The February 2022 Diversity Lecture – Christianity, Animals and the Environmental Crisis
Newbold’s first Diversity Lecture of 2022 was about eating animals and the effect it is having on human life and the deepening environmental crisis. It was a highly-informed encouragement to follow traditional Adventist health principles!
The speaker, Professor David Clough, Professor in Theology and Applied Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, has devoted years of study to the place of animals in Christian theology and ethics. His ground-breaking two-volume work, On Animals: Systematic Theology, has been called “indisputably the most important and comprehensive theological treatment of animals to have appeared in any language at any time in the Christian tradition.”
Clough, a Methodist lay preacher, introduced his lecture by recognising Seventh-day Adventists as fellow-inheritors of the Wesleyan tradition. He referred to John Wesley’s sermon in 1781 ‘The Great Deliverance’ in which Wesley lamented the cruelty with which animals were treated. ‘The cruelties that we visit on animals have multiplied since Wesley’s day,’ said Clough.
He began his lecture with the first of six questions: ‘Do we have time for animal ethics when there are so many other human and social ethical issues to attend to?’ Clough suggested various answers to that question. The first was the urgency of the global situation for animals which he illustrated with some alarming statistics about human consumption of animals. In 1900, farmed animals weighed 3.5 times more than all wild animals. By 2000 the biomass of farmed animals was 24 times the weight of wild animals. ‘Unless we pay attention,’ said Clough, ‘wild animals will become an anachronism’. – their numbers have decreased by 60% in 50 years. ‘The UN estimates another 50% increase in global meat consumption by the middle of the 21st century’.
Clough made it clear that we don’t have to choose between different ethical issues because many of them intersect. For instance: a commitment to employment justice leads to concern for safe and healthy working conditions for abattoir employees. Clough showed that internationally workers in meat-processing plants have little job security. Doing high-risk, unpleasant and physically and mentally dangerous jobs, they are disproportionately likely to be migrants and members of ethnic minorities.
From social issues, the lecture moved to theological issues and the idea mentioned in the Q&A that ‘what God has reason to create, God has reason to redeem’(John Hildrop). With multiple references to various biblical books Clough emphasised the centrality of the Christian doctrine of creation. He showed biblical pictures of a good God who created humans and animals in a harmonious non-violent relationship. This God came, in Jesus, to redeem the cosmos and all ‘flesh’ – not just human flesh. ‘God’s reconciling work has cosmic dimensions,’ said Clough. The Messianic peace in Isaiah’s prophecy and in Revelation encompasses the human and the non-human realm. All Christians have a responsibility to join in that work of reconciliation.
One of the most graphic parts of the lecture came next as Professor Clough answered the question, What are we currently doing to animals? He described and in some cases showed what human beings are doing to fish and chickens, to pigs, sheep and cows – both dairy and beef. He reminded us that creatures, all of them sentient and (some) highly intelligent and created to live freely, are confined in small spaces and deprived of ‘their preferred behaviours’. For market advantage they are confined to small spaces while they are alive and slaughtered by means both greedy and inhumane.
The connection between meat consumption and the climate crisis is massive. ‘There is no path to net-zero while we are doing animal agriculture’, said Clough. Globally and locally rivers are being polluted by industrial animal agriculture and the land that we are taking away from the rain forest is impacting the survival of indigenous people. Then followed these amazing statistics: ‘We are feeding 33% of our cereal crops to farmed animals. If we changed this we could feed 2.4 billion more people. Water security is at risk. It takes 20 times more water to produce kg of beef than the same nutrition from plant-sourced food.
This behaviour has negative effects not only on animals but also on human health.
Xenotic diseases, like Covid, which resulted from the transmission of infectious agents from one species to another is one of those nearest to home. The feeding of antibiotics to animals is resulting in the growth of antibiotic resistance in both them and human beings. Without effective anti-biotics pandemics could be bigger and more destructive than those we have already seen.
Professor Clough finished his lecture on a practical note asking, ‘What should we do?’ Clough recognised Seventh-day Adventists as being ‘significantly ahead of other Christians in having thought about diet and faith’. He advocated a vegetarian or flexitarian diet to give our fellow creatures the opportunity to flourish. He called on his fellow Christians to source their food from higher welfare sources and avoid factory-farmed products. He offered various resources – a recent document ‘The Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare’ obtainable through various websites and more help and practical ideas on CreatureKind and Default.veg.org.
The Q&A session discussed secular and other traditions for humane animal ethics. It looked at the perceived tension in Genesis between dominion and stewardship. It explored the contribution of a sacrificial atonement system to animal cruelty and hierarchies in nature. It considered the tension between apocalyptic views of the end times and contemporary concern for animals and other fellow creatures. It discussed the destruction of domestic and global natural habitats, UK food security and tree-planting and the negative effects of some alternative diet foods like soya and almond milk. It looked at who benefits from industrial animal agriculture and the effects of powerful and influential lobbies on the government of mostly white male capitalists from the global north who are set on maintaining the status quo. It concluded with a description of Professor Clough’s Christmas Dinner and his expression of delight in both cooking and eating good food!
10th February 2022
A recording of the full lecture including Q&A can be heard on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page and on the College website at www.newbold.ac.uk/diversity-centre