Environmental Ethics and Motivations for Christians

on October 16, 2019

In 1949, author and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote A Sand County Almanac. This influential book is still studied by students of conservation biology. Leopold argued that humanity was ready for a new type of ethic, having already established ethics on the relationship between individuals (e.g. Commandments 5-10, Exodus 20:9-17) and between individuals and society (e.g. the Declaration of Independence). We were ready for an environmental ethic.

Seventy years later, many Christians have not embraced an environmental ethic. We have no guiding principle for how to treat the land. Yet of any social group today, Christians have the greatest justification for developing and promoting a sustainable environmental ethic.

Most Christians agree that our relationships with God and our neighbors are of paramount importance. But what is the biblical justification for caring for our planet?

Simply stated, loving the Earth is an act of worshiping God and a service to our neighbors. Theologian David Bentley Hart states that “creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the…generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures.” Thus, conserving God’s created beauty shows our love for God. In addition, reducing the harmful effects of soil, water, and air pollutants is a clear act of loving our neighbors, whether those neighbors live in our county, country, or world. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out that our faith calls for creation care because of our love for others, our love for God and his creation, and our acknowledgement of creation as a gift from God.

I argue that Christians as a social group have the greatest rationale for caring for the planet. Some might think scientists have this undergirding rationale, but the discipline of science is called to be objective, free of value commitments and personal feelings. Scientists have a responsibility to generate quality data on the status of the Earth’s health, and Christians have a motivation to act on these data to protect the Earth’s health. This pattern has been seen before. In the 1960s, science clearly spoke of the harmful ecological effects of long-lived pesticides such as DDT, but the science itself did not call for a ban of such pesticides. Instead, Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring sparked a widespread, grassroots societal change. Governmental regulation eventually led to the international banning of 12 Persistent Organic Pollutants known as the “dirty dozen.” Science produced the data, society responded, and governmental actions caused improvements. In terms of creation care, science has produced the data, and Christians with their mandate for preserving God’s beautiful creation are in the perfect position to lead societal change.

What exactly is science showing us about the status of the Earth’s health? We have now entered a new geologic era that scientists refer to as the Anthropocene, which is unique in that human activity has become the key determinant in geological, biological, and ecological processes. The 4.6 billion-year-old earth is experiencing change, as it always has, but the rate of change is unprecedented and is due to human influence.

With human population growth increasing exponentially into the 1960s and linearly since then, today’s population of 7.7 billion is expected to continue to increase in the near future. It is not the size of the human population that is the problem; it is the current rate of resource use that is not sustainable.

Scientists around the globe now note that most indicators of environmental health have declined and are declining at a rapid rate due to deterioration of natural resources. At an all-time low are freshwater resources, vertebrate species abundance, and total forest area, whereas the number of marine areas with no life (called “dead zones”), CO2 emissions and the associated global temperature are increased. These data are not from one lab or one scientific group, but from a paper entitled “World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice” that was co-authored by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries. In summary, scientists have sent a clear and urgent message.

a hand holding a small globe

People have all kinds of reasons for caring about the planet, and many are driven by fear. But fear should not guide our environmental ethic as Christians. We should be motivated by a desire to preserve God’s beautiful creation. This changes the fear-based societal script to a hope-filled Christian-influenced ethic.

Leopold originally proposed the following ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Since Leopold, ecologists have discovered the interconnectedness of all biotic communities, so perhaps an updated ethic is needed: A thing is right when it promotes sustainability and beauty of the natural world. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Small groups, churches, and even larger Christian organizations can take tangible actions to embrace such an ethic that promotes sustainability and beauty of water, soil, and air. Allow me to give three concrete examples:

  • Plastics and the contaminants they leach neither promote sustainability nor beauty of the biotic and abiotic world, so plastic production and use should be reduced.
  • Deforestation of the wintering grounds for neotropical birds neither promotes sustainability nor beauty for the songbirds that migrate to the US, and thus Christians should support economic incentives that prevent deforestation of Central and South American forests.
  • Shipping vegetables to consumers 2,000 miles from the site they are grown is neither sustainable nor beautiful (ask anyone breathing exhaust fumes and stuck in traffic), so consuming local produce should be increased.

These three examples could expand into the hundreds, and hopefully groups of Christians will begin to promote both sustainability and beauty of the natural world.

Aldo Leopold’s vision for an environmental ethic has yet to be embraced, and the reason for this is that many still value the land for economics and not aesthetics. May the Spirit of God move to awaken our hearts and minds toward an aesthetic-based environmental ethic. If a creation care solidarity were to emerge among people of faith, all of humanity would benefit. And we would be taking seriously God’s commands to care for our neighbor.  And God would smile.

Excerpts taken from Crain (2020), a study guide in press at Smyth & Helwys Books.


Drew Crain
About the Author

Drew Crain

D. Andrew ("Drew") Crain is Professor of Biology at Maryville College in East Tennessee. Passionate about his undergraduate students, Drew has won the “Teacher of the Year” award several times and can often be found teaching and leading hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Dr. Crain’s main area of research is focused on environmental health, but recently his scholarly activities have turned to the compatibility of science and Christianity. Drew is active in his local church, where he has served as elder, pastoral council member, and Bible study teacher for the past 20 years.