My wife Katherine is a keen gardener and has established or re-established gardens in all the homes we have lived in together. In these gardening ventures, I am very much an assistant, giving a hand with the heavy lifting, giving lifts to garden centres and nurseries, and disposing of garden waste. Over the past twenty years, I have come to assist Katherine in four gardens across two continents and three cities, and I have come to learn a lot more about soil structures and composure, and what makes for a good growing environment. Each of the gardens we tended had very different soils. From the chalky soil of Thames valley to the clay soils of Cambridge; from the relatively youthful soils of Europe to the oldest soils on earth in Australia.
One of the first things we would do in each of these very different environments was replenish the topsoil with fresh humus. Because our plants thrive on the nutrients in the soil and use them for their growth. They take out what they need, and that’s when we replenish our soil, we encourage their growth. In each of our gardens we have had compost bins, from which we would generate new topsoil. In that way we could put back what our plants had taken out of the soil, and ensure that our gardens will continue to flower and flourish. Recently, we emptied our compost bin, sieved the humus and spread it out across the garden. Two wheelbarrows full of rich soil would go a long way, you’d think. But even in a small garden like ours, the compost we had created over the past year only provided a thin new layer of soil. Even though we daily add vegetable scraps to our compost bin, the humus we had created to put back on our garden beds hardly covered the garden.
In the same way that our plants draw out the nutrients of the soil, so for generations we have used the world’s resources – drawing out all that we need for living. Minerals, ore and coal, stone, clay, gas and water; we have drawn out from the earth’s abundance what we need to build our cities, support our industries and the growth of our economies. But just as we can see in the microcosms of our own gardens, where the resources of our soils are finite, and need replenishing, the earth’s resources also are finite. What we take out of the soil, what we dig up from the earth, is taken out. Some things that we dig out of the earth are used up entirely. Some can be replaced. But, very much in the same way in which the compost in our garden barely covered the garden beds, even when we regenerate those things that can be replaced, we find that what we put back barely covers what we have removed.
The Scriptures remind us that we are to be stewards of God’s good gifts to us. A steward is not an owner. Stewards are always accountable to another—their employer—for their actions. A steward is charged with taking care of those things with which they have been entrusted. And a steward is charged with passing those things on, in good shape, to their successors. We have not been good stewards of God’s creation. We have taken more than we needed, and have not replaced the little that is replaceable. We have spent what we have extracted from this earth, and have little to show that we could pass on to future generations. We are accountable to God, and to the next generation for our actions, and on the basis of our actions, we need to ask both for forgiveness. Now that would be serious enough if this was an isolated instance of behaviour. But this behaviour is not new: generations of human stewards have extracted treasure from the earth without much though about the people that follow. We have neither acted prudently nor wisely, and failed in being good stewards.
We have no spare earth. Indeed, in Jesus’ sermon on the Mount, the meek are promised this earth as their inheritance. Our stewardship of preserving our future inheritance has not been good. Yes we have seen some progress, both locally and globally. At St Paul’s, we have successfully reduced our carbon emissions by 14 metric tons per year. Many of you have installed solar panels to generate electricity or warm your water. Most of our homes have water tanks. Plenty of you recycle, and many have a compost bin. On our Cathedral website we have put together a number of resources to remind us how each one of us to take action at home, and in our workplace: actions like deciding to commute by public transport or bike; actions such as deciding what to buy and what not to buy, like for instance relying less on plastic bottles or—in this coffee city—takeaway cups, opting to eat less red meat and to use up our leftovers. These are things we each have control over and can do at home. Many of you daily make these positive choices.
Nevertheless, scientists tell us that we do need to even work harder than our own corporate positive action to ensure that the slender window we have to prevent the temperature of our planet from rising in such a way that irreparable damage is caused to our world. What is required is not just your own positive action and my own positive action, but coordinated, planned action. At our recent Synod, I proposed that our diocese commit to auditing the carbon emissions across our diocese and putting in place an emissions response plan. My motion called for planned action, mirroring the action the Cathedral has already committed to, in order to reach net zero as soon as possible. A carbon audit is the first step on the way to formulating an emissions reduction plan. And every parish, every home can contribute – while auditing our carbon emissions is a detailed process, it does not require specialist skills. We can each work out what our own personal impact is on our planet, measure our own carbon footprint. Unfortunately, my motion was dismissed on a technicality.
The fact that we were unable to discuss the climate emergency meant a lost opportunity for the Synod of our Diocese to address one of the most urgent issues facing people the globe over, long-term. It would have been timely for Synod to signal that we as a church are committed to shared, coordinated and urgent action to save our planet. I do hope and pray that our leaders meeting at COP26 will succeed where we failed, and set clear targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. But even with the Climate Emergency Synod motion ruled out on a technicality, I am confident that we can achieve the goal behind the motion: to work out what we need to do to reduce our carbon footprint as soon as possible, and encourage others to work alongside us do the same. That’s much more important than the motion itself – and that’s something each one of us can choose to commit to right now.
It’s not yet too late to commit to become better stewards of God’s good creation. It’s not yet too late to choose the positive actions that ensure that we give back more than we take out from the world’s resources. I have seen across multiple gardens across multiple continents that we each, in our own small ways, can give back what we take. In every garden my wife and I have shaped, we have dug back the humus we made from our own recycled vegetable matter. The topsoil layer generated in this way is small, that’s true. But just imagine what would happen if everybody’s compost were to be spread across this parched and nutrient-starved world? Just imagine what would happen if each person, every nation engaged in the positive behaviours so many of us have already chosen to adopt? Just imagine what would happen if our governments chose to act positively, and globally, so that no one, no nation, is left behind?
In the week ahead, please pray for the leaders of our own nation, and the leaders travelling to COP26. Pray for our church leaders and our local leadership. Pray that both would adopt clear and measurable targets to reduce climate emissions. And also use your voice to advocate for what you pray for. Write to our political and church leaders to tell them what positive actions you already are committed to, and what actions you want them to commit to with you.
Let us pray:
earth and air and water are your creation,
and every living thing belongs to you:
have mercy on us as we face this climate emergency.
Give us the will and the courage
to simplify the way we live,
to reduce the energy we use,
to share the resources you provide, and to bear the cost of change.
Forgive our past mistakes and send us your Spirit,
with wisdom in present controversies
and vision for the future to which you call us, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe is Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne and Fellow and Lecturer at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society