Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The War on Waste

This week I started using a bamboo toothbrush. They’ve been in the cupboard for a while, and I’ve had to wait until my I’d finished with my last plastic one. It’s part of a concerted effort on our part to more thoughtful about our environmental impact. 

The reusable coffee cups came at the start of the year. 

Then after the latest season of ABC’s The War on Waste we installed a little worm farm on our balcony.

There have been moments of failure along the way - every time I’ve forgotten to take bags with me on shopping trips. Or the wry judgment I’ve felt from friends when bartenders have placed a straw in my drink. 

There have moments of abject confusion. A few weeks ago I stood at the bin, with a shredded and sticky mandarin peel in my hand, not knowing what to do with it. Should I put in the bin? (And thereby send some more methane into the ground). Or should I throw it on the garden nearby? (And thereby litter in a space where there are no composting worms. The only positive benefit along this route would perhaps be for the rats of Newtown). 34 years of formation kicked into the gear; the mandarin skin went into the bin.

I call it The War on Waste effect, and it says something of the measure that host Craig Reucassel has had on my moral sensibilities. 

Similar to other work originating from The Chaser, it pursues information through entertainment. But more than the usual satire, War on Waste is a call to arms - a show that demands action. And what action has been taken. After only two seasons and a handful of episodes, the major supermarkets have banned single use plastic bags.

But I find it a fascinating show for what it reveals about firstly morality in our society, and secondly how Christians have responded to Reucassel’s call to arms. 

On the first front, it’s undeniable that The War on Waste operates within a moral ecology with clearly defined ideas of what is right and what is wrong. This moralism is evidenced in Reucassel’s use of language such as right, wrong, and shame. There are warriors out there, fighting against the complacency and laziness which has led to some of the ecological challenges we face. 

What the rhetoric of The War on Waste suggests is that the language of moral realism Christians have been ingesting for the last 40 years in their world view studies of “the West” may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

In case it has been lost on anyone, the cultural moment we inhabit seems to believe in a moral universe, of some description. We are longer living in the days when the modernist pale misreading of postmodernism as relativism seems plausible. Instead we live in a society that can discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong. The rise of sectarian partisanship, the fragmenting if common objects of love within culture, the failure of cherished institutions to protect children or act with financial prudence, these have all contributed to a rise of anxiety in our society. It’s in this climate that we’ve seen the re-emergence of a secular Puritanism; a morality self-consciously convinced by its own obvious right-ness. 

Christians in Australia have been increasing facing this trend for sometime now in several social ethic issues. From euthanasia to same-sex marriage, the arguments made by those outside the church have lacked the hallmarks of relativism. I’m the part of Sydney where I live, people are generally fairly happy to sign up to the golden rules, not harming others and loving their neighbours. And amongst the members of the boomer generation I know, they’re convinced that they have fulfilled all righteousness on this front.

You see, it’s not that people aren’t into objective truth any more. It’s just that increasingly, people reject the evangelical of objective truth. 

On the Christian response to The War on Waste, the show once again reveals that in some of my Christian circles, there is an unwillingness or inability to connect ecological care with the Christian walk 

On the one hand that isn’t surprising, given that responding to climate change has in some measure been the undoing of every Australian government since 2007.

On the other hand, among my individual Christian friends - the ones truth be told whom mostly are not Anglican ministers - there has been a willingness to try something - anything - to make a difference.  

I read one response to The War on Waste a little while ago that thoughtfully sought to engage with the program. At the end, it draw the conclusion that recycling etc is ok, but don’t get the wrong idea about saving the world because only God does that. And the only reason therefore to think about cycling and caring for the planet is because of the second of the two great commandments: “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

I found that an interesting conclusion to draw for two reasons. Firstly, whilst we inevitability watch The War on Waste in the context of grappling with climate change in a post Inconvenient Truth world, The War on Waste isn’t really about climate change. Grappling with e-Waste, preventing the degradation of marine life, or learning to recycle would all be good things to do anyway. Climate change or no climate change. Current ecological challenges gives recycling etc a greater clarity perhaps. But exercising responsible dominion over the earth would require to think through these issues even if we’re weren't facing global warming. For me personally, The War on Waste has exposed settled habits and patterns of behaviour that would otherwise lead to complacency and an abdication of our responsibility to the rest of creation. So seeking to reduce waste is not driven by a misguided eschatology, it’s about wise responsibility.

Secondly, it is becoming increasingly common in Evangelical circles to say that protecting our planet only makes sense in light of the second of the two great commandments. That is, environmental responsibility only makes sense Christianly out of love for our neighbours. Which is partially true; sustainable care of the earth is an act of love for our neighbours. Ecological degradation through CO2 emissions, global warming, nuclear and industrial waste, etc harms and kills our neighbours. But it’s only partially true.

Take this recent example from Moore College’s Lionel Windsor: “We have a responsibility to do what is right out of love of our neighbour, not out of saving the world.”

I find this to be a curious move to make. It’s not too dissimilar to the view of the Inner West baby boomers I met who are convinced of their own goodness because of their ability to meet this requirement. 

I think it’s a sub-Christian argument. Not because love of neighbour is irrelevant for environmental action. But because the first of the two great commands is also relevant. That is,   Windsor’s argument is anthropological rather than theological, and fails to recognise that one might seek to limit your wastage and your overall ecological footprint out of your love for God. 

After all, don’t we read time and time again in the Scriptures that the non-human creatures don’t exist for us, even though they live in closely bound relationships with us. They exist for God:

The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. – Psalm 104:21

There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play with. – Psalm 104:26

Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! 
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 
Beasts and all livestock, creeping things and flying birds!  – Psalm 148:7-10

All things exist for the praise and delight of God their creator. If we needed any convincing of this, the stirring account of the magnificent Jesus in Colossians 1 underscores this point with triple underlines:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him.  – Colossians 1:16

Preserving biodiversity, exercising wisdom in dealing with our waste, resisting the impulse to consume – each of these can be pursued out of a love for neighbour AND a love for the God who delights in his creation and made a world that is beautifully diverse. Moreover, the gospel of the kingdom calls us to repent our selfish desires and forsake the innate need we have to consume at the expense of other creatures. The world doesn’t exist for us. David writes that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ This is true, regardless of any environmental emergency. It is time to attend once more to this doctrine, and allow it to shape our love and obedience of God as we live in the world he has made.

1 comment:

rglo9633 said...

Very helpful — thanks! It strikes me also that moral arguments that separate the commandments to love God and neighbour also fail to recognise that you actually can’t do one without the other. It’s not as if you can love God but not your neighbour, or love your neighbour but not God. If you think something fulfills the latter but not the former (or vice versa), I suspect you just haven’t understood what it is that you’re doing! I think O’Donovan has something to say about this in his chapter on love in RMO (if memory serves).