Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Christians As Conservationists: Another Round

In her March 20 editorial in the Lassen County Times, Managing Editor Barbara France discusses the concept of being “environmentally conscious”. She seems to, in part, be responding to a blog entry claiming that “…those who are Christians cannot be environmentalists because they want to protect (dominate it) the earth”, and that further this blogger said “…recycling is pretty much all Christians can do”. I don’t know this for a fact, but I am pretty sure the blogger to whom she was referring was me; I’ve written a couple of pieces regarding Christians and conservation here and here. And as usual, there seems to be some significant misunderstanding of my intended point. Are recycling, conserving water, planting trees and changing to energy efficient light bulbs activities that help protect our environment? Absolutely…no one would suggest otherwise, and the fact that many Christian organizations are urging their members to participate in such activities is certainly cause for hope. I applaud those organizations and individuals that take such a stand and encourage them to continue the effort.

But that was never my criticism.

My take on the issue is simply this: 1) “environmental conservation” encompasses problems far beyond recycling and switching to energy efficient light bulbs; 2) major environmental issues are all underwritten by evolutionary science, such as ecology and population biology (yes, even forest management is guided by evolutionary principles, although you’ll rarely see “Darwin” mentioned in papers on natural resource management); 3) such science is rejected by most Christians, largely for one of two reasons: it either conflicts with Scripture (or more precisely, their particular interpretation of it) and/or it conflicts with their ability to accumulate wealth and prosperity with unregulated abandon; and 4) while many Christians proclaim themselves conservationists by virtue of their recycling habits, they are also responsible for maintaining social and political policies (through their voting efforts) that are having an increasingly deleterious effect on the world’s environments. I began my series of posts on this issue by citing from an article by David Orr (2005a) and I can be no more eloquent than Orr in summarizing the problem:

"More specifically, right-wing evangelicals have been placed in positions of authority throughout the federal government, including departments and agencies that administer federal lands and environmental laws, and they have not been shy in amending scientific reports in ways more agreeable to doctrine. Many professional environmental scientists and highly competent career civil servants have been fired or forced into early retirement, replaced by others with apocalyptic religious views and open hostility to laws and regulations aimed to protect the environment. By all evidence, the Bush administration intends to eliminate inconvenient regulatory barriers to resource extraction, pollution, and the preservation of species…” (Orr 2005a:290-91).

While many Christians may be good at recycling (again, a good thing!), there is a significant and crucial tension between the larger Christian worldview and major issues of environmental protection today. As I responded to a commenter on a previous post:

My argument was not to deny that these [recycling, etc] help but to suggest the following: 1)these are not the primary environmental problems this world faces - loss of habitat, species extinction, uncontrolled development, global warming, dependence on fossil fuels, an assault on public lands, uncontrolled population growth - these are but a few; 2) these larger and more ominous problems have a scientific basis, rooted in evolutionary theory, that the Christian Right constantly works to undermine, discredit or lie about; as Orr points out, Christians are unwilling to accept these larger problems in part because they are unwilling to sacrifice financial gain to achieve conservation goals ("too much regulation" ! is the excuse you hear constantly); 3)I would further argue, as Orr mentions but doesn't emphasize, that the Christian disrespect for science that doesn't agree with their worldview is also at the heart of why they dismiss larger problems affecting humanity. I'm sorry, Jen, but there is a major line to be drawn between true conservationism and some Christians throwing cans into the recycling bin and calling it good (not much difference between that attitude and simply waiting around for the Rapture).

Are most Christians willing to support environmental regulation that might limit growth and development or at least demand that such development occurs in an environmentally friendly manner? Or do they thing there is too much government regulation? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Are most Christians willing to pay higher taxes to support land management and park agencies that help protect large swaths of habitat for conservation purposes as public enjoyment? Or do they think those lazy government employees make too much already and public lands should be open for as much development as possible since that’s the proper capitalist way? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Are most Christians willing to accept that natural, materialist processes occur in nature (species loss affecting the broader environment for example) and can be effectively managed by specialists with the proper scientific background? Or is all creation simply fixed by the Creator with nothing that humans can do to change it until the Rapture? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Do most Christians believe that habitat preservation is more important than economic growth? Or is it simply our God-given right to turn as much land into business complexes as we possibly can? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Do most Christians believe that humans can actually make this planet inhabitable by their economic actions, or does it simply not matter because in the end God will take all the believers in the Rapture? This is an environmental conservation issue…

How about this?....Do most Christians believe that human population growth is a serious issue, has deleterious effects on resource use, can lead to famine, disease and war, and that population control efforts are a responsibility we have to the human species? Or is “every sperm sacred”? This is a major environmental conservation issue…

So, does all this mean that Christians (even evangelical Christians) can’t be good conservationists? Again, Orr says it best:

Are the positions of conservative biologists and evangelicals hard and fixed? Could one be a right-wing evangelical, for example, and a good conservation biologist? Having known a few, the answer is yes. But reconciling religious doctrine at the extreme with the goals of conservation requires heroic intellectual acrobatics. (Orr 2005a: 291).

In all this I have painted Christians with a broad brush. I understand the significant variation in Christian belief that exists, but I do this on purpose. By far, it is right-wing evangelical conservative Christians who have a national voice and are intending to speak not only for every other Christian sect (as well as non-Christians) and moderate/liberal Christians don’t seem to be having much of a say. Many of the respondents to Orr complained of the same thing – how can you condemn all of us when many are actively engaged in conservation efforts? I’ll leave you with Orr’s response in a second article:

And, yes, I do believe conservative evangelicals are “complicit” in “eviscerating environmental statutes, treaties, and policies,”as Van Dyke says. Although I did not put it quite that bluntly, I will accept his wording.

Finally, it is one thing to boldly exercise oneself to joust with me, living humbly at the outer margin of respectability and influence in the pages of a scientific journal with relatively few readers and limited public visibility. It would be quite another to engage as energetically with, say, Jerry Falwell and his followers,or Pat Robertson and his, or the millions of subscribers to James Dobson’s network, or Rick Scarborough, or all those within the Christian Coalition, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or James Kennedy and the Dominionists who intend a right-wing evangelical takeover of the U.S. government “whatever the cost” (Moser 2005). Or those further out still, the rabid followers of the end times, and all those merchants of fear and divine vengeance frothing on “Christian” radio across the heartland. And, if unbeknownst to me, that dialog has begun, let me inquire in the spirit of constructive Christian engagement, how is it going? Are you making headway? Are they listening?


Moser, B. 2005. The crusaders. Rolling Stone (April).

Van Dyke, F. (2005) Between heaven and earth: evangelical engagement in conservation. Conservation Biology 19 (6): 1693-96.

Orr, D. W. (2005a) Armageddon versus extinction. Conservation Biology 19(2): 290-92.

Orr, D. W. (2005b) A Response. Conservation Biology 19(6): 1697-98.

2 comments:

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Blue Gal said...

Wow. Maybe I ought to link to this post instead. Something struck me about today's story about bees abandoning their hives. Absolutely biblical proportions, ya know?