Environmentalist or conservationist?

By Gary Ledbetter
May 28, 2008

“Greenness” is the cause du jour among people who have the spare time to look for a new cause. Being green risks becoming the monotonous tune that fades into background noise, but not yet.

Note the addition of pollution to the Vatican’s revised seven deadly sins. For this month [March 2008] anyway, note the recent release of a Southern Baptist statement on the environment and climate change. Each of these actions launches a thousand “Aha!” stories from the monolithic media. It’s not background noise yet.

My hope is to clarify something. First, Southern Baptists have not been enemies of creation. Our then-Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) did a seminar on earth-keeping 17 years ago. Our confession of faith affirms the sovereignty of God, the stewardship of man, and the current reality of sin and corruption. Our recently maligned 2007 resolution “On Global Warming” approached its main subject with caution but still began with the presupposition that “Christians are called by God to exercise caring stewardship and dominion over the earth.” It ended with the affirmation of “our God-given responsibility to care for the earth.”

And yet, we are not environmentalists. This popular cause goes in a far different direction than does responsible dominion.

Environmentalism arbitrarily separates man from the rest of creation. Here’s where the idea that “man is a virus” finds a home. In fact the discussion is usually framed around the assumption that mankind has done something as a malignant interloper to an environment that includes all but him.

This quote from the pro-abortion Sierra Club’s website is an example of this mindset: “The Sierra Club recognizes that all of our environmental successes may be short-lived if they do not include efforts to address population growth. Meeting the basic need for family planning and reproductive health services now is a necessary investment for an improved environmental future.”

Conversely, environmentalism portrays mankind as a mere part of creation. When the needs of people require the dislocation of an animal or the use of trees, environmentalists cry “foul” because they see us as certainly no more valuable than any other created thing.

The now-infamous portion of “Earth in the Balance” where Nobel laureate Al Gore compares the value of a Yew tree to the value of human life that might be saved by making an anti-cancer drug from the tree is an example of this leveling.

Protesters dressed as chickens (right to life for chickens!) and as Jesus (what would Jesus eat?) who sometimes appear at the SBC represent this view. Darwinism fits well here. If random mutation and a few million years are all that separate us from chickens, how dare we munch nuggets? The differences are not inherent but rather accidental.

In the wrong hands (that’s most of them), environmentalism is all about what is sensually pleasing to people. The romantic ideal of a place untouched by man seems to be the movement’s goal for most of the earth. The thought that all created things should be adapted or maintained to please me is as comforting to the strip miner as it is to the back-country hiker.

Environmentalists seem to believe that “Spaceship Earth,” properly cared for, can last forever. Thus, our actions can “save the planet.” Since we are accidentally endowed with opposable thumbs and math skills, we are responsible for solving corruption and disease in other creatures. In fact, it is often assumed that we are responsible for these problems.

Better that we should strive to be conservationists. This term stresses our work of dominion relative to other parts of creation. A conservationist Christian will take a completely different approach to creation care.

Conservationist Christians will teach by example and exposition the difference between God’s sovereignty and our dominion over the earth, and tyranny. Despite abuses, the role of man as steward of creation is not, by definition, one of tyranny. We have a God-given mandate to serve in that role.

A biblical view of our place in creation will teach that we are part of that creation. Everything that is not God is created by him. For those of us who believe in God and that he is the creator, this is a no-brainer. And yet, this very belief is one of the flashpoints of the culture war.

If we are part of creation and conservators of it, we can now deduce a hierarchy of value on earth. The Lord says that the plants (Genesis 1:29) and animals (Genesis 9:3) are for our use for food and for other purposes. While a rock, as well as the moss that grows on it and worms beneath it, has value because God made it, it is not invalid for us to displace the rock and its ecosystem to build a house or other such useful thing. We should not do this to indulge a mischievous urge but as part of our purposeful use and ordering of what God made.

We can admit that the sinful urge to abuse the world around us has often been indulged by greed, haste, and thoughtlessness. It’s too small a thing to apply this truth to pollution and waste. These same sins cause us to use people as commodities, to pass by those who need what we can provide, and to inflict unintentional hardship on others. When we say people are part of creation, we mean others as well as ourselves. When we behave as enemies of the rest of creation it’s because we have first been enemies of God.

A biblical view of conservationism will insist that churches and individual Christians can demonstrate the reconciling power of God between man and the rest of nature as we can between man and man, and between man and God. Although our earth is terminal, we can make substantial positive changes in the things around us.

For this reason I reject the notion that our positive influence on creation is measured by the age of trees or the measure of our green space. The focus of our dominion is not merely or mostly restorative. Our joy in all nature does not require that we bury our talent in the ground. We are to use it, change it, make it more than it was.

The building of a highway or a generating plant is sometimes the most responsible use for some of God’s places. I’d rather look at a garden, yes, but a garden won’t get me to work or cool my house.

If we believe that the redemption we experience in Jesus not only gives us eternal life but can also heal marriages and make us better employees, why not see that redemption can apply our productive and creative abilities to other present tense needs? A conservationist church will not only be as efficient as it can be but also be as beautiful as it can be. It’s a demonstration of God’s power to heal and create. It’s a big part of what our dominion should be.

The focus of a crunchy Christian is just more thorough than that of an environmentalist, if you’ll accept that Al Gore, the Sierra Club, and most major news outlets represent environmentalists. Sometimes it appears as though we worship different gods. But the contrast should never be that we discount the need to exercise our valid dominion and behave in more selfish ways than do environmentalists.

The opposite must be our testimony. Just because the Sierra Club tends to worship an “old growth” forest doesn’t mean we should clear-cut it just to prove our distinctiveness.

I yield to no one in my appreciation for wild and green places. I walk there, sometimes camp there, occasionally (and legally) eat the critters I find there.

My lawn fertilizer smells like a barnyard; we recycle; my tiny yard has more intentional bio-diversity than some continents. I burn in my car far more corn than I eat. My intention in all places is to honor the value of what God has made as well as to continue his creative and ordering work on the earth.

My efforts will surely pale beside the restoration of a new Heaven and a new Earth. Nonetheless, and in the meantime, our earnest efforts to rightly use, conserve, order, and beautify the old world is a work of obedience, a testimony to God’s power to undo the taint of sin, and it’s pretty satisfying to boot.

And we can’t do this work because we think it’s going to save the planet, it won’t. Neither will we win brownie points with the pantheists among us. The left is so intolerant of dissent and nuance that we’ll also be disdained for not dancing to their precise tune every time they call. In fact, it’s also mistaken to believe that the severity of the crisis (however severe that may be) should compel us to a more thorough conservationism.

So, yes, I’d say that we must distinguish ourselves from the environmental movement.

Their agenda is different from ours in so many fundamental ways. The best way to do that, though, is to obey our God energetically in the way that we honor, conserve, and utilize all the marvelous things he has made. It’s part of being a faithful servant of God. The challenge for our churches is to find ways to express this high calling to the glory of God.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Southern Baptist Texan, the newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. The author, Gary Ledbetter, is the editor.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is involved in representing Southern Baptists on issues such as creation care and environmental stewardship. If you would like to help us continue our efforts, please click here.

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