Dave is an Ordained Minister in the Church of England and Director of Theology for A Rocha International, a network of Christian organisations working in nature conservation across the world. A Rocha International have recently joined the Renew Our World community and played a key role in crafting the Wildlife Statement that calls for a rethink in our relationship with nature.
Online Content Author, Sarah Parkinson, spoke to Dave about God’s heart for nature and our fellow creatures. So find yourself a comfy spot and settle in for Part 1 as Dave shares why he cares for our natural world.
Sarah Parkinson (SP): To start off, could you tell us a little bit about how you personally came to be passionate about wildlife and how that interconnects with your faith?
Dave Bookless (DB): I’ve always enjoyed wildlife and wild places. I spent much of my childhood in India where my parents were missionaries and I can remember getting out and seeing some of their exotic wildlife – birds particularly.
So I’ve always had this love for wildlife, but until my late 20s, I hadn’t really connected it with my faith. They were kind of in two separate boxes: my wildlife was a hobby, and my faith was my faith. I didn’t really connect them.
I had a very unexpected kind of eco-conversion experience when I was on vacation, on holiday on a small island off the southern coast of the U.K. We’d been self-catering, cooking for ourselves, so after two weeks of holiday, we had quite a lot of rubbish, of trash. We didn’t quite know what to do with it. So we asked one of the other folks on the island and were told, “You just burn the paper and the cardboard, and the rest of it – just follow that path and you’ll find what to do with it.”
So I quite literally did that and carried these bags of rubbish down this path on a beautiful summer’s day on this lovely island that was full of sandy beaches, breeding birds, beautiful butterflies, and flowers. And at the end of this path, there was a small cliff. I looked over the cliff and there was what once had been a beach and had now become the island rubbish dump. I just had to throw my rubbish on top of everybody else’s.
Completely unexpectedly I had a really profound experience of God speaking, of God just saying, “How do you think I feel about what you’ve done to my world?” For me, that was just like a clash of my faith and my lifestyle and my love for wildlife. I’d never connected those in any intentional way and it just flipped a switch in my mind. And I knew I had to go back and reread the Bible and to rethink my relationship with God’s creation.
That’s where it all began for me. It was that very personal and profound experience that brought my own lifestyle, my love for wildlife and nature and my very personal faith together, and [made me] realise that actually God cared about the impact my life was having and about what we were doing to His world. It’s all been a journey since then.
SP: I love the word you used, “eco-conversion”. That’s a good way to describe it. Many people in this Renew Our World movement articulate the same sort of separation between love of nature and their faith that comes together at a point in their lives. It’s quite an interesting reflection on what we’re taught (or not taught) in church.
DB: Yes, absolutely. I mean, prior to that, I don’t think I ever heard a sermon on the environment, on caring for creation. Now I’ve heard plenty since (and I’ve given quite a few!), but I don’t think that I had ever had one before that.
SP: You sure are working to address that gap, in part through your work with A Rocha International, who’s really driven the recent Renew Our World Wildlife Statement in response to COVID-19.
In the statement, it says that Christians globally should be encouraged to learn the inherent value of all of God’s creatures. I have two broad questions: what is biodiversity and why should it matter to us as Christians?
DB: Biodiversity is quite simply the variety of life on Earth. That covers all living things – animals, birds, fishes, plants, trees – everything down to microorganisms. It’s basically the living creatures and plants that populate the earth. The more we learn, the more we realise quite how varied they are.
Why should we as Christians care for it? For me, this fundamentally comes out of who God is and how God has made this world.
If we think about it – if we as Christians take what the Bible says seriously – then everything in creation, the whole of biodiversity, flows out of God’s character and God’s love. Everything that is created was created by God. We read in Genesis 1 and 2 about how God made the world, and why creation matters. After each of the days in Genesis 1, it says, “It was good.” And then after the final creative day, Day 6, God looks at everything He has made, and, “Behold, it was very good.” Everything He has made is, in a sense, biodiversity. And God is saying it’s very good. So God cares for it. God loves it. God declares it good. And that means we should, too.
It’s also very clear in Genesis that being made in the image of God, both male and female, is somehow connected to our caring for the rest of creation, that we are made in the image of God so that we might care for the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. So, in a sense, biodiversity conservation is right at the heart of what it means to be made in the image of God. It’s as fundamental as that. It’s part of who we are made to be.
And jumping forwards just seven or eight chapters in the Bible, we get to the story of Noah. The story of Noah is one of judgment and salvation. And who gets saved? Well, it’s not just people. It’s biodiversity – it’s every living creature on the earth. Why? Not because they are useful to humans, but because they matter to God. God simply says, “So that their kind might continue upon the earth.”
It matters to God that these creatures continue on the earth. That’s where their inherent value comes from. They’re part of God’s care for His world. They’re included in the ark. They’re part of what God encharges Noah as a representative of somebody who follows God. Noah is therefore, in a sense, our example. So that means that biodiversity conservation is right at the heart of God’s intentions for creation.
The story of Noah concludes with a covenant that, again, is not just with human beings. The covenant that God makes in Genesis 9 is a covenant with every living creature on the earth. It’s a covenant that includes biodiversity.
So it’s really, really clear, that what God’s made and what God entrusts to our care as those made in His image includes the whole of life on Earth. And that also means it’s clear – particularly [in light of] the story of Noah – that if we carelessly allow creatures to become extinct, that somehow erases something of God’s creativity on Earth. Therefore, it’s something pretty close to a blasphemy to allow a creature to become extinct.
SP: And I suppose another part of why it matters to us as Christians is that preserving ecosystems’ biodiversity also positively impacts on human flourishing.
DB: Absolutely. God’s created an interdependent world where our flourishing and nature’s flourishing actually completely depend upon each other. Nature depends on us to some extent, and we completely depend on nature. In purely scientific terms, our food, our oxygen supply, our water, having stable weather patterns – everything we need, everything we rely on – comes from nature.
SP: When you say that, it’s so simple and yet it’s not often taught, particularly not in churches like you mentioned.
Change of tack: There’s been a lot of talk globally around how the health of both people and planet have benefited from reductions in pollution and carbon emissions during this pandemic. Not to brush over the massive human and economic tragedy, but there do appear to be positive environmental side-effects of this season.
I’m curious as to why Renew Our World decided to include a focus on the global wildlife trade in its COVID-19 response when any number of different environmental issues – like pollution – may have been targeted.
DB: I think the specific reason is where COVID-19 came from. It’s what the scientists call a zoonotic virus. In other words, it’s one that has crossed to human beings from wildlife. And actually, scientists have been warning for years that something like this is coming. If we think back, every major virus outbreak in our lifetimes, whether it’s AIDS, Ebola, SARS, West Nile or Zika, has crossed over to human beings from wildlife.
The more we destroy wildlife habitats, the more we exploit wildlife for human use, whether that’s for food or in the medicine trade or whatever, the more we risk these diseases that are there within wildlife crossing over to human beings with drastic consequences.
Scientists are clear that this isn’t the last time we’re going to see this. In many ways, it’s the shape of things to come; we are very likely to see further and probably worse outbreaks of viruses like this. And it seems to me that, in all the discussion around COVID-19, that has received comparatively little coverage. That’s why we really wanted to focus on it.
We need to see this as a warning sign. A warning sign that our relationship with nature has gone badly wrong. COVID-19 is a symptom of that. Yes, there have been short-term environmental benefits from lack of urban air pollution and from a reduction in carbon emissions globally. But they seem sadly likely to be short-term unless we can persuade our world’s governments not to just return to business as usual.
There actually have been some big, hidden negatives environmentally from COVID-19, as well. We’ve been missing this because most of us live in cities where we’ve seen the benefits of increased birdsong and bluer skies. But in other parts of the world, there’s been an increase in deforestation in the Amazon because the world’s attention hasn’t been focused there. The Brazilian government in particular has deliberately allowed for this illegal deforestation to carry on. There’s also been an increase in poaching in parts of Africa and Asia and Latin America because forest guards haven’t been able to go about their work, so poachers have been able to get in and kill wildlife during the lockdowns. So they’ve been negatives as well as positives during the pandemic. But I guess the overwhelming message is, “Where does this come from and what’s it saying to us?” It comes from nature and it’s saying we need to change our relationship with nature.
SP: It’s very timely and a message that isn’t being articulated in many other places yet.
You mentioned food and medication as some of the drivers of biodiversity loss. Are there other big reasons for the extinction of species and ecosystem destruction?
DB: Yeah, the thing I haven’t mentioned that interacts with biodiversity losses is obviously climate change.
Climate change is a massive issue on its own. But it’s also kind of a vicious circle in combination with biodiversity loss; as the climate changes, it obviously affects the habitats for wildlife as well as for human beings. So it affects food production for humans around the world, but it also means that food for wildlife is affected around the world. One of the big areas where we’re becoming aware of that is in the world’s oceans. So as the world’s oceans warm, corals die. We’ve all heard about coral bleaching in Australia with the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s happening all around the world. Corals are nurseries for wildlife, for fish stocks. And as they die through climate change, through warming events, that’s having a knock-on effect on marine wildlife that’s absolutely chaotic.
We’re also seeing many species of animal and bird find that their habitats are no longer liveable. Those species that can are moving into new habitats. Now, it’s complex to tease out the exact causes, but changes in biodiversity and changes in climate interact with each other and there’s massive amounts of scientific research going on into this. One thing that has kind of almost got knocked out of the news by COVID-19 has been massive locust swarms this year that started in the Middle East, but have now impacted huge areas of North and East Africa and also right across into Asia and the Indian subcontinent. There have been outbreaks of locust swarms through history at many points, but we’re likely to see more of these extreme events as a result of an unstable and a changing climate. And they in turn impact on human health and on biodiversity in negative ways as well.
So climate change is like throwing a huge curveball into everything else. It affects human well-being and it affects wildlife. Habitat loss, human travel and transport, human industry and industrial pollution – all of these are impacting biodiversity as well.
SP: It’s not an easy fix, is it? It’s very interconnected.
DB: No, it’s hugely complex and it’s hugely interconnected. You know, right at the heart of it, it’s our relationship with nature that is the fundamental thing we’ve got wrong. And in a sense, both biodiversity loss and climate change are two symptoms. They’re not the cause – they’re symptoms that we’ve got our relationship with nature all wrong.
SP: When you contemplate what is happening with regard to biodiversity loss and ecosystem destruction, how do you as a theologian and an expert in this area feel?
DB: That varies from day to day. Some days I feel pretty depressed when new surveys come out. I think the thing I find most depressing is when we get more and more overwhelming evidence and yet we see human behaviour changing not at all or far too slowly. And particularly, we see our political leaders looking for selfish, short-term policy gains rather than taking the long-term decisions that are necessary. So it’s very easy to lose hope.
But what keeps me going fundamentally is actually my faith, and when I look at the very local level and I see small things. I see a new species of bird visiting my garden that’s not been there before. I see the way that, during this lockdown, I’ve been able to go and stand on a bridge over the big motorway that comes into London right under the flight path from Heathrow Airport, and because there are less cars and less planes, I can hear skylarks singing which I’ve never been able to do from that bridge before. Those small local things encourage me and give me hope.
But on the much, much bigger picture, what gives me hope is actually, in a sense, theology. It’s my belief that God is committed to creation and because of the resurrection of Jesus we have hope for the created order. We have hope that God, through Jesus, is not going to come and destroy this world, that He’s going to restore and renew it.
I love the title Renew Our World because it is a hopeful title. It’s about our action to renew our world. And that gives me hope. But underlying that – and much more solid – is God’s commitment to renew our world. And if it wasn’t for God’s commitment to renew our world, I wouldn’t have much faith in our ability to renew our world.
So that fundamentally is where my hope comes from. It comes from God’s promises. It comes from the resurrection of Jesus. It comes from God’s commitment to renew our world.
Keen to soak in more of Dave’s wisdom? Learn more about practically caring for creation? Check out Part 2 of this interview!