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Volume 7, Issue 2: Dinmensions

Enviornmental Values

P.D. Brown

A current college textbook on introductory environmental science divides everyone into two groups based on two different worldviews: Cornucopian and Environmental.1 Cornucopians exploit what they see as "essentially infinite" resources, stripping forests, slaughtering animals, and so forth. In contrast, environmentalists view resources as products of the natural environment, in need of protection and maintenance so that "processes" will be sustainable. Most people are cornucopians, the authors maintain. Whether or not worldviews can be so simply divided is debatable, but it does help to raise the question: How should we view the environment?

The authors of the textbook are on to something by invoking worldviews. Worldviews are systems of thought that capture a person's understanding of reality. We all have underlying assumptions about reality, and because of this, all worldviews are inherently religious. The question of how we relate to our environment, as well as to our fellow man and to God, is essentially a moral question. Environmentalists are generally not shy about religious and philosophical discussions. Daniel Kozlovsky in An Ecological and Evolutionary Ethic asks, "Can you still believe that environmental problems are encompassed by cleaning rivers and reducing automobile emissions? Can you still be so naive as to think that this is anything other than a fundamental question of what we are and how we got here and what we might become?"2
Many people try to ground an environmental ethic in non-Christian sources. Some try to attribute a spiritual essence to nature that is deserving of reverence. This is basically a pantheistic or perhaps animistic approach. But bestowing spiritual qualities on nature beyond the reality of what is there requires importing human qualities into nature. If we ask how the spider feels about being stepped on, or how the tree feels about being cut down, we must also ask how the lettuce feels about being eaten. If everything contributes to the essence of one, then distinctions between better and worse things in nature are eventually lost. Grain that could be used to feed people is instead given to rats as part of a temple ceremony in India. This is consistent with the pantheistic worldview. Rather than elevating nature to a high status, as Francis Schaeffer put it, "Pantheism must push both man and nature down into a bog." 3
"Would we behave differently if we could see ourselves and all life as parts of a natural process in the development of the earth?" 4 Materialistic evolution has little to offer. If an animal rights activist justifies his actions on the basis that we are all products of evolution, he cannot stop there. The AIDS virus is just as much a product of evolution as the wolf or the human. Kozlovsky tries to avoid "right to life" arguments and suggests the following principles: "It is essential that a species not destroy the environment that it needs; it is essential for the full development of any organism that it encounter an environment to which it is adapted, and it is good to remain adapted."5 The reason he gives for this "good" is that the alternative is extinction. But why should we care about extinction? "Good" and "bad" are meaningless. By his own admission, "It should be clear by now that the evolutionary process is an entirely nonethical one, a process entirely indifferent to its results, a mechanism of continuous species adaptation without consideration of bad or good."6 Like a good evolutionist, Kozlovsky insists that evolution is valueless. What is, is. Not much for ethics here.
The Christian worldview is the only one that can provide a consistent environmental ethic that puts things in their proper perspective. (Christians have not necessarily done so, and we are legitimately criticized in this regard.) Why should we treat the environment in a respectful manner? It is true that nature can be used for the benefit of humanity, but even if no other reason exists, nature has intrinsic value because God created it. God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. God did not become oblivious to His creation after He finished creating. He cares for the birds of the air and feeds the beasts of the field. After the flood, He did not covenant with man only, but all of creation. If He is concerned about His creation, so should we be.
How can we begin to view the environment from a biblical Christian worldview? Not all imperatives and moral values in the Bible are of equal weight. The Bible gives us information on priorities. For example we are to love God first, with all our souls and all our minds and second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Our concern for the environment is not to be above or outside the priorities God has established.
Man was given dominion over the earth, setting his place in the creation. We always exercise dominion, whether we do it poorly or well. The Bible does not view "overpopulation" as an environmental problem, but people can be. The problem is not the number, but our lack of knowledge, and more importantly, the heart. Sin is always ultimately destructive, and we have often exercised dominion poorly.
From the beginning, plants were given to humanity and the animals for food. After the flood, animals were included as food. We can eat lettuce, or if you care to, a hamburger. Resources are there, but they should not be taken for granted or mindlessly squandered. The Fall not only affected humanity, but all of creation. There really are some bad things in nature, and we can seek to change them. We can legitimately develop vaccines to fight or cure disease. Jesus in His compassion healed the sick, and we can imitate Him through fighting disease.
However, dominion is not synonymous with abuse. We need to remember that our dominion is derived, not autonomous; real, but commissioned. We are stewards .

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