Changing the Climate by Debbie, David and Jamie Hawker
An engaging study guide that, despite some concerns, shows how the Bible is relevant to environmentalism, with many stories and ideas
Changing the Climate - applying the Bible in a climate emergency
By Debbie, David and Jamie Hawker
Reviewed by Terry Young
This is going to be an interesting review to write because I admire the intent and abhor the extremes of this book in almost equal measure.
I applaud the Hawker family – mum, Debbie, dad, David, and teenage son, Jamie – for opening up a lifetime’s passion for God's work in an accessible and informed way. I agree with them that this is an important issue and that churches have tended to ignore it as either out of their remit or beyond their control. By writing an engaging study guide, they provide a smorgasbord of content, comment, personal stories, ideas and advice. By emphasising the role of young people, they inject energy and freshness. I like the list of suggestions and found many of them very doable. There is a wealth of information, references and websites, all within a readable and short book. It’s accessible, it’s interesting and it faces us up with unpalatable facts.
As a teenager, I remember the existential angst that we would fry as the ozone hole opened up, and how I even wondered whether doing anything fun would really be worth it with such a fate just around the corner. The emphasis on young people is, for me, an attractive and important aspect of this. As a sixty-something now, I can see that the predictions made at the time didn’t materialise in all their horror, because people took action and with some rather smart chemistry and economics have arrested the problem, which seems to be recovering slowly. This, too, frames the way I read…
I don’t want to belabour my problems with the book but they are serious and fundamental. So, when I read the quotation (p 114):
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? (Deuteronomy 20:19)
I remembered there was more to the quotation, and looked it up:
However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls. (Deuteronomy 20:20)
This quotation crystallised a growing unease for me over a lack of balance. Moses isn’t Tolkien or The Lorax (though I love them both): he doesn’t speak for the trees. By aligning heavily with the concept of Climate Justice, this book brooks little debate – you have to do what’s right: period – and introduces a petty legalism.
Despite direct efforts not to be judgemental, it is hard to avoid a sense of being judged by the litany and guidance that is occasionally frustrating, even dubious (on opening your car window, you probably need to know that drag goes (roughly) as velocity squared, so it will only make a significant difference at speed). While there is lots of excellent material, there is also sound, relevant, science and economics that you won’t find here.
This leads the book uncritically to support such movements as Extinction Rebellion, and while I acknowledge that Christians have historically and repeatedly aligned with secular power blocs in pursuit of good causes, they usually come unstuck. It is hard to put God’s signature on other movements’ cheques without risk of breaking the third commandment or becoming more the influenced than the influencer.
Which brings us to theology… It was refreshing to watch the Prodigal Son through the lens of waste, and wonderful to read a determined attempt to marry scriptural injunctions with practical ideas and practices. Lots of Scriptures are cited with a commitment to apply them, and there are creative treatments of passages.
However, every now and then something brought me up sharp. For instance (p 170), ‘Jesus’ instruction ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matthew 5:39) suggests a kind of civil disobedience.’ Really? My letters from Peter and Paul, suggest not, but let’s at least have the discussion.
However, these concerns do not fully acknowledge the lengths to which, Debbie, David and Jamie go in search of balance. There is a bipartisan discussion on palm oil (pp 134-5), for instance, and a nuanced reflection on nuclear energy (pp 164-166), which includes my favourite passage (a story by Martha who wants to become an engineer so she can be part of solving the tough questions). Jesus gets just over five references to every one of Greta Thunberg and prayer comes up around twice as often as protest and disobedience combined. Still, I’m uneasy.
What’s missing for me is a robust theology of creativity and real hope of the glory of God – that the next child you have, for instance, may not simply be a burden on the environment but a creative spark who opens better futures – perhaps helping to crack nuclear fusion, or making carbon capture an economic and sustainable solution at scale.
I read this book as a heartfelt cry against complacency and neglect, rather than a diatribe against alternative approaches. As such I have to support their bravery and diligence and because of this, I’d encourage you to engage with this project and by joining to continue to shape what will be a long but vital initiative.
Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia.
Given his concerns with some aspects of the book, he sent his review to the Hawker family, who in turn wrote the following response:
A response from the Hawker family
We thank Terry for sending us his review. We are grateful for his kind words and that he can appreciate our intent in writing, even while disagreeing with aspects of our book. There are many complicated and controversial areas discussed in the book (food choice; travel choice; non-violent protests; disinvesting from fossil fuels; nuclear power etc). Therefore, we expect and encourage debate.
As he is very knowledgeable on these issues, we feel heartened that the aspects of the book which he dislikes seem to us to be relatively minor. If we could sit together and chat, we think we would find that we have many more areas of agreement than disagreement. Although we have discussed the controversial topic of Extinction Rebellion’s non-violent protests, we also state that rather than engage in protests ourselves we have chosen to write a book. We have also discussed ‘the art of gentle persuasion’ and other alternative ways to help people rethink (see p.170).
We (Debbie and David) also remember the hole in the ozone layer that scared us as teenagers. It’s well documented how international action filled the hole in the ozone layer, only to evaporate shortly afterwards when it came to slowing global warming. Now we desperately need that international action back.
Concerning the mention of Matthew 5 and non-violent resistance, we hope any interested reader will follow up the reference we give to Walter Wink’s book The powers that be. This covers much more detail of the social context than we had space to provide. Terry’s comment has helped us realise that the term ‘non-violent resistance’ would have been better in this context than ‘civil disobedience’.
We share Terry’s hope that young people will open up a better future. This is why we support Martha and other young people who want to come up with solutions, and why we have aimed our book at young people. Our hope is that young people who are passionate about climate change will see that the Bible is relevant to their concerns, and will become passionate about the Bible as well.
We are sorry that Terry felt our book was judgemental. We tried to avoid that, partly through sharing some of our own failings, and trying to focus on love for the Creator God and our neighbour as the priorities. If we get a chance to write a second edition, we will try harder to avoid appearing judgemental, and would welcome his contribution.
We welcome this invitation to ‘at least have the discussion’. Yes, let’s all keep talking about these important issues.
Debbie, David and Jamie Hawker