Plastic Planet

December 2018 Feature

Snorkelling off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 2016, nature photographer, Justin Hofman,  snapped a picture of a tiny seahorse latching on to a cotton swab, which was to bring to the world’s attention a situation that we have lived with in tacit complicity.  The photograph shared on Instagram was telling of the pervasive and pernicious problem of plastic pollution in our urban contexts, in our cities, in our waterways and in our oceans.

Two recent documentaries that highlight this prevalent plastic problem are Plastic Paradise and A Plastic Ocean.   In a study that was featured in the Guardian, Damian Carrington wrote: “The world’s 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, according to the study. Yet since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants…”  I fear that our part in this plastic problem will affect even more species and will ultimately hurt ourselves.

Plastics have been an indispensable part of modernity and all it takes for you to realise its ubiquity is to consider the machines, utensils, appliances, devices, wardrobe, packaging, et cetera – that you use or come in contact with every single moment.

Yet the history of plastics (as it is applied today) is a rather recent invention, which is about as “far” back as the 1950s!  Yet, as researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law observed,

the growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material. The same properties that make plastics so versatile in innumerable applications – durability and resistance to degradation – make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate. Thus, without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.  (emphasis mine)

And to that effect, the June 2018 issue of National Geographic features a pervasive and pernicious problem – plastics and its effect on the natural environment.

My particular interest in this development in mission studies is precipitated by the reticence among Christian academics and pastors in the area of stewardship/creation care as well as our complicity in exacerbating the current crisis.  Consider the imperceptive and prodigal use of plastic/polystyrene in church functions.   It may well be that we have a flawed eschatology, further fuelled by some of our Christian songs – whether it is John Newton’s last stanza of Amazing Grace or Carrie Underwood’s Temporary Home.  Or it is possibly a result of our faulty hermeneutics, where we have misunderstood God’s intention is giving to humanity the ‘exercise of dominion’ (or to subdue) in the creation account in Genesis 1.

Richard Bauckham commenting on Genesis 1 wrote:

Genesis 1 does not authorise an undifferentiated human rule over the rest of creation, even when this is interpreted as stewardship.  It distinguishes between human use of the earth, with its vegetation, for human life and flourishing, a right to be exercised responsibly, and human dominion over the rest of the animate creation.  For which humans have a responsibility to care.

Similarly, Old Testament scholar, Gordon Wenham in summarising the meaning of rule (or dominion), adds:

Because man is created in God’s image, he is king over nature.  He rules the world on God’s behalf.  This is of course no licence for the unbridled exploitation and subjugation of nature. Ancient oriental kings were expected to be devoted to the welfare of their subjects, especially the poorest and weakest members of society (Psalm 72:12-14).  By upholding divine principles of law and justice, rulers promoted peace and prosperity for all their subjects.  Similarly, mankind is here commissioned to rule nature as a benevolent king, acting as God’s representative over them and therefore treating them in the same way as God who created them.  Thus animals, though subject to man, are viewed as his companions in 2:18-20…

The Hebrew terms, kavash (subdue) and radah  (rule) in Genesis 1:26-28 carries the meaning that humanity was to exercise a rule over the whole of creation synonymous with that of benevolent kings.  The kings were not to rule for their own interests but rather for the welfare of their subjects.  Furthermore, in contrast to an anthropocentric worldview of the Enlightenment that perceives the superiority of humanity over the rest of creation and that prioritises creation merely for the use of man, Christopher Wright contends that “there is a paradoxical balance between the command in Gen. 1:27 to ‘ … have dominion’ over the rest of creation and the instruction in Gen. 2:15 ‘ … to serve the earth and keep it’.  Dominion through servanthood is humanity’s role, which in itself is an interesting reflection of Christ’s.”

How do we understand our role in God’s creation?  How should Christians react in the face of this plastic problem?

This article is hopefully one that provides an occasion for us to think (and question) that which we hold on to without considering the contexts, the conversations and the consequences.  And I certainly hope that it will challenge our status quo, which is often predicated by costs, convenience and comfort.

And perhaps we should purposefully stop and think about our actions; if not for our sakes, it should be for our children, for our children’s children, for the remaining of God’s creation and ultimately for the glory and purposes for which God created this earth.  We need to remember that “this is my Father’s world!”

Finally, instead of just reduce, reuse and recycle, if possible we should flatly refuse (especially the single-use plastics!).


Dr Andrew Peh is a lecturer in mission at Trinity Theological College. He is also an alumnus of Trinity Theological College as well as E Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism, of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also ordained as a diaconal minister with the Chinese Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.