There’s an old Adventist joke, which goes something like this:
Two Adventists meet each other on a path after potluck. One has binoculars and a bird book, the other is wearing a swimsuit and carrying a towel. The Adventist with binoculars sniffs at the Adventist in a swimsuit and asks, “So, what are you planning on doing today?”
“Oh, I’m going fish watching. What about you?”
I’ve been thinking about this joke a lot lately, though it’s so dated not every reader will catch the punchline. For context: when I was a kid, pious Adventists didn’t swim on the Sabbath because (and I’m just guessing here) swimming was too much fun. We could, however, take nature walks and we could certainly bird watch because Sabbath was a time to honor God and His creation.
The older I get, the more I enjoy nature walks (i.e., hiking), and the more I think about how relevant that old joke is. While the rules around Sabbath observation have shifted with time, Adventists are still a Sabbath people, and we are still capable of missing the point. We take one day a week in part to honor God’s creative spirit, but we are largely indifferent to the plight of God’s creation. In many Adventist circles, environmentalism is viewed with more skepticism than the companies that profit from destroying God’s handiwork.
How bad are things for God’s creation?
As I write this, a million species of plants and animals are in danger of extinction according to a UN report on biodiversity. They’re threatened by a changing climate, by poisons in the soil and water, by plastic pollution, and most of all by ever-diminishing habitats. In Brazil, over 4,000 square miles of rainforest disappeared in a single year. In Uganda, the forests have shrunk by over 60 percent in the last 25 years, and the government recently sold part of the Bugoma forest, a crucial chimpanzee habitat, to a sugarcane company. Ugandan activists have taken to Twitter to #savebugomaforest. In the United States and Canada, the wild bird population has shrunk 30 percent in 50 years largely because natural habitats are disappearing.
I’m particularly dismayed at how casually companies destroy whole ecosystems. Procter & Gamble is cutting down the boreal forest in Canada in order to make Charmin toilet paper. Hundred-year-old trees are literally being flushed after a single use. Once we know better, we can buy better. Sustainable toilet paper, made from recycled paper or renewable bamboo, is widely available and equally affordable. Charmin toilet paper is just one example of how environmentally wasteful modern life can be. Bottled water is another. Fast fashion is another. Air travel is yet another.
To highlight how unsustainable our current consumption trajectory is, the Global Footprint Network created the Earth Overshoot Day. It’s the day in the year where humans have used all the resources that nature can replace. In 2020, that day was August 22. Every day after, we exceeded the balance God built into the natural world. Just imagine how ecologically expensive the glut of Christmas gifts was on our overstrained planet. One might quibble with the data and how it was reached, but I challenge anyone to dispute the reality of overconsumption. The average person today buys 60 percent more clothing than the average person did just ten years ago. Do we need all these clothes? Can the Earth sustain so much consumption? The answer to both questions is no.
We can buy less, waste less, and be more intentional about sustainability.
So, what does all this have to do with Adventism?
The Adventist church has an opportunity to be an energetic advocate for God’s creation. Our unique culture already lines up with environmentalism, a word I hesitate to use because some Adventists connect environmentalism with politics. Conservation, however, should be non-partisan, and in the United States, young Republicans are increasingly eco-conscious.
As a church, we believe in being good stewards of our time, our money, and our health. Expanding stewardship to include God’s creation is an extension of our values and rooted in the Bible. Our history of caring for our own bodies, because they are temples of God, should be readily extended to caring for the Earth because it was created by God and because how we treat the planet directly impacts the health of humanity. Finally, many Adventists are vegetarians or vegans. Being a vegetarian is great for the planet and being a vegan is even better.
Our church’s values line up with a concern for nature, and in fact, our denomination has made four official pro-environment statements, starting in 1992. These statements advocate sustainable stewardship and identify that the Earth is in an ecological crisis. Although I am both an Adventist and an environmentalist, I didn’t know these statements existed until recently. We have named the problem but we haven’t done much more.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is widely recognized for our focus on health and we are held up as models for longevity. We could also be known as good stewards of the environment, who not only say the right things, but who do the right things. Our church grounds can be miniature habitats. We can replace lawns with native species, helping birds and pollinators thrive and serving as a witness to our neighborhoods. We can contact our representatives and encourage them to support legislation that protects wild spaces. We can tell them that our faith encourages us to be good stewards of the environment. We can buy less. We can buy thoughtfully. We can stop using disposable plates and plasticware at potlucks. We can be a people who worship on the Sabbath and who are known for caring for God’s creation in practical, effective ways.
When I was a kid, a walk in the woods was seen as more Sabbath appropriate than a swim in a lake. Both, of course, can bring a person closer to God. Now that I’m an adult, the Adventist health message is seen as a more appropriate use of church energy than caring for creation. Both, of course, can make us more relevant to our communities and bring us closer to God.
My prayer for 2021 is that the Adventist Church will become an advocate for nature, showing through our environmental stewardship how much we honor God’s creative spirit.
Sari Fordham grew up in Uganda, in a house surrounded by jungle. She traces her passion for the environment from that early connection with nature and from her family’s Sabbath walks. She has become increasingly committed to sustainability and to the importance of saving wild spaces, and has started a free environmental newsletter called “Cool It.” (You can sign up here.) She teaches creative writing at La Sierra University and lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and daughter.
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