Stephen Kokx
March 16, 2012
Environmentalism is a good thing, except when it isn't
By Stephen Kokx

For the past couple of weeks there has been an ongoing conversation within the limited government movement about the relationship between libertarianism, conservatism and Christianity. The American Enterprise Institute, along with the Values and Capitalism blog and the Acton Institute, have provided valuable insight that can be found here here and here.

Although I've personally come out in favor of social conservatism, there is value in appreciating the libertarian worldview. As Ronald Reagan once said, "the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism."

However, as important as it is to understand the philosophical differences between conservatism and libertarianism, it is equally important to recognize the philosophical differences between Christianity and the various worldviews that pollute modern man's thinking, namely radical environmentalism.

Given the political nature of the unusually high price of oil these days — something that Energy Secretary Chu actually supported in 2008 — it's worth looking into how protection of the natural world, as well as the environmental movement at large, correlates with being a good Christian.

Where do we draw our values from?

In the book of Genesis we encounter the creation story. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Not until Genesis 1:26, however, do we encounter mankind, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every living creature that lives on the earth."

The word dominion is what needs to be paid attention to. In fact, it has engendered so much debate over the past half century that it has become one of the most controversial — and misunderstood — words in the Christian lexicon.

According to Professor Lynn White Jr. (1907-1987), the word dominion, and the further instruction that Christians are to populate and subdue the earth, is the primary culprit for our "contemporary ecological crisis."

Writing in Science magazine in 1967, White concludes that the "increasing disruption of the global environment is the product of a dynamic technology and science which were originating in the Western medieval world." The human appetite for environmental destruction "cannot be understood historically apart from distinctive attitudes toward nature which are deeply grounded in Christian dogma." What is needed, according to White, is "a new set of basic values" that will "displace those of Christianity." Otherwise "we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man."

Other deep ecologists have popularized White's misinterpretation as well. In his award winning 1995 book Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn offered his understanding of Christianity's anthropocentric worldview.

Quinn posits that "gods ruled the world for billions of years, and it was doing just fine. After a few thousand years of human rule, the world is at a point of death." Humans originally were hunter gatherers who lived within their means — like other primates. Now, with the advent of the agricultural revolution, mankind, believing that "what they were doing was right — and therefore to be done at any cost," has lead itself down a path of ecological self destruction. "If you read [human history] as a story that originated among [human] culture" you begin to see that with the "spread of Christianity and of the Old Testament, [humans] came to" legitimize their destruction of the natural world.

What Quinn is essentially advocating for is a worldview that not only understands the agricultural revolution as an inherently unnatural progression, but one that views humans as just another species amongst many and therefore without any special rights or privileges. An ecocentric, kinship-based understanding of the natural world is what is needed to protect the environment.

Sadly, this is where Quinn and White's hermeneutical naiveté shines through. Even so, many radical environmentalists support their theory. Just the other week, global warming activists insisted that President Obama's contraception mandate would be a good way to help curb climate change.

But inasmuch as people like Quinn and White like to hold their views on the environment as superior to that of Christianity, Pope's have been on the forefront of the "green" movement ever since the late 19th century. Long before people like Rachel Carson came along.

One of the first utterances of respect for the natural world and social justice was made by Pope Leo XIII in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. Though outright advocacy for protecting the environment didn't come until the 20th century, it's worth noting the overarching attitude expressed by Leo. "Private ownership is according to nature's law. For that which is required for the preservation of life and for life's well being is produced in great abundance by the earth" and therefore it is "just and right that the results of labor should belong to him who has" tilled the "soil and the fruits of their land" in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, as Blessed Pope John Paul II has pointed out
    Man is made to be in the visible universe an image and likeness of God himself, and he is placed in it to subdue the earth. From the beginning therefore he is called to work. Work is one of the characteristics that distinguishes man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work. Only man is capable of work, and only man works, at the same time by occupying his existence on earth. Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within the community of persons.
Dominion, therefore, is not a license to wreak havoc on the environment. Dominion, having been the result of man being made in God's image, is a uniquely human mark that demands stewardship of the natural world and the creatures within it.

Emphasizing this point in his 2009 encyclical Caritas en Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes
    The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. When nature, including the human being, is viewed as a result of mere chance or evolutionary determinism, our sense of responsibility wanes.
If society adopts Quinn and White's worldview, a view that sees "nature as something more important than the human person," Benedict argues, mankind may end up "considering nature an untouchable taboo or, on the contrary, abusing it" or even idolizing it. Therefore, humans must use nature "responsibly to satisfy our legitimate needs, material or otherwise, while respecting the intrinsic balance of creation" because "human salvation cannot come from nature alone."

To summarize, the claim of many radical environmentalists is that Christianity's anthropocentric arrogance is to blame for climate change and that the only way to protect the natural world is to rid the planet of the human species or to pass laws which curb our ability to use the earth's resources. Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, claims that the Church's anthropocentrism is warranted because man is distinct from other creatures because he possesses reason and is endowed with rights which usurp those of other creatures. However, because the planet itself is also one of God's creations, humans must treat it with respect and employ their freedom in a way which balances the demands of future generations with their own.

Can you be a Catholic and a radical environmentalist?

Although Christ never spoke about environmental (or tax) policy to the extent that many politicians claim he did, the Christian faith does exhibit a consistent message of love for God's creations. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "we show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of God's creation." Therefore, caring "for the earth is a duty of our faith and a sign of our concern for all people. We should strive to live simply to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

But does this mean that the state should limit the amount of water we use in the shower, decide which days of the week we can cut our grass on, or make investments in alternative energy? The answer is not so simple.

After all, this planet is comprised of finite resources and the amount of humans living on it has reached levels never before seen. Something has to change. But where will the change come from? Will it emanate from the hearts of mankind through the evangelization of the culture or will it be legislated by the federal government?

There is danger in relying solely on either method, but given the recent statements by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, someone who thinks contraception is a boon for the economy, depending on the state to protect the dignity of human life while promoting a sustainable economy is increasingly a mutually exclusive choice.

So where do we go from here?

Although Democrats and Republicans like to claim they are doing the Lord's work, neither has struck the appropriate balance between protecting the natural world and promoting what Catholic social teaching calls "integral human development." Rejecting job creating ventures like the Keystone XL pipeline is not a solution to our energy problems but neither is a complete ignorance toward mankind's environmental impact. Even Milton Friedman acknowledged that the government has a legitimate role in reducing externalities.

The question then becomes, can you be a Catholic and a radical environmentalist at the same time? The short answer is no. Quinn and White's deep ecology presupposes certain principles that are incompatible with the notion that mankind is made in the image of God. But that doesn't mean supporting legislation that incentivizes clean energy, promotes organic farming or invests in alternative energy is un-Christian (it may not be prudent, but it's not un-Christian.) Nor, however, does it mean that the market economy, entrepreneurialism and corporations can't work to protect the environment.

A good Christian will understand this and recognize that not all environmentalists are tree hugging radicals whose views are incompatible with Christianity. Only some of them are.

© Stephen Kokx

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

 

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