State of the oceans: responsibility and celebration

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
2 Sep 2012

Readings: Genesis 1: 9-25, James 1: 17-27, Matthew 14: 22-32.

Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.”… And God saw that it was good.”

“The disciples cried out in fear from the boat. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage!”

-----

This Sunday (2 September 2012) marks the beginning of Creationtide, not least in the Orthodox Church, where it is routinely celebrated as Creation Sunday and the first Sunday of the year, as well as at some Anglican, Catholic, Protestant and Free churches [1]. It is also the end of World Water Week: an annual opportunity to think about how to sustain and develop one of our most vital natural resources.

This morning’s biblical readings remind us that we live with two distinct views and experiences of the waters that cover most of our planet. They are a source of blessing and fecundity, as in the Genesis narrative; but also of danger and fear, as Jesus’ followers experienced on a small stretch of domestic water that is barely seven miles wide.

These ancient texts remind us moderns that, at the end of the day, we remain creatures. That is, we are dependent on forces and resources over which – even in the most technologically sophisticated era of human existence – we do not have complete control, to put it mildly.

Indeed, in 2011, the International Panel on the State of the Oceans (IPSO), representing all marine science bodies, concluded that, “the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction… unprecedented in human history.”

Most of the time, however, this point about the implications and costs of creaturely responsibility or irresponsibility is lost on us. Rather, the rhythm of modern life is conditioned by a whole range of factors which, at first glance, have little to do with the elemental forces that actually make up the fabric of our lives.

For many of us, it is the time shops or businesses open and close, rather than when the tide goes in or out, that shapes our day. If you listen to BBC Radio 4 at a certain time, you may well catch the Shipping Forecast. But for most of us its cadences seems quaint rather than crucial. It is movements on the FTSE 100 or the Nasdaq that concern most broadcast news programmes, rather than the movements of the sea.

Then there is a shock or a crisis and some sense of true perspective is regained. For Jesus’ disciples “business as usual”, in this case fishing, was interrupted by the kind of storm they would have seen on many occasions before, but which still terrified them.

In Mark and Luke’s accounts of Jesus stilling the waters, the emphasis is on the trustworthiness of the God of love in contrast to raw elemental power. In Matthew, attention focuses more on the tussle for trust and responsibility between Peter and Jesus. But the central point is the same. It is finally goodness rather than chaos that sits at the heart of our lives, depending on how we see things and respond.

Yet in spite of our growing scientific knowledge, we remain slow to grasp the moral core of our relationship with the natural world and to recognise that we are part of the web of creation, not exempt from it.

In World Water Week 2012 we have once again been reminded of some sobering facts. Across the globe today, some 2.6 billion people lack decent sanitation. Roughly 800 million people do not have safe drinking water. One billion people go to bed hungry and three billion people are undernourished. Up to 60% of our ecosystem is deteriorating.

At the same time, waste and spoiling is endemic. Our fish stocks are threatened by overuse and misuses. Between 30 to 50 per cent of food produced on our planet is wasted. The vital link between water, energy, land and food is forgotten in a global system where 70 per cent of transactions remain speculation on money rather than productive, and where conservation is all-too-often seen as an afterthought.

There also remains an almost universal disparity of access to water. Overall, 80 per cent of the world’s urban population has piped water connections, compared to less than 30 per cent of people in rural areas. The rural-urban divide is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the gap is 29 percentage points. In less developed countries, 97 out of every 100 rural dwellers do not have access to piped water.

The principles of ‘The Human Right to Water’, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010, say that drinking water should be affordable, reliable, safe, accessible and available in a sufficient quantity to meet basic needs for all people on the planet. The UN children’s fund, UNICEF, projects that in 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are due to have been met, around 605 million people will still not have this basic right.

What is to be done, then? On a global scale, policies to address the human impact on climate change remain vital. The crisis we are building up by delaying or thwarting action is monumental. Equally, UNICEF says the most important step in providing universal access to water are to address the inequities which exist in all regions and at all levels and where the poorest and women are most affected.

When water is not available on premises and has to be collected, women and girls are much more likely to be the main water carriers for families, walking an average of six kilometres per day in some regions of Africa and Asia.

In order to address the large issues an even larger shift in the human heart is required. The commentator Andrew Brown, who would describe himself as an agnostic, wrote last week that, “There may be ways of averting catastrophic global warming that don't make use of religious resources, but I can't think of any.”

Whether you agree with that or not, Brown pointed to two features of the spiritually resourced life that he sees as crucial for humanity as a whole and as necessary to correct what he calls “normative consumer liberalism”.

The first is a belief that choice is not arbitrary or wholly individual: that there are moral facts of the matter; that protecting humanity and the Earth is an obligation on all of us; and that this is actually true, and not just a matter of preference for those who are "into that kind of thing".

The second is the kind of deep communal commitment, spoken about in our reading from the Epistle of James, which enables us, in Brown’s words, “to carry societies through some pretty ghastly changes. Let's face it; any adjustment to an ecologically sustainable standard of living is going to be a lot nastier than anything Greece is going through now. It will need considerable determination and solidarity.”

This is all right and true. But there are two other virtues in today’s readings that I would say are equally important if we are to be truly motivated, rather than mired in gloom.

One, spelled out in the Gospel, is trust. In the face of impersonal forces, whether they are roaring seas or turbulent markets, there is a creative and binding love that invites us not to be trapped by fear or inertia – if we allow it, and depending on who or what we give ultimate worth (worship) to.

The second, reflected in the Genesis reading, is celebration. This is fundamental. God’s declaration of the underlying goodness of creation is not an abstract statement of fact or a license for exploitation, but an invitation to celebrate and share the world as genuine gift: something to be enjoyed together justly, not treated as a mere commodity. This is what Eucharistic celebration embodies for us.

It is exuberant mutuality between people, planet, evolutionary change and God which Creationtide is all about – marked by a sense of neighbourly responsibility that is not, in the final analysis, fearful or miserable, but recognises that having a world to share is actually the greatest joy imaginable.

[1] See more on the European Christian Environmental Network: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17008

------------

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He was media coordinator for the Festival of Spirituality and Peace this year. This sermon was delivered at St John’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, at the beginning of Creationtide, on 2 September 2012.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.