THE ENVIRONMENT AS A MORAL IMPERATIVE

In recent years, many Christian churches have begun to turn their attention to environmental issues. Some, particularly those Americans who like to think of their religion in an exclusively "me and God" relationship -- geared mostly to what may happen to us when we die -- have become upset with this development. They somehow fail to see the connection between religion and respect, right here and now, for the environment.

On the other hand, others, many self-described "deep environmentalists" would fault biblical religion for fostering a careless, dominating attitude over nature. These critics frequently cite the passage in Genesis (1:28) where humans are told they are to "subdue" the earth and its creatures. This somewhat negative impression is sometimes even furthered by some Christian groups whose predictions of an immanent end to the world seem to have provoked, even if not intentionally, a kind of "eat, drink and be merry..." attitude that would open the door to unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources.

However, for those brought up in the tradition of seeing creation as God's own good gift to be shared and cultivated as a common heritage for the benefit of all humanity, it is hard to see how one can miss the connection between morality and environmentalism, even if it is motivated by the future benefit of the human race. Scientists tell us that with luck and careful planning, the earth could still be the home of humankind for many tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of years to come. But if instead we succeed in making our planet incapable of human habitation in the next hundred or so years, shall we not have to answer to God for this? Just as in the past the biblical prophets denounced those who robbed workers of just wages for the sake of their own profit, so too today must not religious leaders denounce those who continue to poison the air, water, and land solely for the sake of economic gain?

The situation has become increasingly critical. The world's human population has reached six billion and will probably reach nine billion by 2050, after which current predictions are for a leveling off if not a slow decline. Already, in many of the less-developed areas of the world, drinkable water is in very short supply, and pollution on a massive scale continues to contaminate what little fresh water may be left. And what are we to say about our own more technologically-developed part of the world, where the deep wells of corporate agriculture are rapidly depleting underground aquifers, and acid rain has begun to kill off oxygen-producing forests? Eventually, throughout the whole world, major climate change, heightened by the accumulated effects of global warming, could necessitate major migrations of the human population.

This last point, with the dislocation and upheavals of society it could occasion, is too often overlooked. Pope John Paul II, in his 1990 New Year's (World Peace Day) Message, not only pointed out the dangers of irresponsible industrial and technological development, condemning the pursuit of profit at the expense of human life and well-being, but even more, underlined the threat to world peace that this poses because of the fundamental injustices that are often the result of environmental degradation. He then called for not only individual renunciation of sinful and selfishly wasteful lifestyles ("If man is not at peace with God, the earth itself cannot be at peace") but also for more international cooperation to address environmental issues, and much more concern on the part of the developed nations to help the rest of the world. Yet in our part of the world, the part that claims to have the most influence, this call has still gone largely unheeded.

No doubt, the "deep environmentalists" will see all this as a religious move to co-opt environmentalism for its own purposes, while those opposed to religion having anything to say about economic growth and justice will be equally unhappy with churches that seem to be jumping on the environmental band-wagon. But for those who are truly concerned with their relationship to the Creator, as well as the peace of the world, the message should be clear. If we cannot live in peace with (as well as on) the earth, how can we expect to be at peace with God?

R W Kropf 5/27/03 Environ.doc 03-05-27.html