Acton Commentary

God, Man, and the Environment


“God separates Land from the Waters”
Loggia di Raffaello

On April 22nd, much of the world will celebrate international Earth Day. Like many fads, the popularity of this event has waned throughout much of the West. This may owe something to the fact that the dire consequences predicted by many ecologists have not eventuated. Despite this, many people of faith continue to preach a type of “Green Gospel,” claiming that an ecological apocalypse will be upon us unless various policies - usually involving various forms of government regulation - are immediately adopted.

It is true that the Green Gospel has changed its character somewhat over the past ten years. Believers have come a long way since the days of processionals of elephants and bacteria in petri dishes in the Episcopal Church's Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. Likewise the flirtation with the junk science of Gaia theory seems confined to a dwindling number of liberation theologians, ex-priests, and self-described feminist eco-theologians.

But while environmentalists within faith communities now wisely distance themselves from the neo-pagan tendencies that emerged throughout the 1990s, some things have not changed.

The first is a habit of accepting uncritically the predictions of an ecological doomsday by environmental activists and some scientists. Associated with this is that very unscientific habit of ignoring any contrary evidence.

A second ongoing problem is the tendency to consider environmental problems as being of equal or more significance as the ongoing war against innocent human life that continues to flourish in the form of the ever-expanding, ever-cancerous culture of death. To be sure, the random and senseless destruction of the natural world is a sin. To equate, however, such actions with killing the unborn or euthanizing the elderly, the sick, or the disabled simply cannot be reconciled with any orthodox Christian moral theology.

Then there is the habit of associating environmental responsibility with government intervention. Rarely does one come across acknowledgment in many Christian environmental circles that the world's biggest polluters were the statist regimes that once dominated Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. One also searches in vain through the writings of many Christian environmentalists for recognition of the strength of private property-based solutions to environmental problems.

The beauty of these solutions does not just lie in their proven effectiveness. Utility and effectiveness have their place in the Christian moral life, but they are strictly subordinate to the demand to avoid evil and to participate in the moral goods that are at the root of human flourishing.

From this standpoint, the moral strength of private-property solutions is to be found in the manner in which they place direct responsibility for the natural world squarely in the hands of real flesh-and-blood individuals. To this extent, they also prevent us from shirking such responsibilities by delegating them to politicians and bureaucrats.

Of course, no one person can possibly assume responsibility for the entire natural world. Private property-based solutions, however, enable literally thousands of individuals and communities to concretize their responsibility to be good stewards of the earth precisely by allowing them to exercise what Genesis describes as each person's dominion over the earth.

The exercise of this dominion is not, of course, unrestricted. If it is to be morally good, such dominion must be actualized in accordance with the requirements of God's divine law, including that portion that can be known through unaided human reason, or what we call the natural moral law. To suggest otherwise would be to suggest that humans know better than God about the truth of moral good and moral evil.

Within these parameters, however, private property-based solutions to environmental problems allow people to apply their knowledge directly to the issues confronting them. In this sense, they represent a concrete application of the principle of subsidiarity to environmental issues.

This is not to say that government has no role to play in addressing environmental questions. Man's dealings with the natural world are not a “law-free” zone. Any accurate appreciation of subsidiarity, however, suggests that environmental problems are best-addressed at the level closest to the difficulty, until that individual or community have proven themselves manifestly incapable of resolving the question.

On this Earth Day, then, let us hope that Christians will continue to distance themselves from the decidedly non-Christian and unscientific elements within the various environmental movements, and discover the truly nature-friendly ideas that can be found within their own traditions. That is one way to respect the glory of God's creative Act while honoring the human person who is at the summit of God's creation.