For many in the Third World, concern for the long-term future of the earth is a luxury they cannot afford. People don’t worry about consequences that are 20 years down the road when the immediate problem is surviving next week.

But most would agree that environmental consciousness lately has become more of a focus of relief-and-development efforts, both Christian and secular. Joseph Sheldon, a leading evangelical environmentalist and professor at Messiah College, observes, for example, that the World Bank is increasingly linking its loans to environmentally sound projects.

He attributes this in part to the influence of Herman Daly, an evangelical who is a top World Bank economist. Says Sheldon, “Daly’s views are rooted in sustainable economics. He understands that the earth’s resources are at some point limited.”

While the church as a whole often has been criticized for being slow to add the issue of the environment to its agenda, many missionaries and Christian relief-and-development organizations have been friends of the environment for a long time. Says World Vision president Robert Seiple, “Organizations that have stressed sustainable development are environmentally conscious virtually by definition, because a big part of sustainable development is taking care of the earth.”

Beyond this, according to Seiple, Christian organizations lately have started addressing environmental issues “with more intentionality.”

Blazing An Ecology-Minded Trail

Sarah Corson and her husband, Ken, spent several years ministering among the poor in five different Central American nations.

“When we returned to the U.S. in 1979, we were devastated by the affluence and waste in this country,” Sarah says. Failing to find a missions organization that taught such things as how to use windmills and how to milk cows, they started Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), based in Lineville, Alabama. SIFAT trains missionaries in development strategy and use of appropriate technology in the Third World.

What kind of cactus is best for camel fodder? That is a typical question Martin Price is asked at Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) in North Fort Myers, Florida. Price has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, but also immediate access to many experts. ECHO provides ideas, information, and seeds to church workers committed to helping peasant farmers and urban gardeners.

Putting people first

There is, however, no such thing as a Christian organization that is dedicated exclusively to environmental concern in the Third World.

As Martin Price of the Florida-based Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) puts it, “If you’re thinking only of the environment, you’ve done well when you’ve kept the peasant farmer off the land. But if your ultimate concern is for the peasant farmer, you have not succeeded until you’ve provided him with the knowledge and resources to enable the land to support him.”

Because environmental degradation ultimately has a human face, many working to improve conditions for the Third World poor link environmental issues to issues of justice. Sarah Corson, of the Lineville, Alabama-based Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), faces a moral dilemma every time she thinks about eating a banana. “There are workers in some countries who are being exploited, who can barely feed their families, in order that we in the U.S. can buy bananas at 39 cents a pound.”

According to Corson, subsistence farmers in the Third World were once able to provide for themselves on land that was ecologically diverse. In many instances, she says, foreign corporations or wealthy nationals have bought up the land, turning the yield into single cash crops and leaving the indigenous poor with little choice but to work for the owners on the owners’ terms. To Job Ebenezer, a key player in the formation of the Christian environmental organization Green Cross, advocacy for the environment is potentially a powerful evangelism. Says Ebenezer, “When Christians make sacrifices on behalf of others, or take personal health risks in a cleanup, people are bound to discover at some point that love of Christ and Creation are the motivating factors.”

By Randy Frame.

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