Whither the Christian Environmentalist?

chimney-1441862 - Helmut GevertAs an environmentalist, the creation story is foundational to my calling. Not only does it remind us that God is the ultimate creator, but it also reminds us of how things were meant to be in this world and how they will one day be restored. This gives us hope and new purpose in our work in the environment. As a Christian, I don’t just protect and conserve nature because it is the right thing to do in some abstract sense.  I do so because it is God’s creation – something to be appreciated and respected, not abused. In Genesis 2:5b, it says “For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil.” Then in verse 15 God “placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.” From the very beginning our vocation was to care for the earth and cultivate it. It is not a coincidence that the first command God gave Adam was to oversee and care for all the plants and animals in the garden. And so not only are we called to work as Christians, but we are called to protect the earth as well!

Only after creating humans did God use the phrase “very good” instead of just “good,” (Genesis 1:31). I find this very significant and meaningful. Of everything He created, God favored humans the most because we are most like Him. That is amazing! It also gives us hope for ourselves and our lives because if God said “very good” after He created us then that must mean we have the potential of being “very good” again even within this broken world. The more we become like God, reflecting His image the more “good” we become. But these statements show the deep challenge of working as a Christian environmentalist. Not only am I a rare commodity in this field, but most environmentalists don’t share in my belief that mankind is special and good. In fact, mankind – especially population – is usually considered the problem!  After all, how can you be for the environment and for mankind? Aren’t they at odds against each other?

Many environmentalists would say that humans are bad and should be kept out of the environment – we’re considered a weed species in some senses: capable of spreading anywhere and hard to eradicate!  We build factories which create air pollution and they cut down trees and harm habitats. And yes, that is true.  And sadly, we often go about our God-given work in ways that are environmentally disastrous.  Equally sadly, most of the “off the shelf” solutions available from the environmentalist movement as a whole work off of deeply unchristian assumptions.

As a Christian environmentalist I end up in the middle, bridging a gap – or at least trying to….  I must put the lie to the idea that mankind is the problem.  Instead, mankind has to be the answer! Loving only the environment and hating all of human creation is bad, but so is loving only mankind and hating all of the natural creation – or just ignoring our impact on it. Humanity and the rest of the creation shouldn’t be put against each other!  God created both and therefore both are good. Biblically, it must be possible to be for the environment and for mankind. But in today’s political climate, neither side of the polarized debate seems to want that.  So whither the Christian environmentalist?  I don’t know, to be honest, but I care because God cares.


Hannah Kinkaid is a Fellow in the Chattanooga Fellows Program.

Photos: FreeImages.com/Jay Lopez, Helmut Gevert

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  • Emily Balint

    This was a really interesting read Hannah. I took a couple of classes at Berry that focused on issues such as these, and have read my fair share of environmentalists who harp on about how humans are the problem and how our population is out of control. Even some who would suggest population control as an answer to our environment’s problems. To me, that seems a completely unethical way to go about solving an ethical dilemma. I think the root of the problem (or at least a huge contributing factor) is companies who are committed to making a profit despite the harm their products cause. These companies might produce products that are harmful in and of themselves, or produce them in a way that is harmful to the environment due to pollution or some other factor. I’m reminded of Sayer’s article “Why Work?” If only everyone was committed making good products responsibly, as opposed to making a profit! If that were the case, it might be a lot easier to be “for mankind” and “for the environment.”

  • Morgan Sharpe

    It seems that we are people of extremes–we tend towards all or nothing, to love or to hate, to care for or destroy and yet you have articulated the reality that there is a tension. We cannot eradicate humanity to save the environment nor can we treat the environment as if our actions do not have consequences. So the question always is, “where is the middle ground?” I like that you don’t resolve this pondering–like you said at the end “God cares” about the environment and similarly I think he cares about the process, about humans figuring out how to care and bear the consequences. Good thoughts, keep em coming!

  • Hannah Kincaid

    I totally agree with you Emily! Sayers has a lot of truth behind what she said and sadly what was true for England in the 30s and 40s is true for American today!

    Morgan, I like what you said about God caring about the process of fixing the problems as much as he cares about the solution and that’s because he cares about us. This is an interesting perspective one I don’t think enough of us take, myself included.

  • Gracie Jackson

    What a wonderful way to put this, Hannah! I completely agree, and it seems we do have a “tug-of-war” behind, principally, our motives. I appreciate you going beyond actions into the reasoning on which these different beliefs stand. Is doing good only for the sake of doing good enough, or should we analyze the heart of the matter with greater depth? Honestly, I believe doing good only for the sake of calling yourself an effective environmentalist can only last for so long. There will always be frustrations with this ongoing battle, so a firm foundation must be set in order to get anything of real value accomplished. I enjoyed your presentation of how man is good as well as creation, and that our initial command was to tend to it. What an idea! I agree that we often try to separate man and environment – whether protecting the environment from man or sheltering man from the environment. This was not man’s initial purpose, though, so I guess now we can see the root of all our problems here. I loved your response to this, however, when you stated that …”[you] care because God cares”, because honestly, what more reason could we really want or ask for?