The “Earth” in “Earth Day”

Earth and Earth Day

Well, Earth Day 2012 has come and gone. I did not take part in any events specifically focused on Earth Day concerns—although I did put a bunch of things in the recycling bin. And I thought about a lesson I learned on the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.

I was into my second year of full-time teaching, on the Calvin College faculty. The students at Calvin took the idea of an Earth Day quite seriously, and we all gathered—a big enough crowd that we had to use the gymnasium—for a time of worship focusing on God’s concern for creation. There was no Powerpoint in those days, but the students had assembled for viewing a large number of slides, which they showed to the accompaniment of “This is My Father’s World.” After the slide show, my colleague Nicholas Wolterstorff spoke.

Nick commented on the way the slide show had depicted “good” and “bad” scenes, with the former all consisting of rural pastoral-type scenes, and the latter all portrayals of urban blight. Then he asked some profound—and for me, unforgettable—questions: Isn’t there a danger, Wolterstorff asked, of depicting countryside scenes as somehow closer to what God likes best about his creation, with urban life as that which corrupts and distorts what was intended to be good? Shouldn’t Earth Day also look for the ways in which people are working for beauty and justice in cities? What about nicely designed buildings and spaces that promote human flourishing—are they not also ways of glorifying the God who cares about the world he created?

Again, good questions. To pose them, of course, is not to deny the importance of thinking explicitly about plants and animals, rivers and oceans. God does grieve over the ways that we pollute and abuse such things. But cities are also precious in God’s sight. Indeed, someday a City will descend from the heavens—and “there will no longer be anything accursed” (Rev. 22:3). The psalmist tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.” Cities, and urban life, are a part of that “fulness”—a good thing to remember on Earth Day.