every sip of water, every morsel of food, is received amidst an intricate web of interconnections between creatures of all kinds: animal, vegetable, mineral. We are thoroughly dependent upon the creative and sustaining work of God, mediated through these myriad blessings.
As a family, we want to deepen our grasp on these realities, so we take every opportunity to experience and delight in the goodness and richness of creation and so to nourish a habit of thanksgiving to such a generous God. We do this from the small things, like regularly saying or singing grace before meals, to taking the time to observe the intricacies of life in our garden, sharing the care for the beehives and worm farms, or seeking out time together in landscapes (and seascapes) that draw our heart beyond simply human concerns and priorities.
2. Nurturing wonder and curiosity
Love and knowledge are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know what we love, and cannot truly love without knowing. Thus, the natural complement of delight and thanksgiving is curiosity and wonder.
There are few things I love more than learning together with the kids: whether in books, documentaries, conversations with experts or through direct observation and inference, we try to model and share the kind of curiosity that makes for life-long learners. The world is a fascinating and mysterious place. Human scientific knowledge sometimes feels like it scratches the surface and the more we learn, the more we realise we don’t yet know. Yet what we do know is still profound, endlessly surprising and constantly being revised and updated.
3. Respecting first peoples and growing into their relationship to country
The Creator placed upon this land now called Australia the peoples who have called it home, cared for it and relied upon its bounty for at least 65,000 years. Whatever else we may say about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (and I’ve plenty to say, and far, far more to learn), within their ancient, diverse and living cultures are riches of ecological wisdom, a deep connection to place, cherished traditions of hospitality and a widespread self-understanding as members of a more-than-human community of life. I’m increasingly convinced these are a wondrous gift to us all, if we (non-indigenous Australians) will combine the time to listen, the humility to repent of a dark and ongoing colonial history, and the courage to seek genuine friendship on a shared path forward.
Our children see us seeking to learn, showing respect, acknowledging mistakes, grieving injustices. From them I’m learning how straightforward it is to accept the idea that we belong to land more than land belongs to us. We have the great privilege and joy of sharing a house with a passionate, faithful and wise Waka Waka woman, Brooke Prentis, who is a sister in Christ, a skilled cultural guide, a vigorous advocate for justice and a good friend.
4. Living simply, so that others can simply live
Jesus said that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, and to beware of greed. For the sake of our soul, then, as well as to reduce our planetary impact, we seek to live with less of the things that matter less, to gain more of the things that matter more. Walking lightly means not demanding a lifestyle that will cost the Earth. There is indeed more than enough for everyone’s need, but not to satiate everyone’s greed. So our family seeks to resist the toxic idolatry of consumerism that demands the sacrifice of animals (and ecosystems) to secure prosperity (or at least the appearance of such in the multiplication of stuff).
The point isn’t to win a holier-than-thou eco-piety contest
We do this in a variety of ways: from sharing our house (as mentioned above), to never owning a car; from avoiding unnecessary (or even all) flights to using renewable electricity; from buying quality over quantity (or buying secondhand, or simply borrowing), to reducing meat and dairy in our diet (to be honest, I’m doing better on the meat than the dairy part); from working part-time (less money to spend; more time to give), to practising generosity; from composting, to refuse>reduce>reuse>repair>recycle; from line drying, to LED lights; from maximising pedestrianism, pedal power or public transport, to minimising plastic, palm oil and pesticides. And so on.
The point isn’t to win a holier-than-thou eco-piety contest, but to prevent the love of money (and the stuff it can buy) from taking root in our heart while uprooting our ecosystems. We don’t sweat the small stuff, are mindful of our privilege at even having these options, and are very aware that the changes needed amidst our ecological and climate crisis are more systemic ones than personal. But habits shape heart commitments, and besides, the kids love the unexpected treasures that sometimes turn up at the local Vinnies.
5. Cultivating local community
Jess and I work for a small parish church in a walkable, safe neighbourhood where we live close to shops, to school and to multiple transport options whenever we need to escape our suburb. In all this, we’re constantly aware of the unearned blessings we’ve received when God dropped us into this place. Most people do not have it so easy.
Communities are a necessary part of being truly human
Yet the prosperity and privilege of Paddington, in inner Sydney, can also tend at times towards a culture of autonomy and independence. So we seek to build local community relations wherever we can. Jess is president of the local school’s P&C and I run beekeeping workshops. We share some of the harvest from our garden with neighbours. We live on-site at a community centre (our church hall is rented out by various groups during the week). Our children have local friends and we run monthly community events at church. We stop and chat in the street, we welcome people into our home whenever possible, we help out at the school garden, we shop locally, we play at the park and we maintain a public green space as a respite from the busy street. We run monthly discussion nights, as well as hosting parties at Halloween, Christmas and whenever we get the chance. We run film nights, participate in local political meetings, frequent the local pubs and cafes, support those experiencing homelessness or fleeing violence where we can. Our site also hosts AA and NA groups, and so on.
We do these things not out of a cynical instrumentalism seeking to artificially shoehorn opportunities to preach to our neighbours, but because communities are a necessary part of being truly human (and a lot of work along the way). From a climate perspective, local communities build resilience to the likely shocks ahead, as well as multiplying opportunities for sharing resources and achieving things together more effectively.
From a parish church perspective, if we’re not on about community, which gospel are we living by?
6. Getting our hands dirty
Urban living can be pretty sanitised if that’s your thing. But embracing and cherishing our bodily, creaturely, earthy existence is a spiritual discipline. We came from dirt and to dirt we shall return. (I love good dirt so much I named my podcast after it.) Getting our hands dirty is both a metaphor and a literal goal, whether its planting, pruning or painting, beekeeping or bicycling, composting or cooking, dancing or digging, weeding or worm farming, hugging or high-fives, crafting or compassion towards other living beings, gardening or generosity towards groups looking after the planet.
All these practices help to keep us grounded as a family in the rhythms and realities of the created order that God declared “very good”. They keep us human and humble, which literally means “on the ground”.
This news is overwhelming for adults. How can children cope?
7. Grieving planetary crises in age-appropriate ways
The planetary diagnosis disclosed in recent decades by scientific research is grim. Climatologists, ecologists, hydrologists, soil scientists and other experts in the living planet agree that we’re on an unsustainable trajectory, which simply means it will not be sustained. Either we radically change our society, economy and culture, or we face the radical changes forced upon us by ecological degradation and climate catastrophe.
This news is overwhelming for adults. How can children cope? What should they be taught? These are difficult questions, with uncomfortable emotions attached: anxiety, anger, grief, helplessness, horror. Suppressing or discounting these responses may help us cope in the short term, but disconnects us from the love of what is good. Only love can sustain healthy grief over good things threatened or lost.
We aim to always be honest with our children, without swamping them in information overload. We focus on fostering their delight and wonder in a good world, and answer questions about threats as they arise, respecting their agency in learning and their developing emotional capacities.
But honesty is also for ourselves. It is tempting to keep one’s head in the sand, to find distractions (even praiseworthy and noble ones!) so we don’t need to think about it. But difficult times call for facing difficult emotions.
Embraced by God’s unshakeable ‘yes’ to us in Christ, we can walk into dark places, and can learn to listen for and join with creation’s groans and even those of God’s Spirit (Romans 8:18-26).
8. Engaging politically
Our world is on fire. There are so many challenges, many of them urgent and grave, complex and apparently intractable. We are not the world’s saviours, but we are called to love our neighbour not just in sharing words of truth about a gracious God but also in deeds of genuine care. This will look different for each of us in our respective contexts, yet one of the most practical ways of helping many neighbours is by seeking to shift the systems that cause so much harm. Whole books can be written about the details of what, when, where, why and how, but our family seeks to engage in the struggles for justice and a liveable planet wholeheartedly and fallibly, risking taking the side of the poor and vulnerable (since trying to be neutral often just allows the bullies to dominate), while also remaining open to discerning just what might be needed or helpful in a given context.
Our children see our actions and choose those they want to join.
Engaging politically for us has meant many things: writing letters, signing petitions, joining rallies, raising topics with friends and family, writing articles, giving speeches, taking nonviolent direct action, telling stories, listening to others and learning, learning, learning.
Our children see our actions and choose those they want to join. We don’t force them and actively give them opportunities to opt out when they want or need to.
9. Teaching critical appreciation of media
Sifting truth from spin, trivia from salience, blind bias from careful commitment: such tasks are hard work, perhaps especially so in an age of 24-7 news where discerning the disappearing forest amidst the flurry of falling trees can feel like it requires a masters degree in media manipulation. It’s tempting to switch off (I’m sure there’s probably an app for that).
Billions of dollars get spent to persuade us of all manner of things, especially things that are profitable for those who have the money to pay the advertisers. Against such a tide, trying to teach our kids some basic media literacy and critical thinking feel like essential life skills.
We don’t have a TV and try to limit our exposure to advertising wherever possible. We make time to read what our kids are reading and watch things with them, so we can talk together about the messages they’re receiving. It’s no vaccine, but perhaps it helps all of us to be a little more cognisant of the agendas at play in the stories clamouring for our attention.
10. Grounding it all in the good news of God with us
In a backwater of an empire, amidst violence and lies, God showed up in a baby born to a peasant girl. The incarnation meant God was with us amidst the mess: guiding, teaching, healing, dying, rising.
In Jesus, the story of God and creation reached a climax, a decisive turning, a new day. When we seek to understand ourselves and our time, it is in light of Christ’s coming and cross, his resurrection and promised return.
We love our climate neighbours because God first loved us.
Responding to the climate crisis is one of the dominant contexts within which Australian Christians seek to follow Jesus today. The unchanging message meets a rapidly changing world, and to have any hope of finding the next steps on the true and living way, we need to not only interpret our own historical moment but also keep returning to the source and origin of all our stories: a Galilean wanderer telling subversive stories of God’s reign, living them out till they killed him, and then receiving from God’s Spirit the unstoppable new life of God’s new age.
I put this as number ten not because it is the lowest priority, but because it is what ties together all the other things we do.
By grace, we are welcomed into God’s family, so our little family is (re)united with all creatures praising the Creator. How then can we go on participating in the un-creation that is climate disruption? We love our climate neighbours because God first loved us.