Wildlife and Biodiversity, Syria, Drought, Elections, Fairtrade, Migration – 28 February 2016

In this week’s prayer email:

  • Short Notes: Syria, Southern Africa’s drought, Elections, Fairtrade Fortnight, Europe and migration
  • Loving God’s world: wildlife and biodiversity (World Wildlife Day, 3 March)

Why do bad things happen? It’s a frequent question – and in an attempt to rationalise, people all too frequently blame the victims. If something has gone wrong for them, it must be their fault! But in this week’s  Revised Common Lectionary Gospel, Jesus disputes that analysis. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” he asks – clearly implying that they were not. At the same time, he calls all people to repentance and warns of sin’s destructive consequences.

A complex message! Where today do we see people being blamed for suffering that is not of their making – and how can we help to `comfort and defend them? And where do we see sin which may cause destruction – and how can we help to turn ourselves and others away from it?


Short Notes: Syria, Southern Africa’s drought, Elections, Fairtrade Fortnight, Europe and migration

  • As we write this, the Syrian truce has begun and seems to be holding, despite some violations. Please pray that it may provide a respite for civilians who have been caught in the middle of the fighting. Pray too that it may lead towards moves to establish a stable, just peace.
  • A long-running Southern African drought has been exacerbated by El Niño and is hitting many countries hard: the Guardian ran an article on Mozambique recently, and Al Jazeera did a strong story as well.  Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town also discussed the impact of the drought at an earlier stage in a beautiful and powerful video he did last year for the Mass Lobby of Parliament.A meeting of the Southern African Develoment Community (the Southern African nation states) on Friday estimated that 28 million people were vulnerable and in need of relief. Please pray for an end to the drought. Pray also for those affected by its impacts and those working to mitigate the effects of the impacts.  If you would like to donate to relief efforts, please contact us for options.
  • There were a number of elections at the end of last week – most notably in Iran, which was voting for its parliament and Assembly of Experts, clerics who have the responsibility of choosing the next Supreme Leader should a vacancy arise during the Assembly’s eight-year term. The election was seen as something of a referendum on the reformist President Hassan Rouhani and his recent nuclear deal with the Western powers. Early indications are that, despite the fact that only 200 reformist candidates were allowed to stand, reformist and independent candidates have done well in the parliamentary elections, and no single faction will dominate. Please pray for wisdom for all elected, and that the results help to lead to greater openness, justice and respect for human rights – including freedom of religion – in Iran. (Coverage: Al Jazeera, Daily Star (Lebanon)Financial Times, Guardian, Le Monde)This Tuesday, a number of US states will hold primary elections, voting for delegates to the party conventions that nominate presidential candidates. In a race distinguished thus far by unusually negative campaigning, pray for wisdom and discernment for voters and candidates.
  • Fairtrade Fortnight starts on Monday, with the theme ‘Sit down for breakfast, stand up for farmers’. We’ll be focusing on Fairtrade next week – but please start praying now that the Fairtrade will continue to create positive change for all involved with it, whether as producers, suppliers, retailers or consumers.  Our Fairtrade prayers and resources can be found here.
  • The UK is much concerned with our EU Referendum, but in an editorial on Friday, French newspaper Le Monde warned that the EU’s lack of a collective and coherent policy on migration threatens Europe more generally: “Shocked by the impact of the wave of migration, Europe is fragmenting, breaking up, taking itself apart … [unless there is a major change] historians will without doubt date the beginning of the disintegration of Europe to this matter, and to these years.”The immediate cause of the article was a summit convened by Austria, in which the countries of the ‘Balkan route’ – both EU members and non-EU members – met to work out ways to ‘isolate’ Greece and contain migration within its borders. Greece, Germany, and the European Commission were not informed – and Greece has recalled its ambassador from Austria in protest.  But as Natalie Nougayrède points out, the lack of EU policy coherence results from decisions by – and affects – all countries. And the need for cooperation – for the sake of both refugees’ safety and countries’ stability – is immense.As European ministers prepare to make decisions on border controls and migration policies, please pray for wisdom and discernment on all sides. Pray too for the safety of all who have fled conflict and oppression, whether to Europe or to other parts of the world. And pray for an end to the conflicts and injustices that force people to flee from beloved places and people.

Loving God’s World: Wildlife and biodiversity

World Wildlife Day is 3 March, so for this week, we are focusing on expressing love through care for wildlife and biodiversity.

The Lord said to Job,
Where were you when I laid out the Earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Do you know when the mountain goat gives birth?
Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Who has let the wild ass go free?
Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
Do you give the horse its might?
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up?
Look at Behemoth, which I made just as I made you. He eats grass like an ox. His limbs are as bars of iron. Under the lotus plant it lies, in the cover of the reeds and in the marsh.
Who has first given to me that I should repay?
Whatsoever is under the whole heaven is mine.
From Job 38 – 41

The final chapters of the book of Job read as a litany of celebration: God exults in the complexity of his creation and the wonders of his work. The sense of God’s pride, care and intimate knowledge is reflected elsewhere in scripture, for example in the Psalms: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young at a place near your altar, O LORD” (Psalm 84:3) – and in Jesus’ words: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus asks. “Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29).

In his paper on the Bible and Biodiversity, Sir Ghillean Prance says, “The Bible is biodiverse from Genesis to Revelation”. He cites God’s post-flood covenant in Genesis 9 as “the real biblical basis for the preservation of biodiversity”, with its repeated emphasis that God’s covenant is not simply with Noah and his descendants but with “every living creature.” He goes on to explore biodiversity and its preservation in the books of the law, the psalms and proverbs, the major and minor prophets and the New Testament, finding deep wells to draw from. Martin and Margot Hodson echo this view, writing, “the pages of the Bible are buzzing with insects, alive to the song of birds, majestic in their description of trees and awesome in appreciation of the strength of large animals. The Bible contains the names of countless species of trees and animals. There are thirteen different Hebrew words for owls alone and nine for locusts.” (Cherishing the Earth, p. 35)

In his critique of Genesis 1, and in particular the vexed question of what “dominion” over the earth by humankind means, Professor Richard Bauckham writeswhen we get to the creation of humans on the sixth day and we read God’s command to us to have dominion over the creatures, we already know that what God is entrusting to our care is something of priceless value… [O]ne of the things God delights in [is] the sheer, abundant variety of the creatures… We hear of fruit trees of every kind, seed-bearing plants of every kind, sea creatures of every kind, birds of every kind, wild animals of every kind, domestic animals of every kind, creeping things (i.e. reptiles and insects) of every kind. In all, that phrase occurs ten times. This is an account of creation that celebrates biodiversity”. Dominion is therefore taking care of God’s cherished creation and “responsible rule that does not exploit its charges.”

Similarly, in his exploration of the Bible and Biodiversity Reverend Dave Bookless concludes, “This world and all its creatures (human and non-human) belong to God and exist to bring glory to God… Every species matters, irrespective of its usefulness to humanity. Avoidable extinctions damage the integrity of God’s world, erase something of God’s self-revelation in creation, and silence elements of creation’s worship of God. Humanity has a divine vocation in reflecting God’s character towards the animal kingdom through encouraging the flourishing of biodiversity and resisting its depletion. This is both a missional task to be fostered as a special vocation for some, and part of the wider calling of all Christ’s disciples”.

Thus the sheer variety of life on Earth matters for its own sake.

But it is also vital for our own (humanity’s) survival. “Ultimately we rely totally on the ecological connectivity and biodiversity of this beautiful blue pearl in space, the Earth, whose future is in our hands. So we dismiss the needs of other species at our peril”, writes Dr Andrew Gosler, Research Lecturer in Ornithology and Conservation at Oxford University.

That God’s creatures and biodiversity are under threat because of mankind is not in doubt. Whilst the extinction of species is a natural phenomenon, current rates of extinction are vastly in excess of background rates (around a thousand times higher). Such dramatic loss has been described as “defaunation” with scientists arguing that we have entered a new geological epoch, the “anthropocene”.

As do other commentators, the World Wildlife Fund regard habitat loss as the leading cause of biodiversity loss. All types of habitat, from forests to lakes to swamps, have been cleared for industrial development, housing and roads, and exploited for human consumption. Destruction of rainforests and coral reefs has been the greatest source of biodiversity loss; rainforests have been eliminated from 50% of the area on which they formerly existed. The FAO points to the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity over the millennia, with ever-increasing food production driving the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural production. Human population growth is therefore one of the factors impacting biodiversity; pollution (including from synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer use) is another.

Climate change is particularly inimical to biodiversity. A 2014 IPCC report highlights the widespread impacts of climate change on many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species in terms of their altered geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions. Whilst it says that, as yet, only a few recent species extinctions can be attributed with high confidence to climate change, it is known that there were significant species extinctions in previous epochs, when natural global climate change was at a slower rate than we are currently experiencing. If global temperatures rise 4oC above pre-industrial levels scientists have projectedthat around 57% of plants and 34% of animals are likely to lose more than half of their present climatic habitat range by the 2080s.

Given this somewhat gloomy assessment, is there anything being done to address biodiversity loss… is there anything more hopeful?

We are currently midway through the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity to implement the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. This includes the Aichi Biodiversity Targets which address areas such as tackling the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, reducing pressure on biodiversity and promoting sustainability, and safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. In addition, Goals 14 and 15 of the new Sustainable Development Goals set out a number of specific targets which would protect biodiversity (for example, reducing marine pollution, establishing marine and coastal conservation areas, halting deforestation, reducing the degradation of natural habitats) – with the overall ambition of halting biodiversity loss.

In his recent paper, “We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?” Dr Richard Pearson, Reader of Biodiversity at UCL, cites several reasons for hope. These include: protected-area coverage is increasing globally, sustainable practices in industries such as fishing and forestry are becoming established, responsible investment is becoming more mainstream, 184 countries have established National Biodiversity strategies and Action Plans, and there are specific conservation success stories. He concludes, “It will take time to slow and turn around the juggernaut that is biodiversity loss, and everyone must pull in the same direction in order to shift course. The period over which the new SDGs will run, from now until 2030, will be absolutely crucial for making this happen. There are indications that things are beginning to turn around. Hints that we can do this. It would be a big mistake to dismiss the biodiversity target as a fairy tale”.

So what are some of the practical actions we can take, so that we don’t unwittingly contribute to the problem? How can we show our love for God’s wonderful world and respect for his creatures? As for last week, a definitive list is beyond the capacity of this short piece; instead, we offer here some “top tips” – several of which were kindly provided by colleagues with a passion in this area.

Reduce your ecological footprint:

  • You can calculate your ecological footprint and get a personalised action plan here: the One Plant Living Challenge.
  • In his paper, 10 things you can do to help biodiversity, Dr David Hooper emphasises the prime importance of reducing consumption. Making the connection between demand for new resources, habitat conversion, energy usage and extra waste going to landfill might be obvious, but I (Elizabeth) always need reminding…

Plastics:

  • Reduce use of plastic. There are lots of ideas here: my plastic-free life and here: Two years of living plastic-free, how I did it – both from people who’ve been trying to go plastic-free. For a specifically UK perspective, see here: Plastic Free UK.
  • Stop using products with plastic microbeads in them. These tiny non-biodegradable particles are added to a host of personal care products (including toothpaste) and end up in the “Plastic Soup” in the world’s oceans – where they pass along the marine food chain. For Smartphone users an App is available which you can use to scan barcodes to find out whether the product contains microbeads. Greenpeace has recently launched a petition urging the UK Government to follow the lead of the USA and Canada in banning their use.
  • Never throw away plastic bags, too many finish up injuring wildlife injuring wildlife

Home and garden:

Palm oil:

Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil, currently accounting for over 65% of all vegetable oils traded internationally. It is currently found in around half of all packaged supermarket foods and is also used in detergents, cosmetics and biofuels. And its use is increasing. Millions of hectares of tropical rainforests have been destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, with a devastating impact on biodiversity.

What can we do?

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature argues that boycotting palm oil is not the answer but that sustainable palm oil is. CSPO stands for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil and means the oil was grown on a plantation that “was established on land that did not contain significant biodiversity, wildlife habitat or other environmental values, and meets the highest environmental, social and economic standards as set out by the RSPO” (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). Ethical Consumer do encourage a boycott of products from companies that aren’t currently using 100% responsibly sourced palm oil and provide a helpful list of palm-oil free and sustainable palm-oil products here: Ethical Consumer guidance.

RSPO certification is not without its critics. Greenpeace argues that RSPO standards do not prohibit deforestation and peatland destruction. These criticisms appear to have been addressed in the recently announced “RSPO NEXT” voluntary add-on criteria for RSPO members.

Traidcraft have introduced FairPalminto some of their products – a fair trade, sustainable palm oil grown by smallholder farmers in West Africa alongside other crops.

Finally… campaign on climate change, get involved in A Rocha (the world’s biggest Christian biodiversity NGO), and get your church signed up to Eco Church.

With thanks to Martin Hodson, David Morgan and Mike Perry for their suggestions.