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A Learning Journey: Climate Change's Impact on Disability and Society

By Jonathan Sieswerda

I came into this fellowship wanting to learn. Climate change was something that has been important to me for a long time, and I am partially blind so disability is apart of pretty much my entire life; but I had never thought about how climate change and disability might intersect. I wanted to learn about how I individually could do things differently and to gain a better understanding of the situation we are globally facing. I did not exactly answer these questions but I learned so much more then I expected to. I feel like I have a much greater foundation to stand on when thinking about human rights and climate change as a whole. At the same time as I was apart of this fellowship I ended up taking a course in university which looked at the Christian Bible and how it calls us to respond to the environmental and social issues we are presently facing. Since around half of Canadians report being Christian, I want to address how the bible sees the environment.

One of my key take aways from this fellowship is that many of the practices that we do that harm the environment, also harm people, and in many cases can lead to disability. First, on a basic level many mining and manufacturing processes release harmful chemicals that can cause various cancers and other illnesses which are disabling. India has been experiencing this with runoff from high pesticide usage, and so has China where one third of their rivers are declared too toxic for human contact. These practices often create high risk for severe injuries as well. Looking deeper, disasters caused by climate change such as flooding or wildfires, can cause many kinds of permanent disabilities. Along with this, these disasters also damage and destroy infrastructure that was allowing people to live normal lives, causing them to become disabled. Often emergency plans for disasters do not take into consideration people with disabilities, leaving them vulnerable to further harm and exclusion. Climate change is causing hotter temperatures overall, which then increases the risk for outdoor workers to acquire a disability through injury

I think that the biggest issue to focus on is not the practices that cause climate change and disability, but how these issues are a reflection of how greater western society seems to function. Our society seem to have these ideas that people with disabilities are less than everyone else, both less capable and less worthy. This doesn’t only seem to apply to people with disabilities though. Our practices that put people at risk for acquiring a disability and that harm the environment have a negative impact on many people across the world. We require people working for what are effectively slave wages to make so many of the products and food that we consume, and they often work in poor conditions, to name a few examples. I think that ableism is just one example of how we seem to devalue almost everyone that doesn’t fit our molds, along with racism and sexism and our consumption practices. I think that we cannot consider climate justice as separate from disability justice, and we can’t consider disability justice as separate from any other kind of justice. If we believe in the value of humanity, it seems like we have to consider the rights of those across the world making our clothes just as much as we consider those right beside us who need accessible fire escapes or those fighting to be seen as people instead of by their race or gender. This isn’t to say that we should take the focus off of disability rights in any way, but I think if we are fighting for the rights of people with disabilities, it would be hypocritical to continue to support other systems that create injustice, such as unethical clothing or food products.

I think one of the challenges we are facing at this point is for people to be motivated to change. Sadly there are many systems that reinforce our current ways of doing things. That devalue the land and put the focus on ourselves rather than those in need within our circle of influence. One of these often-negative influences has unfortunately been Christianity. Verses such as Genesis 1:28 NIV “‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” have been used to justify humanity’s position of using and exploiting the earth for whatever we want. The doctrine of discovery from the Catholic Church, and many bible verses have been used to justify genocide of indigenous peoples, and slavery. Sadly, these interpretations of the bible severely misrepresent what it actually teaches. The core teaching of the bible is to love god, which includes his creation, and love others despite the personal cost and no matter who they are. These 2 things are inseparable. You cannot love god without loving others, and as you love others you are doing God’s will and bringing his kingdom on earth.

Regardless of if you believe in an old or young creation, if you believe the Christian Bible you have to believe that God made the earth. God didn’t just make the earth though; he cares about his creation and everything living on it deeply, and it is effected by us. The Bible says that God calls it “very good” after he finishes creating it. It describes how god provides and cares for animals to live and how the plants in the fields are more beautiful than one of the greatest kings to ever live (Matt 6:26-29), and it describes how the sin of the people also hurts the land(Hos 4:2-3). Another story in the bible that indicates God’s care for creation comes from Genesis 6. The bible describes how god regretted creating humanity because of how evil they were being, and so he decides to destroy them. Instead of just destroying everything and starting from scratch though, the bible tells of how god flooded the earth, but made a way for every kind of animal and humanity to survive. This shows that god values the creation and wants to preserve what he had made rather than starting over. These themes continue through out the Bible, with God laying out strict laws for the Israelite society such as sabbath laws that give animals and humans the sabbath once a week to rest, as well as the land a year to rest every 7 years (, which is very important for its long-term health. There are also several instances of people including the early Israelites, John the Baptist, and Jesus living in the wilderness seemingly at peace with wild animals. The prophecies of the Bible describe a future where exploitation of the land will end and the earth will be healed(rom 8:21), and where “the wolf will live with the lamb” and humans and animals will live in peace (Isa 11:8).

The Bible also makes it very clear that god cares for those in need, more specifically the poor and oppressed. The same laws given to the Israelites include a provision that farmers are not allowed to harvest to the edges of there fields or go back and get every last bit of food from the plants. This allowed for the poor to go and harvest food to eat, as well as helping to keep the land fertile and support the ecosystem. The profits of the old testament consistently criticize the ruling classes for their treatment of the poor, the oppression of their people, and their desires to be wealthy. In the new testament, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for being outwardly religious, but not truly following the laws they are supposed to be following, as they are oppressing the poor and seeking their own wealth and recognition. Jesus spends much of his time healing and feeding the sick and poor, crossing cultural boundaries to love those in need, and when he gives the command to love your neighbour as your self and someone asks who your neighbour is, he describes a person who you do not know, who does not fit the mold of someone to love, who has just been beaten up and robbed(Lk 10:29-37). The first four beatitudes in Mathew 5 which include “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3) are often spiritualized allowing anyone to put themselves in them, which is likely not their intent. The Greek words used indicate that these verses are actually talking about the literal poor and hungry, and that the coming kingdom of heaven will mean an end to their suffering. Beatitudes 5 through 8 are than calls to people who follow Jesus to bring this kingdom on earth, working to feed and clothe the poor. Mat 5:9 “blessed are the peace makers” is often taken to point to those who avoid conflict and are liked by many. Taken in greater context though, this verse is commanding people who follow Jesus to stand up and fight against oppression, even when that means causing conflict. 

It is clear that the bible tells us that the earth we live on is valuable and cared about, and it also makes it clear that we must actively focus on standing up for those in need. Since our practices are damaging the environment, and causing people all across the world harm, I do not think we can read the bible or call ourselves Christian, well ignoring that harm. The health of our planet and the health of the people on it are inextricably linked, especially as we look into the future. If we as Christians are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we must do what he did, and consider the impact we as individuals and as a society have. We must remember that we are called to love those in need, which includes the planet that god made.

If you want to dive deeper into how the bible sees the creation, I highly recommend the books Stewards of Eden by Sandra L. Richter, and The Ecology of the New Testament by Mark Bredin, along with the lecture by Willy Jennings. Almost everything I said here can be found in those works. The pieces not found in those, I learned in the excellent Theology of Creation class, taught at the King’s University in Edmonton Alberta, by Dr. Andrew Rillera.


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