Back when I lived in Melbourne’s bible belt (the Eastern suburbs), I had the opportunity to house-sit for an American family living on the Mornington Peninsula.
These friends generously invited others to ‘mind’ their home while they went back to the States to see family and friends over the Australian summer. There were no pets to mind, and not even really many precious plants to water; they were just community-minded people who knew that a week nearer to the beach might be a timely blessing to folk, especially those on lower incomes. They were used to having regular guests in their home, and accordingly they’d developed a reasonably comprehensive ‘how to’ guide for visitors, including a warning that the wash cycles on their front loader took an eternity (they were most certainly right).
But I clearly remember one helpful, summative statement, toward the end of the document, which was that as much as they weren’t asking for much in return, they encouraged guests to leave their home better than they found it.
I thought this was a lovely ethic for guests, indeed for human beings in communities everywhere. The same approach could certainly be encouraged in workplace kitchens, or anywhere there are shared facilities.
A matter of justice
Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it might look like for us, as a species, to adhere to a similar ethic with respect to our ecological home: planet earth. Rather confrontingly, national Earth Overshoot Day, for us here in Australia, this year falls in the middle of Lent (March 23). For those unfamiliar with it, Earth Overshoot Day estimates “the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year”. The Australian date provides a reflection of where that date would fall if all of humanity lived like us Aussies. This is effectively a different way of illustrating the more familiar carbon footprint equation, i.e., if everyone lived like us we’d need 4.5 planets. While it’s obviously a very inexact science, especially with lags in the supply of accurate annual data, the message for us is really very clear: not only are we failing to leave our planet better than we found it, we are effectively running up a massive ecological debt. As this date falls earlier and earlier with each passing year, the cumulative debt grows bigger and bigger. Except that debts are things we accrue with the intention of eventual repayment. Which is now simply beyond us, all things being equal.
Until quite recently, I think many folk might have questioned the legitimacy of this whole Earth Overshoot paradigm, on the basis of our lives still - on the whole - working out just fine. Sure, some are doing it tough, but most can still access what they need for a reasonably good life. At least most of the people we know, in our privileged little bubbles. However, the inconvenient and harsh truth is that it is predominantly others who pay, downstream from us, to prop up our material existence. It is the world’s poorest, who live in what Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, and it will also be the generations to come, who are set to inherit a ‘used up earth’ (to borrow a phrase from the musician Sting). I would suggest we’re a long way from living lives that depict much faithfulness in loving these particular neighbours of ours. Yet isn’t loving our neighbour at the core of what we’re called to, as disciples of Christ? Was Jesus not sufficiently clear in articulating that love of God and love of neighbour are inseparable (Matt 22:36-40)? Or are we still, like the experts in the law in Jesus’ day, trying to split hairs over who even qualifies as ‘neighbour’?
That said, recent years have perhaps hit the message home that we, the affluent, are not immune from the effects of destablised ecosystems, and our neighbours in need of help might be closer to us than we’d like to think. Just ask those in our own country who have lost everything in fires or floods, or whose homes are at significant risk of becoming uninsurable in the near future. It is increasingly clear that we will all suffer for our propensity to live beyond our ecological means, however the impacts will be dished out in ways that are incredibly unjust, often highly unpredictable and seem increasingly cruel. I think it is time to call this burgeoning ecological debt what it actually is: theft. We steal from others more vulnerable than us the opportunity to live well, all so that we can continue to enjoy incredible material comfort and profit from the conveniences of the modern economy (think single use disposable coffee cups for a start: 2.7 million of these are ‘consumed’ every day in Australia alone).
Our predicament, and our complicity in the suffering of all of creation - God’s good creation that is home to us all - should make us weep.
Which brings me back to Lent, a time of solemnity and of sacrifice, pointing back to the 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the desert. It would seem that ‘going without’ is a discipline we would be wise to reclaim. We could certainly start by learning to live with less. Lent is also a time of looking forward, in focused anticipation, to the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a time of reflection and of preparation. And as much as Easter does not mark the start of a new liturgical year, some of us are overdue for a reality check around the things we take for granted, particularly the excesses that have been normalised in so called ‘developed’ economies. It’s not just time for confession and contrition, but for penitence and action, and for recalibrating our expectations. Perhaps this Lenten season, and Easter itself, could become a catalyst for real and lasting change.
We know that this Lenten journey doesn’t end with death, but with the deep hope of resurrection life: life in all its fullness. It’s my suspicion that we all need this life-changing, narrative flipping kinda hope more than ever before.
And, if you take time to look deeply into the diverse fabric of your local community, I guarantee you’ll find people of hope, working for change, investing in regenerative practices, looking to restore and renew, for the sake of our collective future.
Imagine what newness might spring to life if we were to focus our attention there, and to join our efforts with theirs, embodying a deep and abiding hope that goes way beyond chocolate bunnies and easter egg hunts?
This is an abridged version of Claire Harvey’s article, ‘Women, Warriors and War in a Warming World’ originally published in Ethos. Shared here with permission and thanks.
Claire Harvey and her two children attempt to ‘live lightly’ upon Bunarong land, in Melbourne’s South East. Claire serves on Frankston Council, is a part of The Village Church community in Mount Eliza, and contributes to climate advocacy through SECCCA (South East Councils Climate Change Alliance).