Interview with Ed Brown

8 November 2014, Comments Comments Off on Interview with Ed Brown

Ed Brown, caring for creationThe American Christian leader, speaker and writer talks with Mairi Johnstone about his mission to spread the message of caring for creation

8 November 2014

Ed Brown grew up in Pakistan where his parents were missionaries. He is an ordained minister and has worked as a church pastor, missions administrator and most recently as Chief Operating Officer for Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. A published author and public speaker, he now directs Care of Creation ( and travels widely to lead seminars and preach about caring for God’s creation.

Ed is married to Susanna, a former nurse and midwife, and they have four grown-up children. The Browns live in Wisconsin, USA.

What triggered your own personal concern about caring for creation? Was it your faith? Were you interested in the environment anyway and then had to work out how it connected to your faith?

For me it was rather the other way round! I was interested in ministry, and God had to show me that environment or creation care needed to be part of that.

I am a ‘child of the Sixties’ and thus was always interested in the environment to some extent: I gave a talk at my high school’s Earth Day celebration in 1970, and if you know your history, you will realise that this was the very first Earth Day. So you could say I was in on the ground floor.

But – and it’s an important ‘but’ – in spite of these early concerns, I found myself in professional ministry (pastor, missionary, international student worker, etc) with much more interest in people’s souls than the condition of God’s creation. It took a job change in April 2000, when I joined Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, a Christian organisation, to bring me into the Christian environmental stewardship movement (now called the creation care movement). I joined an organisation that was mostly scientists who were Christians, while I was coming at it from a pastoral/theological/missions perspective, giving me a unique window on both the world of environmental science and the world of the Church.

Why do you think creation care has been a neglected area of mission and concern for the Church?

There are several reasons for our neglect of God’s creation: Theologically, we have misunderstood the difference between human salvation (think John 3:16), which is necessarily focussed on us and our need for forgiveness, and God’s cosmic redemption (Colossians 1:15-20) which includes our salvation but so much more. Politically (this may vary by country) we have in some cases allowed the liberal, left-wing progressives (pick your adjective!) to claim the environmental movement as their own. And culturally and personally, of course, we Christians are sinners like the rest – and we tend to shy away from things that might impact our own materialistic lifestyles.

What changes have you seen in the Church’s attitude (particularly the evangelical Church) to creation stewardship?

I’ve been in the movement for almost 15 years now, and it is clear as environmental problems become more visible that the Church’s attitude is softening. Perhaps this is also due to the work of people like Peter Harris, Cal DeWitt, Dave Bookless and maybe even myself, as we have all worked hard to point Bible-believing Christians to the Bible. The apostle Paul’s words in Romans 8 on creation groaning, for example, can be very effective: who wants to argue against Romans 8, everyone’s favourite chapter?

Even in the US, the arguments are no longer about whether we should care for creation, but more about how we should do it, with a split between those who want market-based approaches and those who look for government regulation. Of course, climate change denial remains a major hurdle for many in the Church at least in the US, and among many evangelicals in other countries as well.

Once a church has got the message of creation care, what do you think is the first practical thing they should do?

Both my organisation, Care of Creation, and A Rocha are working on programmes to help congregations to ‘mobilise’. I don’t think there is any one thing that answers so much as a decision by church leadership to approach the challenge comprehensively. This would involve worship, education (ie. Sunday School and youth programmes), outreach (local and missions), and facilities (church buildings and grounds). Practically speaking, doing something visible like a major energy upgrade to the building would help the campaign at the beginning.

But if you really want just one practical thing, banish disposable cups and dishes from all church functions. One church I was in even had a ‘mug tree’ (like a hat or coat stand) that would hold 50 or 60 mugs. Something like this would be a weekly reminder that we are doing things differently because we care.

Your work involves a lot of travel, much of it international and presumably by air. Do you carbon-offset?

OK, true confession time: I do not buy carbon offsets. It is a clever device, and I applaud A Rocha’s carbon offset programme. Certainly the money raised, if used appropriately, can do something to help the long-term problem. In my mind there are still questions as to how effective these programmes will be. Much better to not burn the carbon in the first place.

So here’s how I approach it. I will make a public confession to my audience that yes, I have burned a great deal of carbon in order to come here and tell them that they need to stop burning carbon. And they can help me out of this dilemma: if just one person in the audience takes one less trip in the next year because of what they have heard, we have broken even. If two, three or more people take one or more fewer trips, we’re way ahead of the game. So that’s how I try to offset my own travel. Does it work? I have no idea.

What do you think is achieved by ‘high-level’ international conferences on creation care? Does the conference agenda encourage action at grassroots level?

Up to now, about all that these conferences have achieved is to make the problem visible and to get the media talking about it. But that is no small thing, as media attention and visibility can help those of us working on the grassroots end of things to gain more leverage with our own elected officials.

Ultimately, it is hard to see the big problems we face like climate change being addressed without some kind of concrete policy action coming from our governments working together. I’m not overly optimistic that this can happen, but we must encourage these leaders to keep trying.

In what parts of the world have you observed real political change when it comes to environmental issues. Is one country emerging as a leader?

I’m not sure I have enough data to speak to this with any degree of confidence. Scandinavia appears to have made considerable progress from news reports I’ve read; rumour has it that Germany’s energy policies are quite forward-looking. I understand that in the UK you have some pretty good renewable energy incentives, but I have no idea how well they’re working.

The interconnectedness of the world economy makes it difficult to compare countries as well. For example, Japan has stringent controls in a number of areas, but gets much of its raw material like lumber from countries which have no such controls. Japan protects its own forests by deforesting Indonesia’s.

I’m not sure any country can claim better than a grade of C or C+ at this point in history.

Have you seen examples of people’s lives being practically transformed by adopting the creation-care practices you teach?

We have a project in Kenya that is training farmers and church leaders in a programme called ‘Farming God’s Way’ – which is either a discipleship programme that uses farming, or a farming programme wrapped in strong biblical teaching, depending on which way you want to look at it. Farmers who adopt this programme are seeing their yields (and hence their family income) increase dramatically, while the soil on their farms becomes healthier year by year. And they become stronger, more knowledgeable Christians in the process. We’re not the only organisation using this programme, though our Kijabe Kenya project probably has one of the best Farming God’s Way research programmes in East Africa. (And yes, we work quite closely with A Rocha Kenya!)

However, for an example of a country adopting creation care across a broad spectrum of the Christian community, I would want to point to the Philippines. Over the last several years we’ve seen a more or less spontaneous evangelical creation care movement develop, with institutions like the Philippine Bible Society mounting major national campaigns, and the primary umbrella evangelical organisation, Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, hosting the first Lausanne Creation Care and the Gospel regional conference last March. A Christian publisher in Manila, Church Strengthening Ministries (CSM), has produced what may be the world’s first complete, graded creation care Sunday School curriculum from age five through to adult.

JamaicaCallToActionDelegates at the March 2014 Lausanne Creation Care conference in the Philippines sign the ‘Jamaica Call to Action’.

How good is the US when it comes to lifestyle choices around the use of carbon?

Next question, please.

Seriously, the US has not done a good job in this area. We have led the world in many things, and right now we seem to be leading in materialism and greed, alas. Jesus said that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom; it appears to be equally hard for a rich country to change its profligate ways. Pray for us.

How do you and your wife put creation stewardship into practice in your personal lifestyles?

We don’t do as well as we should, and the challenges we face help me to be aware of how hard it really is for many ordinary, middle class people, to live out the principles we believe and teach. Transportation, for example: our entire country’s infrastructure is built around the automobile and it is extremely hard to even function without being heavily dependent on one. I would love to use public transport, but the limitations of the bus system where I live are such that while I could theoretically get to work by bus, it would take two or three transfers and about 90 minutes to go two miles. I can and do cycle, though that is problematic when the temperature is below zero (°F, not °C!) in the winter. We manage on one car, but if my wife had a separate job in a different direction, even that would be difficult.

Having said that, we have replaced our lighting, we recycle carefully (our town, though lacking in public transport, does have a marvellous single-stream recycling programme), and keep the thermostat lower than most of our friends would prefer. (Bible studies tend to find people wrapped in blankets in our living room!) My lawn has not seen a chemical in the decade we’ve lived here – so the dandelions we grow are technically organic.

What do you do to relax and recharge? Do you have a favourite beauty spot?

I love to walk. There’s a bicycle trail (the route of a disused railway) not far from my home that I try to walk on at least once a week, sometimes more often than that. While I should be riding my cycle for exercise purposes, I find the pace of walking much more conducive to meditation and observation. Depending on how much time I have I may walk from one to three miles out, and then back.

What has been fun has been to keep going back to the same place week after week and month after month for years. You learn the character of the landscape – how different it is in spring as opposed to fall or winter. And God speaks through that. He really does!

What lifestyle change do you think makes the biggest difference for the environment?

Most of the damage being done to the environment is not being done by people in their homes, but by companies and corporations in the world of business. All of us should do what we can to change our own personal lifestyles, but most of us can do more by exerting influence where we work. A pastor can influence an entire congregation. A teacher can shape the values of children for the rest of their lives. A trucking company logistics person can influence policies and make decisions that might save thousands of gallons of fuel – an impact that would dwarf anything he/she could do in their own house.

So I think the biggest difference I can make and have made is in getting many others to think about these things, in some cases for the first time.

There seems to be a lot of communality between your organisation and A Rocha. How can we work together effectively?

We already are! One of my favourite quotes is from Tom Rowley of A Rocha USA who was heard to say, ‘Ed gets them excited, and A Rocha puts them to work.’ Tom and I have worked closely on a number of occasions – with Care of Creation providing the teaching, and A Rocha organising community projects to keep things moving. We have a new staff member in our home office working with several church congregations on the mobilisation question: exactly how do you get a congregation mobilised and self-motivated for creation care? Andrea has been in touch with folks at A Rocha UK who are working on some of the same challenges.

And our big joint project is the Lausanne Creation Care and the Gospel Global Campaign – a three-year (or more) effort to hold regional conferences around the world, with the goal of establishing self-sustaining creation care movements in at least 30 countries. Care of Creation and A Rocha International are the lead partners in this, and I am working closely with Dave Bookless of ARI. The campaign will be in East Africa (Nairobi) in December 2014, a location to be confirmed for March 2015, with North America and Latin America later in 2015. And it’s coming to Europe in 2016 – so watch this space…

[An edited version of this interview is featured in the autumn/winter 2014 issue of A Rocha UK’s magazine, Root & Branch.]