One cannot watch television in our country for very long without being exposed to someone calling us to a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle. Reducing our “ecological footprint” is a moral obligation that society increasingly impinges on our conscience. Conservatives tend to dismiss such talk as liberal sentimentalism, believing that claims about the immanence of environmental destruction (e.g. global warming) are grossly exaggerated (and serve to increase the power of the state . And Christians, who tend to be conservative, adopt a similar stance, believing that nature was made by God for human welfare and that in the end nature is going to be destroyed and renewed in a new heavens and earth anyways (so why bother conserving it?). At the same time, it is hard to see images of wanton environmental destruction – rainforests clear-cut and turned to wastelands; rivers made unsafe to swim and fish in because of dangerous toxins – and not feel a sense that such things not ought to be and that something important has been violated. When we watch Avatar, for instance, most people feel outrage towards the exploitation of native peoples whose land is being exploited by more powerful forces for the gain of outsiders.
Academics who study environmentalism distinguish between two different approaches to conserving the environment: eco-centric environmentalism and anthropo-centric environmentalism. The former believes in the preservation of the environment for nature’s sake because nature itself has some inherent value that makes it worth preserving, even at the expense of human welfare. The latter believes in preserving the environment for man’s sake because nature has instrumental value that benefits human welfare. Where should a “Christian environmentalism” fall on this spectrum?
The creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 is the starting point for developing a Christian view of man’s relationship to nature. Being uniquely crafted in God’s image and given a mandate to “rule and have dominion” over nature, man clearly has a special role in the created order (contra a naturalist view which sees humans merely as more sophisticated, evolved animals) and the rule and subdue command implies that man not only has a right but an obligation to use natural resources for human welfare. This theology would support an anthropo-centric view.
Does this view then justify doing whatever we want to nature (e.g. dumping toxins in rivers, creating smog in cities, driving species to extinction) in order to support human life and profit economically? Scripture provides a host of other commands and teaching about creation that constrain what we do with it and how to use it.
Perhaps the most significant of these are commands having to do with justice for the poor and oppressed. “Environmental justice” is an area of law and policy concerned with the equity of the environmental impact of man’s activities. The driving concern is that the poor bear the consequences of environmental degradation more than the rich. Examples of this include landfills being located closer to poor communities than wealthy ones and of electronic waste (cellphones, computers, etc.), which contain many toxins, being exported to poor countries (see link to a fascinating Nat. Geog. article about this trend). Now it is debatable whether accusations of “environmental injustice” always constitute true injustice. I would contend, though, that concern for justice for the poor is a major reason Christians should be concerned about environmental causes and that God’s concern for the poor should be a fundamental tenet in a Christian environmentalism.