As a researcher, I am drawn to environmental challenges. Specifically, I am interested in how humans interact with the environment and if those interactions are sustainable at longer timescales. When a global pandemic hit, many of those interactions were halted, as stay-at-home orders and other activity-related reductions were introduced.
As an environmentalist, I have been encouraged that a break in human activity has resulted in many observations showing this pause as a much-needed time of recovery for the environment. Cleaner air from reduced air pollution is just one example.
But this is only one side of a story.
As a Christian, I am also committed to developing solutions that serve people in a way that reflects the love of Christ. The key here is that people are a priority. And with this break in human activity also came lost jobs, lost income, and lost connections with other people. Many were, and continue to be, even challenged for basic nutrition throughout the world.
So, while the environment may be showing some signs of improvement, people continue to suffer, and that is not an acceptable balance.
Perhaps if we seek to serve humans created in the image of God, then the glory of God will permeate throughout all creation.
As you can imagine, many researchers took notice of the shock from a massive pandemic. And it became clear early on this shock was going to be prolonged. So, what did researchers do? Many altered their research plans to better capture the impacts of the global pandemic and build a more resilient future.
Environmental researchers are often reactive, as our observations come after a shock has been made to a system. In other words, we often observe a chaotic aftermath. This is largely because many of these shocks are unpredictable—like when and where a hurricane will strike next.
Fortunately for environmental researchers, this means our work can lead to a more resilient and successful future based on our past observations. In other words, we turn reactive observations into proactive measures in hopes of mitigating future chaos.
Fish affected by COVID?
In my case, I was working as part of a project with a team from the University of Florida, United States Geological Survey, and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations when the pandemic hit. We were in the middle of developing a global survey to better understand threats to global inland fisheries—things like pollution, climate change, and overfishing. We did not have a global pandemic on our radar of threats. Naturally, we added it to our list and sent out the survey.
We received responses from 437 experts throughout the world who identified if their fishery (a body of freshwater where fish are frequently caught) was expected to experience more pressure, less pressure, or no change in pressure due to COVID-19. Here, pressure implies any stress that a fishery may experience, such as increased fishing, fluctuating market prices, or even changes in regulation. The results were environmentally, socially, and theologically intriguing.
Across the board, we found responses were mostly balanced—about a third of responses went to each option. But we did find responses were clustered both geographically and economically. Higher income areas often reported less pressure due to a stoppage in fishing—largely recreation-based areas with increased travel restrictions. In these locations, it is expected that fisheries will rebound as fishers take a break during the pandemic. However, in lower income areas, we found the opposite response—these fisheries reported increased pressure as more people turned to fishing to uphold their basic nutrition and income. We expect this is driven by laborers who, without work, saw fishing as means to a livelihood. In environmental terms, this use of a natural resource is an example of a provisioning ecosystem service (a human benefit provided by the natural environment).
Scripturally, I could not help but draw a connection that fisheries with less pressure parallel the benefits we gain through our spiritual call for rest. Our call to observe the Sabbath certainly comes to mind, but this environmental rebound is more acutely a time of healing after a heavy burden.
Matthew 11:28 instructs, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” The environment is taxed and is currently in a time of rest and recovery in these locations. This environmental response is a clear example of our need for occasional rest and rejuvenation and serves as an optimistic picture of a stronger future during an oppressive pandemic.
On the other hand, fisheries that reported more stress are also fascinating for a global Christian community. We benefit from the environment every day, but this often goes unnoticed. Here is a clear example of how the creation is there for us when we need it most. These provisioning services not only entrench the value of environmental stewardship, but they also illustrate the grace granted to us by our Lord.
In our times of need, the Lord is there for us. He provides. Despite an ongoing degradation of this planet, His creation still provides—through Him. Despite our sin, God shows us grace. I am reminded of Matthew 6, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’… But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Connections to Creation Care
This study showcases God’s creation as a message of hope and restoration. We have hope in the provision. We have restoration in the recovery. And despite our global degradation, we have hope in knowing the earth will one day be restored. But until then, we must continue to work through our impacts by setting our sights on the majesty and glory of God and His creation.
We care for the creation by showcasing and upholding its glory. We know the creation declares the glory of God, so caring for the creation likewise declares God as glorious. But, humans are made in the image of God, so caring for humans as part of the creation also declares God as glorious.
This is an important distinction because humans are often a rationale for creation care but are not the priority. In other words, we justify our care for the environment by saying our pro-environmental actions will protect those who are most vulnerable to environmental change. As a result, we categorize humans and the environment as separate entities. But humans are a part of the creation.
What if caring directly for people became the new creation care? What if we sought to truly serve humans first and the natural environment second? Would our serving people not motivate us to fix the environmental chaos that is causing harm? Would our serving people not build community and good will? Would our serving not motivate pro-environmental behavior at larger scales with greater impacts?
The pandemic has demonstrated our need for directly connecting with people, and this study has showcased that humans are suffering despite a recovering environment (even those working in areas of fisheries with less stress were impacted by less work and wages). The pandemic has also demonstrated that if we take humans out of the picture, the environment will rebound.
Maybe our creation care desires are better served by caring first for people. Maybe if we focus on caring for people, the environment will follow suit. Perhaps if we seek to serve humans created in the image of God, then the glory of God will permeate throughout all creation.
Regardless of our approach, it is important to remember that in the turmoil of a global pandemic, there are still lessons to be learned about God’s grace and provision that will carry us through. COVID-19, while devastating, is temporary. God’s love, care, and provision are forever. We are connected to God through His creation. We are protected by God through His creation.
This post was written in reference to an article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
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