Saving the Environment
Some years ago, when global warming was still a new topic for most people, its most prominent feature was that of polar bears standing on floating ice. The bears seemed to be forlorn and literally cast adrift by human actions. We felt sympathy for the polar bears, even though, as far as we know, they contribute little toward human well being. Indeed, most of us would prefer not to meet a polar bear up close and personal.
But now many other species are under threat. For example, in recent months there has been a flurry of reports telling us that the world’s insect population is in serious decline. The response to this situation has been mostly on the lines that we need the insects because they fertilize our crops and so are fundamental to our well being. Bees are particularly important because, not only do they pollinate flowers, they produce the honey that we eat.
You see the little catch? We sympathize with the polar bears for their own sake, but we care only about the insects because of their usefulness to us. So why do we want to “save the environment”? Is it for the sake of the natural world itself, or is it because we need it for our own survival?
Rattlesnakes, Giraffes and Palm-Trees
The other day I borrowed a copy of the book As I Was Saying — A Chesterton Reader from our church library. The book contains some of the writings of G.K. Chesterton, including essays from Generally Speaking, published in the year 1928.
In one of the essays Chesterton muses on our relationship to nature. The essay was written long before the modern environmental movement got under way. But, like E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which I discuss in Chapter 2 of A New City of God, Chesterton’s essay seems to be remarkably prescient — or, at least, it asks the questions that we, in our environmental enthusiasm, sometimes fail to consider.
Here is the paragraph that triggered my interest.
A little while ago an intellectual weekly started an argument among the intellectuals about whether Man has improved the earth he lives on; whether Nature as a whole was better for the presence of Man. Nobody seemed to notice that this is assuming that the end of Man is to grow more grass or to improve the breed of rattlesnakes, apart from any theory about the origin or object of these things. A man may serve God and be good to mankind for that reason or a man may serve mankind and be good to other things to preserve the standard of mankind; but it is very hard to prove exactly how far he is bound to make the jungle thicker or encourage very tall giraffes.
Which brings us the modern environmental movement. Are we trying to save the coral reefs, the Amazon jungle, and the butterflies in our back yards for their own sake, or to ensure that our own needs are met?
All sane men have assumed that, while a man may be right to feel benevolently about the jungle, he is also right to treat it as something that may be put to use, and something which he may refuse to assist indefinitely for its own sake at his own expense. A man should be kind to a giraffe; he should if necessary feed it; he may very properly stroke it or pat it on the head, even if he has to procure a ladder for these good offices. He is perfectly right to pat a giraffe; there is no objection to his patting a palm-tree. But he is not bound to regard a man as something created for the good of the palm-tree.
It is very clear where Chesterton is going with this line of reasoning.
We protect nature, not for its own sake, but for ourselves. If an environmental activity does not directly benefit humans, then that activity need not be carried out.
So, for example, we recognize that we should not use some insecticides to protect our crops because those insecticides also destroy other insects, such as bees, which are beneficial to us. But this is not a moral decision — it is merely a cost-benefit calculation. We do not reduce insecticide usage because we care about bees, but because we care about ourselves.
Plastics and Polymer Fibers
Since Chesterton’s time the mood seems to have shifted — we now “preserve nature” (as if “nature” is something external to us) for its own sake.
For example, the chemical industry has manufactured billions of tons of plastics and polymers. When we have finished using these plastics, we throw them away. But there is no “away”. Moreover, these plastics do not degrade quickly — they stay in the environment long after we have finished using them, and many of them wind up in the ocean. Now we are learning that plastics/polymers in the form of tiny threads are being found in the internals of fish that live in the deepest parts of the ocean. (These threads are microfibers made of polyester, rayon and nylon and are found in laundry effluent. Evidently a single piece of clothing can generate up to 250,000 of these fibers.) So “away” includes the fish that live in the deep oceans.
If our concern is to do with “nature” and all the creatures that inhabit it then we should stop manufacturing polymers for use in clothing and we should revert to wearing clothes made of natural materials such as wool and cotton. Yet the artifical materials allow us to have comfortable, hard-wearing clothing at an affordable price. And even if richer people could afford to switch to natural materials, many people toward the bottom end of the economic scale cannot.
So, should we protect these fish even though very few people have even seen these fish and which, as far as we know, contribute nothing to our health and prosperity? Or should we continue to use polymer fibers, knowing that they are of great benefit to us, particularly less well off people, and let the deep sea fish take their chances?
Similar thought processes can be applied to other types of plastics. For example, shrink wrap film allows us to protect food from contamination, and so contributes to our overall health. But, when discarded, that film winds up in trash heaps, where it remains for many years, and so becomes a chronic environmental problem.
Another factor that has changed since Chesterton’s time is that he did not have to worry too much about resource limitations. For example, up until his time, if people wanted land for farming, they took it. If it so happened that that land was currently being used by wildlife such as giraffes then there was no problem — there was room for both farms and wildlife.
We now realize that there is only a finite amount of land available and that we need to set aside space for the giraffes, otherwise they will cease to exist. But, once more, we need to understand why we are doing this. Are we doing if for the giraffes, or for ourselves? Are we making a moral argument that giraffes have a right to life — even in limited numbers? If so, how much space should be set aside for wildlife, and how much for farmers who are growing much-needed food?
Striking a Balance
So we need to strike a balance between “saving the environment” and providing people, particularly people who have few economic options, with a superior quality of life. On the one hand if we insist that the environment should be protected at all costs then we human beings would have to depart this planet Earth. As long as we are here we are going to impact the environment. The other extreme is to permit unlimited exploitation of natural resources and to dump our waste products wherever we please.
Neither of these extremes is going to happen. So what is the correct balance?
Many environmentalists would argue that this discussion is merely academic, that, in practice, we are so far to the side of favoring consumption of resources that we are not even close to being in balance. But we need to be careful. For example, at the time of writing (early 2019) the State of California has all but given up on its high-speed rail project. Why? Fast trains between metropolitan centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles not only make economic sense, they helps the environment by taking people out of airplanes that create large quantities of greenhouse gases. Yet the project fell apart partly due to resistance from environmental groups who did not want their land despoiled by this new industrial endeavor.
Another example concerns the abolition of factory farming — a move which is definitely good for nature and for millions of animals. But that decision may not be so good for those people who are already having trouble affording sufficient food.
The Christian Response
Throughout my writing I try to understand how Christian theology should adjust to the world that we are entering.
G.K. Chesterton was a devout Christian and a member of the Roman Catholic church. His attitude is very much in the spirit of Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This passage supports Chesterton’s argument that nature is here for our good, not that we are here for nature’s good.
Genesis 9:1-3 is even more outspoken.
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”
A theology that is appropriate for an Age of Limits cannot accept the world view put forward in the Genesis passages. Maybe a starting point for Christians is to help people understand that we cannot have our environmental cake and eat it. We cannot “preserve nature” and simultaneously “preserve our standard of living”, let alone hope for a more materially prosperous future.
Our theology should reflect this reality. To what extent should we make sacrifices, not just for other people, but also for the natural environment? Where do we draw the line? And, if we are to make sacrifices, who do we include in the word “we”? Just those who are already reasonably prosperous, or thos who are already struggling to maintain an adequate life style?
More fundamentally, we need to understand that we are not “over” nature, we are not even separate from it. We are part of nature.