On climate change, we must put the apple down

by Matt Russell

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I’m a fifth-generation Iowa farmer. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the Garden of Eden while spending time in my own gardens and fields. It has to do with the weather.

Again this month, I’m anxiously trying to make hay in the midst of extreme and unpredictable weather. I’m praying, literally, that equipment keeps working, people who need to show up do, and the hay can be made within a narrowing window of sunshine each new haymaking season brings. I’m embarrassed by my obsession, filled with gratitude when bales are made and put away, and deeply concerned this drama is not part of a natural cycle and certainly not the will of God. 

What I’m experiencing on my farm is climate change accelerated by greenhouse gas pollution.

In “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis makes clear there’s no contradiction between faith and reason. Tension? Yes, but faith and reason are powerful gifts that together draw us closer to God. Science and reason plainly lay out the human causes of climate change. Faith implores us to act.

The story of Adam and Eve teaches a profoundly important lesson in this moment of human history. For thousands of years, people have used this story of temptation, original sin and banishment from the garden to help better understand their relationship with God.

Original sin is not an abstract concept. It can be seen in our tendency to cling to self-interest, to want more than our share and to ignore our life-sustaining relationships with the rest of creation, including our brothers and sisters around the world. An apple of temptation is not a childish metaphor. Banishment from the garden is not simply an allegory for punishment.

We are destroying the ability of our “garden” to sustain us, and are killing fellow human beings in the process. Like Adam and Eve, we face a choice between paying attention to the word of God or choosing a path whose consequence is pain and death caused by human action. One interpretation of Genesis suggests God’s wrath simply allows us to experience the consequences of clinging to fossil fuels, rather than changing our actions to live in right relationships with each other, our world and our creator.

Well-funded political campaigns aim to keep us fossil-fuel dependent. Others promote silver bullet, God-like plans to block the sun’s rays with even more pollutants, so we can continue to use the carbon fuels that should be kept in the earth rather than released into the atmosphere. 

The U.S. military has a plan for the conflicts climate change will intensify. Islands will disappear and entire nations of people will be displaced as their homelands sink under water. Millions of families will be forced to migrate as extreme weather destroys homes, wipes out crops and introduces new, more powerful human diseases. The poorest among us will bear the worst, but even the wealthy hiding in their gated communities on the scale of nations will not escape.

These human actions are arguably the fruits of original sin. 

Many still deny humans are the cause of climate change, my fellow farmers are among the most vocal. Reason tells us we are living in the historical moment when humanity, fixated on the temptation of easy living provided by fossil fuels, is crashing the very gift of creation that sustains us.

Faith tells us the arguments for continuing dependence on fossil fuels are simply defenses for eating the apple. These arguments are based in the fear of depending on and serving each other.  They reject our right relationship with creation. They accept and try to minimize the consequences of sin and death.

Ultimately, they doubt God’s promise that through Christ, we are not slaves to the power of sin. Christ begs us to build relationships, embrace challenges, take risks, invest our lives, hope in the future and love all of creation. And Christ promises us redemption, a way to overcome the fear and doubt so entwined in our human nature.

As Francis confidently and unapologetically proclaims, our faith provides the path to solving global climate change. Technology can’t fix what is essentially a moral problem. Get the morality right and we will develop the technological tools to solve our problems. Get the morality wrong -- in other words, ignore the biblical lessons -- and no technology can undo the consequences of eating the apple and destroying our Eden.

We must put down the apple, trust in Christ and join with our global brothers and sisters.

I’m praying for my crops as I continue to navigate floods, droughts and extreme temperatures.  I’m also praying for God to open my heart to an “ecological conversion” so I can employ every privilege, resource, relationship and opportunity available to help provide the moral leadership the world demands, our tradition provides and to which our Creator calls us.

[Matt Russell farms with his spouse and works as Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center, in Des Moines, Iowa.]

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