Q&A with Scientist Rick Lindroth: Part 2

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Last week you met Rick Lindroth, a University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologist, and heard his views on integrating faith and science. This week we visit some more specific topics, one of which is his view of the church, particularly since he’s served in numerous roles at his church, including the governing board, and his wife, Nancy, just retired after spending 20 years on church leadership staff. Here, we’re pleased to bring part two of his interview.

In the previous edition of this newsletter, you provided a brief primer on the science of ecology and described your development as an ecologist and a person of faith. Let’s shift gears now and take on the subject of environmentalism—especially environmentalism in the context of Christian faith. Could you explain for us how ecology is related to environmentalism?

Recall that ecology is the science of how the natural world works and focuses on the interactions of organisms with their environment. Environmentalism is concern for, and activity promoting, protection of the environment. Environmentalism is a natural product of immersion in ecology—most ecologists care deeply for the natural world and advocate for its protection. In addition, environmentalism is best informed by strong ecological science. It’s rare, but not unheard of, that ecologists oppose particular environmental actions based on their understanding of the underlying science.

Christians and Christian organizations frequently have a less than positive view of the term “environmentalism.” Yet, the very same people may care deeply about the Earth and its inhabitants. What terms do you find to be useful alternatives?

A number of terms are used, although I admit to not being fully satisfied with any of them. Among the more popular terms are “creation care,” “environmental stewardship,” “earthkeeping,” and, especially within the Catholic tradition, “environmental justice.” What these terms usefully convey is the notion that humans are caretakers of the environment. That is good, but falls short of capturing the full-orbed and multifaceted relationship of humans to the Earth. Especially lacking is the perspective that humans are fully part of, dependent on, and interdependent with, our larger environment. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet discovered what I think to be an ideal term for describing the relationship of Christians to the Earth.

Could you explain for us why Christians should be involved in creation care?

Whole books could be written on that subject; indeed, they have been.

The biblical imperative is compelling. The purpose of creation is to bring glory and praise to God. In other words, creation does not exist for us; it exists for God. Not surprisingly then, the very first job of humans was to tend (nurture, care for) God’s garden (Gen. 2:15). The Bible portrays God as loving not only people, but the full entirety of his creation. As Christians, we are called to both love God and love what he loves. One cannot truly love something without cherishing and caring for it.

The scientific reasons are perhaps even more compelling. It is not an overstatement to say that the Earth is suffering from a complex of problems that are serious, pervasive, and potentially catastrophic. Science gives insight into the causes, consequences, and interconnectedness of those problems. Christianity, in turn, offers values and perspectives fundamental to addressing them.

What do you think are the most serious environmental problems confronting us today?

Every ecologist has his or her list of the top 5. Most of those lists would include issues such as the loss of biological diversity (see my article here), invasive species (e.g., zebra mussels, emerald ash bore, kudzu), widespread changes in land use (e.g., conversion of tropical forest to soybean fields), and industrial-scale agriculture. At or near the top of every list, however, would be climate change. It is the existential crisis of our generation. As I have written elsewhere, it’s real, it’s us, it’s serious, and it’s going to get worse. But there is hope, if we act courageously now.

As an ecologist, I must also emphasize that these problems are not independent; they interact with and amplify one another. For example, invasive species contribute to the loss of biological diversity, which is accelerated by climate change.

I’d also like to add that the people most impacted by these changes are those living in under-resourced communities. And, at least in the U.S.A., those are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). There is a proven, strong, inverse correlation between one’s socio-economic position and one’s experience of the impact of climate change.

What about the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing? Is that related to current environmental issues?

It certainly is, in terms of both origin and impact. Just how the SARS-CoV-2 made the jump from a wild animal to humans is still unknown, but it most likely occurred in the context of wildlife trafficking or bushmeat marketing, major contributors to the demise of high-value mammalian species. Air pollution increases the virulence of COVID-19, contributing to its differential impact on racial and ethnic minority groups. And right now, the western U.S.A. is bracing for how smoke from the upcoming fire season, amplified by climate change, will exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another interesting aspect of the pandemic is that it is giving us insight into how personal behaviors, as well as attitudes about personal liberty versus the common good, will shape the consequences of environmental disruption for all people.

What can environmental scientists do to help the church better be the church?

Environmental scientists, such as ecologists, have much to offer the church. On one hand, they can provide practical advice for how local communities of faith can reduce their individual and corporate environmental footprints. On the other, they can help churches to flourish for many of the reasons that churches exist. For example, they can enrich our practice of worship (see Psalm 104), enlarge our concept of reconciliation and restoration to include the whole Earth, and energize ministries to those who are under-resourced and marginalized.

If you were to give one suggestion to our readers for a personal action toward increasing their environmental awareness, what would it be?

Building an environmental awareness and ethic is all about creation connection. We care for the things we love, and we love the things we are connected to. So, my first bit of advice would be to develop a regular habit of connecting with nature.

Here is a simple practice. Science tells us that mindfully holding a thought of gratitude for 20 seconds will make us more grateful people. Mindfully holding a physical embrace for 20 seconds will deepen our relational bond with the person held. Mindfully holding a connection to creation—a sight, a sound, a scent, a touch—will literally re-wire our brain to better appreciate the natural world around us. Make a practice of doing so once or twice a day; it takes less than a minute!

Thank you, Rick Lindroth, for this week and last.

One other thought: We loved learning that just under half of our survey respondents forwarded these newsletters. We also realized that they’re more likely to do so than most readers. Can we encourage you who haven’t done this yet to think of a pastor, a church leader, a scientist, a friend, or a relative that might enjoy these Science for the Church newsletters? Would you forward one today?


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