Environmentalism, creation care, and Christianity

In Environmentalism, Foundations by Steve WilkinsonLeave a Comment

The recent observance of World Environment Day (1)World Environment Day was June 5th. and Canadian Environment Week (2)Canadian Environment Week was June 5-11th. reminded me of a very important apologetic topic; that of environmentalism or creation care. But Christianity has a questionable history when it comes to how we should care for our home, at least in common perception today. It is a topic, which sadly, is too often neglected by Christian apologists.

What does environmentalism have to do with Christian apologetics? Well, the discipline of apologetics generally covers three areas. First, there are foundational topics to the discipline, such as epistemology, truth and relativism, etc. Second, would be the more traditional topics such as the existence of God, the Resurrection, and miracles. But, thirdly, in any given age, there are ‘hot’ topics within the culture that impact Christianity. In our time, some of these topics include abortion or the creation / evolution debate. In other times, these topics might have been low priority or not discussed (recognized) at all. Environmentalism is one of these ‘hot’ topics today.

How ‘hot’ this topic is depends on where you live and what circles you keep acquaintance with. If you live in a place such as Vancouver or San Francisco, you might already be quite concerned about the environment, Christian or not. It is part of the culture in these places. In this case, you likely encounter people who blame Christians for much of the environmental damage. You probably should have a good response (ie: apologetics!).

If you live in some other places, (3)like Cleveland or Detroit, a couple of the least ‘green’ cities in N.A., where the culture is certainly not used to being concerned over the environment, if not opposed to taking care of it. it might be a hot topic because environmentalists are seen as wackos to be laughed at while one burns an extra gallon or two of gasoline in one’s monster vehicle. If you are a Christian who cares for creation in this setting, you will be interacting with these people and need something to say. If you are one of those people with little regard for the environment, you may need to learn a bit more about what the Bible says on the topic, as well as understand the fears (legitimate and otherwise) of environmentalists. The legitimate fears are something ‘creation care’ embracing Christians need to be wary of as well.

First, let us consider what the Bible has to say about creation care. The most fundamental command given to humanity is found in Genesis 1:28 and reiterated in Genesis 2:15 in more detail (Genesis 2 is like a zoomed in look at our origins, focusing specifically on humanity; these are NOT two separate creation accounts!). In Genesis 1 we see the command to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. (4)or, ‘have a lot of sex’ as one of my professors used to say. We’ll get to that topic later on. Have a lot of sex and take care of the earth doesn’t sound like too bad a job description. We are also told to subdue and rule over the earth. If one were to take this alone with certain definitions of the Hebrew words, one could get the idea of being a harsh master to the earth. However, remember that Genesis 2 focuses in and provides more detail. Here we are told to ‘work’ the land, where the Hebrew word has to do with being a ‘servant to.’ We’re told ‘to keep’ which has meanings which include ‘watch’ and ‘guard,’ but also interestingly, it is the same Hebrew word found in the common benediction from Numbers 6:24, ‘the Lord bless you and keep you.’ Let’s hope God has a bit better understanding of ‘keeping’ us than how many people ‘keep’ the earth! Theology matters here folks.

Another point to keep in mind is that our modern technology enables humanity to have a pretty large impact on the environment. This issue is actually fairly new, as it is only within the last few generations that we have had this ability. Historically, Christians did not write on this topic extensively. In other words, there isn’t much in our traditions as a controlling factor on our behavior. Thus, we need to be really careful to re-examine this issue and not just do what others around us are and have been doing. From an apologetic standpoint, we need to admit that Christians do not have such a great track-record on the environment, especially some sectors of Christianity. However, it is also fair to point out that very few people of any worldview have a very good of a track-record. Again, this is because people, in general, haven’t been concerned about this topic for long.

The blame placed on Christians is, sadly, somewhat founded. The concept of ‘having dominion’ if understood improperly (and many Christians have) can lead to abuse of the earth. A number of years ago I was in a debate on a web discussion board (pre-blogs) where a Christian was proudly proclaiming that he purposely bought a gas-guzzler and was taunting the environmentalists that he was going to burn as much fossil-fuels as possible. Is there anything Christian about such behavior, environmental or otherwise? Christians in the USA also tend to align with political parties which have a questionable track record on the environment, yet fail to critique that party on that aspect of their policy (no political party is perfect, and there may well be other reasons to select it, but a Christian should never just take the ‘whole package’ of any political party without question). The result of this has been a good deal of hostility directed towards Christians by environmentalists. (5)A great book which touches on this is Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job by Hugh Ross (my review here), where Hugh argues that if Christians pay attention to the Bible and Biblical principals, a win-win situation is possible. Unless we’re simply being greedy (sinful), we can find solutions which will keep the earth AND be economically sound.

One such topic is the current debate over global warming. While this issue is very complex, and I don’t believe either ‘camp’ is completely convincing, many Christians are not helping the situation with their attitude towards the matter. Worse, they often fail to meaningfully engage the issue properly to keep the destructive actions and policies of either side from negatively affecting both the environment and humanity. Here is what we know: 1) Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are produced in many unnatural ways by humans or under human influence, and in fairly large quantities. 2) This does have some effect on global climate. What we don’t know is: 1) the extent of human effect (scientists make models and predictions, but they are only as perfect as the inputs, and global climate is REALLY complex). The best estimates I have seen put it at ~50% 2) the full ramifications of various corrections we might attempt (apart from reducing our production which would return to less impact). The politics surrounding this issue are HUGE on both sides.

Christians should want to work towards the truth of the matter, but also should want to, without question, reduce pollution. We should also be concerned about the effects of policies which might make a trade-off which puts the environment over human concerns. And no, I’m not talking about putting concerns of pollution over the summer cabin and jet-ski (of course we should do that within reason), but things like letting thousands starve to save a few tons of CO2 produced; or, being so fearful of global warming that we try something stupid like seeding the oceans, etc. We must take actions, but also make sure they are very well thought through. We must ultimately trust in God to take care of us when we have to make trade-offs which favor flourishing of humanity over the environment (and because we make an impact, we will always have to do this). We must also recognize that God commanded us to take care of the environment. This means improve, not just be zero impact (even if that were possible). The other problem Christians need to be aware of is to balance keeping the earth in such a way as not to get distracted by only one issue and miss others. Should global warming be our primary environmental focus? Is concern over global warming even the best reason to curb our fossil-fuel consumption? Is fossil-fuel consumption even the main problem (for example, cows contribute more to greenhouse gasses than all transportation combined). How should we best react? These are all questions Christians would want to address as we react.

Do Christians have anything to fear from the environmental movement, and thus warrant some rejection of it? They often do. First, there are often some fairly strong religious connections for many in the movement, such as Gaia worship or animistic religions. The key here is to be an informed and discerning Christian so as not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’!

I recently ran across a rather absurd article (being passed around by Christian apologists!) by Brendan O’Neill writing for The Telegraph called “By coating their roofs in naff and useless solar panels, Christian churches are effectively converting to the backward religion of heliolatry.” The basic thrust of the article is that the only reason churches might install solar cells is to bow to the environmental movement, and in doing so, they have become a new religion. While the article is a bit tongue-in-cheek at points, the author actually seems serious about the points he is making. Either that, or the author is just going for click-bait, but sadly, it seems some Christians agree (and strongly enough to pass it along). This shows that the environmentalists fears are founded as well. Note that solar cells do have a 5-10 year period (6)it depends on electricity costs and solar cell technology used where the energy they produce is simply going towards reclaiming the energy used to manufacture them, and then to pay-off the purchase price and installation cost. However, I think most people who install solar cells are making a long-term investment. Once that 5-10 year period is up, it is then wisely using God’s free gift of our sun to capture energy in a more direct way. From where I sit, that is simply using our God-given brains. Also, solar cells are only a small part of what we all could be doing to save energy and reduce pollution.

Some Christians also let their eschatology (view of end times) negatively influence their view on environmentalism. One such view is that the earth and universe are going to be destroyed or burned up and be replaced with a new universe (heavens) and earth. Other Christians disagree and see the new earth as a renewal. Either way, I don’t really see how this has an impact on the Christian reaction towards the environment. Either way, God clearly commanded us to take care of the earth! Either way, unless Christ returns today (something NO Christian could know), we are taking care of the earth for a future generation or minimally for everyone to use and enjoy until Christ returns. No matter how much they might feel they know better than God on this one, is it a good idea to abandon God’s most fundamental commands to humanity for ANY reason?

How can Christians positively respond to the issue of the environment? First, we need to stress that God commanded we care for the earth. In that sense, the Christian should be the ultimate environmentalist (once the term is stripped of false views). We can reassure people that Christians have a long history of being for technology and science when properly used, and have actually originated and contributed heavily to these advancements. However, we do need to point out that Christians hold humanity in a special place which some environmental movements do not. This should never be used to promote human environmental abuse, but human flourishing (shalom). Christianity certainly teaches, when rightly understood, a great responsibility to care for the earth. Doing so is one of the primary commands of God to humanity.

Update: Monday, November 19, 2012

I felt I should update this article (and continue to do so) with some tips which our family has started in an effort to put this theology into action.

Recycle – Most communities now have some kind of recycling program in place. Check into it and get started! I would imagine that many already do this, but a lot of you probably don’t realize that even more recycling programs are probably in place if you hunt around a bit. For example, we found a service that issues a big, oil barrel sized, plastic bag which can be filled with all sorts of plastics which most curb-side recycling programs will not accept. It costs $6 here to bring the bag in, and there is a bit of sorting work (stretchy vs rip-prone vs odd stuff) but it is amazing how much your trash reduces once you are able to recycle nearly all your plastics. Many of these places will take all sorts of items as well, including things like electronics and old appliances. It is a bit more work and does cost a bit (but, your normal trash collection already costs you too), but we feel much better knowing we’re tossing far less materials into landfills.

Reduce packaging – This is really tough to do, since nearly everything is insanely over-packaged. But, if you always keep it in mind and try to buy some of your items in bulk or larger sizes, it does help reduce your packaging. This step should probably come before recycling, actually, as it is better to not use it at all, than to recycle it. We also sometimes make our product choices based on how much packaging and how recyclable the packaging is. If more people did this, product makers would start to take notice and reduce packaging.

Soap Nuts for laundry – If you have not heard of these, they are simply amazing. They are a form of fruit which has natural and environmentally friendly soap agents. They have been used for millennia in some parts of the world. The easiest way to start is to get some and start using them for laundry detergent. I wrote up an article at my personal blog on these amazing little ‘nuts.’ You can also check out this Wikipedia article to get the technical details and some photos. They clean really well and can be used for some other purposes which we have yet to explore. One thing to note is that they do not have the heavy perfumes often found in other commercial detergents, so you’ll see how clean your clothes are, or are not, getting. If you have really dirty or smelly stuff (like soiled toddler clothes or cloth diapers), you might have to vary how many berries in the little bag or how many loads you try to get out of them. But, perfume aside, we find our clothing gets as clean or cleaner than with most commercial detergents we’ve used over the years at a cost savings which is also more environmentally friendly. It can also be easier on sensitive skin.

Pizza boxes – This has been one of my recent pet peeves. Pizza boxes are quite a bit of packaging for the product you get. We used to make homemade pizza all the time, but with busy schedules and a toddler, we’ve ended up letting someone else make them for us more often. The good thing is that they are made out of cardboard, which typically is quite recyclable. However, what many people do not realize, is that papers which have food products, especially oils on them, are NOT recyclable! Not only are they not recyclable, but if they are not removed prior to processing, they can mess up an entire batch of recycled paper. We have found that many companies proudly display the recycle logo and tell people to recycle the boxes, but do not take proper precautions to ensure most of the boxes will actually be recyclable. What they need to do is include a wax-paper like liner which will keep the grease from soaking into the bottom of the box. Yes, it is a bit more packaging, but it keeps the whole rest of the package recyclable. I’ve started to write or e-mail pizza companies who don’t do this, in hopes that some of them will change.

Vehicles – We can certainly put a bit more focus on better fuel economy when we purchase our vehicles. When we bought our car, I hoped to find one which had decent fuel economy, was fun to drive (as I’ve been a sport-car nut over the years, and used to race SCCA autocross), and was a good family vehicle. It seems like an impossible mix, but I think we found that in a VW Jetta TDI (diesel). Unfortunately, they charge quite a premium (which doesn’t seem justified to me), but we’re quite happy with the result (and, also unfortunately, they cut a lot of corners on the 2011+ models, so it is less attractive for new, now). It’s a car that is as quick as some of my previous sports cars (like an Isuzu Impluse Turbo or Mazda Miata), is quite fun to drive, yet gets incredible fuel economy, especially given the previous criteria. If performance isn’t as much of a concern, you can do even better. Hybrids are better for some situations, so they may be worth seriously considering (again, even with the price premium). Even IF you think Global Warming is bunk, there are a number of other reasons to try and conserve fuel, such as lowering pollution and decreasing our dependance on oil from countries we really shouldn’t ethically even be doing business with. You can check out our mostly-city-driven fuel economy which we track at Fuelly:

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