Category: Environmental Stewardship

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 3, 2006

In the latest issue of Science & Spirit magazine, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg is interviewed about the ethical aspects of the genetic engineering of food. In “God and the New Foodstuffs,” author Trey Popp writes about the opposition to such endeavors:

Some scientists and environmentalists fear GM crops may have unforeseen consequences. Many organic and small-scale farmers see the new crops as an economic threat; there have been cases in which GM corn has contaminated nearby fields, ruining the market value of neighboring crops. Some social justice activists assert that a precious few wealthy companies reap the benefits of GM crops at the expense of farmers and consumers.

But Gregg offers a counter to the opposition from a variety of perspectives. “There’s an imperative in Christianity in particular, but also in Judaism and Islam, of helping the poor and dealing with questions about poverty and hunger. Hunger is something that afflicts the developing world in particular. Genetically modified food has the potential to radically transform that situation,” says Gregg.

I have written a theological/biblical exposition of the case for genetically modifying plant life with respect to crop yields, nutrition supplementation, and other aspects of improvement in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” My basic point is that the primary created purpose for plantlife was that of providing sustenance for beings with the breath of life. Having a primarily instrumental created purpose, therefore, I’m in agreement with Gregg that the use and “alteration” of plants on a genetic level can be a proper fulfillment of stewardship mandate.

What isn’t always made quite so clear in the article is the biblical distinction between plants on the one hand and beings with the “breath of life” (animals and humans) on the other. So, for example, Calvin DeWitt, president of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, opposes GM foods on the basis of his interpretation of the flood narrative. “There is not much concern for individuals when Noah is asked to put animals on the ark two by two. The emphasis is on lineage. And although, at the time that was written, there wasn’t the terminology to say that these are genetic lineages, they in fact are, of course. These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are…gifts to the whole of creation,” he says.

But the relevance of his observation is not immediately apparent. The parts of the flood narrative that DeWitt is talking about concern animal life, not plant life (see my post here about ways in which the Noahic covenant is misinterpreted and applied to environmental issues).

I think there it is much tougher to make a theological case for the genetic modification of animals than it is for GM crops. For more on the genetic modification of animals, especially with regard to the creation of human-animal chimeras, see my forthcoming article in the premier issue of Salvo magazine.

In yesterday’s Acton Commentary, I argued that the biblical foundation for the concepts of stewardship and economics should lead us to see them as united. In this sense I wrote, “Economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.” I also defined economics as “the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end” and said that the discipline “helps us rightly order our stewardship.”

Within the context of environmental stewardship in particular, I concluded that economics should play a key role in defining public policy. This is becoming a more pressing issue as a number of evangelical and religious leaders around the world are endorsing specific policy initiatives to combat global warming.

Following the formation of the Evangelical Climate Initiative by a number of prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, general secretary of the World Council of Churches Rev. Samuel Kobia said yesterday, “Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger” He said this while emphasizing that all religious people should “speak with one voice” about climate change.

My brief commentary outlined some reasons why Christians may have differing opinions on this point. And Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint feature, “Evangelical Activism,” details some of the other aspects of the debate.

“Now, we all have a stewardship responsibility for God’s creation, but we also have responsibility for God’s creatures. Balancing those interests requires prudence,” he writes. On issues of prudential wisdom, Christians on both sides of a debate may well have good reasons to disagree. Check out his commentary for links to a number of pertinent resources.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 14, 2006

George H. Taylor, the State Climatologist for Oregon, writes at TCS Daily, “A Consensus About Consensus.” The article is worth reading. It shows that scientific consensus is often overrated, both in terms of its existence and in terms of its relevance.

With resepct to global warming, Taylor looks at some of the claims for scientific consensus, and states, “But even if there actually were a consensus on this issue, it may very well be wrong.” This simply means that the majority can often be terribly wrong.

It is noteworthy that what holds true for consensus in the hard sciences also holds true for efforts in other fields. So, while Christians should take seriously the work of the Copenhagen Consensus, for example, there should not simply be an uncritical move from consensus to specific policy action. Christians are called to critically engage the efforts of science and economics, and the failure to do this on either count is an abdication of responsibility.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 10, 2006

There’s something like a question of theodicy implicitly wrapped up in the debate about global warming among Christians. It goes something like this:

Why did God create oil?

One answer is that the burning of fossil fuels is simply a divine trap for unwitting and greedy human beings, who would stop at nothing to rape the earth. Another answer is that there is some legitimate created purpose for fossil fuels.

I’m inclined to think the latter, for a number of reasons. The first answer strikes me akin to the claim that God created the earth to look old…it just doesn’t seem like something God would do. It would cast doubt on the veracity of God, in whom there is nothing false. After all, I don’t recall the covenant with Adam having anything to do with burning fossil fuels.

One possible argument in favor of the first view is that God has created the world in such a way that wrong actions tend to bear negative consequences. The wisdom literature of the Bible attests to this natural order, in which evil bears its own fruit of destruction. But this would mean that fossil fuels were created only with the fallen state of human beings in view, as a check or consequence on human sinfulness (see the corollary at the end).

It seems much more tenable to me to assert that oil was created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world. It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn’t have cars and planes and ships to carry us about.

If this is the case, then oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products exist to be used by human beings, but just like any other thing, are to be used responsibly. For example, we can use or misuse food: we can gorge ourselves on it (gluttony), we can waste it, we can hoard it, or we can eat and grow and share food appropriately. Oil might well be a tool like any other, that can be used for good or ill.

Supposing that one of the inevitable effects of the human consumption of oil (speaking here only about engine combustion and not other uses of fossil fuels, e.g. to make plastics) is carbon dioxide emission which inevitably raises global temperatures and adversely effects global climate, what then is our answer to the question? Is there any legitimate use for oil left if this is true? Is oil the forbidden fruit of the twentieth century?

Or perhaps petroleum products are here as a transitional stage in human development, much like societies based on wood-burning sources of energy progressed into the usage of fossil fuels. In this case, petroleum products would have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy, which would raise the standard of living and economic situation of the societies to the point where technological research would find even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.

I don’t think anyone is claiming that oil is going to be the primary source of fuel forever. It’s just the best we have right now. And most of the world, China, for example, is heading into the stage of development where use of fossil fuels is necessary and are not at the point of progressing beyond it.

A corollary: the issue of the creation of fossil fuels through animal death may or may not have an impact here. It’s an open question to me whether animal death existed before the Fall. Certainly some kind of death (plant) undoubtedly occurred, and some form of animal death (bacteria) probably existed as well. If oil is only the consequence of animal death which is itself the product of the Fall, perhaps the well is tainted, so to speak. You might be able to argue conversely, however, that this is an example of God bringing good from evil, so the origin of fossil fuels from animal fossils doesn’t seem to be definitive.

A few others have addressed this issue in previous posts, but I wanted to jump in with my two cents.

Yesterday’s New York Times notes that a group of evangelical leaders have entered the debate over climate change:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

“For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority,” the statement said. “Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough.”

Later in the article, Rev. Ted Haggard – speaking for himself and not in his capacity as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which is not participating in this effort – states that “there is no doubt about it in my mind that climate change is happening, and there is no doubt about it that it would be wise for us to stop doing the foolish things we’re doing that could potentially be causing this. In my mind there is no downside to being cautious.” Well, no downside except nearly destroying the global economy in an effort to reverse a process that may or may not be caused by man in the first place. (Jay Richards sums up the downside nicely in this post.)

One wonders whether Rev. Haggard and the others behind this declaration have been informed of the recent discovery that plants release vast amounts of greenhouse gasses. Or that one of the most famous pieces of supporting evidence for the global warming hypothesis – the “hockey stick” graph that purports to show a sudden rise in global temperatures at the beginning of the 20th century after centuries of relative stability – has been found to be riddled with serious errors. Or that global warming is not just restricted to Earth, but also seems to be occurring on other planets in the Solar System, which may cause one to think that global warming on Earth might just have something to do with… the Sun.

Since the dawn of time, man has longed to destroy the sun…

The group will be taking their message into the media via a television campaign:

The television spot links images of drought, starvation and Hurricane Katrina to global warming. In it, the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, Fla., says: “As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God’s creation. The good news is that with God’s help, we can stop global warming, for our kids, our world and for the Lord.”

That would all be well and good if we knew for sure that humans were the cause of global warming. But it’s clear that we don’t know that for sure. (And if warming is indeed caused by the Sun, we’re completely dependent on God for a solution unless we embark on a Monty Burns style quest to block the Sun’s energy from reaching Earth.) In their editorial on the “hockey stick,” the Wall Street Journal sounded a note of caution that we would all do well to heed:

But the important point is this: The world is being lobbied to place a huge economic bet–as much as $150 billion a year–on the notion that man-made global warming is real. Businesses are gearing up, at considerable cost, to deal with a new regulatory environment; complex carbon-trading schemes are in the making. Shouldn’t everyone look very carefully, and honestly, at the science before we jump off this particular cliff?

The Chicago Tribune has a story about the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI) launched February 8th. (See my initial response here.) Most reports of this story have been somewhat fair. But the Chicago Tribune story takes an unjustified swipe at evangelicals who disagree with the ECI statement. The reporter, Frank James, describes the disagreement among evangelical Christians this way:

But environmental issues have proved divisive within the body of believers who identify themselves as evangelicals. Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

This should be printed in journalism textbooks as an obvious case of media bias. Notice the false dilemma: If you’re an evangelical, you either you agree with the ECI or you don’t care about the environment because you’re expecting the Lord’s return any day now. I read several evangelical responses to the ECI yesterday, and this is one argument that I didn’t see. I note that James doesn’t offer any quotes from representative evangelical leaders who make this argument. Hmm. I wonder why?

If I had to guess, I would say that Frank James has the “James Watt Myth” planted in his memory. James Watt was Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan. It was reported that he once said in congressional testimony: “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.” This calumny has been repeated countless times by figures such as Bill Moyers. There’s only one problem. The story is false. The Chicago Tribune has now made the false story a generic argument of “some evangelicals.” If Frank James can provide some current, direct quotes by representative evangelical leaders (not random loose cannons) who argue that the environment is unimportant because Jesus is about to return, I’ll be the first on record denouncing the argument. If he can’t produce such quotes, then he should retract this statement.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 9, 2006

Following the recent discovery of new species and a reports of a “lost world,” a primitive pristine paradise on the Indonesian island of Papua, I thought I’d pass along some thoughts of F. W. J. Schelling, the 19th century philosopher and contemporary of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was one of the last great German idealists.

German idealism in general, and Schelling’s philosophy in particular, have exercised great influence down into contemporary theology, having effected, among others, Paul Tillich, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

Early in his career, Schelling delivered a series of lectures, including a lecture “Of Human Freedom” in 1809. This lecture focused largely on the problem of evil and theodicy. World history is for Schelling, the divine self-revelation, in which the polar opposites of good and evil are finally reconciled. He writes of the primal state of the world, having a view of the Fall into sin as necessarily linked with creation:

But just as the undivided power of the primal basis is only recognized in man as the inner basis or center of an individual, so, too, in history, evil at first remains concealed int eh depths, and the age of guilt or sin is preceded by an age of innocence or unconsciousness of sin. The primal basis of nature may have operated alone long before, and, through the divien forces contained within it, it may itself have attempted a creation which, however, since the bond of love was lacking, always relapsed in the end back into chaos (as is perhaps indicated by the series of species which were destroyed before the present creation and did not return) until the word of lvoe went forth and with it enduring creation took its start.

Schelling does not have separate doctrines of creation apart from sin, or a fall from a real primal state of innocence into a state of sin. The innocence merely consists in the “unconsciousness of sin.” And so too, things like the fossil record of extinct species are seen as abortive attempts of the material world to bring forth “enduring life,” which can only truly be accomplished when the spirit of love infuses itself into the world.

Schelling also deals at the length with the implications of such a doctrine of sin for our conception of God. Biblical Christian theologians can acknowledge the reality of animal and plant death before the Fall because human sin was not the first instance of creaturely rebellion. Indeed, Satan, a “murderer from the beginning” and ” the father of lies” (John 8:44), bears that distinction.

Time and again, however, Schelling refuses to acknowledge or find relevancy in this reality. He writes, for example, “The first cause of all can never be evil in itself, as there is no duality of hte principles in it. But neither can we presuppose a created spirit, itself fallen, which solicited man to fall: for the very question, at this point, is how evil arose in a created being.”

One aspect of the evangelical involvement in debates over global warming and climate change that has intriqued me has been what I deem to be a rather large blind spot about the relation of religious conservatives to science.

By this I mean that if there is any group of people who ought to understand the rigidity of scientific dogma, it should be evangelical Christians. Given the treatment of their views in debates about evolution and more recently “intelligent design,” it shoud be clear just how biased and close-minded scientific orthodoxy can be. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get anything published in scientific journals that takes ID seriously.

There’s a similar dynamic at work in the debate about global warming. Sure, most prominent scientists that you hear about in the news believe that global warming is real, humans are causing it, and something like the Kyoto protocol is the answer. But why can’t evangelicals see that the minority opinion among scientists in the global warming debates is receiving similar treatment to that which IDers receive?

For more background to the evangelical approach to global warming, and today’s announcement of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, you can see my dialogue with CT’s Andy Crouch. Interestingly enough, he argues that part of the fallout from the evolution controversy was that evangelicals distrust science, but that this distrust is misplaced when it comes to global warming.

See Crouch’s original piece, “Environmental Wager,” my response, “Pascal’s Blunder,” Crouch’s rejoinder to my response, my further reply, “Comet-Busting Lasers,” with Andy getting the last word here.

Blog author: jrichards
posted by on Wednesday, February 8, 2006

After much whispering and pre-publicity, a group of 86 evangelical leaders has announced their support for what The New York Times calls “a major initiative to fight global warming.” As part of the “Evangelical Climate Initiative,” they are calling for “federal legislation that would require reductions in carbon dioxide emissions through ‘cost-effective, market-based mechanisms.’” (For a response from another group of evangelical leaders, go to the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance.)

I have great respect for the supporters of this initiative, and I don’t doubt their sincerity. And I’m glad to see a call for “market-based” solutions to a problem. Unfortunately, this looks to me like another example (alongside the fuzzy advocacy of the ONE Campaign) of Christians, evangelicals in this case, endorsing a hip cause without thinking through its economic logic.

I doubt any of these evangelical leaders has relevant expertise when it comes to global warming, especially since the scientific issues involved are exquisitely complex and change from day to day. So presumably they are simply trusting the advertised “scientific consensus” on this issue and using that perceived consensus as a filter for interpreting mundane events, like ice melting in Antarctica. That’s a problem, not only because the consensus is more manufactured than real (that is, objectively decided), but also because a scientific consensus that the planet is warming still wouldn’t tell us what to do about it. That’s a prudential question that can only be answered by taking account not only of the intended consequences of a policy, but also its unintended consequences.

The issue is not whether we should see ourselves as stewards over creation. That’s a non-negotiable Christian principle. The issue is whether these evangelicals have done the obligatory serious thinking before advocating a specific public policy.

When it comes to global warming, there are at least four separate issues to keep in mind. You don’t need to be a climate expert to do this.

(1) Is the planet warming?

(2) If the planet is warming, is human activity (like CO2 emissions) causing it?

(3) If the planet is warming, and we’re causing it, is it bad overall?

(4) If the planet is warming, we’re causing it, and it’s bad, would the policies commonly advocated (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol, restrictions on CO2 emissions) make any difference? (more…)

After a year of lobbying by vice-president for governmental affairs Rev. Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals has backed off of attempts to formulate specific policy recommendations to the federal government on global warming. According to the Washington Post, “The National Association of Evangelicals said yesterday that it has been unable to reach a consensus on global climate change and will not take a stand on the issue.”

Of course, this disappoints those environmentalist groups that had looked to find a new ally and gain legitimacy from the evangelical movement. The evangelical push on global warming met “internal resistance,” and “In a letter to Haggard last month, more than 20 evangelical leaders urged the NAE not to adopt ‘any official position’ on global climate change because ‘Bible-believing evangelicals . . . disagree about the cause, severity and solutions to the global warming issue.’”

Among the signatories to the letter were Charles W. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries; James C. Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family; the Rev. D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries; the Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Richard Roberts, president of Oral Roberts University; Donald E. Wildmon, chairman of the American Family Association; and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Following the letter, NAE president Ted Haggard claimed that “We are not considering a position on global warming. We are not advocating for specific legislation or government mandates.”

But if this is the case, it is an abrupt shift from the NAE’s recent position. In an interview in October of last year, Rev. Richard Cizik said, “We are currently working on a paper that is scheduled to come out this month on climate change that will get into some policy details, but for the moment we have no specific positions on any environmental legislation.” The article also says that in November of 2005 the NAE “will begin circulating a charter calling on its member network and top-level Beltway allies to fight global warming.”

But Haggard denies this ever happened, saying, “Allow me to confirm at the outset that the NAE is not circulating any official document on the environment.”

The WashPo article paints the decision to back off of official policy recommendations on global warming as a defeat for the “fledgling movement…’the greening of evangelicals.’” The assumption is, of course, that all environmentally-responsible evangelicals must embrace particular positions with respect to global warming. This is simply false.

Part of the reason the NAE had been so unwilling to embrace secular environmental groups was because it did not want to be beholden to a specific political ideological position with respect to the environment. It wants to exercise the freedom of Christian conscience regarding environmental stewardship. Cizik says, “We need to develop our own voice and strategies and tactics, and once we’ve gotten our own feet on the ground, then we can talk about possible cooperation.”

Cizik himself sees it as only a matter of time before evangelicals learn to compromise with more secularist and radical groups. “There are those in my community who are concerned that environmentalists are advocates of population control, of big-government solutions, or New Age religion, and have apocalyptic tendencies,” he says. “I am trying to reason with my community that we’ve earned our spurs in co-belligerency — collaborating with groups we wouldn’t otherwise work with, in the name of the common good.”

But in the interim, evangelicals will continue to retain their independence in defining environmentalism. And that means dealing with debate and consensus among evangelicals.
Rev. Gerald Zandstra, onetime director of programs at Acton (now on a leave of absence), writes that evangelicals are “not as monolithic, closed-minded, or dangerous as some, especially those who are unfamiliar with Christianity, seem to think.”

He also says about evangelical environmentalism: “The Judeo-Christian community for 5,000 years or more has taken its responsibility for the environment seriously. The whole concept of ‘stewardship’ is one that comes directly from sacred texts. It is built into the opening chapters of Genesis and woven into the whole of Scripture. Human beings, acting as God’s stewards, are to provide care for the earth, remembering that it does not belong to us. Rather, we are managers.”

E. Calvin Beisner, adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and professor of social ethics at Knox Theological Seminary, also signed the letter to Haggard asking the NAE to suspend its policy course.

Beisner said that the signers “feared that the NAE was going ‘to assume as true certain things that we think are still debatable, such as that global warming is not only real but also almost certainly going to be catastrophically harmful; second, that it is being driven to a significant extent by human activity; and third, that some regime, some international treaty for mandatory reductions in CO2emissions, could make a significant enough drop in global emissions to justify the costs to the human economy.’”