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The Fish of the Sea and the Birds of the Air: Environmentalism I

January 16, 2012
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Questions about Christian responses to the environmental movement frequently point to Genesis to find answers. Indeed, Genesis provides ample ammunition against one attempt to blend spirituality with environmentalism, that of pantheism. However, it is just as frequent to find Genesis cited as a rationale for either an exploitative view of Creation or a view that advocates stewardship (both of these claims often cite the same verse). Since I’ve written a series on Genesis 1-4 and since I’m an ecologist (not that my work has much of anything to do with human-environment interactions) it seems fitting that I attempt to tackle this subject.

In order to treat this subject properly I’d like to cover five things. First, I’d like to define our terms carefully. Having done that we can move on to four broader topics that begin to offer parts of what might make up a Christian response to environmental issues. While these headings may not make much sense until I explain them later the roadmap for the rest of this discussion has stops at the cause of the problem, practical concerns, the nature of value, and God’s intent for the world.

First, the terms. When I say “environmentalism” what you hear is probably dependent on your exposure to various political movements. In this article what I wish to address is not the specific agenda items of any specific political or quasi-political movement but a broader concept. Our world is changing because of human impact. The IUCN Red List attempts to grade all species in the world on a scale from “least threatened” to “extinct”. It currently lists 59,507 species. Of these a little less than half (25,852) are in the category of “least concern”. 797 species have been driven into extinction in historical times. In some areas this is more noticeable than others. Europe once had wild horses, wild cattle, bison, wolves, bears, and even lions. These days, after long millennia of human civilization, it has remnant populations of bison, wolves, and bears. Only boar and deer seem to be able to make much of a claim amongst the larger European wildlife for surviving around humans. This is hardly the only change humans have brought about on the planet. When people advise you against eating too many large predatory fish because of the mercury, that mercury came from human activity – it wasn’t in the primeval ocean. The smog in the air, the changed weather patterns around cities, polluted rivers, and trace toxins from human activity in all parts of the globe are all new, brought by humans.

So let’s define our terms. When I say “environment” I refer to the whole of (in this case) non-human Creation contained within the earth or its atmosphere. When I say “environmental issues” or “environmental problems” I mean these changes within that environment, most specifically the set of these changes which cause death in something. We can further subdivide these issues into issues of biodiversity and issues of pollution (following the discussion in the preceding paragraph). What follows is an attempt to see if there is some distinctly Christian approach to environmental issues. We might term this approach a Christian environmental ethic.

The first topic to address is why there are environmental problems at all. When we are dealing with issues of pollution there are generally three answers: accident, ignorance, or profit. Accidents are often aided by one of the others. Perhaps an oil tanker runs into terrible weather and causes an oil spill but when accidents are common then someone is either ignorant about the causes of the accident or too greedy to invest in safety measures. Obviously only one of these causes can ever be good (although ignorance is not a moral evil) – it is possible that in some instances minor pollution is worth the quality of life the polluting process brings. However, it’s also clear that our world is structured so that a company or individual who engages in actions that harm others is normally better off fighting those claims if they are at all fuzzy rather than engaging in the more Christian alternative which is to avoid the potentially harmful behaviors out of respect and love for others.

When it comes to biodiversity, there are three main threats: over-hunting, habitat loss, and invasive species. The relative impact of each of these varies from region to region but these three generally top the list. Arguing for some good from these three is somewhat easier. Some case can be made that removing dangerous animals is a moral good (although the costs are generally not well-assessed) and it’s not clear that there’s any utilitarian problem with wiping out an endangered frog by building human settlements. However, invasive species (non-native species that take over, e.g. kudzu in the American south) are, at best, a case of ignorance if not carelessness while over-hunting is normally, at best, bad resource management. Greed again figures prominently in these issues.

I can’t say that if everyone acted as Christians should, full of concern for their neighbors and responsible for the consequences of their actions, that there would be no environmental issues. However, we’d certainly be in a better spot. What’s more, a number of current issues can be addressed in part through such Christian virtues as self-control and a proper attitude towards possessions.

Let’s move on to the second major stop. When someone says “environmental issues” one obvious question is “whose environment?” Often as not the answer is “ours”. We generally generate pollution where we live and so we or our neighbors are generally the ones who breathe, eat, or drink it. This is a practical concern. No Christian would argue that poisoning other people is a good thing. When it comes to these sorts of issues the moral question is an easy one to answer. It is only the scientific case that remains to be proved and, often as not, that’s also fairly cut and dried. This is less common when it comes to biodiversity. However, it’s not always absent. When, for instance, developers destroy salt marshes to build fancy beach houses they put fish populations at risk since many fish grow up in salt marshes before moving out to sea. This, in turn, threatens the livelihood of fisherman. Again, the moral questions are possible to evaluate solely in terms of human impact. Because of this, these questions hardly require a distinctively Christian environmental ethic. If your neighbors are being poisoned or their livelihood destroyed, any decent human being should respond.

The third topic, that of value, should help separate Christian and non-Christian responses from one another. The question is simple: what kind of value does the environment have? Is its value utilitarian or does it have some intrinsic value beyond its utility?

Part of the issue here is that two alternatives are often presented that are not actually good representations of the full spectrum of options. One of these options is the case for utilitarian value: humans are valuable, the environment is valuable because of what it does for humans. If this means that humans wipe out the quagga so be it – unless that’s a case of bad resource management or harm to other humans (see above). Genesis 1, where humans are given dominion over Creation is often cited to support this, perhaps partly in reaction to the other common alternative. This option is that all living beings have equal moral value. A fly and a human have the same value, just as a bird and a snail do. This view is frequently drawn from pantheism or panentheism. God (or gods) are thought to be or be in everything. Animism, where there might literally be gods under every rock, is another spiritual rationale for this view. Obviously, none of these fits within Christian monotheism where God creates but is not His Creation.

Perhaps more problematic, though, is the fact that this view doesn’t really let one give clear moral advice. The Jains, a religion related to Hinduism, perhaps do the best job with this. They refuse to eat anything except plant food that can be harvested from a plant without killing the entire plant – so, for instance, a mango can be eaten because a mango can be removed from a plant without harming the plant but a garlic clove, which can grow into a new plant, cannot. Many Jains also wear veils over their faces to avoid inhaling insects and they may walk slowly to try to minimize the risk of crushing small animals underfoot. This is certainly a consistent approach, non-violence towards all life. However, if one doesn’t want to take this approach it becomes less clear where the lines should be drawn. If all life is equally valuable should predators be reintroduced to places where they aren’t present? Should larger organisms be killed because their bodies can feed myriads of smaller ones? In reality even people who claim to believe that all life is equally valuable rarely live by this ethic.

Of course, there’s a third option. Perhaps the environment is intrinsically valuable not in its quanta but as a whole. Great artwork is like this – its not this spot of paint or that one that makes the Mona Lisa great, it’s all of them together. This is much closer to the idea of value that most conservationists actually hold to (even the ones that express other ideas): it’s not this giraffe or that one that is valuable, it is a world with giraffes that is valuable.

This discussion of ideas of value is necessary to frame the final discussion. Does the Bible show some sort of overarching idea of what the environment is for? Is it valuable because it serves humans? Because God made it as artwork? What is God’s plan for the non-human world? While I find the discussion of the general morality of destroying and preserving parts of the environment to be of interest this Biblical question is the most interesting and also the longest. It will compose the next article.

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