How much is a great whale worth—alive? One study puts the number at $2 million. Whales are an important part of marine ecosystems. They sequester carbon and distribute nutrients. But putting a number like that on a whale brings up deeper questions about value.
Yesterday young people led a global protest against the lack of serious action on climate change. Let’s be clear, the debate is not essentially a disagreement about the relative importance of the economy or the environment. There are jobs to be had and money to be made on both sides. The real issue raised by these activists is one of value.
Many things available on the market have no innate benefit for anyone. They acquire worth because we believe they are valuable. Think about the power of brands or the ‘value’ of many luxury goods. These things are valuable only because we believe in them. Money itself depends on belief. We can argue that the economy is built on faith—all the way down.
For Christians this means that issues of economy and environment are not as foreign to the practice of faith as they might first appear. The climate activists on strike yesterday were urging all of us to reconsider what matters or what we believe is really valuable.
In Matthew 6 Jesus urges his followers to seek the kingdom of God above anything else. That is, he wants them to value what God values. Everything else, Jesus said, would follow logically from that just as surely as birds and wildflowers get what they need. What I want us to see is that Scripture assumes that value isn’t a given. Jesus calls us to examine our assumptions about worth and reconfigure them in light of God.
Later in the gospel of Matthew we get something similar. In chapter 22 Jesus is asked about the most important commandment. We might say that he was asked to name the most important practice of his way of life. His answer is that it is loving God and loving ones neighbor. Again, this puts us in the lane of value, worth and the call to reevaluate our beliefs about these things.
My point is simple: if the current climate situation is demanding that we reconsider what we value, then Christians shouldn’t feel like something new is being asked of them. Why is it, for instance, that we assume industries should be able to dump waste into the atmosphere or into a river without paying for that service? Is it not valuable? Why is it that we expect the same thing individually? Why have we tended to think that natural landscapes only acquire value when we start to take them apart? Why is it that we seem to place so little value on the future health of the ecosystems that support us?
These are obviously complex questions. Likewise, coming to terms with value that we’ve long overlooked (the things the natural world does for us without requiring payment) presents many challenges. If we take scripture seriously, though, this shouldn’t feel like new territory.