The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Environmental dogma, domination, and dominion

Dominion means that we use natural resources prudently, 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.

(Image: Nagy Arnold/

Another Earth Day is approaching, with corresponding pronouncements about environmental doom. What should we make of this?

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.

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally at CWR on February 19, 2017.)

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!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Thomas M. Doran 82 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), The Lucifer Ego, and Kataklusmos (2020). He has worked on hundreds of environmental and infrastructure projects, was president of Tetra Tech/MPS, was an adjunct professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University, and is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit.


  1. This author as he reveals his mind in this essay is one who Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the the environment, Laudato Si, basically needs an “ecological conversion.” The author’s worldview or thought here is very much anthropocentric or human centered. This is the attitude that ultimately causes the environmental devastation and climate emergency we are in right now. The Pope calls us to move beyond this mindset into an ecocentric view which looks into our planet as our “common home” we share with other humans and other creatures who are all God’s creation also. This “ecological conversion” the Pope calls us all into is beautifully expounded and exemplified when he invites us to reflect on what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel about sparrows, that although we don’t place much value in them, “not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6). In talks and homilies we usually hear this as referring to how much God loves and cares for us humans. The Pope flips this traditional emphasis on its head by refocusing here on how much God loves and cares for the rest of his creation (LS 221).

    • Sorry to inform you: there is no ” environmental devastation and climate emergency we are in right now,” This is a hoax. Also, please note Pope Francis has no scientific credibility; his opinion is approximately equal to mine, and I believe I am better read on the subject than he.

      If you wish to reply, please give examples of the “devastation” you imply and I will answer with the facts that are available for anyone to read.

      Please do not be influenced by hoaxers who have a financial interest in your undocumented belief. The mainstream press, as you may note, is no help as well, since they do not employ competent scientists.

    • “The author’s worldview or thought here is very much anthropocentric or human centered.”

      Just like the Author/authors of Sacred Scripture. Genesis 1-3. John 3. Etc. Strange, that.

      What is man that thou art mindful of him,
      and the son of man that thou dost care for him?
      Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
      and dost crown him with glory and honor.
      Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
      thou hast put all things under his feet,
      all sheep and oxen,
      and also the beasts of the field,
      the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
      whatever passes along the paths of the sea. (Psalm 8)

      • You’re right! Genesis and in many other examples from sacred scriptures we find anthropocentric views which we now find have been deadly consequential in influencing the Western world that lead to the present global climate emergency. But also significant to note are the presence of long neglected biblical ecocentric views, many of which are retrieved and presented in Laudato Si by Pope Francis. Beyond scriptures, into the Catholic spiritual tradition, a lot of saints have precisely discovered these ecocentric views in scriptures. Foremost of these saints are Francis of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen.

  2. I am not a scientist, however I have been skeptical of “global warming” for years. Then, I saw the science glaring toward the future of our planet. Up until then I dismissed the massive glaciers melting in Greenland and the poles, increase in the size, increasing power and frequency of major hurricanes and tornados, the encroachment of rising seas on low lands, the depletion of the Ozone layer contributing to the warming, carbon dioxide, (fluorocarbons), man’ careless activities over the centuries, (the industrial revolution)…

    Our finite world is approaching eight billion people plus trillions of nonhuman inhabitants, many are sustenance for man. That may not shock others, but it finally does me. Who can accept dogma over science? My elder Priest argued that “population is not a problem. For one, they can occupy the vast deserts”. That thinking ignores that making deserts inhabitable will cost an enormous burden on the ecology. Some scientists agree that the apocalypse is soon if we do not act to save the planet.

    God enlighten man as to their true plight.

    • Morgan, have you considered recent demographic projections that suggest a future population implosion throughout Europe and much of the rest of the globe?
      The population continues to grow in many areas simply because people are living longer. But fewer people are being born. Eventually the deaths will outnumber the births.
      The median age of men in the county we used to live in has increased from 38 to 59 years old in just the past 4 decades. The one remaining elementary school has been closed and now K-12th Grades attend school in a single building. That’s what the future will resemble in the West. Even Subsahran Africa has falling birth rates now.
      Respecting Nature and conserving natural resources is important but population explosion is a worry from the 1970s that hasn’t panned out.

  3. Deacon Dom and Morgan, do you know that most rivers and lakes in free societies are cleaner than they have been in 3, 4, 5 generations? Do you know that air quality in free societies is better than it has been in 3, 4, 5 generations? Do you know that most habitats in free societies are healthier than they have been in 3, 4, 5 generations? Take a close look at the Detroit River and adjacent habitats as an example: hawks, river otters, eagles, clean water fish, and more. This is part of the story too. Yet, too-often unheard.

    • With the application of the scientific method, many scientists are deeply concerned that we are reaching a point of permanent change to many climatic systems, eg ice melt in the polar regions, globally significant currents and the deep water currents along with salinity and dissolved nitrogen impacting the soft exoskeletons of plankton. There is much evidence for migration of habitat. The application of the precautionary principle with respect to mitigation of factors known to contribute would seem prudent.

      • Scientists say whatever will continue to earn their tenure and salary increases at their universities. I can’t say I blame them. Being unemployed is no joke. (I’m retired.) But we need to remember what motivates them to toe the line when it comes to climate change–their livelihood.

  4. I noticed the President was wearing his sunglasses as he signed the ‘Office of Environmental Justice’ executive order. I wonder if he realizes that fossil fuels/acid were likely used to make them? (From internet: Most frames for eyewear are made from injected plastic or acetate.)

    “This is about people’s health. It’s about the health of our communities. It’s only about the future of our planet,” Biden said during a signing ceremony at the White House on Friday.

  5. Wrote St. John Paul II three decades ago (Centesimus Annus, 1991, nn. 37-9, EMPHASIS in the original):

    “…worrying is THE ECOLOGICAL QUESTION [….] In addition to the irrational destruction of the natural environment, we must also mention the more serious destruction of THE HUMAN ENVIRONMENT [….] Although people are rightly worried—though much less than they should be—about preserving the natural habitats of the various animal species threatened with extinction, because they realize that each of these species makes its particular contribution to the balance of nature in general, too little effort is made to SAFEGUARD THE MORAL CONDITIONS OF AN AUTHENTIC ‘HUMAN ECOLOGY’ [….]

    “The first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the FAMILY in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person [….] These policies [e.g., recourse to abortion as] poisoning the lives of millions of defenseless human beings, as if in a form of ‘chemical warfare’ [….] These criticisms are directed not so much against an economic system as against an ethical and cultural system.” ––And, today, the economical morning-after pill: like a computer chip, the miniaturization of Auschwitz into a home medicine cabinet!

    In a country that discounts the family and yet has accumulated for future generations a national debt of $31 Trillion, it’s hard to imagine that a catch-up/industrializing global economy is not also accumulating an ecological overhang meriting a second opinion…How much of our cultural trajectory is still under the sway of the Enlightenment Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who proclaimed the experimental method (a dominant conceptual species!)—AND who, on the other hand, also wanted to put nature “on the rack” to reveal her secrets for our control?

    In the pivotal ecological details, what’s the difference in the long-term outcome between Doran’s “dominion” and the dominant bottom-line’s “rack” and “control”? The Dust Bowl actually happened…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.