Image

Sustaining People and Planet: The Moral Challenge of the Twenty-first Century

The book of Genesis says human beings were given do- minion over the natural world. Scripture also teaches that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24:1). Thus, human society’s dominion over the earth is one of stewardship. We have a responsibility to ensure that the earth is managed properly on behalf of its only rightful owner, God. Wasting the earth’s resources is an unquestionable dereliction of our stewardship responsibilities. But this is only one of our obligations to God. Our overarching responsibility is to seek first God’s kingdom (Mt 6:33). In addition to maintaining the earth as good stewards, seeking the kingdom of God includes loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39), meaning that we must be striving to search for the lost, heal the sick, shelter the homeless, protect the abused, and feed the hungry (Matt. 25:34-46). In the populous and affluent twenty-first century, sometimes being a proper steward of the planet seems to conflict with the command to love our neighbor. Many environmental activists appear to take this conflict as an axiomatic reality. But that is an error. The kingdom of God is never divided against itself. A quick look at environmental topics regarding overpopulation, high-yield farming, and industrial development is enough to demonstrate that it is not God’s call to stewardship and loving our neighbor that create undo strain on the environment, but rather certain activists’ vision of an environmental utopia that amounts to nothing less than erasing most humans from God’s earth.

What About Overpopulation?

Too many environmentally concerned people have decided that the world is overpopulated. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, has said, “Global human population is threatening our future … as we attempt to feed our growing numbers, we are jeopardizing Earth’s ability to sustain any life at all.” He calls for a radical reduction in human numbers. Ted Turner, media billionaire, has said, “A total population of 250¯300 million people would be ideal.” That would eliminate ninety-five percent of the present world population. Fewer people would make it easier to solve environmental issues, but this solution is draconian. Famines, epidemics, or forced abortions would need to be implemented to achieve such an end. Allowing such things to occur would be a monstrous dereliction of our responsibility to care for the well-being of our neighbors.

Furthermore, some environmentalists misunderstand the role of human beings in relationship to the earth. The Worldwatch Institute says churches just need to get past their outmoded “concern” over the “moral status of humanity in the natural order” to be good environmentalists. That concern is never outmoded. Christ’s words “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” have no moratorium. Furthermore, that concern is what keeps humans humane, fit subjects of the kingdom of God. If we accept the Worldwatch Institute’s position that there is no moral status of humanity in the natural order, then human beings cease being creatures made in the very image and likeness of God, the only ones capable of managing the planet’s resources in ways that benefit all life on earth. From the Worldwatch Institute’s perspective, humans may be perceived as a blight upon the earth, a disease to be eradicated as painstakingly as any other virus. The reality is that since God created us in his own likeness and image, we are then by nature creators who can transform the earth’s natural resources to better sustain life rather than consumers who merely have the capacity to deplete the earth’s natural resources.

Not only do these environmentalists’ claims about overpopulation prompt an ill-conceived notion of humanity, these claims are not even valid. There is no upward human population spiral. The current world population surge, now nearing its end, was caused by modern medicine lowering the death rates, not higher world food production. In fact, the world is 40 years into the first era when more food production means better diets for children, instead of an increase in human numbers. Since 1960 and the Green Revolution, births per woman in the Third World have dropped from 6.2 to about 2.8, and are still declining rapidly. Population stability is 2.1 births, and the First World is already below that, at 1.7 and declining. The birth rate reductions have been caused by factors such as increased food security, rising personal incomes, female education, and urbanization—all of which lead couples to use today’s improved contraceptive technology. The ongoing global birth decline is dramatic and unprecedented. In fact, many European countries face concerns regarding underpopulation as a result of this birth decline.

Stewardship in Twenty-first Century Human Society

Worrying about how the enormous human family will survive on an earth of limited resources is not a modern phenomenon. Citizens of the Roman Empire worried about soil erosion and declining farm yields nearly two thousand years ago, with good reason: Soil erosion has always been the most vulnerable aspect of human society.Environmental activists today prey on this long-held and valid fear of soil erosion to undermine our confidence in the sustainability of modern high-yield farming. They insist that today’s high crop yields give only an illusion of a sustainable food supply, because the farmers are “mining the soil.” Again, that is not the truth.

In fact, modern high-yield farming techniques allow farmers to be much better stewards of the soil than the previous generations. Thanks to chemical fertilizer, modern farmers no longer need to “wear out” their soils. In the traditional farming of the nineteenth century, growing crops often took more nutrients out of the soil than farmers could replace with manure. As yields and soil organic matter declined, the farm would be abandoned as “worn out.” Today farmers use soil testing and industrially supplied nutrients to keep their soils rich and productive. In addition, modern farmers invented conservation tillage. This farming system eliminates plowing by using herbicides to control weeds, planting through the unplowed soil. It cuts erosion by up to ninety-five percent and encourages the presence of far more earthworms and subsoil bacteria. What is more, high-yield farming preserves more than the soil. It has already saved at least twelve million square miles of forests and wildlands. In other words, it would take twelve million square miles more of land—three-fourths of the total amount of forests and wildlands on the globe—to produce the necessary food supply if farmers were still limited to the low crop yields of the 1950s. Instead, three times as many people as the world had in the 1950s have food from essentially the same amount of cropland used then. One of the bases upon which Christ separated the sheep from the goats was related to whether they fed the hungry. Decrying the use of high-yield farming to perpetuate unsubstantiated ideals while people starve to death may advance certain activists’ agendas, but it is goat-like behavior to say the least.

Affluent Countries Are Better for the Environment in General

The First World enjoys a high degree of material prosperity relative to Third World countries. However, instead of considering whether there is any moral side to this affluence, environmental activists criticize the First World not only for its development of high-yield farming techniques, but also for its industrialism generally, the source of its affluence. Paul Ehrlich has commented that the affluent people of the First World were the worst polluters in the history of the world, would destroy half the world’s wildlife species in the next few decades, and would bring about the ruin of the whole planet. This is an unfounded criticism that fails to appreciate the process of industrialization.

A World Bank staff team has documented a bell-shaped curve in environmental protection. In the early years of industrialization, forests die and pollution surges. Rising populations and higher incomes demand more farmland and better diets. But when per capita incomes reach a level of $5,000 to $8,000 annually a different set of factors take over. People are already well-fed and birth rates fall rapidly. With better inputs and management, crop yields rise, so less land per capita is needed for food. Diesel fuel substitutes for firewood, even as forests are replanted. Affluent people want cleaner air and are willing and able to pay for it. They begin to demand clean rivers for both health and aesthetic reasons. Affluence affords a person respite from the tyranny of scrambling to do whatever it takes to survive, and in that respite a person has the opportunity to contemplate how his or her actions affect the human society and the planet in general and to make any reforms necessary to discontinue or prevent any derivation from the responsibility to be biblical humanitarians and stewards.

Most of the Third World is currently in the most polluting phase of the industrialization process, a phase that the First World is leaving behind. Dr. Bjorn Lomborg’s widely publicized book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been fiercely condemned by eco-groups, but they have not been able to shake his key point: An objective analysis of the world’s available eco-data shows virtually all of the First World environmental trends are virtuous. This creates a strong argument that affluence has moral potential after all, that the best thing we could do for the environment is to make the Third World more affluent.

Trade and the Biggest Agricultural Challenge in History

Trade helps countries become more affluent. A much-quoted study by Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner found that developing countries with open economies grew by 4.5 percent per year in the 1970s and 1980s, while those with closed economies grew a pitiful 0.7 percent per year. Nevertheless, in December 1999, activists took over the streets of Seattle to protest world trade. They claimed that “globalization” allowed big corporations to exploit Third World people. But there were no Third World people in the protests, just American labor union members, students, and a few veteran activists. The Seattle activists demanded, among other things, that everyone has the “right” to produce their own food. However, the world’s good farmland is not well distributed to feed the eight billon affluent people projected to be living on earth by 2050. China, for example, has twenty percent of the world’s population, but only seven percent of its arable land. Such densely populated tropical countries as Indonesia and Bangladesh and such arid countries as Egypt and Morocco will have difficulty providing high-quality diets in 2050 from their own farms.

Meanwhile, in many countries where high-yield agriculture has been especially successful, farmers are able to produce more food than their consumers want. The marriage made in economic and environmental heaven is between the unmet demand for high-quality diets in densely populated Asian countries and the surplus food capacity of North America, South America, and Europe. Only a global market can make this marriage happen. Yet, while the World Trade Organization helped cut the average nonfarm tariff from forty percent to four percent since 1947, the average farm product tariff is still more than sixty percent. Agricultural trade has been stifled by more than $300 billon per year in rich-country farm subsidies that would be essentially unnecessary if we had free trade.

Certain “social justice” groups advocate blocking farm trade to save small family and traditional farms from corporate monopolies. But most of Europe’s peasant farmers have already moved to the cities. The American family farm has just grown larger to match rising urban incomes. In their misguided zeal, the Luddites are actually blocking the changes in global farming patterns that are urgently needed to protect the very wildlife they claim to revere. Here lies the real problem. These activists have a vision of how the world should be, how society should be organized, and how wealth should be distributed. Their vision is not only often at odds with the goals they claim they are trying to accomplish, it is also in direct contravention of our responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and the caretakers of our fellow human beings. These activists seem to place their vision above God’s direction about how we are to live our lives. Thus, in the end, these social justice groups have lapsed into idolatry, subverting the kingdom of God for their own vision of utopia.

In the Spirit of True Conservation

Last April, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the world was offered a practical vision of how we could save room for the world’s forests and wildlife in the more populous and more affluent world of the twenty-first century. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners, a co-founder of Greenpeace, the most recent winner of the World Food Prize, and the British author of the Gaia Hypothesis all signed a “Declaration in Support of Protecting Nature with High-Yield Farming and Forestry.” This remarkably broad coalition is led by Dr. Norman Borlaug, Chairman Emeritus of our Center, and the 1970 winner of the Peace Prize for his work on high-yield crops for the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Borlaug asserts that the Green Revolution not only saved a billion people from starving, but also about 12 million square miles of wildlands from being plowed for low-yield food production.

The Declaration does not endorse any agricultural technology or system. It simply states that the world urgently needs higher yields based on sustainable advances in biology, ecology, chemistry, and technology. Nothing else humanity does for conservation in the twenty-first century will be nearly as important to wildland conservation as high-yield farms and forests, because nothing else would affect as much land. Neither recycling nor fuel cell cars will do much to save forests.

However, too many in the environmental movement are not as worried about conserving nature as they are about conserving it “in the right way.” Too many activists demand that we achieve sustainability by massive numbers of forced abortions, or by “dumbing down” our society and shifting from our affluent suburban homes to high-rise apartments with sleeping porches instead of air conditioning. Again, as they subvert the sanctity of life and property rights for what they consider to be higher ideals, their idolatry becomes as apparent as a wart on the tip of a person’s nose. It is simply immoral to achieve equality through imposed poverty. Nor is poverty likely to preserve the environment. It is more likely to restore high death rates, high birth rates, and the rape of the wildlands. Think about the barren aftermath of famine, with the wildlife eaten and the forests cleared for more low-yield crops. Those who serve the Lord Jesus Christ cannot morally accept such a conservation strategy, because we must seek the kingdom of God by loving our neighbor while also being good stewards of the earth’s resources.

The Faith-based Communities and True Conservation

America has always been the world leader in agricultural research, but U.S. agricultural research funding has dropped by about one-third since 1960, despite the rising costs of each research project. Private companies have suffered massive equity losses due to the anti-technology campaigns of Greenpeace and other eco-groups. The first and foremost task for those truly concerned about both ministering to people and stewarding nature should be to increase grassroots support to overcome the “organic mindset” that currently pervades the United States Congress and other governmental agencies. Currently, federal regulators are much more eager to cut our pesticide use another twenty-five percent than to raise crop yields anywhere, when in reality funding research and activity in areas related to high-yield farming techniques would better enrich lives and enhance conservation.

America needs to heed such organizations as the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), which is a coalition of like-minded individuals and organizations dedicated to demonstrating widespread support for traditional principles of stewardship. Formed in 1999, the ICES is in the process of developing a network of religious, academic, and community leaders who can offer sound theological, scientific, and economic perspectives on environmental issues, such as high-yield conservation, safe and sustainable field and forest yield gains, protection for forests and wildlife species, and the reduction of the terrible burdens of poverty and malnutrition worldwide. Soon, they will provide a credible alternative to liberal environmental advocacy for people in congregations, schools, government, and the religious and secular media. Over time, these types of organizations can help us ensure that sound theology, science, and economics, rather than soulless political ideologies, guide the principles of stewardship for people around the globe.

America also needs to look closely at agricultural biotechnology, but not through the lens of the deadly “precautionary principle,” which would effectively bar all new technologies. Instead, we need to view agricultural biotechnology through the lens of high-yield conservation. The world is already using the high-powered seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides that were produced during the first Green Revolution. We will need something extra to triple the farm yields again—and the only major new technology on the shelf is biotechnology.

Is it moral for the First World to reject our new understanding of DNA for agriculture, while we eagerly pursue the development of new biotech cures and drugs for ourselves? Is it moral for Europe to block the farm trade liberalization needed to protect tropical forests in densely-populated countries with rising incomes and diet aspirations? These questions can only be answered affirmatively if we forsake the kingdom of God in favor of pursuing an idolatrous vision of the environment. God has given us remarkable intelligence and societal skills to achieve his purposes, not our own. Now, we must respect the call to be good and faithful servants.