To Dress & To Keep (1)


(This was initially published as Nurturing Justice 17 (2007) 15 October).

You may recall that Nurturing Justice is trying to side-step the political frenzy that has been generated by the PM, the media and political parties in the run up to the election. Our aim is to find ways of “thinking big” about genuine political needs that will confront policy makers over the longer term whatever party or group of parties prevails at the polls. Hopefully, such a strategy – even on this small Nurturing Justice scale – can point to a quiet, humble and patient path upon which to promote public justice and better understand the complex political problems that confront us. To walk such a path is not, in any way, to obviate our ongoing responsibility to public political life. On the contrary; to walk this path is to attempt to deepen sensitivity to our ongoing political responsibilities; citizenship is a calling to promote justice for all.

Now we come to No. 6 on our list of 12 issues: “Climate Change and Environmental Care.” 

The list comprised the following 12 “issues”: Overcoming Incoherent Political Conduct; Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples & Rediscovering the Nation’s Calling to do Justice; South West Pacific and Regional Relations to the North and West; International Relations; Promoting an Economy of Restraint, Care and Enough; Climate Change and Environmental Care; Commerce, Industry and Trade Unionism; Issues of “Body Politics”, Marriage and Family; Public Morality and the Reform of Mass Media; Health, Social Welfare and Education; Electoral Reform, Proportional Representation; Local/ Regional Government and reforming Australia’s Constitution.

Some readers may assume that the words “Climate Change” suggest that this will be a defence of the views put forward by the recent Nobel Peace Prize winners. That is not my intention, but the Faraday lecture Global Warming: The Science, the Impacts and the Politics by Sir John Houghton, FRS CBE, a co-chair of the Scientific Assessment Working Group for the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-2002) is worthy of examination. There will be two parts to our consideration of “Climate Change and Environmental Care” – this first part will discuss the human task upon the earth and our orientation to the cumulative effects of our dressing and keeping God’s garden. The second will suggest some obvious and unavoidable policy implications.

The title of this broadsheet “To dress it AND to keep it” refers to the way the King James Version of the Bible (1611) translates Genesis 2:15. In this it follows the Tyndale translation (1534) and the Geneva Bible of 1560 where the full verse runs: “Then the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden that he might dress it and keep it.” The RSV (1952) has: “to till it and to keep it”; the Jerusalem Bible (1966) has: “to cultivate and to keep it”; and the NIV (1973) “to work it and take care of it.”

Let’s dwell for a little while on this remarkable sentence. For almost 5 centuries, the opening pages of the book many claim has God’s seal of authority, has given western and English-speaking Christians a picture of human life, in words they can readily understand in one short sentence, a specification of our human task. This is a responsibility truly our own. Heaven and earth was finished with all their apparel (as Tyndale had rendered 2:1) and God went a step further and planted a garden which was to be dressed and kept by the one made in His image! One very brief sentence says all of this.

And yet, now in 2007, we have to ask whether western and English-speaking Christianity has rightly understood this sentence. In our inherited hurry, addicted to an instinctive formulaic reading, we tend to move on quickly without waiting to fully absorb what this tells us about God’s purpose for our lives and for the lives of all of our neighbours around the globe. We move on in haste and miss something vital to our well-being and the health and well-being of our neighbours. Our superficial reading of the Bible confirms a way of life in which we live with an inherent tension between cultivation and restoration, progress and conservation. These become alternatives, a fated tension that manifests itself in political debate. Instead of cultivation and restoration as two aspects of the one human task, we assume an ongoing commitment to progress, to moving on, to moving forward, to putting the past behind us, in order to facilitate a relentless process of production and growth. And then we have to confront our own belated attempts to mitigate environmental degradation. And all the while “downstream” there is bourgeoning impoverishment.

Clearly, the sentence speaks of the Lord God’s intention, not only for the “man”, but also for the garden, and the entire creation. In that sentence we confront humankind’s purpose in terms of the Creator’s desire – we are to cultivate and develop the plants and animals and their environments. We are part of God’s process of enrichment of what He has made and is making. The glory of the Lord God is to come to expression in the work of the Image Bearers who are to have dominion over the earth. There is harmony here. We have been set to work in a task that, on the one hand, invites cultivation and development but which, on the other, requires conservation and restoration. Human work is specified in terms of God’s purpose that there be an (agricultural) balance between these two facets of the one task, a task that is also bound to how human life will be “dressed” and “kept”.

If here our life is presented in its totality, then we would say that the twin facets – cultivation and restoration – are basic to who we are and why we are here. They not only help define our existence; we are called to discern and define the balance that is needed between them. It can never be just a matter of extracting fruit; it is caring for the earth from which the plants grow and the fruit is harvested. It is caring for the plants and the earth after the harvest; it is not just about caring looking forward to the harvest. By in recognising these two facets in what we do, we have an important part in making the earth fruitful by our cultivation and our restoration. We are part of God’s plan to make plants thrive and animals multiply. Clearly this means looking after the earth, the ground, the minerals, the water and the air. And if, somehow, we lose sight of these two facets, something basic to our life is lost and so we put ourselves at risk.

The Biblical way of construing the human condition means that we have been given to the earth as much as the earth has been given to us. We are called to care for that to which we have been given. Recall that the picture also includes the fact that we were made from dust and the task that is given to us requires a care-filled dominion. The task of caring for the earth is of one piece with our life. From generation to generation we humans are immersed in a task of careful cultivation: agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, hydro-culture – the earth, plants and animals are fully part of human culture. That care for these preconditions of life is activity basic to our calling. We cannot escape this. And such care is not about something other than us; it is indeed part of us, about caring for ourselves and for future generations. And so caring for the earth, the sky, the sea, the rivers, the water supply, is also caring for and about ourselves; it is of one piece with loving our neighbours. It is part of our ongoing livelihood. The earth, as our domain, invites our effort; our work involves nurturing and guiding the development of the earth and all that live on it. Reducing our carbon emissions is one side; contingency plans to take “climate refugees” must be another – in whatever way such human migration has been made necessary.

It is a very basic point, but sometimes the most basic of point can be staring us in the face over a lifetime and we still don’t get it. The point may have been in our faces for all our days and yet we will die without letting it penetrate our consciousness. The earth requires tilling and maintenance; cultivation and enrichment. This has an important implication for the way we think about climate change. We know our actions have consequences and we also know that life on this planet is put at risk.

When climate change comes up for discussion we should be thinking about the ways in which we have been called to the cultural task, to cultivating and enriching the physical and biotic and psychic environment of the earth, including making changes small and large, that can indeed improve the climate near and far. That cultural task may have been misdirected and warped out of shape by our tendency to serve and obey the creature, rather than the Creator. In that context, when idols enslave human communities, it seems highly likely that the two identified facets of human endeavour will become dislocated, a tension between cultivation and conservation will emerge.

Of course there are matters beyond human control; the world is not a mechanism which we have invented according the specifications outlined in a manual we wrote beforehand, as if now that we perceive that something is going wrong we can just pick up the manual and identify where the root of the problem lies. But what we have invented (trains, air travel, roads, freeways, motor cars, nuclear power, factories, sewerage systems, water reticulation, smokestacks etc.) and thus also the environmental impacts thereof, should not be viewed as beyond our control and we should support all work that unremittingly promotes positive environmental changes. And so environmental justice is not a matter of asking government to intervene in a realm outside its responsibility – it is very much a part, a necessary public-legal part, of the public interest. This is politically integral to the human global task, of dressing and keeping the earth.

The question therefore is not about whether there is a human impact on the weather patterns; it is much rather how we should dress and keep the earth so that positive changes are maintained and that long-term restorative changes can be made to happen to the climate for the good of all who live on earth. At this point in history the need to find ways to lessen the threat to the health of future generations. To repeat: climate change is not something other than our work. Change in the climate is implicated in our work from beginning to end. And the change in climate we are now beginning to experience tells us that there is something seriously awry with the way we have viewed our place in the world, with the way we understand ourselves and our work, with warped views that put conservation and development at odds with each other. From where does that tension arise?

The caring that we do for creation is indeed part of our make-up. And that reminds us that we can be care-less. As we indicated previously, Keynes admitted that our economic system was built in such a way as to require the vicious treadmill of greed and avarice, a way of life that restrained and subordinated care within an overwhelming care-less environment. And we can try to build our lives in terms of that myth, and we do, as if the hard reality of economics must re-define care as merely an internal and emotional orientation. From that hard reality, Biblical religion may well be viewed as a fantasy dreamed up in cloud cuckoo land, and if we are prone to that view it is no wonder that we will quickly move on from “to dress and to keep” to see what else is present in that Book to feed our starved imaginations.

But if we take the Biblical picture of our human condition seriously as definitive guidance for human responsibility, then patient progressive cultivation of the earth (dressing it) and wise conservation (keeping it) have always been part of the one human task. If we are on this earth in order to dress and to keep God’s garden, to cultivate and care for His creatures, then we do not so much develop an alternative line of debate about climate change, but more importantly begin to see the warming of the planet, the destruction of forests, rising sea-levels as the compounding results of an ongoing care-less approach to economic life. We need to discover how this care-less attitude is generated and maintained by this incessant “go for growth” ideology. Its proponents dress it up as a necessity, but it keeps itself dominant in so many places, in so many lives by keeping to a course that is really blasé about the gathering environmental storm clouds.

But then God’s creational reality itself confronts this care-less neoliberal ideology. Its dominance is confronted every day, even during our current drought, when we water the roses, which will not bloom if they have no water. The sandy soil also needs good mulch if we are to cultivate the best blooms from our much-loved flowers.

Part Two can be found here



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