The Common Good

Why Am I Flying to Kenya When I Have So Much Work to Do At Home?

Is there anything more important to us than the air we take into our lungs every few seconds? The water that keeps us and all living things going? The soil that roots our food and our communities? Or the weather patterns that knit these elements all together?

Kenya faces environmental degradation and crop damages due to effects of climate change. Photo by domdeen/shutterstock.com

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What happens when these things begin to deteriorate — or rapidly change their behavior?

That is why I’m in Kenya with Cal DeWitt — well known Christian environmental scientist and teacher — and a group of eight others from the US and Canada: scientists, teachers, activists, and a film-maker. 

We’re on an expedition to discover for ourselves what’s happening to these critical elements of God’s creation in Kenya. What are the effects of a degrading environment and warming climate on Kenyan agriculture, its food supply in particular? And what is happening to its people, especially those who are living on the edge?

We’re joining an equal number of Kenyans and World Renew staff who will be our teachers and partners in learning. We’ll start each day with biblical reflection and prayer, and wind down with a time of reflection on our experiences. Our days will be spent in the field with small farmers, at research institutions, and talking with people who have in-depth experience and knowledge of the Kenya environment. It should be a very instructive 10 days!

But it isn’t just learning about Kenya. We are also hoping to discover something about ourselves and how we live in the wealthier West: What might be required of us in the industrialized countries of this completely interconnected world? What is our connection to the small farmers and herders who produce most of Kenya’s food? Is World Renew’s development work in Africa threatened by environmental issues — drought and floods made much worse by a warming world?

These are not technical problems to be resolved nor theoretical questions for the future. These are essentially ethical and moral questions that need work now. The effects of deteriorating soil, volatile water supplies, and increased carbon in the atmosphere are already apparent in many places around the world — including two countries with long-term CRC and World Renew presence, Kenya and Bangladesh.

Recently a number of studies were released by a wide variety of sources ranging from the US government’s “National Climate Assessment Report” to Oxfam studies on several African countries. None of them paint a rosy picture of the present. All of them predict a future of larger populations needing to be fed through more difficult food production[1].

For example, Sub-Saharan Africa could see crop yields cut by from five to twenty-two percent with only West Africa as a region slightly better off due to increased rainfall. Europe and the Middle East could see even larger declines in yields of wheat, maize, and rice. Parts of South Asia may be hit hardest with high temperatures and unhelpful rain fall. A new USAID study says this would translate into 9 — 11 million more malnourished children per year in Vietnam and Cambodia.

The US and Canada are not immune. Although those of us in the US may not feel significant food related effects of a warming climate for 30 years, by 2050 we will have one third more mouths to feed (120 million more people) while our corn yields drop by up to a third.  Australia is already on that track. Increased temperature and decreasing rainfall patterns — 15 percent less rain in Western Australia since the 1970s — have seriously disrupted farming and resulted in massive, frequent wild fires.

But if you are like me, predictions like these will leave you only mildly disturbed.  I can’t seem to wrap my mind, much less my passion, around the concept that my own European and North American industrialized, fossil-fuel-burning society that has brought me so many good things has also seeded the biosphere with destruction in the form of pollution and green-house gas emissions.  It is hard to imagine how interconnected the world’s biosphere is. But it is so. What we sow in our atmosphere is reaped by others — and the reverse.

How does this knowledge change how I live, and live out my faith? How does it influence my personal life style choices and my politics? 

We know from both experience and studies that we are somewhat likely to change when we realize that people for whom we care deeply are depending on that change.  But we are very likely to change if ours, and our children’s, interests are also involved. 

We suspect that we will find both of these connections in Kenya. We hope to more deeply understand what is happening — and to whom. And finally, we hope to be able to communicate these understandings to you in ways that convince you to dig deeper, to test your faith, to change; to act.

Peter Vander Meulen is Coordinator for the Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA). This post orginally appeared at World Renew.

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