Christian Worldview: Environmentalism
A. J. Higgins
Tree huggers, climate-change alarmists, green earth policies, zealous recyclers – we are inundated by the social movements of our day. Stay more than one night in a hotel and you have the option of reusing towels to help “save” the earth. Your linens are only changed every third or fourth day, unless you brazenly demand it more often, to the detriment of the entire planet. Recycling of our discarded materials is mandatory in virtually every country in the Western World.
Do we dismiss all this as mere hysteria and misinterpretation or, at worst, deliberate misrepresentation of facts? Or do we join the bandwagon to save our earth? What is a balanced Christian worldview on the issue of man’s misuse of the creation which God has given us? There can be little question of the fact that man has misused everything which God has given him.
Before we dismiss everything out of hand, remember that concern for protecting the earth began with God Himself. Many of the instructions which He gave to Israel were for the preservation and “rest” of the land. The cycle of seven years with each seventh being a time when the land lay at rest – and of seven sets of seven years resulting in a year of jubilee and added rest – all these showed His wisdom and care for the land. God was keenly aware of the avarice of humanity and how it would exploit the land to its detriment (Exo 23:10, 11; Lev 25:1-7; Deut 25:4; Prov 12:10).
How does this relate to us today? Does the Scripture give us any guidance on this issue? Can a book over 2000 years old give us help on how to live in the 21st century? To answer in the negative would be to impugn God’s wisdom and call in question truths such as 2 Timothy 3:16, “That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” The Word of God will always be relevant! To begin to navigate our way through these difficult waters, it will be helpful to look at Genesis once again.
Man and Creation
Most environmentalists see man as a part of nature; some view us as the culprits who need to be removed from the equation so that the planet can equilibrate once again. Of course, no one will be around to enjoy it. But they feel that humanity must become extinct before things can be righted. Fortunately, this thinking is confined to a small minority (and may they always be so!).
The Word of God reveals that we are actually the center of creation. The earth was created for mankind, and not the other way around. In Genesis, God created a world and then planted a garden, placing Adam in it to enjoy and to use (to keep and dress it, Gen 2:28-30). Man is part of creation, but he is distinct in that he alone has the ability to be creative, to view himself, and, above all, that he is in the image and likeness of God.
Man was given dominion over the earth at his creation. In the hierarchy of nature, man was placed in the unique position of being below the angels, but above all the other creatures. Some rail against the thought that man has dominion over the animal creation. Australian ethicist and philosopher, Peter Singer, popularized this view in his 1975 book,Animal Liberation. In the eyes of those who hold his views, man is just another specie and shares the earth with other species who have equal rights. Using an animal for labor, or using it for food, is a violation of animal rights, in their eyes. Strangely, these are often the same people who champion abortion rights!
The Word of God, however, tells us that God said, “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing” (Gen 2:28). This does not mean we abuse animals; dominion always involves responsible action. But it does emphasize that God created the earth for man to use.
When Adam sinned, he brought creation into the bondage of corruption (Rom 8:20, 21). This emphasizes the fact that he was the head of that creation. This place of dominion is also witnessed to by the flood itself. Man had polluted the earth; why did the animal creation and vegetation have to be destroyed? Another has written, “The worth of nature, in God’s eyes, depends upon the worth and character of humans at the apex of God’s creation and does not have intrinsic worth of itself. If the natural world beyond humanity, had a sacredness of its own, God could have chosen to send a plague that destroyed only humans.”
God gave Adam a clear directive to “replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen 1:28). We read that He placed him in the garden “to dress and to keep it” (Gen 2:15). Also, He gave to man the trees of the garden for food (1:30), and later, the beasts of the field to Noah and all that follow for food (9:2, 3). So nature was to be used and “consumed” by man.
Adam was the first environmental polluter. When he sinned, creation was brought under a curse. Everything began moving toward decay and death. But we must always put the emphasis where Scripture has placed it: Man’s spiritual pollution has led to every problem on the planet, including environmental pollution. The mass of humanity shines the spotlight on external pollution, refusing any reminder of the internal pollution of the human heart.
If the real problem is man’s sinful, selfish nature, then it stands to reason that the real cure is to address the sin of humanity in the preaching of the gospel.
Man and Nature
Industry and the Wrong Culprit
We began to abuse the earth’s resources in a big way with the industrial revolution. We moved from a country where 75% of people lived on farms to where only about 5% now live so. Industry began to spew into our waterways and atmosphere all those bad things you read about. But the paradox is that it is the industrial world which has the resources to deal with the environment. Third world countries where sanitation is non-existent and pollution the norm, lag well behind the industrialized world in taking steps to clean the environment.
Identifying the Wrong Problem
As mentioned, humanity is always prone to looking for “external” causes for all the problems in our society and world. Poverty, illiteracy, racism, and other evils have all been candidates for being named as the cause of all of our woes. There is no question that these are gross blots on human history, but are they symptoms or the cause?
Now it is the pollution of the environment, global warming, and similar issues that are being highlighted. So we always look outside and never look in to see the real problem – the human heart and its alienation from God and self-absorbed obsession.
Idolatry and the Wrong Worship
While there are many sincere and zealous individuals committed to, and working feverishly for, environmental improvement, among them is an almost religious group of pantheists who now worship “mother nature.” Someone has remarked how that Puritanism (as far as the environment) and Paganism have joined ranks. We value the creation, but we do not descend to the level of those who worship the creature (and the creation) more than the Creator (Rom 1:25). “Mother nature” is not the god whom we serve.
The Christian and the Environment
Most of us, if not all, lack the educational credentials to be able to make our way through the conflicting mass of data on issues such as global warming, carbon footprints, etc. We must maintain a certain level of humility and not enter the fray as though we are equipped to debate on the issues. But that does not mean we are passive and indifferent. The Word of God was given that we might be “throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:17). That means that there is guidance in God’s Word as to how we should act under all circumstances. Following are characteristics that ought to mark us.
Submissive as Citizens
While our citizenship is a heavenly one, we cannot ignore our responsibility to governments and society. Paul reminds us that we are to be “ready to every good work” (Titus 3:1). Peter as well reminded his audience that they were to “submit themselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (1Peter 2:13). This means that when cities and communities enact legislation and “go green,” we are to comply with the laws of the land. Others may do it to “save the planet” or out of a misdirected worship for “mother nature.” We do it out of obedience to the Word of God.
We may differ as to the urgency of the need, and hold varying opinions on global warming and other environmental issues, but we submit to the laws of the land. We are to be model citizens, not mavericks.
Stewardship as Men
We are also stewards of the resources God has placed at our disposal. Stewardship involves faithfulness, wisdom, and a sense of responsibility. We do not blatantly waste resources, pollute the environment, or see how large a carbon footprint we can leave in our wake. The God Who had a care for the land, the lives of the beasts that plowed, and the sanitation within the camp of Israel, expects us to reflect something of His care for the resources He has given to us.
We all enjoy clear air that we can breathe without fear; we enjoy clear rivers and streams; we want fish that we can eat without fear of mercury poisoning–all of these are the result of steps taken to overcome the abuse of our resources. We have profited from, and have reaped benefit from, steps which have been taken to make our environment safer.
But things are never quite that simple and straightforward. One of the more difficult issues is to recognize the tradeoffs that many environmentally “friendly” steps involve. Here is where decisions are difficult and must be personalized. Virtually every list of “Fifty Ways to Save the Planet” includes the suggested use of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) These use less electricity, so it would seem prudent to use them. But they contain mercury and will require disposal in hazardous waste faculties which are scarce. So in taking an action which appears to “go green” in one direction, we may be causing a problem in another.
Answers and appropriate action are not always straightforward and simplistic. But we should, whenever able, act responsibly with nature and with our resources.
Serving as Believers
“Causes” may have validity and contain noble and just ends. As believers, however, we have to remember that our commission, our goal in life is not to “save the planet” but the salvation of souls. Anything which has the potential to distract or sidetrack us from the priority of our lives must be given a place in keeping with our ultimate goals in life.
Not every environmental problem is a crisis demanding extreme and urgent action. There have, in the past, been alarms sounded which have not proven true. A study in 1972 predicted that the world would soon run out of mercury, gold, zinc, and oil (1992 was the prediction). At other times, population growth was the great danger threatening food supplies and other natural resources. None of these crises have proven valid. This does not mean that every prediction will prove to be an overdone fear of an alarmist. Nature is resilient, and has shown cycles of change during its history without the intervention of men. It does mean, however, that we should not jump on the environment bandwagon to the detriment of our involvement in spiritual things.
While we do not advocate abusing our environment, or hastening in anyway its destruction, we must remember that climate change will not destroy our earth. God has already told us how He will wind up the universe and how it will end (2 Peter 3). It will not be global warming or a flood from melted ice caps; it will be by divine intervention and fire. In the words of the old spiritual,
God gave Noah the rainbow sign;
no more water,
the fire next time.