Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Gospel and the Environment, Part I

My dear wife introduced me to you a few weeks ago. I've been hiding ever since and have finished this blog post after an appropriate bribe, and in a desire to prepare for a panel discussion I'll be participating in this coming Thursday.

Over the last 5 years, we've grown to appreciate the passions of our city and university. Some we do not want to share, but many are passions we are growing to appreciate and even embrace. One in particular is eco-conscious living. In the midst of a country that has gone green, it has been hard to not breathe in the purified air.

While we have been motivated largely by a growing conviction that we are stewards of the physical world, I have begun to ask 2 questions in particular about this green brigade we seem to be joining.

Are there assumptions and motivations that the popular eco-conscious movement is based upon that I as a follower of Christ cannot stand upon?

And secondly: Does the Gospel offer a better paradigm from which to address the brokenness of the physical world? This question has stemmed from a larger journey in which I've developed the conviction that the gospel offers real hope for all people, communities and systems that are marred by sin.

In this post, I want to address the first question and examine the assumptions and motivations under girding the popular green movement. I do so from a humble beginning though, acknowledging that I as a follower of Christ stand with sap on my hands. I, who believe that my Father in Heaven created the world and called us to steward it for His glory, have turned a deaf ear for too long to the cries of those who could see our physical world being exploited and neglected. I am thankful that the Lord has seen fit to rebuke me through a movement that doesn't necessarily believe in Him. I also need to state that i recognize that there is justifiable blame to lay at the feet of the Church over the last Milena for the current ecological crisis.
For more on this, read the article The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis by Lynn White.

I'm going to stay away from examining the reality of the crisis. There is still much debate about the degree to which humans are creating global climate change. It's a healthy debate that I am keenly interested in. But it has no bearing on this discussion for there are many ecological "crises" that exist independently of global climate change and therefore deserve our attention.

First, i am wary of the way in which eco-consciousness has become a form of Self-Righteousness. I've heard of too many conversations about green-living devolve into comparisons aimed at proving one's merit. "How often did you ride your bike to work this month?" "I even rinsed off the aluminum foil and recycled it." And then there is the Ford Escape commercial where the girl is ashamed to go to a party with her dad and his gas guzzling SUV. But's's a hybrid. Now this peer-conscious-teen feels okay about being seen in her dad's car. Commercials are certainly not the definitive word on our motivations, but ad agencies aren't paid to be idiots...they know what people want. We want to be seen as eco-conscious. It's become the way to sell groceries, clothes, cars and homes. I'm not faulting the green practices of the product makers, but rather this appeal to a desire that "My ass be always greener than the other guy's."

Lord knows that we, His followers don't need to add another form of self-righteousness to our significant collection.

Now, I want to take a moment to mention carbon offset companies such as TerraPass. The general idea is that this company helps you calculate your carbon footprint and balance it out through the purchase of verified carbon offsets (which is basically money that funds carbon reduction research). Intriguing idea, and I'm glad the money goes to research. But think with me about this for a minute. When I decide that I can't (or don't want to) reduce my carbon footprint any further, I buy a terra pass carbon offset so that I can fund efforts to reduce carbon emissions. I allow myself to indulge in my current lifestyle by giving money to this program. Does that sound like modern day Indulgences to anyone else? Am I being a tad harsh? Some people will not use the carbon offset programs in that manner. But many will b/c it's easier to throw money at this than change one's lifestyle. Unless you're poor. What if you don't have the money to buy a carbon offset? In many ways this sounds like a means to easing the conscience of wealthier Americans who are greener in theory than in practice.

I am not doggin' the idea of funding research. But I'm struck by the more subtle reality that this is a conscience-easing-tonic for many who are choosing to not reduce their carbon footprint further. This observation has caused me to turn the same eye to my heart and examine where I've substituted trade-offs for true obedience and creation care.

Finally, I want to speak briefly to the fundamental ethic behind much of the environmental movement today. "Why should we take care of the planet?" What response would you give? What response do you most frequently hear? The most common answer I hear is that one enjoys the world and wants to preserve it for that enjoyment, or that one wants to preserve it for another's enjoyment (usually their children's children).

I'm not a philosopher, but it seems to me that this ethic is a self-centered utilitarianism. Do I hear a "so what?" out there. Well, I hear one from myself. However, I am becoming convinced though that the problem is with the lack of real transcendence. I believe that for an ethic to remain, it must transcend human rooted to something outside of ourselves. What happens if what I enjoy becomes a real problem for someone else? What if I can preserve what I and later generations would enjoy while still exploiting other parts of the created order? What would make that wrong?

Many recognize the weakness of this foundation and so argue for a combined effort between science and religion to combat global climate change. While I do not agree with the content of his argument, E.O. Wilson illustrates this approach in his book, The Creation - An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. One long-standing synthesis of these 2 is a pantheistic approach to environmental care...a belief that all things are sacred because god, or the universal spirit is in all things. While this view does provide a transcendent ethic, it is not compatible with Jesus' teaching about the nature of God and the physical world.

So, as a follower of Christ, i am learning from those of various ideologies who have blazed the trail before me, but i do so with a self-examining eye. I want to take real responsibility as a steward and walk humbly before my Creator, not in self-righteousness and not simply for how it benefits me. My next post will look more at the hope that the gospel offers for a physical world marred by sin.


Alex Nelson said...

Hi Doug,

Welcome to the blogging world. Very exciting!

I thought your post touched on a couple things that have been on my mind since moving to London. When we arrived in London, I was quite surprised at how much more "green" it was here. In my orientation to the London office, I went to "green" training and was told to use some scary can-crushing contraption that would never be approved for safety or sound design by an MIT engineer. Needless to say, I was a bit skeptical of the green enthusiasm spreading across the UK. It does seem to be more of a fad, than an actual concern among some people.

And that brings me to one of your other points which really hits home. What is it with carbon offset? I tend to agree that if you truly feel bad about your behavior, than change it! Paying someone else to solve your problem is not washing your hands of the original problem. I imagine the research will do some good, but until people are willing to change their behavior and support alternative energy, carpool lanes, public transportation, etc. the problem is likely to persist.

I appreciate your point about the "fundamental ethic" behind the green movement. I think many people are suddenly feeling "moved" out of fear for their own futures. Taking care of the environment has become taking care of yourself and your future. Do people really care about the earth itself?

I must admit that I haven't yet been completely moved by the green movement. I think perhaps I'm waiting to be moved. I want to care. But right now, I'd rather have my Starbucks and not have to carry a travel mug with me all day (or week if I'm travelling). I'd rather not cut myself on the scary can crusher. And I can't exactly stop flying, unless I would like to lose my job.

I am looking forward to Part II.


Amy Weber said...


Great post! Good points to think about. I particularly appreciate how thoughtful you are on this subject.

I have been thinking about the environment a bit more recently. First, I've just been more aware of how much garbage I produce - from eating take-out, drinking coffee, or just in general how much trash we put out each week to be picked up and taken away. Second, I read an article about bottled water - how it is not healthy for you and how much garbage is produced from the bottles. The article was in Reader's Digest of all places! Reader's Digest!

Not sure where my thoughts or actions will go from here, but I am encouraged to know that you are really thinking this stuff through! I have a lot to learn! I look forward to the second installment!

Brett said...

Here is one way I might think about it to the people skeptical that either that we are in a period of global warming, or that humans are in large part causing it.

Think about it as pure pollution. Driving a big SUV, driving when you could walk, etc. etc. etc. OK so maybe people are wrong and you're not actually helping heat up the earth. But in the least you are putting out CO2 gasses, and in the case of Rachel probably a lot of methane too.

I'm not one to get into buying carbon offsets and all that. I think that lulls people who have money into a sense that they don't need to change their behavior. But just imagine if we all stopped polluting the air. I could actually care less if the temperature keeps going up or not...good clean air is enough for me.

Now I ain't perfect, and neither is me English, but thats my perspective on things.

Missy said...

Doug-- Love this post. I agree that "going green" has become a sort of status symbol. Now, there are worse things that people could be all trendy about, but without a more meaningful underpinning, environmentalism will go the way of other fads.

Like Amy who commented above, I have become convicted in small ways-- amazed by the amount of unnecessary packaging comes home with me from the grocery store, humbled by how many resources I consume merely in pursuit of comfort.

We did not make the Earth, and we cannot replace, really, what we destroy. We are trying to take baby steps in humility about this.

TwoSquareMeals said...

Great post! I think you hit on some of the fundamental problems with the whole "green" movement. It is a fad, a status symbol, and something that will fade in time if there is no deeper reason for being stewards of the earth than "protecting it for our children."

I pray that the Christian community starts to take it seriously, not just jumping on the bandwagon to be relevant but really looking at how the gospel can give true depth and staying power to this movement toward protecting creation. You've given me some great stuff to think about. Looking forward to more.