R&L: Although, on its face, the environmental movement seems to be about economics and politics, you have argued that, at root, it is a spiritual movement. Describe the theology at the foundation of environmentalism.
Nelson: The environmental movement, at its heart, is a nervous reaction to humankind’s new relationship to the natural world that has developed over the past three hundred years. Modern science and economics have given human beings the capacity to control nature in ways almost unimaginable until recently–to build giant dams to control raging rivers, to go to the moon, to conquer disease, and so forth. At first, this newfound power over nature was seen favorably by many. The modern age has seen a host of secular “religions of progress” based on the idea that modern developments would bring about heaven on earth. However, a number of events of the twentieth century–the atom bomb, for example–have called into question the core assumptions of these progressive religions.
According to environmentalism, modern science and economics tempt human beings with the power to “play God.” As the Bible teaches, those who strive to be like God can expect divine retribution–floods, disease, famine, and other natural disasters. Thus, the current environmental movement predicts environmental catastrophes to replicate the old biblical prophesies. Environmentalism is a secular religion, and one that sees modern science and economics leading not to heaven on earth but, perhaps, to hell on earth, the punishment for human beings trying to assume God-like powers.
R&L: This environmental theology, as you describe it, has much in common with the Judeo-Christian tradition but with essential differences.
Nelson: Ironically, there is no place for God in much of environmental theology. The public teachings of leading environmental proponents essentially have nothing to say about God. Environmentalism, not Christianity or Judaism, is their real religion. And taking God out of the picture radically changes the character of their religion, despite the similarities to Judeo-Christian beliefs in other respects. Calvinism preached that human beings are fundamentally corrupt and depraved–the result of Original Sin since the Fall–but it did offer the possibility of salvation in the hereafter. Moreover, events here on earth were given meaning as part of God’s grand plan for the world. If you remove these two elements, as happens in a strictly secular environmental religion, you are left with a kind of nihilism.
R&L: What are some of the ways these differences play themselves out, for example, in each perspective’s view of the human person?
Nelson: If, as prominent environmentalists like David Brower and Dave Foreman have often said, human beings are the “cancer of the earth,” what is the point of living? It would seem that more lives lived only compound the amount of evil in the world. If, God having been removed from the equation, there is nothing even potentially redemptive to be found in the human presence on earth, this presence itself becomes morally neutral or even morally objectionable. If human beings truly are a cancer of the earth, perhaps it logically follows that they should share the same fate sought for other forms of cancer. The salvation of the world may consist of eliminating the human presence from the earth. This is secular environmentalist theology’s dead end.
R&L: Do these aberrations of secular environmentalism nullify genuine concern for the proper care of creation?
Nelson: Secular environmentalism has to be given credit for stimulating public attention to genuine environmental problems. Our environmental policies and programs are poorly designed, cumbersome, inefficient, intrusive of personal liberty, and otherwise flawed, but they are gradually working to improve the condition of the American environment. We are such a rich and blessed country that we can afford to make a lot of bad mistakes and still succeed.
R&L: But these theological presuppositions do confuse the debate.
Nelson: That is one of the reasons environmental policies have been so poorly designed; they reflect the basic theological confusions at the heart of environmental thinking. Confused ideas lead to confused policies. One of these confusions, as I have already mentioned, is the inability of environmentalism–at least in its secular forms–to identify a constructive role for human beings on earth. It is hard to formulate environmental programs and policies when there can be no clear understanding of the goals–human ones, at least–that are to be served.
R&L: How do you understand the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship as it relates to environmental concerns?
Nelson: Because human beings are made in the image of God, they are capable of self-awareness and of ethical knowledge. Unlike any other creature, it is possible to appeal in rational terms to human beings to make sacrifices for the benefit of other creatures. Thus, human beings have a higher responsibility for the care of the creation. By contrast, as long as environmentalism remains a secular religion, supposedly grounded in the scientific truths of biology, there will be no basis for appealing to human conscience to transcend baser instincts and to take heroic actions to protect the environment.
R&L: Would you say, then, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a superior basis for environmental ethics?
Nelson: It takes a Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship, based on the idea that humans are special creatures put on earth in the image of God and with special consequent responsibilities to protect and appreciate nature, to have a coherent environmentalism.
R&L: To your way of thinking, what kinds of economic, political, and cultural institutions best allow people to fulfill their stewardship obligations?
Nelson: That is a complex question. I teach a course in environmental policy at the public policy school here at the University of Maryland that takes a whole semester on this subject and represents only an introduction. I can say that I believe that there has been a basic mistake in American environmental policy in centralizing too much responsibility and authority at the federal level. The United States is too diverse and environmental problems too site-specific to prescribe common solutions from Washington.
I also believe that the environmental movement made a great mistake in its early years by regarding the market as the enemy of the environment. Government is often the source of some of the greatest environmental abuses. For instance, many of the large dams built by the Interior Department in the western United States in the twentieth century would never have been constructed if they had to pass a market test.
R&L: What, then, is an example of the ways market structures foster sound stewardship?
Nelson: Many environmental problems are “problems of the commons.” By establishing a system of property rights, the destructive environmental incentives of such situations can be ended and positive market incentives substituted in their place. For example, unrestricted use of the air as a disposal site for industry emissions of pollutants was a “problem of the commons” situation until the 1970s. To my way of thinking, the best way to solve this problem is to create property rights to use the air for a limited and environmentally acceptable total amount of emissions. Congress finally took this step with the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 and its provision for an acid rain trading program. Although it is not a perfect market, this trading program seems to be working well, attaining environmental goals more rapidly and at lower costs than had been expected.
R&L: This “problem of the commons” is reflected in water-use issues as well, isn’t it?
Nelson: That’s right. And a market solution to it is being provided by the Oregon Water Trust. The members of this organization enter the water market to buy rights from farmers and other users. They then “use” those rights by leaving the water unused in rivers and streams, increasing in-stream water flows, reducing pollution concentrations, and improving fishing, rafting, and other recreational activities. Because all of this is based on voluntary transactions in a market, it is much less socially divisive and intrusive of personal liberty than the traditional command and control regulatory approach. These sorts of approaches are starting to have a great impact on the way we think about the environment.
R&L: Conversely, what is an example of the way government policy stymies good stewardship?
Nelson: I can give one good example based on my work as a career economic analyst in the United States Department of the Interior from 1975 to 1993. The Interior Department (actually the Bureau of Land Management within the Department) administers livestock grazing on federal lands that cover about 10 percent of the land area of the United States. Historically, ranchers have had livestock grazing permits that have been associated with the same ranch properties for many years. Under traditional government policy, these permits had to be used for livestock grazing.
Environmental groups recently have been offering to buy grazing permits in particularly sensitive areas with an eye toward modifying or eliminating livestock grazing there. As things stand now, they have no clear legal right to buy the permits, even if ranchers are willing sellers. If an environmental group bought a grazing permit from a rancher and tried to end livestock grazing–say, in a wilderness area where grazing is still occurring–the government would have a legal obligation to reissue the grazing permit to another livestock operator.
R&L: It sounds like the incentives do not exist for the government to create environmentally sound public policy.
Nelson: The government often poses such obstacles to the development and use of markets in environmental areas. The United States Congress recently prohibited for a period the adoption of systems of fishing rights that have the potential to help curb the gross over-capacity and over-utilization that is currently occurring in our fishing areas. Although this prohibition was temporary, it reflected the historic aversion of politicians to giving up control. Sadly, there are many politicians who survive by manipulating government programs to curry favor among their constituents.
R&L: Some people are uncomfortable with free-market approaches to environmentalism because they fear that such approaches will encourage economic values to the exclusion of non-economic values. How do you respond to this concern?
Nelson: This is another one of those large and complex questions. Just to give one response, I might note first that the alternative to the market is likely to be politics. Many politicians find it hard to look beyond the next election. By contrast, the market promotes, one might say, a greater “sustainability” because it has a much longer time horizon. A market participant typically wants to preserve and protect his property because he wants to be able to capture the benefits for a long time to come.
But there is one way in which I do agree with this concern about economic values in relation to the environment. Economic growth can become a secular religion. European socialism and American progressivism in the early part of this century are good examples of this. The advance of material progress, as these secular religions preached, would serve to solve not only the material but also the spiritual problems of the human condition, thereby bringing about a whole new state of affairs on earth–the arrival, in effect, of the millennium.
R&L: This sort of economic idolatry would seem to seriously devalue the nature of man and the importance of the natural world.
Nelson: People who believe in the religions of economic progress have a tendency to devalue the importance of the environment in their haste to reach their new heaven on earth. This was more of a problem in the past when socialist and progressive religions dominated the intellectual elite, but it has hardly disappeared as a powerful idea.
R&L: In what ways does concern for the world’s poor get lost or confused in the contemporary environmental debate? Can environmentalism and compassion toward the poor be reconciled?
Nelson: Historically, helping the poor has been a defining feature in the ideals of the American Left in politics–even when sometimes the methods adopted have been ill-suited to actual achievement of the objective. Contemporary environmentalism, however, has a much more ambiguous attitude here.
It is a dirty little secret that, surprisingly, many environmentalists think that there are too many people on the earth and that a die-off of poor people may be the only realistic hope of getting rid of any large number of them. This is an example where environmental theology–while seldom fully explicit–is having a surprisingly large impact on the underlying assumptions of public policy. And it is one of the main reasons why a return to traditional Judeo-Christian ways of understanding the relationship of man and nature–understandings that make the fate of poor people much more central–is necessary.
R&L: Can you paint for us your vision of what the best environment for man looks like?
Nelson: It should be a place where, first of all people, are well-provided with the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and other consumptive needs. However, economic growth should not become an end in itself, a secular religion. Protecting the physical environment in all its beauty and diversity should be a fundamental objective. However, this protection should not be placed in opposition to human well-being. Life will not be fulfilling unless set in the framework of some powerful system of meaning. That means religion. It will probably not be the same religion for every person, but the best hope for the environment in the twenty-first century lies in a religious revival around the world that recognizes the human obligation to environmental protection and enjoyment.
R&L: In closing, can you share some advice on how to advance the environmental debate in helpful ways?
Nelson: There are many sound technical ideas for improving current environmental policy, but such ideas will be adopted only when they are combined with a strong commitment to sound environmental goals. This has not always been the case; advocates of superior policy ideas sometimes have mixed them with an apparent disdain for the values of environmental improvement. In forming good public policy, techniques and values will have to be always inextricably intermixed.