Book | Mere Environmentalism

March 7, 2011


Reviewed by Jim Jewell

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011

Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World by Steven F. Hayward
AEI Press, 2010, 100 pages

During the Christmas holiday, my family spent a lot of time rearranging a “Little People” nativity scene that was a frequent plaything for our two little girls. My wife and I told the girls about the centrality of baby Jesus and the importance of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the kings. But the cows and other animals often took precedence, and on many nights the animals took over the stable, putting the holy family out to pasture. That got me thinking about the small book I was reading at the time: Mere Environmentalism by conservative political commentator and policy scholar Steven F. Hayward.

Hayward’s main assertion in Mere Environmentalism, if I may continue the nativity scene analogy, is that environmentalists have replaced the divine—the super-natural—with nature—the natural—as the central figure of the story, and have relegated the human figures to an equal or even secondary role to the rest of creation. In contrast, the Christmas scene illustrates the Christian’s distinctive view of creation and redemption. When Jesus was born, Scripture tells us, he slept in a manger alongside the cows (in a time when animal husbandry was a family affair). But the incarnate God was born as a child, not as a cow, and he did not come to save the cows from their sins or to give his life as a ransom for bovinity.

Sound a little weird? While extreme philosophies are not common among the environmentalists I’ve met, and, like fringe positions in political campaigns they have failed to gain widespread acceptance, they can and usually do seep into the mainstream. Recently I was surprised to hear a board member at even an evangelical environmental organization assert that the purpose of Jesus’ death was to bring salvation to all animals, not just humans. He found little support for that position on the board, but I could hear the seeping sound.

Although Hayward often takes fringe thinking and attributes it to the whole of environmentalism in this book, he also presents ample evidence that at its core, modern environmental thought is frequently atheistic and earth-centric at the expense of both God and humanity.

Hayward also presents a strong defense for the Christian imperative of environmental stewardship; brief but equal to many of the efforts in recent books by Christian environmentalists. He gives a fine exposition of the fundamentally divergent views of Christians and secular environmentalists:

The biblical understanding of humans and the natural world differs in fundamental ways from many “mainstream” environmental views. Christianity places humans—made in the image of God and therefore sharing, to some extent, God’s creativity—at the center of creation, whereas most secular environmentalists exalt the natural world in such a way as to make humans a subordinate part of nature, and often as only destructive of nature.

For Christians, the most fundamental distinction is not…between humans and God, but between nature and supernature—i.e. the omnipotent God. Christians will revere the things of the natural world ultimately because of their connection with, and glorification of, their Creator, while secular environmentalists reverse this or even worship nature solely for its own sake.

This important distinction recognizes God, not nature or even humans, as the central character in the creation story and the focus of admiration.

Hayward declares climate change “beyond the scope” of this thin book while acknowledging that “the issue has become dangerously politicized on both sides.” His most constructive comment in this brief section is that “it is useful to set aside arguments about uncertainty in climate science, and consider uncertainty in policy responses that might be adopted to deal with climate change.” In fact, in recent years Hayward has published helpful thoughts on policy options, including a recommendation for “a revenue-neutral carbon tax regime (in which taxes are placed on the carbon emissions of fuel use, with revenues used to reduce other taxes) to emissions trading.”

In general, Mere Environmentalism makes few suggestions about what Christians should do in response to the spiritual impulse to care for creation, except to establish habits that will “reinforce conscious stewardship of resources,” and to apply stewardship practices locally. One terrific point Hayward does make is that “Christian students with a scientific interest should take up earth sciences, engineering, and related disciplines.” Indeed, we need more Christian scientists.

The most interesting parts of the book are the ideas on environmental restoration and protection that emerge from Hayward’s conservative, market-based proclivity:

Environmentalism is most often regarded as a liberal political cause, though there is no essential reason why this should be so. Indeed, if the proverbial Man from Mars were to drop onto the American scene, nothing would seem more natural than to assume that environmentalism be a conservative enthusiasm…The chief reason political conservatives today are estranged from environmentalism has much to do with conservative dislike of the centralized bureaucratic regulation of most environmental laws today.

He draws on his faith in “wealth and technological innovation (spurred more by markets than by government dictates) of industrialized nations” as means for environmental improvement and remediation. He cites the importance of property rights as an environmental protection, with a fascinating explanation of how private ownership of trees in Niger has reversed that nation’s deforestation.

Hayward also addresses a great concern for Christians: that calls for population control are shifting environmental priorities. Hayward writes about worldwide drops in fertility rates and that “it no longer appears that the fate of the planet is to experience runaway population growth and mass starvation because of the simple fact that we have been able to expand food production much more quickly than population over the last two generations.”

It is encouraging to see a conservative writer of Hayward’s reputation affirm that “the charge of stewardship in the Bible would seem to suggest that deliberate or careless environmental degradation is a manifestation of evil and sin.” But where the diagnosis seems on target, the tonic is incomplete. Hayward writes, “The primary remedy is the salvation of souls more than the issuance of another government regulation.” That’s a great pulpit-pounder, but at the very least we need not just saved souls, but saints whose sanctification includes significant reduction in pollution and restraint of unbridled consumerism.

While Hayward has written much about the environmental movement, he appears unaware of recent developments in the Christian component of the movement. His exposure seems to be limited to the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), and even then to the organization’s founding documents. EEN was perhaps the first recognizable evangelical actor in the modern environmental debates, but it has its roots and life among evangelical progressives. And although EEN is thoroughly evangelical, it remains active mostly in climate policy.

Hayward seems unaware of other evangelical groups that might appeal broadly to evangelical centrists and conservatives. For instance, the global, holistic ministries of Plant with Purpose (mentioned in the book’s endnotes only because of an article by the organization’s director, Scott Sabin, in an EEN publication) appeal to evangelicals across the spectrum. The most active evangelical outreach to young people is done by the partner organizations Restoring Eden, Renewal, and Creation Care Study Program. The most recent major statement on the environment is a widely supported and publicized statement on creation care created in 2008 by the Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative. Flourish encourages Christians in protection and restoration of the environment that bring honor to the creator and help individuals and families thrive. The new Terra Dei Institute for Environmental Policy facilitates conversations that include policy proposals cited favorably by Hayward, and brings new attention to the need for a stronger pro-life ethic in environmental policies.

Hayward’s work on the biblical basis of environmental stewardship is helpful and clarifying, as is his discussion of a “mere environmentalism” that puts the natural above the supernatural. But he provides only thin recommendations on what committed Christians should do to be responsible stewards of the environment. It is there, and in the engagement of conservative Christian thinkers such as Hayward, that we are likely to find real progress on creation stewardship issues within the church and as Christians add their voices to the larger environmental conversation.

Jim Jewell is co-founder and chairman of the board of Flourish.

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