Dr David W. Golding CBE
Published in the Methodist Recorder, September 2023
I was disappointed, indeed, dismayed, by a programme for Harvest on BBC, not long ago. It abounded in expressions of joy and gratitude, such as:
“Come, ye joyful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest-home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin, etc.”
(Henry Alford, 1810-1871)
And that was good and right, but, shamefully, the severe hunger stalking the lives of millions throughout the poorer countries didn’t get so much as a mention, and nor did the fact that climate change, for which we in the rich countries are mainly responsible, is a major contributory cause of the failure of their harvests. The latter is now “unequivocal” (IPCC) – i.e., beyond dispute, and its denial is as irrational (and reprehensible) as, say, denying the causation of AIDS by HIV.
Nevertheless, it is entirely appropriate, in this ‘Season of Creation’, for us to celebrate the faithfulness of God and to sing,
“Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father…
Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest…
Join with all Nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.”
Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960)
Entirely appropriate, because, as Christian climate scientist, Dr Katharine Hayhoe, pointed out, the seasons - “seedtime and harvest” - result fundamentally from the regular orbit of the earth around the sun, tilted on its axis, as also from the ‘miracles’ of germination, etc., and as Christians we trace these back to the one “who sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1.3) – yes, even the Laws of Physics!
Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me how commonly Christian leaders discount the truly alarming warnings which dominate informed comment on climate change! They confidently trot out the promise to Noah (Genesis 9), that "… seedtime and harvest… will never cease", etc., but don’t seem to have noticed such warnings as that in Micah, 6.12-15: “Her people are liars… Therefore you will plant but not harvest”, nor that a time will come “for destroying those who destroy the earth". (Revelation 11.18) The assumption that the promise to Noah was absolutely unconditional is false and the complacency it fosters is pernicious - see Evangelicals Now, Feb, 2022.
In celebrating harvest, we should not forget that, right now, “East Africa is on the brink of famine” (UNICEF), affecting at least 20 million children. Yet another “rainy season with no rain has left… millions struggling to survive” (UNHCR); “a humanitarian disaster” (Red Cross).
“East Africa is facing the worst food crisis of the 21st Century”, says Tearfund’s Asha Kurien. “Five rainy seasons have failed and… places where rain has fallen have faced flash flooding due to the land being too dry to absorb the water... Women and girls are bearing the terrible brunt of this crisis… girls being pulled out of school, etc.” “All we know is hunger,’ said ‘Akina’, aged 12, from Uganda. “When we sleep our stomachs are growling because we have not eaten for days.” And note this: “Despite being warned of the risks as early as 2020… humanitarian support has been at an all-time low”. (Tearfund)
In this connection, the image of a little girl, Zewdie, comes to mind: "Zewdie Abayie’s eyes were swollen shut through malnutrition and her delicate skin was no longer able to mask the skeleton beneath. Brushing away flies from her face with a small twig, the little girl stood quietly as her father, Tamirat, explained how three years of crop failure in Ethiopia had left his family facing starvation. Pitiably, she attempted a smile for the cameraman." (Text, Keith Ewing; Image, Jim Loring, Tearfund)
That was in 2000, but in 2006, I read that global heating was “probably responsible for the drop in rainfall in Ethiopia since 1996” (Lord Robert May, President of the Royal Society). In other words, rich country pollution was probably already doing terrible damage to the world’s poor, and clearly the situation has deteriorated further since that time.
The ‘World Weather Attribution’ group of international scientists (www.worldweatherattribution.org), whose “Studies are performed… to answer the increasingly common question: ‘what was the role of climate change in this event?’”, reported (27th April) that, at a conservative estimate, global heating made the East Africa famine 100 times more likely to occur. Similarly, “the fingerprints of climate change” are evident in the unprecedented floods which hit Pakistan last summer, which affected around 33 million people and whose impact was “unimaginable.” (Red Cross)
So how should we view that promise to Noah that "seedtime and harvest… will never cease", etc.? As I wrote previously, “No, of course the promise isn’t absolutely unconditional! No godly farmer would think he could stay in bed and still expect a bountiful harvest!” We’re required to play our part and - this is crucial – that’s a consequence of the commission to humanity through Adam, to both “work the earth” and “to take care of it.” (Genesis 2.15) So no work, no harvest; and no care, no harvest either, not if we treat the atmosphere as a global sewer into which we dump our carbon emissions!
So please do celebrate harvest, thanking God for his continuing faithfulness in accordance with his ancient promise – but also (1) let us grieve for the damage we have inflicted on God’s good creation and reform our lifestyles to reduce further damage; (2) stir ourselves to actively care for creation, e.g., via the resources available from ‘Eco Church’; (3) give generously, regularly, for the work of Christian charities as they seek to ease the suffering of the hungry, at home and abroad; and (4), most important, by far, provide strong support for agencies calling for urgent and vigorous action by our leaders to avert the threatened climate catastrophe.
This article revised and updated from one published in The Church of England Newspaper, 14.10.2022.
David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL Whitstable, Kent; Voluntary Spokesperson for Tearfund; formerly, Associate, Institute for Sustainability, and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University.