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Environmental Virtues-and Vices

Religious writing on the environment generally fails for several specific reasons. First, most theologians and religious ethicists do not have a gift for science. Environmental science is especially hard because it requires, at a minimum, a good grasp of chemistry, physics, geology, and various subdivisions of biology. The scientist who can keep all the environmental balls in the air simultaneously is already a rare bird; but the theologian who can successfully apply his religious knowledge to a very different and difficult realm is as uncommon as any animal protected under the Endangered Species Act.

But that is only the beginning of the problem. If it were just a matter of bringing together our deepest values and one dominant modern mode of knowledge, we might manage tolerably enough. But environmental efforts—if they are not going to cause even worse problems than they solve—have to be mediated by politics and economics. By nature, these two disciplines are mired in differences of opinion and may change rapidly in response to circumstances—one of their most valuable features. Scientists and theologians alike are often tempted to think that their timeless truths should simply trump the messy procedures and cantankerous factions of public debates.

Virtues for a Good Life and a Good Relationship with the Created World

Steven Bouma-Prediger's For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care avoids some of these typical pitfalls. Unfortunately, it falls deeply into others—a true misfortune because the author displays occasional flashes of insight that might lead to a more satisfactory treatment. Bouma-Prediger, a professor in the religion department at Hope College in Michigan, writes in a basically genial Reformed idiom that avoids making idols of many current environmental nostrums. He sets forward a good case arguing why the Bible should be read as an encouragement to care for the earth (to begin with, the Creator and the Savior are the same God), and he defends biblical religion from the charge that it is responsible for current environmental problems.

But the heart of the book is a pair of chapters outlining, on the one hand, the strengths and weaknesses of seven common approaches to environmentalism, and articulating, on the other hand, an ecological virtue ethics. In the first of these chapters, Bouma-Prediger offers brief and nuanced descriptions of wise use, human and animal rights, bio-centrism, the wilderness movement, deep ecology, and (his favorite, if properly reformed) the land ethic. Wise use, for instance, he sees as helpful but, ultimately, too exclusively utilitarian. The rights of future generations or of sentient animals extend our moral considerations, but do not have complete consistency or truly universal scope. For a Christian, Bouma-Prediger argues, biocentrism must give way to theocentrism. Against the wilderness movement, he observes: “Few if any places are pristine, none are static, and the natural world is always an admixture of the benign and the harsh.” Deep ecology is similarly criticized: “Insofar as proponents claim that all organisms have equal value or worth, it is unclear how to adjudicate competing interests or goods.” Even the land ethic has to be supplemented with consideration for the nearly three-quarters of the globe that is water, protection for individual rights, and a hierarchy of values. All this is deftly and judiciously argued.

About ecological virtues, too, Bouma-Prediger makes a valuable contribution. Though his chapter on the subject is a little thin on concrete action—what emerges is of the bicycle-to-work, turn-your-compost-heap, recycle-milk-cartons, and write-your-Congressman variety—he is right to emphasize that much of what needs to be done environmentally depends on the kinds of people we are—that is, the kind of character we develop in response to ecological as well as other life challenges. The right kinds of humility, frugality, honesty, courage, benevolence, wisdom, and hope are the virtues needed for any good life and, by extension, any good relationship with the created world.

The Besetting Sin of Environmentalism

The problem with this volume is not primarily what it contains, but what it does not. In a brief and abstract treatment, Bouma-Prediger essentially reproduces the dire environmental claims of the Worldwatch Institute without ever engaging alternative points of view. (He dismisses such serious voices as Dixy Lee Ray, Gregg Easterbrook, and the Acton Institute's Cornwall Declaration in a single footnote; Julian Simon, Ronald Bailey, Frederick Singer, Patrick Michaels, and a host of similar figures appear to be entirely off his radar scope. ) Any conscientious student of environmental issues will want to review Worldwatch's claims. But there is a price to be paid for the easy assumption that the problems and their solutions are well known and beyond debate. Bouma-Prediger never has to wrestle with different interpretive structures or approaches to dealing with problems. As a result, his otherwise heartfelt religious vision falls rather patly into known categories.

For example, he warns about population growth but seems unaware that populations in developed countries around the world are generally shrinking. He fears the fragmentation of rainforests in the tropics but does not know that forests in northern latitudes are spreading. He lends an ear to environmentalists' plaints about urban sprawl and environmental racism but never really takes a close look at what these phenomena are or what they mean. (Would it be better if we all went back to living on the land, concentrated ourselves in center cities, or spread factories and refineries evenly throughout the country?)

This stance may derive from a deeper one, the besetting sin of a certain type of environmentalism, which sees the human impact on nature as stemming almost solely from greed, rarely from want. People who accept the biblical view of creation, as Bouma-Prediger does, often succumb to this error. For example, we know that famine resulting from “natural” (i.e., non-human) causes has been a regular scourge for much of the human race, even down to quite recent times. Similarly, from the Book of Exodus and the history of Thucydides through the medieval Black Death and down to the twentieth century, natural epidemics have repeatedly savaged various populations. (In the early twentieth century roughly 40 million people around the world died from Spanish Influenza.) The population growth of the past century or so reflects, then, a noble victory over two recurring evils. Our relative abundance may shade off into gross consumerism or simple greed, but it also represents close attention to the potential embedded in the world by the Creator.

We can begin to take a more generous view of the wilderness only because we have essentially solved, despite some continuing difficulties, the problems of famine and epidemic. Bouma-Prediger notices that nature itself is often harsh or unstable, but that knowledge does not intrude on the attitudes he has absorbed from the usual environmental literature. Most people in most other cultures, including some of the very indigenous peoples whom he and other environmentalists so much admire, would take a very different view of nature—one that a Christian concerned with seeing the real character of the creation should not minimize.

An Authentic Christian Vision of Creation Care

For instance, when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, in a matter of a few days it spewed something like twice the sulphur dioxide that the United States releases into the atmosphere in a whole year. Other natural sources do equally “negative” things. Bouma-Prediger himself notices that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been naturally higher in the distant past than they are in today's post-industrial world, and that about 11,500 years ago—long before factories, automobiles, and coal-fired power plants—the earth's average temperature changed seven degrees Celsius in twenty to fifty years, a shift comparable to the highest projections for global warming over the next century by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Given all these natural variations, we may still be preparing some unhappy times for ourselves by our various activities. But to suggest that pollution is sin (as an Eastern Orthodox patriarch did not long ago) or to invoke the term blasphemy (as Bouma-Prediger and others do) for human effects on nature that do not depart greatly from what God himself has built into the system, seems to sin itself against the very virtues of honesty and wisdom that Bouma-Prediger seeks to instill. A calm look at the past few centuries of the human influence on the environment would show that we did no little damage when we were needy and unaware of our harm. Since we have become more secure materially and have recognized various problems, we are doing something about them and will improve still more, while maintaining better standards of living in the future. That should be the fuller ideal that inspires an authentic Christian vision of creation care.