Environmental Ethics

Environmental Ethics
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 2:42pm

QUESTION: Do you believe that polluting the environment is a sin?

ANSWER: Based on the creation mandate (Genesis 1:26-28), I have to say, definitely, yes. When God created the human race in his own image, He gave us dominion over the earth and everything in it. We have the divine mandate, as stewards acting for the Creator, to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. This is comparable to owning a house and renting it to another family. What is their responsibility toward that house? How do you, the owner, expect them to treat it?

Years ago I wrote two study books called Tough Questions, Biblical Answers (still available from Wipf and Stock). The volume called “Part Two” deals with ethical issues related to justice and government (on the one hand) and life and death (on the other hand). The volume called “Part One” deals with ethical issues related to sexuality and marriage, and also issues related to stewardship and economics. The latter part of the latter volume has chapters titled “Work: Job or Joy?”, “Labor Strikes,” “Leisure,” “Property,” “Capitalism,” “Poverty,” and “Ecology.”

In this very last chapter, the one on “Ecology,” I discuss this whole subject of the “environmental crisis.” By this term I mean pollution of all kinds, as well as the overuse of natural resources. I am not an extremist in either direction, but I believe that every human being is under an ethical obligation to be a wise steward of our environment. My conviction is based not just on pragmatic considerations (i.e., it is to our advantage to take good care of our dwelling place), but primarily on the responsibilities that our Creator has placed upon us as stewards of His property.

We should be careful not to base our ecological concerns on the animistic view of nature that is quite common today, as expressed in very entertaining but pagan fictional stories such as Ferngully and Avatar. We should also be aware of the fact that some have ignorantly tried to blame the Bible itself for the environmental crisis. They do this by interpreting Genesis 1 as a mandate or an excuse to exploit the earth rather than to use it wisely.

(Here I will copy and adapt a few paragraphs from the TQBA volume mentioned above:) The facts are that the earth was created to serve man, and man is above or over or superior to all the rest of the natural universe. These are clear Biblical teachings; they are not scandalous, nor are they a license for exploitation. Man, being created in the image of God, was appointed to subdue the earth and have dominion over it (Gen. 1:27, 28). There can never be equality between man and nature (despite the “Brother Earth” idea).

But—and this is a crucial point—neither can man every have absolute authority or “limitless rule” over creation. Man has dominion over the earth, but not sovereignty. God is still the Creator, and He alone is sovereign over His creation—man and nature alike. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it” (Ps. 24:1).

Thus man does not own the earth, nor is he free to do whatever he chooses with it. Man is only a steward. He tends the earth (cultivates and keeps it—Gen. 2:15), for his own benefit to be sure, but also for the glory of God. We should treat it with care and respect not just for pragmatic reasons (so we won’t destroy ourselves) but because we as stewards will have to answer to the owner some day.

In view of our responsibilities as stewards of the earth we must recognize that it is wrong to pollute our environment, and not just for selfish reasons. Pollution is vandalism of God’s property. It is just as wrong in principle to toss a wrapper or can out a car window as to dump chemicals in a stream.

We must also see that it is wrong to waste the resources placed in our care. They are meant to be used, of course; that is why God included stocks of ores, coal, oil, trees, and animals in and upon the earth. But these resources were not meant to be abused and wasted by planned obsolescence and gluttonous consumption. In this connection we must remember the needs of future generations, and not steal from them just to satisfy our selfish craving for material luxuries (Exod. 20:15).

The bottom line is that “consumerism” is definitely an ethical issue. Godly moderation and careful consumption are matters of right and wrong. The fact that we may have the money to spend does not justify our buying every little trinket or big luxury item that catches our eye. We should buy fewer things and keep them longer. We should practice joint ownership of little-used items such as ladders and certain tools. Small things count: use both sides of writing paper; ride the bus; eat the leftovers; turn off the shower while soaping up; turn out the lights! And do these things not just to save money, but to save the earth!

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