Is There a Christian Environmental Ethic?

by Charley Dewberry


As a working scientist, I meet people who view all Christians as ultra right-wing conservatives. They believe that Christians view the environment through the lens of economic expediency, that Christians, like other conservatives, are working to gut existing environmental regulations on public and private land so that supply-and-demand market forces can work. Viewed this way, Christians have no morals with regard to man’s relationship to nature; Christians have no environmental ethic.

Conversely, when I am introduced to Christians as a person who works in salmon restoration, I am sometimes asked how I can be both a Christian and an environmentalist. To these Christians, anyone who does the kind of work I do must be an environmentalist, and an environmentalist means someone who worships the environment and cares more for nature than for people.

Both the Christians and the non-Christians described above share the common perception that only two environmental ethics exist for how human beings should relate to the land: the free-market perspective and the environmentalist perspective. Consequently, the cultural discussion about man’s relationship to nature remains polarized between these dominant perspectives.

In this short article, I propose a third environmental ethic—a perspective on our relationship to nature distinct from the two perspectives mentioned above. And I will discuss how this ethic, the biblical perspective, is superior to the other two.

The question of how man should relate to the land has always been important to me. I grew up on a family farm in the upper Midwest, and my job during high school was helping run it. At the same time, I loved nature and enjoyed hunting and fishing. While I helped supply our family with food and make the farm payment, I also planted trees along the creek that ran through our farm, planted food for wildlife and birds, and increased the size of fence-lines between our fields. Some of my strongest memories are the conservation projects I completed on the farm. After high school, I pursued a career in fisheries management, specializing in stream and watershed management and restoration. When I became a Christian in the early 1980s, coming to grips with what the Bible had to say about man’s relationship to land was one of my first tasks.

The task was not easy, however, because the Bible does not address the issue directly. The Bible does not clearly prescribe an environmental ethic; no book of the Bible says, “This is how you should relate to the land.” Because the Bible appears to be silent, some people conclude that no moral issues are at stake when dealing with the environment. This conclusion, however, assumes incorrectly that the Bible always addresses moral issues directly. But the Bible does not claim to provide an exhaustive set of moral edicts; rather it provides a set of principles from which we can derive God’s perspective on moral issues. (The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible by Ron Julian, David Crabtree, and Jack Crabtree addresses this topic in detail.) To determine a set of moral principles, then, is more complicated than looking for a verse or verses that say “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not.” The task is not impossible, however.

Before I describe what I believe is a biblical (Christian) environmental ethic, first I will describe its two competitors, the free-market perspective and the environmentalist perspective. The chart below will help illustrate the differences between the three.

Free-market Perspective

This perspective is based on a free-market, capitalist economic model, in which the ultimate good for mankind is material prosperity and the highest purpose of the natural world is to provide the raw materials to run the economy. From the free-market perspective, man is the absolute ruler over nature; he is free to decide whatever he desires, and he primarily bases his decisions about the management of nature on the idea of supply-and-demand. Allowing supply-and-demand to work unabated maximizes economic efficiency and profit, which in the free-market model are the primary measures of success.

The opponents of this perspective (the environmentalists) rightly conclude that no moral mandate informs this model, including any mandate to protect all species. Rather, the model assumes an economic perspective, not a moral or ethical one. What is the ultimate mechanism for determining if an action is correct or not in regard to nature? A person who holds a free-market perspective will likely answer that the laws of supply and demand ultimately determine what is the right choice.

Environmentalist perspective

This perspective emphasizes protection and restoration of the biosphere (the earth, its atmosphere, and all biological species). Nature has inherent worth; it provides for man’s spiritual and material sustenance and is seen as good in its own right. Furthermore, the environmentalist perspective rejects any form of dominion over nature; man is merely a part of the biosphere. In fact, many radical environmentalists would argue that protection of the biosphere is a higher good than any moral issues concerning man. Many would argue that man should limit his population in order to protect the biosphere.

Yet, from the environmentalist perspective, the primary mechanism for protecting nature is individuals making moral decisions. (How people who claim man is merely a part of the biosphere can also claim he is uniquely culpable for moral actions presents an interesting conundrum.) Although environmentalists believe enlightened individuals can achieve some level of success protecting nature, most are pessimistic about achieving global success and therefore believe that government regulation is necessary. Whether individuals choose to protect the environment or governmental regulation does so, either way protecting nature dominates all other issues. A sure indication that someone holds an environmentalist perspective is a “yes” answer to this question: Is protecting the biosphere the highest goal?

Protecting all species (biodiversity) is a cornerstone of this perspective. As environmentalists see it, man’s thinking that he has authority to decide what species live or die is a fundamental part of the problem. However, even in Eugene, a hotbed of radical environmentalism, I have yet to hear anyone argue for protecting the AIDs virus or smallpox or any other disease or pest organism. Biodiversity, then, is a cornerstone belief that no one actually holds.

Biblical Perspective

Unlike the free-market and environmentalist perspectives, the biblical perspective acknowledges God and His purposes. Nature (the biosphere) has inherent worth because God created it. Man is distinct from the rest of nature because God created him to be so. We learn this mostly from Genesis 1-3, where we also learn that God created nature in part to provide for man’s material needs, and in turn, He gave man the responsibility to care for the natural world, to be a steward over it.

The biblical perspective also differs from the free-market and environmentalist perspectives on what constitutes the ultimate good for mankind. From the free-market perspective, material prosperity is the ultimate good. From the environmentalist perspective, man’s achieving a moral or ethical dimension from which he will protect the biosphere is the ultimate good. From the biblical perspective, the ultimate good for mankind is what the Apostle Paul calls “Life”—becoming morally perfect, which is the only thing that will satisfy every person’s true need.

No one can attain this Life apart from God, and, from the biblical perspective, God has designed the relationship between man and nature as part of man’s journey to Life. (The book of Romans and the Pentateuch have largely informed my understanding here.) Ever since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden, man has had to toil to wrest his material needs from nature, and man’s relation to nature has become part of the context in which he works out his faith by making moral decisions. God has given man a moral obligation to manage nature according to moral principles and not just economic efficiency, which distinguishes the biblical perspective from the free-market. From texts like Genesis, Leviticus 19:9-10, and Deuteronomy 22:6-7 and 25:4, we can learn that how we determine whether or not an action is right should be based on moral principles, not economic considerations.

From the biblical perspective, however, individuals cannot achieve moral success, in relation to nature or anything else, because we lack the moral character to make the right decisions. If man could always make the right decisions with regard to nature, he would show the Gospel to be in error, because the Gospel claims that man, apart from the grace of God, cannot ultimately make the right moral decisions. Even those who embrace the biblical Gospel and desire to do the right thing are not capable in this lifetime of making all the right decisions.

So then, God gave man authority over nature, but He will also hold man accountable for his decisions. We are to use nature to meet our material needs, but we are morally accountable for our decisions with regard to the well-being of nature. For example, the Bible does not mandate that man protect all species—a number of which were developed after the Fall to frustrate man’s attempts to provide for his material needs—but this does not mean that man has no responsibility toward other species that God created and declared good. The biblical perspective, then, contains elements of both the free-market and the environmentalist perspectives. The biblical perspective is unique, however, in that it balances man’s material needs and his moral obligations in a way that neither of the other perspectives does.

 


COMPARISON OF THE FREE-MARKET, ENVIRONMENTALIST, AND BIBLICAL MODELS

 

Question Free-market Environmentalist Biblical
Ultimate good for mankind? Material prosperity Moral/ethical man protects biosphere “Life”
Purpose of nature? Man’s material needs Spiritual and/or material Man’s material needs & context for working out faith in creation
Immediate good? Profit Protect integrity of ecosystems Faith & material needs
Mechanism for management? Supply & demand Government regulations in lieu of individual moral decisions Moral
Model of dominion? Absolute ruler No dominion Steward
Man’s responsibility? Maximize economic efficiency Protect biosphere Meet material needs & make moral decisions
Does nature have intrinsic worth? No Yes Yes
Is it necessary to protect all species? No Yes No

(back to text)

 

Summary and Conclusion

The biblical perspective of man’s relationship to nature is significantly different from either the free-market or the environmentalist perspective. The free-market perspective is an economic model devoid of moral dimension; its highest value is material prosperity, and its goals are achieved entirely by economic means. The ideal landscape is one where every acre of land is managed to its maximum economic potential. The free-market model is achievable only if supply-and-demand market forces are allowed to work unimpeded. Because the free-market perspective is merely an economic view, it fails as an ethical or moral perspective.

My criticism is not aimed at free-market capitalism as an economic system. My criticism is aimed at individuals who claim that the deciding factor for determining correct actions with regard to managing nature ought to be free-market economic considerations. A biblical Christian would argue that moral principles derived from the Bible, not economic efficiency, should be the basis for making decisions.

The environmentalist perspective is an ethical model; it incorporates a moral dimension that rightly recognizes that man is morally culpable for his actions with regard to nature. The model defines moral correctness, however, in such a way that certain individuals are successful in living blameless, or near blameless, lives only because the standard of success is trivial or often abstract when compared with the real demands of living a moral life with regard to nature. Thus this perspective leads to a great deal of self-righteousness. The highest moral good and ultimate goal of life are not those the Bible teaches. From the environmentalist perspective, the highest good is protecting and restoring the biosphere and the ultimate goal is to protect all species by increasing the number of individuals committed to the goal.

The biblical perspective is a model uniquely different from the other two. It recognizes that a purpose of nature is to provide for man’s material needs, yet it incorporates a moral dimension as well. Man is to make difficult moral decisions about his use of nature, and he will be held accountable for his decisions. The biblical view provides a means for balancing the material needs of man with man’s moral obligations to the rest of creation, and it provides adequate grounds for the established moral standards. Therefore, the biblical model is superior to either of the other two models.

Surprisingly, however, in the current national debate over environmental issues, no dominant voice propounds the biblical perspective. Only the free-market and the environmentalist perspectives are presented as possible options. As a result, environmentalists lump Christians with those who hold a free-market perspective even though the biblical perspective differs significantly. And those who hold the free-market perspective believe that any Christian who speaks about moral obligations with regard to nature must hold the environmentalist perspective. In each case, the held assumption is in error and needs to be corrected. Unfortunately, no strong Christian voice is correcting them or proclaiming the biblical model of man’s relationship to nature, which is unique and superior to the dominant free-market and environmentalist models.

Copyright June 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Charley Dewberry