A New Environmental Ethic

We now have in the Oval Office an intelligent, articulate president who understands deeply the serious environmental challenges we face at home and abroad. With a sigh of relief, we can now listen to a presidential press conference in which real answers are provided to tough questions by a president using entire sentences with correct syntax.

With new leadership in the White House sympathetic to global concerns, we could easily relax our efforts to tackle the most daunting environmental issues with the comforting idea that somebody is finally in charge, taking us in the right direction. That would be a mistake. A sympathetic president is necessary to make any significant progress, but not sufficient. We have to take one more great leap. We will create a sustainable future only if we fundamentally change the way we look at morality. Ultimately, sustainability and environmental stewardship are moral issues. We have a moral obligation to bequeath to our children a world that is at least as good as the one we inherited from our parents.

If we are to be successful in managing our environment wisely we will have to first wean ourselves from the false idea that the earth's resources were put here solely for humankind's benefit.

Instead, we must change our perspective from one of hubris to one in which we accept that humans occupy a more humble position in the biosphere. When we see that humans are a natural part of the ecosystem, not above or separate from the environment, we will finally be in a position to protect the resources that sustain us. From that will flow realistic solutions. We need to change the political approach to the environment and the economy away from faith-based decision-making to rational choices based on data.

As Renaissance scholar Lynn White famously wrote in 1967, "We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." His words remain true 40-plus years later, when religious conservatives in the United States view resource extraction as an inalienable right. The past eight years are proof enough of that sentiment. But the battle is not won with Bush out of office.

For millennia, peoples of nearly all cultures have been taught that humans are special in the eyes of their god or gods, and that the world is made for their benefit and use. This is made clear in Genesis 1:1, which states:

God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

Then Genesis 2:15 says:

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Once again, that is a mandate for man to use the land to his purpose. To further prove our superiority, and denigrate all other living things, god goes on to say:

Of all visible creatures only man is "able to know and love his creator." He is "the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake," and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God's own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #356)

The bible is extremely clear on the point that the Earth's resources were put here for our benefit, for us to exploit, for us to use as we wish.

Religion's species-centric conceit cultivates a dangerous attitude that humans are better than other animals, superior to all other living things. The bible teaches that we alone have dignity because only we have souls, and only we were made in god's image. We are special, giving us divine license to treat all of earth's living creatures with little or no respect. We have little incentive to manage and care for something we are taught has no dignity. The result has been evidenced plainly enough by two millennia of global environmental degradation commensurate with mankind's growing dominance in the biosphere.

This explicit religious mandate to exploit natural resources remains clear and unambiguous, in spite of recent efforts to harmonize religion and environmental sciences by numerous academic and international organizations, including The Forum on Religion and Ecology, the largest international multi-religious project of its kind, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church's teachings.

The argument used by those seeking reconciliation between religion and environmental protection point to the integrity of all creation, or reverence for all things created by god, insisting that religion and concern for the environment are not only compatible, but have been so all along. Those are welcomed sentiments. In fact, as is frequently the case, the Bible contains contradictory passages about the natural world, reasonably allowing for such an interpretation. Old passages can also simply be reinterpreted to fit the facts or to be compatible with newly adopted ideas. Pope John Paul XXIII said in 1961:

Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life--'Increase and multiply'--and to bring nature into their service--'Fill the Earth, and subdue it.' These two commandments are complementary. Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature. On the contrary, it must be brought into the services of human life.

But the harsh facts of human history belie this benign revisionist interpretation of the meaning of "subdue," and the preponderance of unambiguous passages in the Bible giving mankind dominion over nature's bounty argue against any idea that religion is environmentalism in disguise.

We will only protect the environment for future generations when we severe this tie to a false morality and embrace humanity's true and humble place in the world.