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“The tree… is man’s life”: Some Scriptural Insights into Environmental Sustainability in Africa

The Bible offers insights into what might be construed to be God’s ideal for how Africa should approach the global environmental sustainability conversations.

Many are in agreement that globally, the environment has been devastated by individualism, greed and ultimately, late-stage ultra-capitalism, which Africa has not historically been a notable part of. Yet, the same countries laden with the guilt of environmental degradation are calling on African countries to make expensive, even unaffordable concessions and investments in environmental sustainability. This has led many Africans to reject the call, terming it a ploy to keep African countries stagnant and unable to pursue the same path of economic prosperity that brought the more advanced nations to where they are today.

In a recent Pew Research, nearly 700 million out of Africa’s 1.2 billion estimated population officially identified as Christian. To reach the heart of the masses towards transformation, the continent’s advancement conversations must now take a stand and reverse the Eurocentric inclination of shying away from referencing the Bible. In this instance, the Bible will be explored for insights on what might be construed to be God’s ideal for how the continent should approach the global environmental sustainability conversations.

Africa and Global Environmental Degradation

Africa’s contribution to global environmental degradation is minuscule when compared to the rest of the world. The electricity the United States uses for air-conditioning of buildings alone is equal to the entire electricity consumption of the continent of Africa. A Yale University School of the Environment’s study found that the United States alone generates more plastic waste than any other nation globally. Plastic waste has been blamed for the several instances of flooding around the world today, while much marine life is endangered due to plastic ingestion and strangulation. The US Department of Defense is the globe’s single biggest institutional user of oil, and as a consequence, one of the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases.

As for the European Union, a report jointly published by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and the Global Footprint Network notes that the EU and its residents, although accounting for just 7% of the global population, consume about 20% of the Earth’s “biocapacity.” In other words, 2.8 planets would be required if everyone consumed at the average EU residents’ pace. Other countries in Asia such as China, India and some other South American countries follow the EU at a distant pace.

The cruel paradox is that, although Africa contributes the least to global climate change, it suffers the most in terms of health, economic, geographical and social consequences than the rest of the world. African nations are confronted with a slew of environmental issues that endanger the region’s population. Water pollution, air pollution, and droughts are the continent’s most serious environmental issues, all of which have very strong negative effects on the health of Africans.

The Creation Story and Environmental Sustainability

There are several scriptures that underscore the magnitude and place of environmental management in the task allotted to humankind. First, God’s plan for creatures such as birds and animals is for them to increase. What this signifies is that any action or activity that brings about a reduction in biodiversity is contrary to God’ will.

The Bible says so in Genesis 21: 22-23

21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”

Indeed, species rather than increasing are becoming extinct at up to 1,000 times the normal rate due to persistent pressure from habitat degradation and climate change, both of which are connected with increasing human industrialization and modernity-related activities. The variety of life God created to support natural systems and human civilizations worldwide is dwindling.

Further down in this creation story, it was time for man to be created. First, the Bible records that God made man in His own image and likeness. So if God is a creator, then man was made to create, to bring about increase and expansion of the species and not their decimation. When God breathed into man, he gave him his Terms of Reference or scope of work, which was already planned ahead. It was simple: “be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” Essentially, humanity was entrusted with the task of ensuring the preservation and thriving of the species.

Building Cities and Conquering Territories

In a typical case where God gave clear instructions to the Israelites on how to build a city, he made it clear that vegetation or natural habitat should surround the city. This instruction is found in Numbers 35: 4-5

“The pasture surrounding the Levites’ towns is to extend 1,500 feet in each direction from the city wall. The outside borders of the pasture are to measure three thousand feet on each of the four sides—east, south, west, and north—with the town at the center. Each city will be supplied with pasture.”

That each city will be supplied with pasture shows the importance of mankind staying close to nature, to give and to receive from nature.

In another instance, when the Israelites were going to war, God instructed them to not cut down the trees nor set to fire the vegetation part of the cities they were going to conquer.

Deuteronomy 20: 19 – “When you besiege a city for a long time, while making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them; if you can eat of them, do not cut them down to use in the siege, for the tree of the field is man’s food.

In the above Scripture, God told humans that the tree of the field is man’s food. The King James Translation of the Bible says: “for the tree of the field is man’s life.” The statement was made in the Bible thousands of years earlier, but it was not until about less than five centuries ago that scientists discovered that plants give off the oxygen that humans need to survive, as well as mopping up the carbon dioxide they exhale from the environment. Additionally, only plants have the capacity to make food on earth with sunlight, in a process known as photosynthesis. Animals and humans depend on the food made by plants to survive. Without plant life, human and animals cannot survive on earth. All of God’s creations are interconnected. When one is threatened, the other is not safe.

Working towards Sustainability

The pertinent issue across Africa today is how much the continent should invest in environmental sustainability, being that the region contributes very little to the burning challenges of global warming and environmental degradation but suffers most.

Africa’s role at this time will be to correct that which the rest of the globe has desecrated in God’s world. This is a call for a higher level of innovation to come from Africa. The western-led innovation that has been adopted by the East and in many parts of the globe is a race towards extinction for humanity, which includes Africa.

The insight here is that there are better, more affordable, environmentally sustainable and friendlier ways of advancement than the regrettable path that has led to global climate change. Africans must then be pacesetters in finding this path. African Christians must now work on the kind of innovation that reflects God’s mandate to humanity to replenish the earth and not to deplete it. This means looking beyond fatal short-term gains and focusing on the very type of innovation that will show the shallowness and ungodliness of the innovation pathway that has brought the current global environmental crisis.

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