Light-bulbs are boring. Carbon emissions are boring. Reducing your footprint is a worthy aspiration, but it’s reductive, it closes down and diminishes. It’s putting the cart before the horse.
Carts are boring. You can jazz them up, but it’s still a cart. The interesting bit is the horse at the front – that living being who can look you in the eye, who needs feeding and grooming and who might return a pat on the neck with a friendly nuzzle. Life is interesting. Tools are tools.
In the bible, in Genesis 1, there are two charges from God to creation. The first is in verse 22, at the end of the fifth day, when God blesses the fish and the birds and tells them to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” The second is verse 28, spoken to humans: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it …” OK, the charge to subdue and have dominion is problematic, although some argue it depends how you interpret it. What I want to reflect on is the charge to humans, birds and fish to “Be fruitful and multiply.”
There is a similar two-fold charge after the flood. In Genesis 8.17, Noah is told to bring out of the ark every living thing – “birds and animals and every creeping thing” – “so that they may abound on the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” A few verses later, (9.1) the same blessing is given to Noah and his family – to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”
What do you think? Have these verses been over-fulfilled by humans and it’s time to stop multiplying and scale back? Could be. Certainly, we cannot continue with a way of life that would require more than three planet Earths when we only have one. The danger of multiplication is that it leads to more and there is an urgent need for us to stop at ‘enough’.
But I want to go back to my horse and the thought that life is good. Just as environmentally-concerned Christians have morphed Genesis 1’s fearsome concept of ‘dominion’ into the gentler ‘stewardship’, I think we may be able to find a way of being fruitful and multiplying that will lead to life that is flourishing, abundant and life-giving – for all.
Here I am going to borrow from Naomi Klein (in This Changes Everything) and her contrast of two mindsets – extractive versus regenerative. An extractive mindset is what’s been governing human behaviour for centuries. We take for ourselves what we want – coal, oil, timber, ore, food, water, whatever. Our focus is on what we want, and we apply our ingenuity to solving the problem of extracting as much stuff as we want. We are just starting to realize that we need to apply some ingenuity to the problem of what we do with the waste, because there’s too much of it. To an extractive world-view, multiplication is simply about having more. We will grow the economy, multiply the value of our property, have more stuff.
An extractive approach to the problem of excessive waste (including pollution) is to find ways of extracting less, mainly through becoming more efficient. We expect to maintain our way of life – keep the lights on, for example – while using less energy and other resources. It sounds worthy but it remains, at its core, extractive. It takes. Taking less is reductive and it’s still taking. And it’s like a boring cart. May as well make it a car (but a very efficient one), then there’s no need for that horse – because at the end of the day, there’s no need for life in an extractive world.
A regenerative approach would be more immersed and participative. It would be very mindful of what is put back into the natural system. We have to take – we have to eat and heat and so on. The question is, how do we give back and replenish, so that regeneration – new life – can happen? In a regenerative society, multiplication would mean putting more in than was taken out. A guiding principle would be that if you can’t add more back in, you can’t take anything out. We would live in order to multiply life.
In a regenerative world, we would pay attention to the relationships within systems. People more interested in giving than taking would naturally build strong and joyful communities. They would apply their ingenuity to inventing ways of growing food, travelling, acquiring and using energy, and so on, that multiplied life rather than diminished it. As more is put in than taken out, carbon emissions would go into reverse. But the focus would be on life, not on stuff. The focus would be on life that is abundant and flourishing, for all, including horses.