Environmental philosophies – some preliminary thoughts

I was reading sections out of Principles of Conservation Biology (Meffe et al., I have the 2nd edition) tonight just for fun*. The first two chapters lay a philosophical foundation for conservation biology, exploring various perspectives on environmental ethics and biodiversity.

In chapter 1—What is Conservation Biology?—the authors discuss the philosophical movements that have led to conservation efforts in the United States:

  1. The Romantic-Transcendental Conservation Ethic — The 19th century proponents of this position included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. Nature was viewed as a place to escape from civilization, as something to be preserved in a pristine state. For the pioneers of this movement, there was a spiritual aspect to nature, which was viewed as a work of God, though not always “God” in the Christian understanding. This ethic led eventually to the creation of national parks and wilderness areas, and the preservationist philosophy of Muir and others is carried on today in many non-profit conservation groups such as the Sierra Club.
  2. The Resource Conservation Ethic — The first key proponent of this in the United States was forester Gifford Pinchot, who approached the natural world from a utilitarian perspective. This was a very anthropocentric (man-centered) view of nature; there are resources out there for humans to use, but they must be used wisely and efficiently so they will be available for future generations. One idea that flowed out of this was the multiple-use concept, where the land must be managed for many users simultaneously, such as for grazing, logging, recreation, and watershed protection.
  3. The Evolutionary-Ecological Land Ethic — Often referred to just as the “land ethic,” this was introduced by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac in 1949. This viewpoint integrates what we have learned about the biological world in the past one hundred plus years, recognizing that natural systems are extraordinarily complex, interrelated, and dynamic. Any change we make to one part of an ecosystem can and will effect other parts of the ecosystem, sometimes in ways that are difficult to predict even with careful analysis.

What is a Christian to make of these perspectives? I see valuable lessons that can be drawn from all three, and have a few cautionary ideas as well.

The preservationists recognize that nature has inherent value beyond what is in it for human beings. From a Biblical perspective, it is good to remember that in Genesis 1:25, God declared that the creation was already “good” at the point when all was created except for the first humans. Because of this, not only do individual organisms have value (the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Matthew 6:26-28), but so do populations, species, and entire ecosystems. Many preservationists tend towards non-Christian religious concepts such as transcendentalism and eastern mysticism, but that does not negate the observation that there are Biblical principles which are consistent with the preservationist ethic. My caution for Christians is to not confuse “creation care” with the gospel. It is good to protect animals and ecosystems, but doing so is not the good news of Christ, but part of the overall ethical package of Christianity.

The conservationists recognize that resources can be utilized by humans, but that this needs to be done in a sustainable way. The Genesis 1:28 mandate to Adam to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and rule and have dominion over it,” when understood properly should guide us to be good gardeners rather than wasteful exploiters of the creation. The creation is not ours; we are placed here as vice-regents, with God as the ultimate owner of all. My caution here is that there are voices in the Evangelical Christian community who call for “wise use” in a way that that is presented as consistent with the conservationist ethic, but whose proposals are no more than short-sighted exploitation of resources that leave nothing for future generations.

Many Christians might be frightened away from the Evolutionary-Ecological Land Ethic by the inclusion of the word evolutionary, but I think this is unnecessary, even if one rejects biological evolution as the explanation for the origin of the living world. The land ethic recognizes the extreme complexity of the living world that God has placed on this Earth. We should not be surprised that the infinite God of the universe would create a biosphere (by whatever means he chose to use) that contains intricacies within intricacies, whether at the level of cellular biochemistry or at the level of the interactions between components of entire ecosystems. This flows from the Trinitarian view of God: there is one God but he is not a simple God, and his nature is reflected in his creation (Romans 1:19-20). The caution, as the textbook authors bring out, is that one cannot leave humans out of the picture.

Of these, I am a Christian preservationist at heart, in that I marvel at the wonders that God has placed around us and see the creation as having value in itself, apart from what it can provide for us. I am thankful that there are preserved places that are readily accessible, whether they be in suburban St. Louis, or wonderlands such as Yellowstone National Park. I am also thankful for the wild places that are not as accessible to humans. As a youth, I went on several long backpacking trips through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area in south-central Montana, which has close to one million acres of land that is closed to development of any kind. Though I spend more than 99 percent of my life outside of such places, it is comforting to know that there are places that reflect the intrinsic value with which God has endowed his creation.

I also recognize the value of the land ethic. Science is a tool that God has given us for understanding his creation, and one thing that is clear is that the living world is characterized by change and interaction. The land ethic allows us to see how the biosphere works, and how humans effect the living world. If we are to be stewards of the creation for God’s glory, for the good of the creation, and for the benefit of all mankind, then we need this scientific understanding.

I have reviewed a couple books on Christian environmental perspectives in the past. For the Beauty of the Earth by Steven Bouma-Prediger comes mostly from a Christian preservationist perspective, though he does have a good awareness of ecological relationships. I’ll have to think a bit more about where exactly Francis Schaeffer comes from in his Pollution and the Death of Man, but he certainly had a strong aesthetic streak in him, so his views are mostly compatible with the preservationist ethic.

A Christian author who comes from a conservationist perspective would be Calvin Beisner. I have not read any of his works.

I’ll hope to write about what chapter two says about the “Judeo-Christian Stewardship Ethic” later this week.

Grace and Peace

*I know, probably less than 1% of the population reads college textbooks for fun, but so be it.