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Thursday, November 4, 4pm - 8pm

Religion & Liberty: Volume 28, Number 1

Conscientious environmental stewardship

I grew up in Brooklyn, an environment that was decidedly urban yet dotted here and there with parks and green spaces. So it should come as no surprise that it took me at least a couple of decades before I learned to fully appreciate nature’s bounty.

One takeaway from my sojourn as an activist on the left coast was the lessons from the Great Environmental Awakening of the 1960s and 70s. Much of the information used as a basis for our newfound concern with conserving nature stemmed from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

I realize that Carson’s book prompted a host of subsequent rebuttals and even several successful attempts to debunk a few of her conclusions completely. Leaving all that aside for the purpose of this essay, I prefer to hold Carson and her work in esteem for an admittedly abstract reason.

Without Carson, her work and her book, I wonder if the modern environmental movement would have attained the same degree of urgency in so short a time. Certainly, reading newspaper stories and watching newsreel footage of the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 was alarming, and the intense smog enveloping Los Angeles where I lived for a time provided more than ample empirical evidence to justify the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

Kris Mauren and I began the Acton Institute in 1990, establishing our headquarters in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan. For those readers unfamiliar with either Grand Rapids or Michigan, I cannot emphasize enough how beautifully nature and humanity’s endeavors complement each other in my adopted state. The Great Lakes, shorelines, forests and inland waterways all provide ample evidence of what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins termed “God’s Grandeur.”

By 1990, much had been accomplished to reverse our nation’s environmental devastation wrought by either ignorance or indifference. There is no doubt that bad actors continued – and continue in our contemporary society – to purposely disregard or accidentally ignore God’s directive for us all to exercise effective stewardship of his creation.

At some point, the most extreme forms of environmentalism – however benign or desirable the ends imagined – succumbed to humanity’s pantheistic urge. This approach upends Christianity rightly understood because it positions nature inherently above humankind. One unfortunate result is that certain environmentalists evolved into zero-sum activists for whom all human effort was an affront to nature and, by extension, even offensive to God.

Additionally, there are some who – in the name of “science” – are remarkably unscientific. By this I refer to the groups and individuals who fail to accept the tremendous benefits of newer forms of agriculture over the highly romanticized yet wasteful and harmful methods of the past. Furthermore, nature and its inhabitants are tougher than many pantheists assert and, in several ways enumerated in this issue, are able to adapt to new conditions.

Finally, protection of the environment is important, but of equal importance is the protection of property rights. As has been noted by Christian thinkers since the advent of Marxist ideology, property rights are the bedrock principle of every free nation on Earth. Property rights are based within the precepts of Natural Law as outlined by Saint Thomas Aquinas and found a staunch defender in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum encyclical in 1891.

Our mission at the Acton Institute often attempts to bridge the divide between the extremists of pantheism and those who would seek profit at any cost to the environment. It is our goal to celebrate human flourishing while recognizing that it’s not mutually exclusive with God’s call for us to be conscientious environmental stewards.

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Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.