Acton Commentary

Dominion and Stewardship: Believers and the Environment


A welcome development of the past thirty years has been the emergence of less-utilitarian attitudes towards the environment by believers and non-believers alike. No longer do serious Christians, Jews or Muslims cite Scripture to legitimize the wanton destruction or misuse of the world that God sculpted out of nothingness.

As we mark Earth Day on April 22, however, it is appropriate that those who adhere to orthodox Christianity ensure that the framework through which Christians view the environment does not slip into the wilderness of a type of neo-pantheism. Indeed those Christians who take a particular interest in the environment ought to remain watchful of ideologies underlying much secularist environmental thought.

Though more known for his advocacy of euthanasia and infanticide, the thought of the philosopher Peter Singer continues to inspire considerable sections of the environmental movement. His promotion of “animal rights” and assertion that, in many instances, some animals are worth more than certain types of human “non-persons” contradicts the truth revealed by faith and reason. But his ideas have, in this regard, seeped into the consciousness of many secularist environmental activists.

So too has the “population bomb” myth so assiduously popularized by figures such as Paul Ehrlich. Though infamous for making apocalyptic predictions that never happen (such as his 1969 statement that all major marine life would be extinct by 1980), Ehrlich’s claims have legitimized in advance various “depopulation programs” promoted by, among others, the United Nations Population Fund.

More than one Christian theologian has absorbed the alarmist rhetoric and anti-human agenda of secularist environmentalists. An example of such a Christian is the ex-liberation theologian and ex-priest, Leonardo Boff. Having successfully transitioned from Marxist dialectics and hermeneutics to “deep ecology” theory and junk science, Boff claimed in 1997 that we should be frightened by an apparent resource decline as well as population increases. These, he suggested, threatened “Gaia”—the name for planet Earth, conceived as a “superorganism.”

Leaving aside Boff’s philosophically dubious ascription of a type of personhood to the Earth, he ignores the empirical fact that, as the economists Stephen Moore and Julian Simon pointed out in 1999, the price of virtually every commodity (agricultural, mineral, and energy) has fallen steadily throughout the twentieth century. They also noted that food is so abundant today that the U.S. government actually pays farmers not to grow so much.

How, then, should believers think about events like Earth day?

The classic criteria according to which Christians, Jews and Muslims can reflect upon the environment is that provided by the Book of Genesis. The two criteria found here are those of “dominion” and “stewardship.”

The idea of dominion encapsulates the notion that human beings exercise a unique place in God’s created order. They alone are charged with authority over the material world, and the responsibility of exercising it in ways that allow God’s original Creative Act to be further unfolded. In this sense, human beings are co-creators.

Historically, this insight had profound implications. As Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks observes, “one of the revolutions of biblical thought was to demythologize … nature. For the first time, people could see the condition of the world not as something given, sacrosanct and wrapped in mystery, but as something that could be rationally understood and improved upon.”

Dominion does not, however, mean, as Peter Singer claims, that God does not care how we use the material world. From the very beginning, God insists that humans are not “little gods” with limitless authority. Yes, Genesis describes the creation of man as “very good,” but the creation of non-human creation is also described as “good.” In other words, the material world has its own value. Though not equal to humans, nature may not be abused by man.

This motif is confirmed in the second account of creation found in Genesis, which emphasizes the idea of stewardship. Man, as the imago Dei , cannot use the things of this world in ways that demean their value or violate the natural moral law.

Thus, as moral theologian Germain Grisez points out, humans “are responsible for [nature] but not to it, as if it shared in the dignity and fundamental rights which they themselves enjoy as persons made in God’s image.”

Earth Day is an opportunity, then, for believers to acknowledge the greatness of God’s Creative Act, much as St. Francis of Assisi did with his famous “Canticle of the Sun.” It is also, however, a chance for them to ensure that their understanding of man’s place within this creation adheres to the Truth revealed in Scripture.