E. Calvin Beisner, Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Social Ethics, Knox Theological Seminary
Michael Cromartie, Vice President & Director of Evangelical Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center
Dr. Thomas Sieger Derr, Professor of Religion, Smith College
Diane Knippers, President, Institute for Religion and Democracy
Dr. P.J. Hill, President, Association of Christian Economists and Professor of Economics, Wheaton College
Dr. Timothy Terrell, Professor of Economics, Liberty University
In the last three centuries,
life expectancy in advanced economies has risen from about thirty years to nearly eighty. Cures have been found to once-fatal diseases, and some diseases have been eliminated entirely. Famine, which once occurred, on average, seven times per century in Western Europe and lasted a cumulative ten years per century, is now unheard of there. While the average Western European family in A.D. 1700 lived in a hovel with little or no furniture, no change of clothing, and barely enough food to sustain a few hours’ agricultural labor per day1 –and, of course, they also lacked electricity, plumbing, water and sewage treatment, and all the appliances we often take for granted–today the average family lives in a well-built home with all those amenities, along with enough food to make obesity, not hunger, the most common nutritional problem even among the “poor.”2 Such advances in the West have been the fruits of freedom, knowledge, and hard work–all resting substantially on the foundation of biblical Christianity’s worldview and ethic of service to God and neighbor.3 These advances have also given rise to a laudable expansion in people’s focus on the need for environmental stewardship. For as people come to feel more secure about their basic needs, they begin to allocate more of their scarce time, energy, and resources to attaining formerly less urgent ends. Consequently, the movement for environmental protection has grown as Western wealth has grown, giving rise to a strong environmental consciousness and to protective environmental legislation.
The world’s less developed countries, where material progress began much later, have been catching up in the past century, as shown especially by rapidly rising life expectancy (from about thirty years in 1900 to about sixty-three years today).4 Nonetheless, in many developing countries, the basics of sufficient and pure water and food, along with clothing, shelter, transportation, health care, communication, and so forth, still remain elusive for many people. For them, continued economic advance is crucial for health and even for life itself: It is small wonder that their attention focuses more on immediate consumption needs than on environmental protection. Tragically, however, people with a strong environmental consciousness who live predominantly in Western countries sometimes seek to impose their own environmental sensibilities on people still struggling to survive. In fact, further advances in human welfare for the poor are now often threatened by a belief in the West that human enterprise and development are fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection, which is seen by some as the quintessential value in evaluating progress. This false choice not only threatens to prolong widespread poverty, disease, and early death in the developing world, but also undermines the very conditions essential to achieving genuine environmental stewardship.
In this essay, we shall present theological and ethical foundations we believe are essential to sound environmental stewardship; briefly review the human progress erected on those foundations; and discuss some of the more important environmental concerns–some quite serious, others less so–that require attention from this Christian perspective. We shall also set forth a vision for environmental stewardship that is wiser and more biblical than that of mainstream environmentalism, one that puts faith and reason to work simultaneously for people and ecology, that attends to the demands of human well-being and the integrity of creation.
Such an approach to environmental stewardship will, we believe, promote human justice and shalom, as well as the well-being of the rest of God’s creation, which his image-bearers have been entrusted to steward for his glory.
I. Theological and Ethical Foundations of Stewardship
God, the Creator of all things, rules over all and deserves our worship and adoration (Ps. 103:19—22). The earth, and, with it, all the cosmos, reveals its Creator’s wisdom and goodness (Ps. 19:1—6) and is sustained and governed by his power and lovingkindness (Ps. 102:25—27; Ps. 104; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3, 10—12). Men and women were created in the image of God, given a privileged place among creatures, and commanded to exercise stewardship over the earth (Gen. 1:26—28; Ps. 8:5). Fundamental to a properly Christian environmental ethic, then, are the Creator/creature distinction and the doctrine of humankind’s creation in the image of God. Some environmentalists, especially those in the “Deep Ecology” movement, divinize the earth and insist on “biological egalitarianism,” the equal value and rights of all life forms, in the mistaken notion that this will raise human respect for the earth. Instead, this philosophy negates the biblical affirmation of the human person’s unique role as steward and eliminates the very rationale for human care for creation. The quest for the humane treatment of beasts by lowering people to the level of animals leads only to the beastly treatment of humans.5