April 11, 2008

Evangelicals and the Environment: How Close an Alliance?

The following remarks were given in at “God Is Great. Is God Green? A Conference on Evangelicals and the Environmental Task.”  The conference took place in Washington, DC on November 14, 2008.


I would like to speak for a few minutes about the relationship between Evangelicalism and the environmental movement. Richard Land has already spoken about the theological foundations of environmental stewardship, so I will treat the subject only briefly here.

Although evangelicalism is a fuzzy word, it’s generally defined by commitment to the Bible as God’s Word, to the core claims of Christian orthodoxy, such as those expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, and by an emphasis on personal conversion and discipleship. This suggests that evangelicals will generally be committed to some core theological principles grounded in Scripture. When dealing with environmental stewardship, and asking how evangelical Christianity should relate to the modern environmental movement, then, some relevant theological principles would include the following:

Theism. The ultimate reality on which everything depends is a transcendent personal God who freely created the world and does not depend on that world for his existence.

Creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” says Genesis 1:1. That means nature isn’t self-existent, but is created and dependent.  Moreover, it is created good. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) So the natural world has intrinsic value apart from human use.

Stewardship. Human beings, like all of God’s creation, are created good. Human beings are part of the natural order, but unlike everything else in nature, we are created in God’s image. At least part of that image is expressed in God’s command and blessing to have dominion over the Earth and its creatures. God blesses the first human beings by giving them a command, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1: 28)

In 1967, Lynn White wrote a famous paper in Science blaming this biblical view of man’s dominion for environmental problems: “By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature…. [W]e 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.” [1] But White misread the text. The text nowhere says that “nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”  And it speaks of “dominion,” not “domination.” The dominion referred to here is the dominion of benevolent vice-regents, stewards who are given responsibility over something that does not ultimately belong to us. It is not the alien domination of a tyrant.  Moreover, stewardship implies that our dominion is derivative rather than absolute. Psalm 24:1 tells us: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” But God doesn’t keep his creation to himself. He gives human beings responsibility over it. He gives to his creatures, as Thomas Aquinas put it, the dignity of causality. And he gives to those creatures made in his image, the dignity of creation.

That dignity, and that responsibility, includes God’s command to transform the world around us for good purposes. The first man and woman are put in the garden to “till and keep it.” We’re not commanded to take a hands off policy. Our work and interaction with the rest of creation is part of our created mandate.

The Fall. Although the natural world is created good, it is fallen. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. It resists our attempts to cultivate it, and we can damage it. In some mysterious way, the fall has affected not just human beings, but all of creation. Paul tells the church at Rome that the “creation was subjected to futility…the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…” (Romans 8:22).

Redemption. Christ, as the New Adam, has foreshadowed the kingdom to come. Although the new heavens and the new earth will only be created when Christ consummates his kingdom, there are glimmers of that kingdom in the present work of the church, which is Christ’s body to the world. That suggests that although we cannot establish an earthly utopia nevertheless, we can and should be about the work of the kingdom here and now. Ultimately, death and destruction do not have the final word.

I think these theological principles provide a solid and well-balanced foundation for an environmental ethic.

Environmentalism is an even fuzzier word than “evangelicalism.” It can mean something as vague as “being concerned for the natural environment,” which is so broad that almost everyone would be an environmentalist. In that sense, evangelicals should all be environmentalists, because stewardship of the environment follows from core evangelical principles. But a definition that includes practically everyone is probably not very useful.

Besides, it’s easy to discern some clear philosophical tendencies within the broader environmental movement by looking at its prominent intellectuals. And when we do so, we find that most of those philosophical tendencies contradict evangelical principles. Popular environmental thinkers like James Lovelock, for instance, tend toward a sort of naturalistic pantheism. In pantheism, God and nature are identical, and in modern naturalism, nature or the cosmos, not God, is the fundamental reality. For thinkers like Lovelock, pantheism and naturalism end up in a strange fusion. That fusion leads them toward an Earth or nature-centered spirituality rather than a God-centered one. [2]

There is also a strong anti-human strand in the environmental movement. Thinkers like Paul Ehrlich treat human beings, not as image-bearers of God who are given proper dominion over creation, but as alien parasites whose primary tendency is to rape, pillage, and destroy the Earth. Many environmentalists accept anti-human assumptions without thinking about it. They define human beings over against nature. For instance, in a New York Times editorial complaining about how much of the planet human beings have affected, Verlyn Klinkenborg asserted: “’The essence of nature is that it is not “for people.”’ [3] Unfortunately, this misanthropy is not just a marginal strain in the environmentalist movement. [4] Obviously no evangelical can embrace these tendencies. And so far as I know, no self-described evangelical environmentalists do so, at least not intentionally.

At the same time, evangelicals and thinkers like Lovelock agree that nature has an intrinsic value apart from human use, although evangelicals will not understand that value differently than Lovelock does. For all Christians, including evangelicals, nature is good because it is the creation of a good God. It is the object of his freedom and love, and this gives it inherent dignity. But that dignity does not prevent human beings from changing it for all sorts of purposes. Lovelock and other environmentalists often take the intrinsic value of nature for granted. Nature has value, perhaps, because it is the fundamental reality on which human beings depend. And they often define that value in such a way that change by human activities is by definition bad.

Given these differences, the minimal course for evangelicals concerned about the environment is to avoid adopting the assumptions of an alien worldview common in the environmental movement and to be very careful when making common cause with secular environmentalists. An even better course is to develop an environmental ethic that is specifically Christian.

That’s a simple piece of advice to give; but it’s hard to implement. That’s because environmental questions involve all sorts of complicated judgments about science, public policy, and economics. So applying a principle from theology to an environmental issue requires that we interpret the principle through the difficult details of different fields. That would be hard enough. But the problem is even more severe than merely learning a well established set of scientific facts. While a great deal of debate over environmental issues takes place on scientific rather than philosophical turf, historically, the science has a way of getting contaminated by the broader philosophical assumptions at work behind the scenes. It’s often hard to tell the scientific facts from the camouflaged philosophical fashion.

For instance, a scientist like Paul Ehrlich can habitually make false predictions about human population overtaking food production. Reading Ehrlich naively, it can look like he’s just doing the math. And he can do math; but he can’t do economics or anthropology. He has a deeply distorted view of human nature. For Ehrlich and other prominent environmentalists, we aren’t image bearers of God. We are primarily consumers rather than creators. That truncated view of human beings leads him to make bad demographic predictions, over and over again. These problems don’t fit well in a naively empirical view of natural science, but that’s how it often works out in environmental science in the real world.

Therefore, in general, evangelicals should be very careful in jumping on board fashionable environmental causes, even if they appear to be well-grounded in natural science. The chaff of philosophical fashion is sown in closely with the wheat of empirical facts. We have to cultivate our ability to discern one from the other. We can’t count on The New York Times, Newsweek, or UN committees to do it for us.

That’s our first task. But let’s be generous and say we do it well. We still have a second task: to distinguish our theological principles from prudential judgments involving evidence from natural science and economics. That means we can’t jump naively from our commitment to environmental stewardship to a defense of the Kyoto Protocol, without connecting a lot of dots in between.

Again, this is easy to say but hard to implement. So we shouldn’t be surprised that several recent evangelical forays into environmental debates have tended to muddle the non-negotiable (and non-controversial) theological principles we share as evangelicals, with specific prudential judgments on which we are bound to disagree. Let’s briefly consider two examples, both campaigns of the Evangelical Environmental Network.

Evangelical Climate Initiative
The Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) was a brief statement released to the public in February 2006. [5] Originally, it was signed by 86 evangelical leaders who announced their support for what The New York Times called “a major initiative to fight global warming.” After describing the importance of treating the Earth responsibly as a clear Christian mandate, the ECI called for “federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through ‘cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.’” Calling for federal regulations and market-based mechanisms at the same time sounds contradictory. But let that pass for now. The main problem with the statement is that it mixes theological principles with a cluster of controversial prudential judgments.

Again, with respect to the environment, the theological principles are uncontroversial: human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order. We bear a responsibility for how we treat and use it. We are part of the creation, as well as its crowning achievement. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for good purposes. Proper use is not misuse. But as fallen creatures, we can mess things up. No serious evangelical thinker questions these basic principles.

Prudential judgments are another thing entirely. You can’t jump straight from the doctrine of environmental stewardship to federal regulation of CO2 emissions. The controversy over global warming involves prudential judgments at every turn. To collapse these judgments into bit sized chunks, we can think of the global warming controversy in terms of four separate questions.

    1.  Is the planet warming?
    2. If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?
    3. If the planet is warming, is it bad overall?
    4. If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, federal legislative restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference and, if so, would their cost exceed their benefit?

Tough questions all. Perhaps with enough research, one could answer them all with some confidence. But in any case, theological principles don’t provide much help in answering them. To answer (1) and (2), one must consider a wide range of scientific evidence, theorizing, and speculation, drawing on disciplines as diverse as meteorology, astrophysics, geology, and probability theory. And the very nature of the questions and the evidence means answers will always be tentative and uncertain.

The ECI takes it for granted that the case for human-induced climate change is well established. I disagree with them. Although I think the mean global temperature has gone up since 1870 (to pick a popular if arbitrary baseline), I don’t think the evidence is at all persuasive that this is due primarily to human activity. Given our base of knowledge at the moment, we simply don’t know the answer to this question, despite all the PR to the contrary. But my views aren’t relevant here. What is relevant is the disagreement itself: It’s perfectly possible for one to be an evangelical who is acquainted with the scientific evidence and who is concerned about the environment, to disagree with the ECI on whether human beings are the primary cause of the current warming trend. There isn’t an “evangelical” answer to (1) or (2).

To answer (3) and (4), one must do careful economic reasoning. For myself, I would answer (3) with “probably not,” and (4) as “almost certainly not.” But once again, the point isn’t my view. The point is that evangelicals who agree that we are stewards of our environment (the principle) can easily disagree on how to answer these questions (the application).  So there can’t be a unique “evangelical” to all the questions, and evangelical groups shouldn’t imply otherwise.

The problem with many of the chief advocates of the Evangelical Climate Initiative is that there’s little evidence that they’ve distinguished these four questions, at least not publicly. The effect of muddling these separate issues, and calling their statement the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” is to imply that their position is the authentically evangelical one. [6]

What Would Jesus Drive?
The same problem cropped up in the 2002 initiative, which asked “What would Jesus Drive?”, also sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network. [7] The campaign encouraged participants to advocate specific federal regulations. It targeted SUVs—which use more fuel than most smaller cars—and the Chevrolet Corporation—for sponsoring a Christian rock concert. “Through this gospel tour,” explained Jim Ball, executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network, “Chevrolet is promoting certain vehicles that get very low gas mileage and produce significant pollution, harming human health and the rest of God’s creation.” With a stunning lack of moral proportion, Ball implied that to manufacture and drive a Chevy SUV was often if not usually a moral evil.

“What would Jesus drive?” is clever marketing, but shallow moral reasoning. The problem isn’t that our transportation choices don’t have moral implications. They do. The problem is that the question doesn’t have one right answer. (I was recently reminded that Jesus does say: “I do not speak of my own accord,” suggesting he likes Hondas. But let that pass for now.)

What I choose to drive, like virtually all prudential judgments, is the outcome of a compromise of conflicting goals, some practical, some moral. Fuel economy is only one of dozens of legitimate reasons that people ponder when choosing what, or whether they’ll drive a car. We also consider price, family size, occupation, local geography, quality, weather, safety, lifestyle, other available transportation options, and myriad factors beyond accounting. If you have three kids or a landscaping business or drive on roads with lots of eighteen wheelers, you may chose differently than would a single twenty one year old with a slow, hour long commute to work. There’s no universal measure for comparing these factors, so every person is well within their rights to weight them differently. This is just as true for that segment of the population that considers the morality of their transportation choices as it is for everyone else.

Fuel economy doesn’t trump all these other values, especially since some cars (such as hybrids) have better than average fuel economy, but require more money and energy both to construct and to recycle than do other, less fuel efficient cars, including some SUVs. An outside observer doesn’t have access to all the factors informing your choice. So he is in no position to make a moral judgment just by observing that you drive an SUV. And he is in no position to imply that manufacturing SUVS is a moral evil.

This is the nature of everyday prudential judgments like transportation and energy use. That’s why such judgments are qualitatively different from moral evils like selling child pornography or torturing a kitten for the fun of it, which are intrinsically evil and violate basic moral principles. They aren’t relative goods that conflict with other goods. evangelicals do not enhance the public moral dialogue when we treat prudential judgments as if they were foundational moral or theological principles.

None of this means evangelical leaders should avoid environmental issues and stick to pure theology. It means that we all have a moral obligation to be discerning and to distinguish our theological principles from how we apply them in any given instance. To do otherwise is to risk misrepresenting evangelical Christianity in the public square.


Dr. Jay Richards is the Director of Media and Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty.



[1] Lynn Townsend White, Jr, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): pp. 1203-1207.

[2] Lovelock is the originator of the intriguing Gaia hypothesis, which sees the Earth as a self-regulating system. See, for instance, James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity (New York: Perseus, 2007) and Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[3] “The Seventeen Percent Problem and Perils of Domestication,” The New York Times (August 13, 2007), http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/opinion/13mon4.html?ei=5070&en=59c678f9636b6941&ex=1187668800&emc=eta1&pagewanted=print.

[4] For a couple of examples, see my “There are more environmentalist misanthropes than you think” (June 12, 2006) at: http://blog.acton.org/archives/962-There-are-more-environmentalist-misanthropes-than-you-think.html.

[5] To read the whole statement, go to http://www.christiansandclimate.org/statement.

[6] After the Evangelical Climate Initiative was launched in February 2006, Frank James of the Chicago Tribune described the disagreement among evangelicals this way:

Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

This is a classic false dilemma. If you’re an evangelical who agrees with the ECI, then you care about the environment. If you disagree with the ECI, then you don’t care about the environment because you’re expecting the Lord’s return any day now. What about evangelicals who care about the environment but who see the ECI as misguided? Apparently they don’t exist.


One could chalk this up to media bias, except that those who spearheaded the ECI have helped perpetuate the false dilemma.


[7] http://www.whatwouldjesusdrive.org.

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