In Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, Scott Sabin outlines the story of Plant with Purpose (PWP), a Christian non-profit agency seeking to resolve issues of poverty and environmental degradation, while emphasizing the important of environmental stewardship for Christians. As director of PWP, Sabin describes his discovery of the close connection between the environment and economic issues, a connection often overlooked by resources on economic aid and in oft-cited solutions to issues of global poverty. In that way, this new book is a unique and important resource for Christians and churches, guiding us to understand the complexities and inter-relatedness of two of the world’s most pressing issues.
As he began working for PWP and exploring the prevalence of economic deprivation and injustice, Sabin started asking questions about the root causes of poverty and immigration – often finding the underlying issues have much to do with the environment. “We have to work through several steps to see how one seemingly minor problem – deforestation – can contribute to an injustice as ugly as sex trafficking,” he writes. “Yet we must. We must make the connection between creation care and justice if we want to have an impact on the problems of the poor and oppressed in our own country and around the world” (96). This book explores PWP’s work in Haiti and other parts of the world, offering many personal stories which help narrate the struggles of the people, as well as the author’s personal journey. Through its exploration of these issues, this book does not hesitate to ask pertinent and often ignored questions: How does deforestation contribute to rural indigence? How may groups that give away money, food, or resources actual hurt local populations by creating dependency on outsiders or affecting local production efforts? How might food donations undercut the efforts of local farmers, who are poor themselves, or how might clothing donations hurt local tailors? What are some of the deficiencies of short-term projects and “mission trips” as opposed to long-term and sustainable development projects? Each of these questions helps the reader dig deeper into the complications and harsh realities of many situations.
While some of these points may seem counter-intuitive or even discouraging, Sabin continually reinforces the worthiness of the poor; God wants to use them just as God uses people of privilege. He suggests that those of us in more privileged positions should encourage the poor to use their gifts rather than continually offering hand-outs. “If we do for them what they can and should do for themselves,” he suggests, “we rob them of their dignity and reinforce the lie that they have nothing to offer. . . . The local people must take responsibility for the change they want to see in their communities” (28-29). While Sabin’s experience and expertise lead him to this conclusion, he enforces his point with an unfortunate “stone soup” illustration that nearly infers that the poor should be tricked into helping themselves. While his primary point is worth noting, and his experience cannot be questioned, I worry that these sentiments could be potentially dangerous by allowing Christians in privilege to adopt a “let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps” mentality while fueling prevalent tendencies to do nothing at all. I wish Sabin would have solidified a more balanced position, seeking an equilibrium between hand-out and sustainable development that allows the poor to use their own resources and become allies in their own development while challenging more privileged Christians to help in whatever ways they can.
Sabin then turns to what he calls “virtuous cycles,” or ways Christians and churches can help with issues of creation care and poverty. He suggests microcredit loans or funding microenterprise endeavors are important ways to help the poor start and maintain responsibility for their own businesses. Creating enterprise by utilizing resources and tools already present in the local community can create sustainable development. Sabin goes into great detail explaining the inter-workings of this type of aid, along with PWP’s history of micro-loaning. Exploring the biblical bases for creation care and environmental stewardship, Sabin also highlights the great history of Christian activism for God’s creation, including the work of such figures as St. Francis, William Wilberforce, and the missionary William Carey. In these ways, he enjoins the Christian call to be stewards of creation with the Christian imperative to glorify God and love neighbor, as a necessary complements of the Christian witness.
Sabin concludes by suggesting ways congregations can become involved in environmental justice. He believes it requires an “upstream mindset” beyond quick fixes, rather looking for the foundational causes of many of the popular issues of injustice. This attitude requires a change in perspective where agricultural development becomes as much a priority as food aid. The final chapter deals with the issue of, “So what do we do now?”, offering many practical ways for individuals and churches do better care for the environment, perhaps save on bills and expenses, and help the poor in the process. Tending to Eden also contains an appendix of practical actions people can take to make an impact. Whether it is planting a garden in the backyard, changing to compact florescent light bulbs, or starting a community-service day, Sabin suggests his readers take the next step, whatever that may be. At the end of the book there is a study guide for churches or other groups, incorporating pertinent and significant Bible passages and important insights about the relationships of humans with each other, with God, and with the world, advocating for a “holistic Christian environmental ethic.”
While Sabin perhaps focuses too closely on the specific work of his organization, Plant with Purpose, and possibly gives the reader the wrong impression with his downplaying of short-term aid, donations, and gifts, his message is nonetheless an extremely important one for all of us to hear. While most Christians understand the dangers of poverty and desire to help out those less fortunate, most do not realize the connections between poverty and deforestation or other environmental issues. Sabin helps his readers to better understand these connections while offering important suggestions of way churches and Christians can help make a difference.
For more information, or to purchase a copy of Tending to Eden, visit: http://www.plantwithpurpose.org/page/64/tending-to-eden.html. For every book purchased on amazon.com through this link, Plant With Purpose will receive a portion of the proceeds to directly benefit the rural poor.