Deuteronomy | In the face of climate catastrophe, choose life

The news is devastating, but we still have choices: so choose life. (Listen.)

This week, as cataclysmic floods pour across Pakistan, destroying farms, roads, towns and infrastructure and displacing over 30 million people; as unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires continue to threaten much of Europe; as long-term drought impacts water security for millions of people in the southwest United States; as we brace ourselves for the likelihood of another La Niña cycle and further devastating floods; as we learn that the catastrophic bushfires along the Great Dividing Range burned six metres deep in places, rendering regrowth impossible, the most famous words of Moses’ most famous sermon should ring loud and clear.

‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil,’ he says, referring to the 29 chapters which precede these words. And so, Moses continues, ‘If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God … by loving the Lord your God, walking in their ways, and observing their commandments, decrees and ordinances, then you shall live … But if your heart turns astray and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare today that you shall perish … Choose life, so that you and your descendants shall live.’ (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

Of course, Moses wasn’t talking explicitly about climate collapse. But in the extended sermon which we call Deuteronomy, he sets out a way of living in harmony with God, with neighbour and with land: the way of shalom. The people of Israel had been enslaved for centuries in an exploitative, rapacious and extractive economy. Now they were walking towards freedom, they needed to learn how to live differently.

And so, as my friend Beth Waldron Anstice writes, Deuteronomy ‘teaches the community to transition to a sustainable relationship with the natural resources of the landscape’: through rhythms of work and rest; through an observant and modest agrarianism; through responsibility to family and neighbour; through limitations on sowing, harvest and consumption; and through justice for the poor.

Reflecting on this, I am struck by how reluctant we are here on this continent to live rightly and well with the land. Life in ancient Israel was necessarily different to life here: but I suggest that our charge is essentially the same. That is, knowing as we do good from evil, our fundamental task is to live within limits, to tend and to serve the earth, and to eat with restraint of its gifts.

The colonizing invaders, however, absolutely refused to learn how to live within the law/lore of the land. Instead, they destroyed and disrupted carefully managed ecosystems; they killed, displaced or dismissed the elders who knew how to live here in harmony; and they rejected all limits. And now we reject even Western ways of knowing as we as a society consume vast quantities of red meat, travel vast distances in fossil-fuel burning cars and planes, and live in vast houses: in fact, Australian homes are now the largest on the planet.

Yet we know better. We know that burning fossil fuels and farming red meat and clearing the forests produce enormous quantities of carbon dioxide; that carbon dioxide traps heat near the planet; that this is warming both oceans and atmosphere; that this warming is already leading to drastic and disastrous changes in sea levels and weather patterns; and that this is only going to get very much worse in the very near future.

We know that nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land has been handed over to beef production: yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories people consume. It’s the food of the rich Australians keep on eating, even as we know that simply removing red meat from our diets would allow vast tracts of land to be returned to carbon capture in complex and beautiful eco-systems.

We know … well, we know many, many things. Yet we continue to fly and drive like there’s no tomorrow; we continue to fell forests and drain swamps and send our cities sprawling; we continue to subsidize mining and fossil fuel industries; we continue to produce and consume cheap goods and cheap red meat, even as the earth groans and regions flood and burn; we continue to choose evil.

We also know this: That our neighbours are no longer just the house next door or the people in the next village. Our way of life directly impacts children in Pakistan, for the warming caused by Western economies, industries and households created the conditions which produced those devastating floods. We know this, and yet we continue to choose death.

For as long as we bow down to the gods of money and exploitation, the gods of endless production and cheap goods and overconsumption, the very gods Israel once tried to walk away from, people will keep dying and we, too, will be profoundly affected. ‘The way of the wicked will perish …’ warns the Psalmist, for they will be burned up and washed away by their refusal to live within God-ordained limits. But the worst of it that they (we) will take very many others with them.

Yet there is another way: the way of blessings. It’s the way of wind farms and solar power; of smaller homes and contained cities; a world of walking tracks and local living and bike paths and public transport. It’s a way of old clothes and second hand goods and not too many of them. A way of fixing things, mending things, and making do.

It’s a way of collective action to divert public and private investment away from fossil fuels; a way of humility and simplicity in which we can affirm with Proverbs, ‘Better a dinner of greens with love than steak where there is strife.’ (Proverbs 15:17; reflection here). It’s a way of local potatoes and backyard silverbeet and eating just enough.

Of course, in a world where there’s always a newer smartphone, a better kitchen, a fancier car, a more wonderful holiday and out-of-season strawberries beckoning, choosing a simpler way of life doesn’t seem very cool. It feels restrictive; it feels abnormal; and I’m sure that most of Israel heard Moses’ sermon then went right back to working on the Sabbath and ignoring their neighbour’s distress and eating beyond prescribed limits. But are we surprised?

In another reading set for today, Jesus warns his disciples that following him will be difficult. ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,’ he says. He describes how you will find yourself in conflict with your family, your village, indeed, with your whole way of life. Because, he says, ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ (Luke 14:27, 33).

For the typical modern Westerner, including me, these words are a punch in the guts and a challenge beyond imagining. Our identities are bound up in our possessions and in what we strive to own. We refuse to accept that our belongings possess us; our economy relies on consumer activity; we can’t bear to be so at odds with our families and the dominant way of life; and so many walk away from Jesus—or ignore these cold, hard words.

But ‘choose life’ urges Moses; ‘full and flourishing life’ according to Jesus; a life that is not hollowed out by envy and false gods and doing violence to our Pakistani neighbours or our own future. Choose right relationship with God, with land, with people. Choose the wisdom of First Peoples; choose simplicity; choose harmony.

Choose collective action; choose climate change mitigation; choose hope. Choose lentils not lamb, and turn paddocks into forest; rewild the landscape; choose living carbon capture. Choose a new imagination: choose good: choose God. See and cherish the beauty of the earth; learn to tend and serve the soil. Choose love for the air and the plants and the waterways. Choose justice; choose blessing. Choose flourishing not just for us but for all peoples, and for the land: for then you and your descendants shall live. Ω

Reflect: What is one practical way you can choose life this week, as an individual, a household, a church, or a neighbourhood?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 (Year C Proper 18) given to Sanctuary on 4 September 2022 © Sanctuary 2022, quoting a phrase from Beth Waldron (Facebook comment). Photo by Misbahul Aulia on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here.

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