Book Review of Scott Sabin’s Tending Eden
Sabin, Scott C. Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for Godâ€™s People. Ed. Kathy Ide. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2010. 174pp.
As I sit in airline seat 12A reading Scott Sabinâ€™s story about being lost in the hills of southern Haiti, a West Jet steward passes a collection plate. It has been almost a month since the devastating earthquake of January 12th, 2010 levelled Haiti, and the staff and passengers on this small Canadian airline want to pitch in. As I toss my bill into the growing pile of cash, I marvel at the providential timing of Mr. Sabinâ€™s book.
In this highly readable volume written for Christian churches, Scott Sabin, Executive Director of the Christian NGO, Plant with Purpose, discusses a variety of projects around the world, but his experience in Haiti makes this a particularly prescient and important work. He confronts head-on the false choice often proposed between caring for the poor and caring for the environment. Sabin draws a line to connect poverty and environmental degradation in the third world and at home. He combines sound theology, environmental science and long experience in third world economic development to outline a plan that will allow western resources to support the worldâ€™s poor as they design long-term environmentally sustainable strategies.
Throughout the ten chapters of Tending Eden, Sabin tells the story of his own awakening into environmental awareness and urges his readers to make a similar journey. His wisdom is rooted in years of experience with Plant with Purpose, whose mission is to â€śreverse deforestation and poverty in the world by transforming the lives of the rural poor â€ś(174). The book is built around the rich experiences and personal narratives, but it also includes important factual information to educate and inform readers. It begins by asserting the scriptural injunction to care for creation, maps the environmental problem with devastating clarity, and outlines a plan for the reversing current cycles of degradation and poverty. Each chapter includes a guest authored sidebar by well-known Christian leaders including Tony Campolo, Calvin Dewitt, and Joanne Lyon, and the volume concludes with a four week Creation Care Bible study. Sound textual notes and an extensive list of creation care resources make this an exceptional tool for both educating and moving committed readers toward meaningful action.
In many respects this book serves as a prophetic word to wealthy North American Christians to move beyond the twin temptations to do nothing, or to do it all themselves. Sabin argues that Jesusâ€™ example as the servant king offers a third way wherein individual philanthropists and funding communities can engage from a position of informed hope rather than walk away in despair or denial, or exert debilitating levels of control that privilege short term objectives over long-term sustainability. Aid, Sabin argues, is not enough. He advocates for a balanced and sensitive approach that acknowledges the reality that poor people worry a great deal about where their next meal will come from, but which incorporates a long-term vision. Sabinâ€™s honest assessment of his own organizationâ€™s triumphs and errors creates the context for a clear-eyed assessment of the many ways in which good intentions can be misdirected. There is no one magic bullet. The agroforestry systems that have succeeded in one part of the world will not necessarily yield results in the next. Sabin stresses the need for organizations to define themselves by their desired outcomes rather than by the tools that may be employed to accomplish these ends. If there is one universal law for environmental development work, however, it is this: plans that fail to consult and involve the local community are doomed to fail.
While the focus of this study is third world development, in chapter 7 entitled â€śThe Global View,â€ť and Chapter 8, â€śIn Our Own Backyards,â€ť the argument is broadened to demonstrate the world-wide impact of environmental devastation. In a depressing survey of the globe, Sabin points out that no natural environment is unscathed, the Canadian Rockies included. According to Sabin, many North Americans are â€śbufferedâ€ť from the direct results of our unsustainable practices and, as a result, have â€ścome to believe that environmental issues are primarily aesthetic, having little to do with food, water or healthâ€ť(88). Those who live in the desert have water piped to them. Where the soil is depleted from overuse, we load it with chemical supplements. More disturbing yet are Sabinâ€™s allegations of environmental racism in our North American urban centers (89). He also connects the degradation of creation to practices of modern-day slavery, changes in patterns of immigration, and to the rising world-wide phenomenon of environmental refugees (92-94). Unless we begin to practice â€śupstream thinkingâ€ť the problems we associate with the third world end will continue to show up in our own backyards with growing frequency (96). Not only our food, water and health are at risk. Our moral integrity as Christians is on the line.
Unlike many studies of environmental degradation, Sabinâ€™s gospel focus keeps the argument firmly oriented towards hope. In the concluding chapter of the study, Sabin reiterates his saving perspective. We have to move past the lie that caring for poor and caring for the environment are mutually exclusive aims. We also need to repudiate the idea that environmental degradation both at home and abroad is someone elseâ€™s problem. Finally, we have to move beyond the false sense of self-importance that tells us that the worldâ€™s problems are all up to us to correct. Sabin argues for a â€śloaves and fishesâ€ť approach to environmental stewardship. As we offer our humble efforts we do not create miracles, but we participate in them. In the Bible study that follows the main book, Sabin directs his readers to an unthreatening but incremental commitment to learn more and incorporate greater numbers of environmental best practices.
This is a book for laypeople; the writing is clear, the stories are engaging and the expert information is accessible. As the world turns its attention and its resources toward Haiti, a singular opportunity exists for deep and sustaining change for this island nation, and for the way the world approaches the interconnected issues of poverty and environment in the years to come. The Christian church has a role to play in this change. Those who hope to participate need to read this book.
This post was authored by Arlette Zinck, Faculty of Arts Dean at the Kingâ€™s University College in Edmonton, AB.