A Review of Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism by Mark Stoll (Oxford University Press, May 2015).
In his new book, Mark L. Stoll challenges the conventional green view that Christianity provides the western world a philosophy justifying anti-ecological behavior on personal, economic and political dimensions. He is a historian and the director of Environmental Studies at Texas Tech University.
Two of the most influential articles defining the culture and logic of contemporary environmentalism were published in Science Magazine in the late 1960s. Lynn White Jr. published the first, “The Historical Roots of Our Environmental Crisis,” in 1967. The second, and even more influential Science article, was Garrett Hardin’s 1968 “The Tragedy of the Commons” (it merely mentions religion). Both remain important today.
White argued that Christianity’s assertion of man’s divinely sanctioned superiority over nature generated the environmental crisis. This is based on Genesis in the Old Testament, a chapter long predating Christianity. However, Stoll states that White’s thesis remains “in the back of a lot of people’s minds when they think about religion and the environment.”
In White’s view, Christianity gave man license to impose his unfettered will on nature. The result was a vast collage of ecological disturbance and resource waste. We squandered, not husbanded, nature’s bounty of beaver and bison, woodlands and water, and even its air and artistry.
White argued that Judeo-Christian theology replaced pagan animism and normalized ecological exploitation. The Bible asserts man’s dominion over nature and fosters anthropocentrism. Christianity makes a distinction between man (formed in God’s image) and the rest of creation, which has no “soul” or “reason” and is thus ecologically inferior.
White posits these beliefs have led to an indifference toward nature. This orientation impacts our industrial “post- Christian” world. He concludes that applying more science and technology to the problem won’t help. We must change humanity’s fundamental ideas about nature and abandon “superior, contemptuous” attitudes that make us “willing to use [the earth] for our slightest whim.” White suggests adopting St. Francis of Assisi as a model in imagining a “democracy” of creation in which all creatures are respected and man’s rule over creation is delimited.
In marked contrast, Stoll explores the Christian foundations of conservation and the environmental movement. His book melds environmental and religious history. It demonstrates that Christianity, especially Congregationalist and Presbyterian denominations, gave America’s early conservationists a strong and enduring foundation for environmental stewardship. He observed: “Congregationalists produced conservation and forestry reservations … the Forest Service, city, state, and national parks, and the Park Service.”
Progressive-Era reformers exemplify this. The era’s noted achievement, the conservation movement of the late 1800s to 1920, worked to preserve and protect America’s wildlife, wild lands and other natural resources. Leaders of that movement included ethnographer George Bird Grinnell, geologist F. V. Hayden, ecologist George Perkins Marsh, and the more well-known John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell and T. R. Roosevelt. All came from Presbyterian or Congregational church families.
Teddy Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. It became the leading conservation organization of its era. Membership was a who’s who of patrician sportsmen-conservationists, e.g., G. B. Grinnell, Yellowstone Park geologist Arnold Hague and forester Gifford Pinchot. They promoted conservation as an organizing principle of public policy. This principle had Christian foundations.
John Lawson Stoddard (1850-1931) was a contemporary of these men. He graduated from Williams College and studied at Yale Divinity School for two years. Proud of descending from Mayflower settlers, he was a social equal of the conservation pioneers.
“ Stoddard’s religious perspective is obvious: ‘On certain portions of our globe Almighty God has set a special imprint of divinity.’“
Stoddard’s religious perspective is obvious: “On certain portions of our globe Almighty God has set a special imprint of divinity.” He included Yellowstone as one of these few. He said it deserved (and I strongly believe it still deserves) special protection.
Stoddard wrote passionately about the marvels of Yellowstone. Here are his observations on the Liberty Cap formation at Mammoth: “The hand of time has stilled its passionate pulsations, and lain upon its stony lips the seal of silence.” Another treasure is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. “It is as if Almighty God had kept for His own use one part of creation that man might merely graze upon it, worship, and retire.”
In short, Stoddard was philosophically and culturally aligned with the patrician conservationists of his time. As Christians, they stressed the moral obligation of stewardship.
In Stoll’s view, culture corrupted by money determines environmental behavior:
Mammon ... has the bulliest pulpit of all ... corporations and certain wealthy individuals (fund) foundations to puff smallgovernment libertarian ideas and mount campaigns of misinformation ... (Mainline churches) could not withstand such money-driven values ...
He concludes with a sentence I find encouraging: “If not dead yet, environmentalism is certainly weak, divided, and wandering in the wilderness.” As a member of the Montana Wilderness Association and several wildlife conservation groups, I agree that many greens are lost.
Stoll’s conclusion suffers from modest economic understanding and close identification with conventional green thinking. He sees institutions simplistically, not as the producers of often-perverse, ecology damaging information and incentives.
Fortunately, over the past 40 years my Bozeman colleagues and I have built these lost souls a gyroscope, one not easily thrown out of whack by politics. It points to the intersection of responsible liberty, modest prosperity and sustainable ecology. This analytic perspective begins with the understanding that education, wealth and demand for environmental quality are complements, they increase together. Most simply, smarter and richer usually are greener. Concurrently, technology generally lessens environmental impacts. Why? It economizes on inputs while reducing costs imposed on ecological systems.
Our analytic gyroscope works via environmental and commercial entrepreneurship, the rule of law, responsibility for the consequences of actions, minimal transfers by governments and secure property rights. That is where ecology, liberty and ecology converge. This should be a comfortable place for Christian environmentalists. I pray they’ll find it.
John A. Baden is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Montana.