Setting the Record Straight

In recent years, the press has latched onto the work of the Evangelical Environmental Network, an organization formed under the auspices of Evangelicals for Social Action. Because many newspaper reporters and editors view evangelicals as part of the conservative “religious right,” the arrival of evangelicals who sound just like mainstream environmentalists is a news event--sort of a “man bites dog” story.

This attention has given the Evangelical Environmental Network and its associates more prominence than they would otherwise have--and, unfortunately, more than they deserve. Like many mainstream environmentalists, these evangelical environmentalists hold “doomsday” views that are unsupported by the balance of the evidence. It turns out that they also bolster their views with questionable scriptural authority.

Doomsday Predictions and Unscientific Claims

E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Covenant College, has written Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate to explain where they go wrong. To begin with, they have swallowed whole the view that the earth is experiencing massive, global, and irreparable environmental problems, from global warming to overpopulation. An important part of Beisner's book refutes these claims. Citing the work of authors such as Ron Bailey, the late Julian Simon, and Gregg Easterbrook, Beisner provides extensive evidence that we are not running out of natural resources such as oil; that we are not losing our topsoil in dangerous amounts; that overpopulation is not the cause of most environmental problems; and that vast numbers of animal species are not being wiped out every year--to mention a few of the claims that he undermines.

In addition to marshaling evidence of this kind, Beisner points out the unscientific nature of many environmentalists' claims by citing inconsistencies in their materials. For example, an issue of Green Cross, another offshoot of Evangelicals for Social Action, has two articles about deforestation, one a sidebar to the other. The first article says that the annual destruction of the rain forest in Africa amounts to an area the size of Ohio, while in Latin America “twice as much, in proportion to the total area,” is destroyed each year. Making some assumptions about what the phrase means (he decides that it means that the percentage of land deforested in Latin America each year is twice the percentage of African land lost), Beisner figures that the author is saying that an area of rain forest measuring 275,232 square kilometers (or 106,240 square miles) is being lost each year in these two continents.

In the same magazine, two pages later, another author writes that each year the world loses 154,000 square kilometers (or 59,444 square miles) of rain forest. In other words, the first figure, which excludes Asia, is 78 percent higher than the second figure, which supposedly covers the loss in the entire world! To Beisner this sloppiness illustrates “a propensity for doomsayers to pick numbers at the scary end of the spectrum while paying little attention to evidence that those numbers may be vastly exaggerated.” Furthermore, even the larger figure is only slightly over half of one percent of the land in the two continents. (To be fair, I should point out that in the complicated process of analyzing these figures, Beisner himself makes a slight mistake, mislabeling kilometers as miles, but his point is correct.)

Scriptural Sloppiness and Sins of Omission

Beisner does not stop at identifying sloppiness about the environmental facts. He also points to scriptural sloppiness. Evangelical environmentalists often create the impression that devastation of the earth, when discussed in the Bible, comes about because human beings are acting in environmentally irresponsible ways. For example, an evangelical environmental writer describes his experience looking down from an airplane and seeing forest clearcuts. This makes him think of a passage from the book of Jeremiah that reads, “you defiled my land,” which he describes as one of “numerous biblical references portraying the unfaithfulness and sins of humanity expressed in the destruction of the environment.” The implication is that environmental destruction comes about because of human exploitation of the land. In response, Beisner points out that the actual context indicates that the destruction of the environment was God's response to human sin--not the result of poor environmental practices but, rather, of infidelity to God's covenant.

Similarly, another evangelical environmentalist quotes the book of Isaiah (“The earth is defiled by its people”) to illustrate humans' “arrogant assault on the fabric of the biosphere.” But, once again, the author ignores the context: God, not man, devastates the earth in response to human sin.

A more fundamental error is one of omission: Most evangelical environmentalists ignore the curse that God placed on the earth as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” said God after the Fall, telling Adam that the ground will produce “thorns and thistles for you....” Ignoring the Curse, says Beisner, environmentalists speak as though there was a “pristine planet beautiful” that existed before the earth was damaged by industrialization. But such a pristine planet never existed, at least after the Fall. In spite of what environmentalists say about “this Eden of a planet” (as one phrases it), “creation by itself simply does not abundantly yield blessed fruits,” says Beisner. It becomes “abundantly fruitful only under the wise and resolute hand of man.”

A New Dimension to the Debate, But Will Critics Listen?

My criticisms of Where the Garden Meets the Wilderness are few. Most of Beisner's citations are secondary sources, rather than primary ones, but they are reliable. They indicate a breadth of reading and also confirm the fact that in recent years a number of books have been written that authoritatively counter “doomsday” environmentalism. (One of these books is Eco-Sanity, whose coauthor, perc economist P. J. Hill, Beisner acknowledges as an important source of advice in the preparation of this book.)

Unfortunately, it is likely that the people who need to hear the message of this book will resist it and may well ignore it. Evangelicals who have made up their minds about the environment and environmental policies are not likely to pay attention if they can avoid it.

That they intend to reject his message is clear from Beisner's report on his communication with the editors of Prism, a publication of the Evangelicals for Social Action. After Beisner criticized an Evangelical Environmental Network document in World magazine, Prism responded with an editorial charging him with denying the existence of environmental problems. When he responded in a letter that the editorial completely misrepresented his views, one editor wrote back, accusing him of “racism, sexism, and cold-heartedness.” Apparently, religious affiliation and a religious basis for environmental concern do not guarantee civility.

But if Beisner does not convince the Evangelical Environmental Network, at least he has a chance to sway others not yet caught up by its erroneous assumptions. His arguments are helpful to all Christians, not just evangelicals (a point made clear in the introduction by the Roman Catholic priest John Michael Beers). Will those Christians read this book? Certainly some will, but this is a fairly academic, carefully argued work, densely packed with quotations and citations. While it is not difficult to read, it will still appeal more to scholars than to a large lay audience. I worry that many pastors, priests, and laypeople who come under the influence of the Evangelical Environmental Network will still succumb to their claims because they have not read the counter-arguments.

That worry aside, Where Garden Meets Wilderness has added a new dimension to the discussion of environmental issues. Over time it will find its appropriate place in the growing body of literature that provides more careful consideration of environmental problems than most environmentalists, evangelical or otherwise, provide.