Hope in a post-truth world
The Oxford English Dictionary has announced its ‘Word of the Year for 2016’ in both the UK and USA is ‘post-truth’. In a year that has seen bitterly divisive campaigns in the Brexit referendum and the US election, and a rise in political extremism in various parts of the world, it is clear that we have entered a toxic era of fear and uncertainty about what to believe and who to trust.
A Rocha is not a party-political organization and there will have been supporters on both sides in the UK and US votes. However, where A Rocha does have a view is on the place of nature – God’s creation – in political discourse and decision-making. And that’s where the online Oxford Dictionary’s definition of ‘post-truth’ is instructive:
‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’
The fact is that facts don’t count for much any more. People don’t trust statistics. Science is perceived as political. As George Marshall has been arguing for years , ‘people are poorly motivated by facts and figures … People are motivated by shared values and identity, and the joy of belonging.’  Truth, in a twenty-first century context, is not defined objectively but in terms of the social and virtual communities we immerse ourselves in.
For scientists and conservationists, used to evidence-based arguments leading to policy decisions, that’s deeply disturbing. For Christians, who since the Enlightenment have used rational arguments to argue the case for God and the evidence of the resurrection, it’s equally troubling. Yet, I want to suggest there’s an upside to this and it relates to the way A Rocha has always worked.
The Gospels contain Pontius Pilate’s cry, ‘What is truth?’ − words that could come straight from a current election debate. Yet Jesus spoke of truth not as a proposition or proof, but as something to belong to and ultimately of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. Truth is found in relationship, and perhaps the deepest reason we now inhabit a ‘post-truth’ world is today’s breakdown in relationships; between politicians and the public, between different cultures and ethnicities (Dictionary.com chose ‘Xenophobia’ or fear of foreigners as their word of 2016, based on web-searches), and of course between humanity, creation and God.
A Rocha’s core values are relational ones, forged in long-term, community-based, cross-cultural conservation projects. Taking part in A Rocha’s work, we learn uncomfortable truths about ourselves in cross-cultural community living, as we discover our own prejudices and our need for change. We learn inconvenient truths about how we’ve damaged God’s precious world, as we record the ebb tide of creation’s diversity in our long-term studies. Yet, we also encounter more hopeful truths. We see the truth of lives changed as people are given sustainable incomes, as communities understand how caring for creation is caring for their own children, as churches become Eco Churches, as broken individuals find healing and purpose in following Jesus amongst other equally broken people. We discern signs of redemption in damaged habitats restored, in the wonder of nature’s resilience and in reaping the fruit of food-growing projects. We find hope in the truth that A Rocha’s approach, restoring relationships between God, people and planet through hands-on long-term work, is thriving in incredibly diverse contexts – urban and rural, marine and forest − in varied cultures across every inhabited continent.
In Howard’s End, the novelist E. M. Forster’s great cry was ‘Live in fragments no longer … Only connect.’ If a post-truth world is the consequence of fragmented relationships, then reconnecting through restoring damaged relationships is the way to rebuild hope and trust, and rediscover truth. Grandiose political solutions are too remote. Truth begins from the grassroots. It is planted as we reconnect to God, people and planet in local contexts. It bears fruit as we learn our interdependence and discover joy in small things. Like a mustard seed, it may seem small and insignificant, but it grows and spreads. Once upon a time a baby was born … tiny, powerless, insignificant, or so it seemed. Yet, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’
 George Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2014)
 Presentation on “Communicating Climate Change” at the Faith for the Climate Symposium, London, 2016