Shining a Light in a Dark Place

To anyone familiar with its vast and growing literature, the environmental movement seems dominated by darkness. Consider the messages of just a few of its more vocal segments:

• The biological egalitarianism of the “Deep Ecologists,” whose founder, Norwegian ecosopher (philosopher of ecology) Arne Naess declares, “the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is an anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves.”

• The mystical, gnostic, and New Age thinking of the Gaia Hypothesis, popularized by James Lovelock in The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, which some environmentalists have incorporated into a modern pantheism.

• The unremitting charge by many environmentalists that historic Christianity, with its belief that God made man to subdue and rule the earth (Gen. 1:27-28), is fundamentally responsible for environmental degradation.

Confronted by these challenges, it is tempting for Christians to throw up their hands in dismay at the entire environmental movement. But those who do are making a big mistake, first because it will not just disappear, and second, because thoughtful Christians should contribute to the environmental debate. And some are doing just that.

Many evangelicals, like the Evangelical Environmental Network, are contributing to the discussion by offering an attractive and persuasive alternative to the anti-Christian thinking that underlies much environmentalism, whether secularist or New Age.

Ronald J. Sider, a founding leader of the Evangelical Environmental Network, wants Christians to recognize the religious dimensions of environmentalism as an open door for evangelism. “I think we shouldn't miss a very important evangelistic opportunity here,” he said during one radio talk show. “There is a very important change going on in our society. The intellectual community used to be very secular and naturalistic and didn't believe in anything other than what science could talk about. There's a groping for spiritual meaning and depth going on in our society [now]. But only if Christians get out there with a full Biblical faith and show how it meets the things that they're struggling with can we really respond....”

Sider is right, and he and various other evangelical environmentalists have thoughtfully set forth how Christian faith and ethics offer the best solution to environmental problems. Perhaps the best effort at this is Richard Young's Healing the Earth, which deftly and winsomely answers both secularist and New Age attacks on Christianity as promoting environmental degradation and explains why Christianity offers the only worldview that simultaneously upholds human dignity and leads to sound environmental stewardship.

Sider, Young, and others in the evangelical environmental movement rightly insist that neither a secularist, technicist worldview nor a New Age, mystical, pantheist worldview can provide an adequate foundation for environmental reform. The only real solution must be based on a truly biblical understanding of God, man, and the cosmos, one that recognizes both the sinfulness of man and his inescapable responsibility for earth stewardship.

However, while there is much to commend about evangelicals' contributions to environmental understanding, there is, as in any human endeavor, room for improvement.

Does Nature Know Best?

First, though evangelicals rightly criticize the worldviews of secular and New Age environmentalists, their own understanding of environmental problems would be improved by more thorough and careful development of their own worldview. For example, while they rightly emphasize that God's creation was good (Gen. 1) and that human sin often degrades it (Gen. 3), they rarely discuss another important biblical teaching: that in response to man's sin God cursed the earth, subjecting it to corruption, decay, and unfruitfulness (Gen. 3:17b-19). When they mention the Curse at all, they usually confuse it with the Fall or admit confusion and disagreement about it. But the Fall was man's act; the Curse is God's, and it has important implications for how we view the natural world.

Properly distinguished from the Fall, the Curse implies that the universe is not now as it was when created (unmixedly good) and that man's sin is not the only thing that has changed it. God's curse has, too. It has made the world hostile to man, naturally unfruitful by comparison with its original fruitfulness, and full of death and decay. Consequently we should not expect, as environmentalists frequently insist, that “nature knows best,” or that left to itself, nature knows what to do and it is this “looking after itself” that is nature's mark. Like their secular and New Age cousins, evangelical environmentalists have a tough time admitting that nature by itself can do anything harmful. Yet as self-professed liberal Democrat environmentalist Gregg Easterbrook details in A Moment on the Earth, nature's destructive powers far outstrip anything humanity has done or can do.

While some evangelical environmentalists have rightly emphasized the cosmic effects of redemption in Christ, they have failed to tie those effects, as the apostle Paul did, to the Curse, showing that although God did indeed curse the earth He did so “in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21).

Misuse of Scripture

Second, though evangelical environmentalists generally have founded their thinking on major themes of Scripture, and though they have effectively refuted the charge that the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:27-28 supports human domination and exploitation rather than wise and accountable development of nature, often they misuse specific texts in their attempts to claim biblical authority for their views. Consider two examples:

No doubt many land uses are abuses, causing widespread harm to habitats. Such harm deserves condemnation, and ordinarily forethought would recommend quite different uses. But in zeal to condemn such activities, evangelical environmentalists sometimes misapply Scriptures. Thus, in Ecology and Life Wesley Granberg-Michaelson cites Jeremiah 2:7 (“...I brought you into the fruitful land, to eat its fruit and its good things. But you came and defiled My land, and My inheritance you made an abomination.”) as condemning clear-cutting of forests, calling the passage “one of numerous biblical references portraying the unfaithfulness and sins of humanity expressed in the destruction of the environment,” and Calvin DeWitt cites it as applying to “global toxification” by discharge of chemicals into air, water, and soil. But the passage names not wasteful, destructive environmental practices as the sins that defiled the land but idolatry, spiritual rebellion, and infidelity to the covenant (Jer. 2:5b-8, 13), and it explains that God, in judgment, has sent foreign invaders (v. 15; cf. 4:6-7) and drought (3:3), making the once fruitful land “formless and empty” with “no people” or even birds, “a desert” with “all its towns... in ruins” (4:23, 25-26).

This means that sometimes environmental devastation is God's judgment on human sins that have nothing to do with poor resource management. Consequently, one important message evangelicals can communicate to help restore the environment may focus not on the scientific questions of ecology but on fidelity to God and His law. Our most significant message is not pragmatic (use contour plowing, reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce dependence on fossil fuels) but ethical: Worship and obey the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Pragmatic instructions are useful, but they are secondary. Ethics is primary--ethics defined by the revealed law of God in Scripture, not by current “best wisdom” about pollution control and ecology (Deut. 7:12-15a; 28:15-24).

Perhaps the most widespread and implication-laden misuse of Scripture by evangelical environmentalists occurs in their frequent discussion of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 (“...and God said to [Adam and Eve], 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” ). In their understandable resolve to blunt the charge of secular and New Age environmentalists that Christians have used this passage as a license for vicious, careless domination of the earth, they have gone toward the opposite extreme, robbing the passage of all mandate for forceful rule.

First, they have argued that the words subdue and rule here are qualified by the words cultivate and keep in Genesis 2:15 (“Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”); and second, they have argued that the word cultivate in Genesis 2:15 means to serve, i.e., makes man not master but servant of the earth. But Genesis 2:15 tells Adam's responsibility toward the Garden of Eden, not the whole earth, and garden and wilderness are distinct and even opposed throughout Scripture. Furthermore, the actual Hebrew words translated subdue and rule in Genesis 1:28 denote strong, forceful action. And while the Hebrew word translated cultivate in Genesis 2:15 can mean to serve when its object is another person, its sense when its object is a thing is to work, to cultivate, or to shape. Properly understood, subduing and ruling the earth should unfold gradually into cultivating and keeping the garden as man progressively transforms earth into garden.

Inhuman Priorities

Third, in keeping with the nature-first thinking of most secular and New Age environmentalists, evangelical environmentalists have, if only by default, embraced environmental priorities that, if acted on consistently, would put people--especially poor people--behind plants and animals, geography and geology. The main focus in evangelical environmental writings is on such problems as global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, species loss, and deforestation. All these are extremely large-scale and mostly hypothetical problems that, whatever their actual scale, tend to be of low risk to human beings. Acid rain in particular has been largely debunked as an environmental problem by the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program conducted from the late 1970s through the late 1980s by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But major environmental causes of human illness and death are not any of these exotic, hypothetical crises but such mundane, well-understood problems as in-home pollution from burning wood, agricultural wastes, and dried dung as primary heating and cooking fuel in poorly ventilated huts; lack of access to safe drinking water; dumping of untreated sewage and industrial waste; lack of emission controls on factory smokestacks and vehicles; use of low-quality, high-sulfur petroleum and coal for vehicles and electric power generation; and the simple dust kicked up by driving on mostly unpaved roads. These are the environmental problems of poor countries, and their human cost is enormous. (Impure drinking water alone is estimated to kill about 3.8 million children under five every year in developing countries.) But they can be reduced drastically by applying the same technologies that reduced them in developed countries, the cost of doing so is far less than the cost of addressing the sexier problems that preoccupy environmentalists, and the benefits to be derived are far greater and surer.

The irony is that many leaders of today's evangelical environmental movement were in the 1970s and 1980s at the forefront of evangelical social action on behalf of the same poor people on whom they have now turned their backs--inadvertently, to be sure, but nonetheless really. Because of their past commitment to the world's poor, they are strategically placed to reorder the priorities of the larger environmental movement, putting the biggest focus on these high-risk, well-understood problems. Let us hope they do so. Then they will truly shine a light in a dark place.