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Thinking Twice about the Environment

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 27, 2008

With environmental hysteria reaching new heights, it is helpful to take a look at what the Judeo-Christian tradition says about the relationship of man to his environment, and about the proper way to handle environmental concerns. The Acton Institute sponsored a conference of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic scholars in 1999 to do just that, and the results were enshrined in the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship (the conference was held in West Cornwall, CT).

In the years since the Cornwall Declaration, the Acton Institute has also sponsored teams of scholars in writing on what they see as the wisdom of their respective traditions, producing essays by Jews, Protestants and Catholics which explain the principles by which each tradition seeks to assess and respond to environmental concerns. Then, in 2007, the Institute published a small volume which contains both the Cornwall Statement and the three essays, along with a Foreword by Institute President Fr. Robert Sirico, and an introduction by Jay W. Richards, the Director of Acton Media.

The primary purpose of this book is to convey the principles or attitudes which ought to shape a Judeo-Christian response to environmental issues. The most important of these principles is that human persons have been invested by their Creator with both the duty and the ability to enhance the fruitfulness of creation through proper stewardship. For this reason, environmentalism goes astray when it denigrates man or assumes that human flourishing must inevitably signal the destruction of the environment. Precisely because man participates in God's creative power, sound environmentalism is not a zero-sum game.

The three essays in the collection are especially interesting in their marked differences. The Jewish essay finds in the Torah a guide to evaluating every question by avoiding extremes; the Catholic essay sets forth a fairly comprehensive spiritual-social theory (with which users will be largely familiar); and the Protestant essay goes beyond general principles to demonstrate the complexity of conflicting evidence on several key environmental questions, including global warming.

In 120 pages, the book can hardly answer every question. Readers should be aware that the Acton Institute typically places a strong emphasis on personal liberty and private property, whereas critics may well conclude that significant government involvement is essential. But specific solutions are not central to the argument; rather, the book outlines a proper understanding of man's relationship to his environment, enumerating the principles essential to reasonable discourse. Those who read it will quickly realize how far contemporary environmental discussions have wandered from their Judeo-Christian roots.

[Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Wisdom on the Environment. Robert Sirico, Jay Richards, et al. (The Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, MI, 2007) Paperback, 120 pp. Trinity Communications will receive a percentage of the sale if you order on Amazon through this link: Environmental Stewardship.]

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