Of the many hotly debated issues in contemporary political discourse, it seems that none elicit more controversy than those related to the environment. These environmental debates tend to revolve around the political ideology and commitments of the various interested parties. As a result, the analysis of environmental issues is almost exclusively done in the partisan categories set up by the political process. The net effect of this political posturing is a lack of thoughtfulness concerning the fundamental philosophical and theological principles underlying the environmental agenda.
The recent partnership between the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches highlights the theological agenda operative in modern environmentalism. The focus of the ads, which have been launched on television and in newspapers, is a call to all Americans to “keep our promise to care for creation.” These ads evoke religious themes in issuing their call to preserve “special landscapes” against energy development. In a press release issued jointly by the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, the National Council's general secretary, offered his view of environmental preservation:
People of faith take seriously the biblical mandate to be good stewards of creation, and that means finding smarter, cleaner, safer ways to satisfy our energy needs without damaging the irreplaceable gifts of nature. ... Furthermore, conservation is more effective, providing much greater benefits that are more permanent, and in the long run, are less costly, than a modest and short-lived increase in oil supply at the price of a ravaged environment.
Rev. Dr. Edgar strikes a reasonable tone throughout most of his remarks. Underlying his comments, however, is the assumption that all energy development comes at the “price of a ravaged environment.” His extremist understanding echoes those of his Sierra Club teammate, Carl Pope:
We don't need to ruin the land we love to meet America's needs. When Americans want renewal and inspiration, we sit by a river or hike to a mountaintop. America's beautiful landscapes are too valuable to dig, drill, and destroy – instead, we need an energy policy that is clean and safe. With modern technology, we can have clean energy to protect the places Americans love.
At first glance one assumes that these concerned activists are simply trying to preserve the great outdoors of America from irresponsible corporate giants. Rev. Dr. Edgar is quite right in referring to the “biblical mandate to be good stewards of creation.” It is important, however, to understand the biblical mandate of good stewardship in the proper theological light – most especially, the role of the human person in providing good stewardship of the environment.
The views of environmental stewardship expressed by Rev. Dr. Edgar and Mr. Pope have at their base an understanding of humankind that is at odds with orthodox Christianity. The theological commitments underlying their environmental thinking accepts as a fact that humans are primarily consumers and polluters. Furthermore, it is assumed that humans simply cannot help but ravage the environment for personal gain in seeking to meet the energy needs necessary for sustained economic development. Such a view ignores the fact that humans are capable of adding to and improving creation and its resources. Working to develop and utilize natural resources does not have to be a zero sum game in which everybody loses.
Pope John Paul II in his post-synodal exhortation, Ecclesia in America, offers a more balanced assessment of the moral obligations involved in environmental stewardship. He places the acting person at the very center of the moral dimension of stewardship:
“And God saw that is was good" (Gn 1:25). These words from the first chapter of Genesis reveal the meaning of what God has done. To men and women, the crown of the entire process of creation, the Creator entrusts the care of the earth (cf.. Gn 2:15). This brings concrete obligations in the area of ecology for every person. Fulfillment of these obligations supposes an openness to a spiritual and ethical perspective capable of overcoming selfish attitudes and lifestyles which lead to the depletion of natural resources. (No. 25.)
As the pope states, men and women are the “crown of the entire process of creation.” There is no doubt that men and woman have moral obligations to be good stewards. It is unnecessary to assume, however, that the work they do in producing natural resources will “ravage” the environment. Rather, for the faithful person, the task of developing creation's resources will be seen as fulfilling a necessary human need.
In reality, the work of energy producers has increased the amount of natural resources available to all. Innovative technology, derived from the creative and ingenious work of conscientious people working in the energy sector, has led to more environmentally friendly and efficient technology. Their work provides new extraction methods, leading to higher rates of recovery of coal, oil, and natural gas. These innovations lower prices and increase higher levels of access to energy markets for those in developing countries, as well as countless jobs created in areas containing large amounts of fossil fuels. Quite often, the areas slated for energy exploration are areas that are economically depressed and in desperate need of the economic development that accompanies energy production.
No one in the energy industry wakes up in the morning with a conviction to “ravage” the environment. The energy industry has been at the forefront in developing environmentally sound methods to accomplish the work of energy development and production. The human need for energy production, however, takes precedence over the concerns of environmental dilettantes who have an anti-human conviction about the nature of the human person.
At the center of this debate are two competing visions of humankind: humans as polluters and consumers versus humans as creative, innovative, and conscientious beings. It is the latter view of the human person that allows for the proper balance of the moral obligations of environmental stewardship. It is clear environmental stewardship must balance the needs of preserving magnificent landscapes from unnecessary intrusion and the reality of the human need for energy sources. Energy producers, not the Sierra Club or National Council of Churches, have been the leaders in showing how to balance these needs and the concomitant moral obligations of sound environmental stewardship. Such a balancing act is a matter of prudential judgment, not Christian doctrine.
As the debate over environmental policy continues in this country and elsewhere, it will be continually more important to position the dignity and creativity of the human person as the point of departure for any sane discussion of environmental issues. Pope John Paul II in his 1999 World Day of Peace message summarizes this clarion call succinctly:
The promotion of human dignity is linked to the right to a healthy environment, since this right highlights the dynamics of the relationship between the individual and the society. A body of international, regional, and national norms on the environment is gradually giving juridic form to this right. But juridic measures by themselves are not sufficient. ... The world's present and future depend on the safeguarding of creation, because of the endless interdependence between human beings and their environment. Placing human well-being at the center of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation. (No. 10.)