Environmental ethics

By George Clifford

Self-interest dominates political debate in the United States. Generally, that means each individual looking out for his or her interests, often narrowly defined. People sometimes most effectively achieve that goal by affiliating with likeminded individuals, a practice that has greatly contributed to the emergence of increasingly pervasive special interest groups in America, groups myopically focused on benefiting their members. And when people do adopt a broader focus, that focus typically translates self-interest into national interest, i.e., what is good for the United States will, by implication, be good for individual citizens.

Episcopalian and Yale Law School professor Stephen L. Carter has observed, “The ethic of self makes the religious task more difficult … but also more necessary. With a more vibrant religious voice in our politics, we should be able to do better. We could, indeed, hardly do any worse.” (Stephen L. Carter, God’s Name in Vain )

On no issue is the need greater for a genuine global perspective that values our neighbors as much as ourselves than on environmental ethics. The environment does not recognize nor adhere to the arbitrary local or national borders that humans establish. Whether a shared watershed (e.g., the Rio Grande River between the U.S. and Mexico or the Jordan River between Israel and Syria), atmosphere (winds blow pollutants indiscriminately across boundaries, e.g.), or oceans (think floating islands of trash) much environmental degradation obviously represents a global rather than local or national problem.

Even many issues that seem prima facie to be strictly national concerns are, upon closer examination, international or global in scope because of oceanographic or atmospheric, e.g., deforestation results in increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and pesticide use can harm migratory waterfowl. The global push to ban the use of chlorofluorocarbons, which resulted in twenty-five nations agreeing to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, with additional nations subsequently signing the Protocol, represents an example of a pollution problem that the international community recognized required a global solution.

For Christians, environmental ethics begin with God’s repeated affirmation in the Genesis 1 creation story, This is good. Similarly, the Genesis 2 creation story implies that God found creation good. Regardless of whether one interprets the creation stories literally or mythically, the theological message for humans is the same. God’s goodness ensures the goodness of God’s creative activity, a quality evident not only in the beauty of creation but also in the value of each created thing. Plants, animals, the waters, the earth itself, the planets, and the stars all have intrinsic value because of God’s creative activity. Human self-centeredness leads to the mindless exploitation and destruction of other life forms and the earth. This diminishes the beauty of creation and devalues other living things, including other humans, animals, and plants in addition to future generations.

The scriptural warrant that grants humans dominion over the earth is not a carte blanche to use or destroy the earth and other living things, exclusively thinking of our personal enjoyment or benefit. Christianity calls us to model ourselves after Jesus. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard entrusted to tenants implicitly speaks to our responsibility to care for the earth as God’s tenants. The prospect of God carelessly raping and pillaging God’s own creation seems ludicrous; clearly, God desires humans exercise a stewardship of creation, attempting to balance the needs and rights of the earth and all living things, including future generations.

Jesus, as a Jew, inherited the Jewish ethical concern for the environment, an emphasis Christianity too often lacks in spite of Jesus’ teaching. For example, the Jewish scriptures prohibit, after a military victory, cutting down the enemy’s olive trees, a slow growing tree economically vital because of the oil, food, and wood the tree produces. Although economic concerns probably provided the original impetus for this injunction, the rabbinic tradition cites this teaching as evidence of God’s desire that humans be good environmental stewards.

Consistently, clearly, and fully emphasizing the ethical dimension of human stewardship of creation constitutes a unique contribution that Jews and Christians can make to environmental debates. First, in our secular society an ever-growing number of people believe the cosmos simply exists. By firmly asserting that God created the cosmos, we assert the cosmos’ inherent value, otherwise widely disregarded or not perceived. Affirming the cosmos’ value avoids on the one hand the extreme of valuing only humans and on the other hand the extreme of valuing all life forms/creation equally. The latter view, held by a distinct minority of environmental activists, is an unrealistic and untenable position. Bacteria, for example, are collectively vital. Nevertheless, each individual bacterium is not universally and invariably of equal value with each individual among the more complex plant and animal life forms. Killing specific bacterium (but not all members of that species) to preserve a human life is not only morally justifiable but also usually imperative.

Second, human stewardship focuses on the inter-relatedness of the planet and the life forms that it hosts. Greedily or rashly exploiting resources or other living things for the personal benefit of the few constitutes an abusive exploitation of others. Many human actions have widespread repercussions; the true cost of an action is not only its adverse effect on the actor and his/her kin but also on other living things, the planet, and future generations.

Third, framing the discussion of environmental issues in terms of stewardship puts issues of fairness on the environmental and political agenda. God’s preferential option for the poor and disadvantaged means that fairness connotes proportioning the costs of sound environmental policies according to ability to pay. This approach contrasts starkly with the connotations of fairness preferred by people who place self-interest above all other concerns, i.e., paying as little as possible and certainly no more than a per capita equal amount. The United States, one of the world’s ten wealthiest nations on a per capita basis, has produced a hugely disproportionate share of greenhouse gases related to energy generation (30% from 1900-2005). Therefore, fairness dictates that the U.S., which sold that energy for less than its true cost when the cost includes harm to the environment, should bear a disproportionate share of the remediation cost.

Finally, by constantly illuminating with God’s light the human responsibility to be stewards and care for God’s good creation, religious people helpfully raise the standard of political discussion and action. Politics is the art of the possible, frequently entailing compromise. Stephen Carter in God’s Name in Vain repeatedly laments that when religious voices accede to the demands of the political arena, those religious voices compromise their authenticity and integrity, usually settling for trivial wins with little real significance. Environmental issues are too important to allow this to happen.

In negotiations, the party that generally makes the first offer (an executive bargaining for salary, a consumer purchasing an auto, unions/businesses negotiating labor contracts, etc.) sets either the upper or lower boundary for all future negotiations. The other party may conceivably have been willing to accept that initial boundary as a final offer, but is no longer willing to do so once it is offered as an initial position. My observation of religious groups attempting to influence public policy matches Carter’s analysis: religious groups consistently and ironically receive the short end of the deal if they begin by offering what they believe is a politically acceptable compromise.

Moral arguments rightly exert influence in the public square. Moral arguments informed by religious belief can exert even greater influence in the public square. But when those arguments and their proponents compromise their moral integrity in an effort to wield power, they lose their moral integrity and cogency.

The history of the Episcopal Church might have been much different had its twentieth century debates about the status of women, people of color, and GLBTs, emphasized theological ethics rather than the language of rights. The latter is an important form of philosophical moral discourse. However, it is a form of discourse foreign to scripture and the Christian tradition. Drafting and debating theologically informed moral arguments about the status of women, people of color, and GLBTs might have required more effort but would honor the Church’s own language and tradition. Such arguments would have made null and void claims that the Church by changing to include everyone fully in its life was simply responding to a secular agenda.

Let’s not repeat that mistake with environmental issues. Let the Church speak with its moral authority and leave the inevitable compromising to others. By insistently communicating its unadulterated moral message the Church can potentially raise the level of discourse away from self-centeredness, concurrently avoiding marginalization and helping to reduce any loses from compromise.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. A priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, he is a visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

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