Another Earth Day is approaching, with corresponding pronouncements about environmental doom. What should we make of this in 2017?
Discussions about the environment typically consist of agreement that the environment needs to be protected, even if we’re fuzzy on the details; confusion about competing environmental narratives, what’s prudent and what’s crazy; and dogmatic positions that allow no disagreement without accusations of science-denying or irresponsibility. None of these provide a big-picture roadmap to guide our thinking and decisions.
The public gets most of its information about the environment from interest groups and institutions, including many universities, with financial interests in this or that outcome; from media that isn’t competent to weigh the science; from dogmatic environmentalists with more ideological fervor than evidence; from political advocates who are locked into positions; and from religious leaders who can be influenced by the most strident voices. Though these sources of information, when properly vetted, can help to form our views on the environment, there are other perspectives that deserve a hearing.
A word about dogmatic environmentalists, as they exert a great deal of influence on the media and public at large. These dogmatists claim the environmental high ground, insist there are far too many human beings on the planet, that man is just another organism among millions of organisms, and no more entitled to preeminence than any other creature. For these “true believers”, we live in a materialistic world that man has damaged and must repair at the expense of man’s welfare, an ideology in opposition to the Christian perspective, where the world is messy and ugly because sin has entered via the fallen angels and fallen man, though it remains a moral world because its redeeming Creator is actively engaged. Without this understanding of the dogmatic environmentalists’ flawed worldview, it’s easy to get swept up in their fervor to “save the planet”.
In Genesis—which is not a scientific explanation of how the world was made, but an explanation of why the world was made—the inspired author says, “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth’”, words that are anathema to 21st century dogmatic environmentalists and a source of anxiety to believers who confuse the word “dominion” with domination. In Scripture, man’s dominion over the world consistently implies stewardship, care, conscientious use, rather than suggesting man has a right to plunder (dominate) the world.
Have some practiced domination and plundered the planet and its resources? Certainly, and all too often, but the dogmatic environmentalist’s position is just as disordered because both embrace a false image of man. Dominion is much harder, requiring humility and prudential judgment rather than the simplistic answers that self-assured plunderers and environmental dogmatists adopt. Dominion is expressed by a farmer tending an orchard to maximize production of healthy food, and by engineers when they utilize microorganisms to purify human wastes, both activities chiefly concerned with human welfare, while domination expresses itself in hunting animals to extinction for sport or whimsy, and extracting natural resources without considering the future or the people that live in close proximity.
In the Western democracies, America included, the environment is cleaner than it’s been in well over 100 years, notwithstanding the fact that these societies are far from perfect and do witness occasional high profile environmental calamities. With rare exceptions in these democracies, water that’s safe and healthy to drink; sewage that’s well treated before being released to rivers and lakes; air that’s scrubbed before it’s vented; strict regulations for putting wastes in landfills; pollutants measured at far lower levels in water, air, and soil than ever before; and the effects of pollutants on organisms large and small measured far more accurately than ever before.
Why has this occurred in states with representative governments and not elsewhere? Neither materialistic capitalism nor “welfare” states that range from socialism to tyrannical communism are better for the environment per se. The combination of a citizenry affluent enough to have its basic needs met and exceeded, and a citizenry that enjoys inalienable rights and is able to influence government and business, produced these environmental and public health advances, and the better formed this citizenry is in the proper balance between man and the environment (dominion instead of domination or dogmatism), the better the results. Jesus himself implies this proper understanding of dominion, the importance of creation along with the priority of man’s welfare, when he says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
In Scripture, man is encouraged to ameliorate human misery, and the progress we’ve made—building homes that are comfortable to dwell in, producing food and water that’s good to eat and drink, making medicines to cure illnesses and chemicals to produce more food—is good and proper, even though these measures are bound to affect the environment. Fossil fuels are not evil, as many would have us believe, as fossil fuels have been, and still are, essential in keeping people fed, healthy, and comfortable in adverse weather. Dominion means that we use natural resources prudently, with an eye to being good stewards, while recognizing that it’s morally preferable for human lives to be protected and enhanced than to conserve every last living organism in the biosphere or to leave every natural resource untouched, regardless of what dogmatic environmentalists say.
For its part, the Church is better served by staying out of the political and ideological weeds, focusing instead on forming societies in relation to the meaning and responsibilities of dominion, and how environmental stewardship is best accomplished when citizens’ inalienable rights are recognized and they have a voice in their government and their futures.
When we formulate viewpoints on the environment, we should strive to do so apart from our political and ideological leanings, keep our focus on what the evidence tells us and what dominion over (stewardship of) the environment requires, and to the best of our ability tune out the noise that comes from self-interested organizations and dogmatic environmentalists. Even with a big-picture roadmap, decisions about the environment can be difficult, but without a trustworthy roadmap we’ll be cast about by the waves of what’s popular, emotionally compelling, or expedient.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!