A group of evangelical leaders made headlines last week when they announced the formation of the Evangelical Climate Initative (ECI), a movement is intended to bring to bear the moral authority of these leaders on the question of global warming and climate change. Indeed, these Christians see their position tied up with a great responsibility: “Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship,and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better.”
For many who talk about the biblical concept of stewardship of the earth, or “creation care,” the practice of environmental responsibility is antithetical to the concerns of economics. Eugene Dykema, for example, writing for the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) – one of the groups behind the formation of the ECI – expresses a view of creation in which “everything is related to everything else.” He continues, “Everything in relationship, everything in context is familiar to the field of ecology, but quite alien to the field of economics.”
Whether or not his characterization of economics is accurate, his contrasting of environmental and economic concerns is clear. But this picture is misleading in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important point to recognize is the common foundation for our respective understandings of stewardship and economics. The two are related linguistically by their common Greek origins, and related theologically by their biblical usage.
The English word economics is derived from the Greek word οικονομία, which is a compound term literally meaning “house” (οικος) “order” (νομία), and it refers to the administration of a household. The person who ruled the household was called an οικονόμος, and this is usually rendered in English as “steward” or “manager.”
The Bible uses these terms frequently, sometimes to refer to the providential work of God in redemptive history. But even in these cases, the more mundane analogue is another biblical use of the terms, regarding the everyday maintenance of a household in the Ancient Near East.
Joseph, for example, acted as the steward of Potiphar's household when he first arrived in Egypt (Genesis 39:2-6). Jesus tells the parable of the shrewd οικονόμος (manager) in Luke 16:1-15, who used his position over worldly wealth not as an end in itself but rather with eternal consequences in mind. Jesus concludes by saying, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (v. 13).
These few examples display the shared biblical origin of the terms economics and stewardship. Economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics. Here in the Midwest, over the course of the winter we've heard a number of news reports about the dilemma facing households over the rise in home heating costs. Often, the decision must be made to pay only one of two bills: to pay the heating bill or buy food. Dire situations like these are ones in which tough economic decisions are made by the heads of households.
Far from being a discipline that explains all of human existence, in the biblical view, as we saw in the case of the shrewd manager, economics is the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a householdor social unit toward the self-identified good end. Thus, if we hold a biblical view of economics and stewardship, we will not be tempted to divorce the two concepts but instead will see them as united.
On a larger scale, then, economics must play an important role in decisions about environmental stewardship. Economics helps us rightly order our stewardship. The fact that some advocates for political action on global warming are now attempting to propose economic arguments for their position is a positive step toward reconciling these two often estranged concepts.
Andy Crouch, for example, says that we have “much technological progress, energy security, and economic efficiency to gain if we act on climate change now.” Sir John Houghton, Britain's leading climatologist, in testimony last year before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, claimed that with respect to the Kyoto Protocol, “future targets adopted are achievable and compatible with healthy economic growth.” He also cites “economic and other benefits of increased efficiency” to U.S. industries from the reduction of carbon emissions.
The underlying unity of these concepts means that the conclusions, and to a greater extent the methodology, of the Copenhagen Consensus should have an important role to play in the formation of specific policy claims by environmentally concerned Christians. The idea of the consensus in 2004 was to take economic experts from around the world, evaluate various global threats (including global warming), and construct a “prioritized list of opportunities meeting the biggest challenges.”
When economics tells us that there are much more imminent threats and opportunities than global warming, the proper approach to Christian stewardship is to heed these priorities and work to effect changes in the most pressing areas. This means that true Christian stewardship will first support efforts to control HIV/AIDS and malaria, provide micronutrients to those suffering from malnutrition, and reduce barriers to trade – and all with a view toward meeting the Great Commission.