Acton Commentary

Transcendence and Obsolescence: The Responsible Stewardship of Oil


At the conclusion of the 1985 hit Back to the Future , Michael J. Fox's character Marty McFly is shocked to learn that cars in the future don't run on gasoline. Instead, Doc Brown shoves trash from a nearby garbage can, including a banana peel, into the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor, which powers the DeLorean time machine. And although cars won't be running on nuclear power by 2015, I'd be shocked and disappointed if the future didn't realize the promise of alternative sources of energy.

Other feature films like this year's offering, An Inconvenient Truth , courtesy of former Vice President Al Gore, and 2004's box-office hit The Day After Tomorrow have revolved around the topic of climate change. Indeed, global warming has been the occasion for policy debates in Washington and around the world, and the basis for a hotly contested international agreement, the Kyoto protocol. But what connects this scene from Back to the Future with these other movies? No, the answer isn't that all three are just science fiction. Instead, the shared focus is on renewable and clean sources of energy as alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels, including gasoline.

Earlier this year American evangelicals, long credited with having a powerful and vigorous voice in national politics, weighed in on the issue. The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), backed by such evangelical celebrities as Rick Warren and Jim Wallis, launched in February and stated, “Climate change is happening and is being caused mainly by human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels.” The declaration also included a call for the federal government to “pass and implement national legislation requiring sufficient economy-wide reductions in carbon dioxide.”

That the ECI does not speak for all evangelicals became clear following the release of a letter disputing many of the ECI's conclusions, signed by another group of prominent evangelicals including Chuck Colson and James Dobson. Because of the missive, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an umbrella group representing fifty-two denominations and over 30 million Christians, refrained from endorsing the ECI statement. Even so, the moral and spiritual authority that climate change politics has gained from the ECI is significant and noteworthy.

Many environmental activists, including the ECI, attribute global warming to human activity, most prominently to the burning of fossil fuels. But if filling our cars with gas and heating our homes with petroleum represent such a grave and tremendous threat, for Christians a fundamental and as yet ignored theological question emerges: Why did God create oil?

I believe the answer is to be found in an examination of the role of fossil fuels and the explosion of wealth production in the industrial revolution. The advent of the internal combustion engine made transportation easier, cheaper, and more reliable, so that goods could be traded more efficiently and quickly across larger and larger areas. Today the long-haul trucking industry remains a critical component of the infrastructure for the distribution of goods throughout the continental US.

Fossil fuels were created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world, as mandated in Genesis 1:28 . It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn't have cars and planes and ships to carry us about, and furnaces to warm our homes in intemperate climates.

If this is the case, then oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products exist to be used by human beings. But just like any other resource, these fuels are to be used responsibly. This is a basic insight provided by the Christian concept of stewardship.

On this view, fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.

Simply put, oil, gasoline, and coal, are part of what has made it possible for economies to advance from agrarian to industrial systems. This change has already occurred throughout the industrialized West, but many other nations are only at the beginning stages of this transition. Howard W. French, a journalist for The New York Times, writes that China , which has about one-fifth of the world's population, only currently “accounts for about 12 percent of the world's energy demand, but its consumption is growing at more than four times the global rate.”

So although today the US is the world's largest consumer of fossil fuels, the transition to industrialized economies and the advent of a new “car culture” in places like China and India guarantee that global demand for cheap and accessible fuel will only increase in the future. If the purpose of petroleum fuels is to pave the way for their own obsolescence, it's becoming clearer day by day that this means the embrace of nuclear power.

But as America begins to enter a post-industrial, information and service-driven economy, the same spirit of alarmism that sounds the warnings about global warming has prevented a major alternative source of energy from being realized. In a 2005 editorial for the Miami Herald , Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace in the 1970s, says that “by the mid-1980s, the environmental movement had abandoned science and logic in favor of emotion and sensationalism.” He notes that “environmental activists,” like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, “continue lobbying against clean nuclear energy.”

Moore concludes that “nuclear energy is the only nongreenhouse gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy global demand.” Despite the impression you might get from campaigns like the “What Would Jesus Drive?” initiative, sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), a founding member group of the ECI, the number one source of fossil fuel consumption in the US is coal, not gasoline. Just how many coal-powered SUVs have you seen lately?

According to the US Department of Energy , coal provides over half of the electricity flowing into American homes, and as Moore writes in a Washington Post editorial , “More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions — or nearly 10 percent of global emissions — of CO2.” But even though coal represents such a significant source of energy for the US, it has not been fashionable among environmental activists to pursue the only currently feasible replacement source of energy.

As the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship observes, “A clean environment is a costly good.” And fossil fuels have helped provide the economic capital to begin to pay the price of this costly good. The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.