Care of the environment is an important consideration for all of the world’s inhabitants, but where does it rank in our consideration of moral obligations? What role does it play in our moral consciousness?
A small percentage of Catholics rate conservationism and environmentalism very high on their list of moral responsibilities; they consider it to be on an equal level with protecting the unborn. Others consider the economy of nature to merit no higher consideration than getting the kids to band practice or brushing one’s teeth.
I generally think of natural conservation as not running the water longer than necessary during a drought, and turning off lights rather than leaving them on. In truth, I’d prefer paper to plastic—but not to the point that I’d overrule my wife’s preference for plastic bags due to their many post-grocery carrying usages.
A Natural Upbringing
I spent my youngest years (to age eight) rambling in the woods near the Shenandoah River in western Virginia, and close to Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Afterwards, my family moved to a wooded subdivision with fairly large lots in Prince William County near Manassas.
To say that the vast majority of my leisure time was spent out of doors is an understatement. My older brother and I explored whatever woods could be walked or biked to. My maternal grandparents live on the banks of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where we took family trips into the Adirondacks. I’ve twice had the opportunity to visit the spectacular Rockies in Colorado, and once the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
With this kind of background, it comes as no surprise that I would prefer that our parkland and other important tracts of relatively unspoiled nature (such as the Smoky Mountain National Park) be respected; they should not be trampled or abused, invaded by foreign pests, burnt, polluted, or even warmed to death.
Love God, Protect Nature?
Aside from the desire to continue to be able to experience these joys myself, and eventually share them with my young children, it is not a purely sentimental “quality of life” or similarly atheistic aspiration that motivates me to inquire: what moral obligation do we have to preserve nature?
Early lessons in apologetics teach us that God is revealed through nature. The intricacy of the tiniest flower reveals to us the hand of a loving Creator. Contemplation of the flower and other complex natural beauties—not merely analysis, but true contemplation—reveals to us both the existence of God and various aspects of His nature.
All gifts given by God should be contemplated. When contemplating the pursuit of a particular good, we should view most things on a moral basis as our primary motivation for action—even extremely practical matters. There is a very good moral or spiritual reason (or factor) to be considered in pretty much everything that is done during daily life.
For example: if a man picks up after himself around the house, he may do so primarily to please his wife. But if he has no wife (or perhaps even if he does have one), he may well be compelled to do it for love of God. A poorly ordered home may show disrespect for God’s gifts, which would be an impediment to good spiritual life.
Another example: you may need to exercise daily for your health, and if you are a particular type of person (like me) you may also need some form of physical activity daily in order to avoid barking at your wife and children. Your wife, your children and your own body are all gifts of God to be respected and well-used.
Since God gives us only things that are for our good, the gift of Nature both as a whole and in its individual parts should not be taken for granted.
This logic demands that we consider whether the conservation or protection of nature is a moral imperative.
Wariness of Environmental Movements
Modern scientific reasoning and the role of the environmentalist are reflected in the pages of such popular magazines as National Geographic, to which I subscribe. Please bear in mind that I am under no illusions about what National Geographic has to offer. Its aspiration to enrich the lives of Earth’s inhabitants through the preservation of nature is truly commendable. Rarely, however, does it include the contemplation of the Divine in its list of goals for the betterment of humanity.
The magazine is often frustratingly beautiful in taking the argument as far as secularists can go, but never reaching what I consider to be the logical conclusion by bringing faith into the discussion. The editors and authors of NG would like to have good relations with committed Christians and faith leaders, but primarily because they feel that a morals-based movement is critical to the success of environmentalism. In the Voices section of the August 2006 edition, activist/author Bill McKibben wrote:
Though they don’t always live up to their ideals, churches and synagogues and mosques are among the few institutions that can posit some idea for human existence other than accumulation. They understand that it’s not just, as Bill Clinton’s campaign asserted, “the economy, stupid”…. Environmentalism isn’t dying. In fact, the need for it has never been greater. But it has to transform itself…to be about a new kind of culture…. [I]t has to pay as much attention to preachers and sociologists as it does to scientists.
If we can’t help them [the needy] figure out some path to dignity other than our hyper-individualism, the math of global warming will never work.
It is hard to tell if the author thinks it would be better if we were all people of faith (because without it, there would be no true compelling argument for maintaining the existence, or quality, of the human race), or if he merely means that those who are not must use those who are as tools.
A recent note in NG’s From the Editor page allowed:
Our magazine aims to explore the world, often by highlighting scientific concepts such as evolution. Is this approach necessarily at odds with faith, which lies beyond the possibility of scientific proof? No. Just as religion did not disappear after Galileo demonstrated that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system, evolution does not exclude God from our origins, the “mystery of mysteries”—a 19th-century astronomer’s description borrowed by Darwin himself.
Point taken: according to National Geographic, we shouldn’t consider science to necessarily be at odds with faith, or be afraid that faith will cease to exist with the emergence of further scientific discoveries or popular theories. Generally, contemporary faithful Catholics do not fear such theories as evolution and heliocentrism, though some may not agree with them.
Rather, Catholics fear that scientific progress has and will make possible (or make more convenient and/or invisible) inappropriate alterations in nature—such as the deliberate termination of life in the womb, contraception, embryonic stem-cell research, or human cloning.
In addition, Catholics are cognizant of a dominant disposition towards atheism or agnosticism (either professed or simply practiced) in the modern scientific field. We are well aware that the same scientist who would decry the introduction of the foreign balsam woolly adelgid (because of its destruction of the Fraser fir) might cheerily consider contraceptives to be a boon to society without considering, for example, that the Caucasian inhabitants of France are in danger of extinction.
Simply because this is the case, however, does not mean that environmentalism is not a cause for Catholics. It simply means that, if the environment is worth saving (and I think it is), Catholics need to stop holding it out at arms length because of bad associations and consider where we should be placing our priorities.
A Balancing of Goods
It is a fact that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. It is a fact that abortion occurs every day. It is a fact that approximately 1.3 million babies die from surgical abortion in the United States annually.
The largest threat to our environment is considered to be global warming. Global warming is a well-supported theory, but still a theory. The theory that global warming is causing changes in our environment is well supported by empirical evidence. It remains unknown whether earth as a whole is currently operating at its optimum temperatures, or whether global warming is a progressively devastating condition or simply part of a natural cycle.
Does the need to protect the environment supersede the need to protect the unborn? Clearly not—unless it can be reasonably demonstrated that the consequences of pursuing our current environmental course is so devastating that it will directly and immediately cause a loss of human life, and that there is something that we can do to prevent it.
Again, from National Geographic:
In January…the steady and long-serving NASA climatologist James Hansen defied federal attempts to gag him and told reporters that new calculations about, among other things, the instability of Greenland’s ice shelf showed “we can’t let it go on another ten years like this.” If we did? Over time, the buildup of CO2 emissions would “imply changes that constitute practically a different planet.” Less than ten years to reverse course. Not our kids’ lifetimes, or our grandkids’. Ours.
But what is the truth of the matter? Environmental causes have been much politicized during my entire life. I am not a member of the scientific community. I don’t know what personal gain there is to be had in studying, developing and promoting the idea of global warming, but I would guess that it is probably a pretty thankless, relatively under-funded task. If the majority of the scientific community believes that the long or short term consequences of global warming will be devastating, and that this is the direct result of our refusal to properly care for the Creation that God has given us—what does it mean?
Questions and Answers
First, is it spiritually advisable to conserve nature because our interaction with it leads us closer to Christ? Second, does interaction with Creation form such an indispensable link with God that refusing to actively protect it should be considered a sin of omission? Third, is protection of the environment so critical to the future of the human race that it demands our highest moral attention (or close to it)?
I believe the answer to the first question is a definitive “yes”. Considered purely on a humanistic level, studies have shown that interaction with nature is essential to human social and psychological wellness, building communities and allowing people to deal more productively with stress and hardship (poverty, illness, what have you). But as I stated earlier in this article, interaction with and contemplation of nature also brings us closer to the Divine.
Regarding the second question, I am less certain. Man is the steward of Creation, and as such has a responsibility to care for it. Protecting the environment, including the protection of parks and preserves, is not necessarily incompatible with other moral ideals. However, priorities here are clearly a matter of prudence.
Regarding the third question, I must say that I have yet to be convinced that potential dangers such as global warming represent an imminent threat to the future of the human race. Until this argument is made in a way which clearly separates itself from the constant barrage of skewed secularist moral panic which is so characteristic of our culture, it will be difficult for me to rank environmental activism high on my list of moral responsibilities. For the moment, I don’t think that care for the environment should be considered on an equal footing with abortion, devastating poverty, or even care for the seriously ill and dying (among many other things).
I’m pretty much your average guy who doesn’t litter and enjoys nature very much. I drive a car that gets good gas mileage (a choice more based on personal economics than environmental concern), but I don’t drive a hybrid-fuel vehicle and don’t consider it my moral responsibility to do so. But occasionally, with all that I hear and read about the health of the environment, I still wonder if it might be.
Christians need to keep a weather eye on this issue, and they also need to engage in the discussion because of their indispensable perspective. We need not panic, but we dare not dismiss it lightly.
Bill McKibben is right when he suspects that environmentalism must pay attention to preachers. It also must pay attention to Christian philosophers, theologians and other thinkers who supply vital insights on human existence and action that spiritually transcends the “quality of life” metric.
In teaching a class on the Philosophy of Education at the University of Dallas, my brother, Christopher Mirus, points out that there can be no contemplation without God—only analysis. Despite all of its beautiful intricacy that can excite our admiration, without the eyes of faith a rose is just a rose. It exists; it possesses certain physical characteristics; it is beautiful—nothing more.
With the eyes of faith, the rose is from somebody, to somebody. The rose is a gift from God to man, and is a reflection of God’s beauty. Contemplating Nature in this manner offers a true transcendent perspective to the environmental debate by which all God’s gifts are respected—beginning with life itself—and without which all arguments fall short.
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