THE CASE AGAINST RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
by Ronald Nash
The environment in America is cleaner today than at any time in this century. Despite all the good that the environmental movement has accomplished, it is time to step back and recognize some of its significant weaknesses. For one thing, extremists have co-opted the environmental movement while motivated by hidden religious and political agendas having nothing to do with environmental issues. The environmental movement also needs to mature and realize that success in dealing with future environmental problems will require more than appeals to emotion; it will need careful thinking and more attention to good science. Meanwhile, Christians need to recognize the warning signs of environmental extremism and act accordingly.
Thanks to the efforts of people who care about the environment, Americans today enjoy the benefits of an environment that is cleaner than at any time in the past 50 years.1 No one that I know wishes to turn back the clock and wipe out the important environmental gains of the past 30 years, but many knowledgeable people are beginning to express concern about extremists in the environmental movement. One feature of radical environmentalism is the often disguised religious and political agendas to which many of the extremists are committed. Radical environmentalism is not about good stewardship or conservation; it’s about using the environment issue for ulterior religious or political reasons. More often than not, radical environmentalists base their activities upon bad or unsupported scientific claims.
MAJOR TYPES OF RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
Three major branches of radical environmentalism exist, commonly known as the Greens, the deep ecologists, and the animal rights movement. The group known as the Greens is the most politically sophisticated, a fact that explains the care they take to hide their true agenda from the public. This movement has become the new home for hard-line socialists who want coercive governments to function as the mechanism for destroying private property rights. This may explain why members of this group are sometimes called “the watermelon environmentalists” — green on the outside, but red on the inside.
The deep ecologists are pantheistic fanatics with New Age, Hindu, or Buddhist overtones. Such organizations as “Greenpeace” and “Earth First” represent this group. Members of this movement favor radical confrontation, which leads them to be far less pragmatic than the Greens. The pantheism of the deep ecologists teaches “that all organisms and entities in the ecosphere… are equal in intrinsic worth.”2 As one proponent says, “Unless the need were urgent, I could no more sink the blade of an ax into the tissues of a living tree than I could drive it into the flesh of a fellow human.”3 Ac-cording to David Foreman, “A human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual grizzly bear life. If it came down to a confrontation between a grizzly and a friend, I’m not sure whose side I would be on. But I do know humans are a disease, a cancer on nature.”4
The animal rights movement is also pantheistic. It believes all of life is one, indivisible whole. No form of life is better than another. One of its favorite terms is “speciesism,” which it defines as a bias
for one’s own species against others. Humans are the only creatures who can be guilty of speciesism, which makes it the radical environmentalist’s corollary to racism and sexism. The best-known organization representing this movement is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).5
Many radical environmentalists do not have the environment as their top priority. In 1992 the top 12 environmental groups raised $638 million. Six-figure salaries abound in the offices of these organizations. Saving the environment has proven for some to be an easy path to financial success. A second motivating factor is the political agenda of a new breed of socialists, who regard private ownership of property as a major source of evil on the planet. A third motivating factor is the New Age religion of people in the Greenpeace and Earth First organizations. Political and social radicals love the implicit revolutionary nature of contemporary environmentalism; they see it as a way of mobilizing the masses into supporting their radical agenda.
Vice President Al Gore’s 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, exhibits many traits of environmental extremism. Gore asks Americans to embark “on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action — to use, in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system.”6 Writing in The Yale Law Journal, Robert Hahn calls Gore’s position the “kitchen sink” theory of environmental policy. In other words, it is a policy in which we are supposed to do everything all at once, oblivious to cost or necessity. 7
EVANGELICALS AND RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
It is hardly news that the theological and cultural liberals who control the National and World Council of Churches have ties to environmental extremist groups. What is surprising is the ease with which many evangelicals have embraced elements of environmental extremism.
Evangelicals need to be perceptive enough to recognize the dangerous religious and cultural implications of radical environmentalism. Alas, such is not the case. Friends of mine have stumbled into public gatherings where evangelicals and perceived allies from the other side of the theological tracks have been found together fervently singing hymns to “Mother Earth,” an exercise with clearly pantheistic overtones. Other evangelicals unthinkingly urge Christians to support one or another radical environmentalist organization. To a large extent, this evangelical fascination with environmental extremism is part of a larger surrender to the cultural political ideology of the religious left, a phenomenon I discuss in my 1996 book, Why the Left Is Not Right: The Religious Left: Who They Are and What They Believe (Zondervan).
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One representative of the evangelical left, Tony Campolo, claims to recognize the dangers of environmental extremism, especially the dangerous links to pantheism, the worship of nature in place of God, and an antibiblical elevation of all forms of life to an equal status with human beings. These concerns are supposedly reflected in the title to Campolo’s 1992 book, How to Rescue the Earth without Worshipping Nature.8 However, Wilbur Bullock, a retired professor of zoology at the University of New Hampshire, notes that Campolo often bases his claims “on some very selective manipulation of Scripture as well as reliance on considerable nonbiblical emotional mysticism.”9 Bullock puzzles over Campolo’s tendency to worry that worms might feel pain and that hateful talk might lead plants to wither and die. Campolo’s casual indifference to his own warnings that Christians should not regard all life as equally valuable especially troubles Bullock. According to Campolo, “One of the ways Christians can demonstrate their readiness to be led by the Holy Spirit is by making a commitment to the animal rights movement.”10
This evangelical scientist’s verdict on Campolo’s book is highly critical: “We need to be concerned with rescuing the earth. We will be held responsible as stewards for what we have done to counter the effects of sin on God’s creation. We must attempt this ‘rescue’ on biblical terms. ‘Nature’ is God’s creation — nature is not God. Mankind is to use but not abuse nature. In spite of his excellent title, Campolo’s approach is too close to worshipping nature. For that reason I cannot recommend this book as a real contribution to the Christian approach to environmental problems.”11
Christians need to show more discernment when joining various environmentalist movements. Radical organizations have always found ways of using impressionable, unthinking people to follow their lead. The importance of recognizing the hidden, often anti-Christian agendas of some of these groups cannot be emphasized too much.
Economist Peter Hill uses the term “ecological hysteria” to refer to a common technique of the environmental extremists. As Hill explains, “The news is continually filled with stories of where the next disaster is coming from and how we are on the brink of destruction from one catastrophic event or another. Pesticide poisoning, global warming, acid rain, asbestos, radon and electromagnetic radiation are among the many dangers that are about to overtake us….American citizens have been only too ready to accept the worst-case scenarios and many regard careful scientific inquiry into the extent of these dangers as irrelevant.”12 A good example is the alar scare that caused so much needless harm to apple growers in the late 1970s. Other examples include the well-known hysteria generated by scares of alleged global warming, thinning of the ozone layer, acid rain, and the like.
Joseph Bast and his coauthors provide a report card on the current status of putative environmental crises. They argue, for example, that the “crisis” of acid rain has been disproven and never was a problem; that global warming and ozone depletion are disproven theories that are not currently problems; that threats from automobiles and nuclear power plants used to be problems but now have been nearly solved in the West; that pesticides and toxic chemicals continue to be problems but can be managed with careful action; and that deforestation and resource depletion are problems largely in third world countries.13
Radical environmentalists are silent about the many kinds of pollution created by natural phenomena. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans have produced far less air pollution than that produced by just three volcanic eruptions: Krakatoa in Indonesia (1883), Katmai in Alaska (1912), and Hekla in Iceland ( 1947). When Mt. St. Helens exploded in 1980, it poured 910,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When Mexico’s El Chicon erupted in 1982, it released 100,000,000 tons of sulfur. Other volcanoes that spewed hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere include Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991) and Mt. St. Augustine in Alaska (1976). Environmentalists who worry about the effect of chlorine on stratospheric ozone seldom mention that volcanoes and other natural phenomena pump 650 million tons of chlorine into the atmosphere each year, many times the amount of stratospheric chlorine traceable to such chloro-fluoro carbons as freon.
OTHER CRITICISMS OF RADICAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
Space limits me from providing detail on a number of other problems of radical environmentalism, including the environmentalists’ silence about the staggering environmental destruction that has occurred in socialist states, pollution that will take decades and trillions of dollars to clean up. This silence, from people who typically regard big government as the planet’s savior from pollution, merits more attention. While improvements in the environment are important, several critics of environmentalism contend that even more improvement could have been achieved without the massive increases in governmental bureaucracy in America and the enormous costs of governmental regulation that followed.
The environmental movement today is in desperate need of growing up. Much of its early success resulted from appeals to emotion rather than to more rational approaches to problems. It needs to think less about the present and begin the more difficult task of addressing long-term solutions — solutions that will require careful attention to good science.
I don’t know anyone who wants people to drink polluted water, breathe polluted air, or eat carcinogens for supper. No thoughtful Christian can support contempt or disregard for God’s creation. Wise Christians will practice stewardship with regard to God’s creation. In effect, the concept of stewardship allows us to use nature, but not to abuse it. Wise Christians will therefore respect a prudent environmentalism but will oppose those extremists who seek to exploit concern for the environment for the sake of their own hidden religious and political agendas.
1See Joseph L. Bast, Peter J. Hill, and Richard C. Rue, Eco-Sanity (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994), ch. 2.2 Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1985), 67.3 Edward Abbey, “The Crooked Wood,” Audubon 77 (November 1975), 25.4Quoted by Douglas S. Looney, “Protector or Provocateur?” Sports Illustrated, 27 May 1991, 54. The quote comes from Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior (New York: Harmoney Books, 1991), 54.5For a Christian critique of the animal rights movement, see Harold O. J. Brown, “Hiding among the Animals,” Christian Research Journal, Summer 1996, 10-19.6Albert Gore, Earth in the Balance (New York: Plume, 1992), 274.7Robert W. Hahn, “Toward a New Environmental Paradigm,” The Yale Law Journal, May 1993, 1740.8(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992).9Wilbur L. Bullock, a book review in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45 (1993): 138.10Campolo, 71.11Bullock, 138.12Peter J. Hill, “Environmental Theology: A Judaic-Christian Defense,” unpublished paper, Wheaton College Economics Department (1993), 18.13For documentation of these claims, see Bast, 178.
A RESPONSE TO RONALD NASH
by Calvin B. DeWitt
I join Professor Nash in affirming the need for “clear thinking and good science.” And I agree that extremism is a problem of our time. As Christians we need to strive for truth and civility, not hysteria, on issues concerning God’s creation. As Nash rightly points out, we already have made significant progress on caring for creation and should not “turn back the clock and wipe out the important environmental gains of the past 30 years.”
I think we also agree that we must deal with extremists by ministering to them in civil and Christian ways, not by denying them the opportunity to learn that Jesus Christ is the Lord of creation. Thus, while being discerning, we also must be caring, bringing them the Good News. My concern is not that there are extremists (there always are), but rather, that we act extremely toward them in showing them by our words and lives that Jesus Christ is Lord of creation. Recently, for example, when I spoke to a Deep Ecology group, I found they had never heard the biblical teachings on caring for creation. Afterward, three of the 15 members began attending discussions on creation stewardship at the local evangelical campus ministry.
I agree with Nash that we must seek and avail ourselves of the means for finding the truth, including “good science.” His illustration of chlorine is a case in point. As free hydrogen is highly reactive but not when part of the water molecule, H2O, so is free chlorine highly reactive but not when part of chloroflourocarbon (CFC) molecules. While we know scientifically that volcanoes annually put immense quantities of chlorine into the atmosphere, we also know that chlorine in this form is highly reactive — as in swimming pools and water treatment plants — quickly forming compounds that make it unreactive. But chlorine that is a part of CFCs such as Freon is not reactive at all, but is innocuous. Unlike free chlorine, which is “wild” and quickly “tamed” by reacting with other things, the chlorine in CFCs is “tame” until it is hit by solar ultraviolet radiation 25-40 kilometers above the earth’s surface, where it becomes “wild” and free — quickly binding with ozone to produce oxygen, and thus destroying the ozone. Remarkably, the chlorine (temporarily bound to oxygen atoms) is then released again as free chlorine, free to repeat the process time and again. The problem, of course, is that the ozone molecules in the stratosphere are one of God’s remarkable provisions for shielding the earth from our sun’s ultraviolet radiation. The ozone layer intercepts life-destroying ultraviolet rays that radiate from the sun, preventing them from reaching the earth.1
This example of “clear thinking and good science” just brought the Nobel Prize in chemistry to its discoverers, Professors Paul Crutzen, Mario Molina, and F. Sherwood Rowland. “It is the first time the Nobel Prize has recognized research into man-made impacts on the environment. The discoveries led to an international environmental treaty which by the end of this year bans the production of industrial chemicals that reduce the ozone layer,” states the news release of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. I respectfully submit that the scientific understanding of ozone chemistry and the protective ozone layer is trivialized by commentators such as Joseph Bast and his coauthors in their “report card” when they say that ozone depletion is a “disproven theory.”
As we do not consult tabloids or other uninformed sources for clear thinking about moral truth, neither should we consult poorly informed sources on how the world works or on how things are going in creation, no matter how good their intentions may be. We must, as Nash so rightly points out, get to “clear thinking and good science.” And that is pretty easy to come by.2
I believe we also must be careful in making judgments about extremism. For example, in citing a book that “exhibits many traits of environmental extremism,” Nash also opens the question of the “extremism” of Noah. The author he cites writes, “Noah is commanded by God to take into his ark at least two of every living species in order to save them from the flood — a commandment that might appear in modern form as: Thou shalt preserve biodiversity….In spite of the clear message from a careful reading of this and other Scriptures, critics have gained currency….” And then this writer asks the question that should grip every believer, “How can one glorify the Creator while heaping contempt on the creation?” A careful reading of Genesis 6–9 will show that Noah fits pretty well within Robert Hahn’s definition (cited by Nash) of the “kitchen sink theory of environmental policy” — “a policy in which we are supposed to do everything all at once, oblivious to cost or necessity.” Nevertheless, Noah and the ark must be taken seriously.
Finally, I agree with Nash that we must avoid hysteria. While I also understand his citing Joseph Bast “that deforestation and resource depletion are problems largely in third world countries,” I must ask, Is that not also part of God’s creation? and, Are we uninvolved in its destruction? An even bigger question is this: Is Jesus Christ Lord of creation? If our answer is yes, then what happens anywhere in creation must be of interest to believers. And if our neighbor’s house — or the forests of Brazil or Surinam — is on fire, a person should be allowed to “pull the alarm” without being considered extreme or called an “alarmist.” In fact, if we are to take Ezekiel 33 and 34 seriously, it might even be our God-given duty.
Most of all, in dealing with our stewardship responsibility for creation, we must acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord of creation by what we say and sing, and also by what we do. People should know by our work and lives that we follow — in word and deed — the Son, who is beautiful Savior and Lord of creation.3
1See J. G. Anderson, D. W. Toohey, and W. H. Brune, Science 251 (39-45): 1991; and M. J. Molina and F. S. Rowland, Nature 249 (810): 1974.2For example, one can consult textbooks in environmental science, such as Bernard J. Nebel and Richard T. Wright, Environmental Science: The Way the World Works, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1993), and search the Internet for “Conventions on Climate, Ozone, and Biodiversity.”3See C. B. DeWitt, Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1994), a small book written for adult Sunday School discussion. A bibliography of Christian stewardship publications is available from Au Sable Institute, 731 State St., Madison, WI 53711, or call (608) 255-0950.
A RESPONSE TO CALVIN B. DEWITT
by Ronald Nash
DeWitt greatly exaggerates alleged evangelical lack of interest in the environment. He spends much of his article condemning Christians for not caring about the environment, when in fact it is DeWitt’s brand of radical environmentalism they shun. Many Christians believe that we should act prudently to stop pollution and other forms of environmental harm, but avoid environmental extremism that does little but fill the coffers of extremist environmental groups and expand the size and power of a coercive government.1
DeWitt tells us we ought to care about God’s creation, when the important issue is how our concern for the creation should be manifested. On this issue, DeWitt’s article has nothing to say. What does seem clear is that “concern for the environment” is not legitimate in DeWitt’s thinking unless it manifests itself in his kinds of actions. As I explain in my book about the religious left,2 ideology, arrogance, or misinformation about the other side blinds many cultural liberals in the evangelical camp. This leads them to think that any person who disagrees with them does so because of some moral or intellectual failing. DeWitt appears to question the Christian profession of one evangelical who differed with his view of the environment. It is possible, I suppose, that DeWitt may attempt to brand me as an environmental ne’er-do-well. However, my moderate, centrist position on the continuum of environmental views cannot be reduced to any of the five positions he critiques in his article.
DeWitt thinks the ecotheology of those Christians whose environmental views he disdains really flows from their economic and political views, and not the Scriptures. Yet does DeWitt really think that his own economic and political views have had no influence on his ecotheology? Does he really believe he draws his views exclusively from Scripture with absolutely no input from secular sources that just happen to be on the far left of both the political and environmental spectrum? His article’s use of Scripture suggests otherwise.
An indication of how DeWitt’s environmental extremism acts as a filter for his understanding of Scripture appears in his handling of John 3:16, which DeWitt quotes as support for his claim that God loves the physical universe. The Greek term kosmos, translated as “world” in the text, does not mean the physical universe. It refers to the personal world of humankind for whom Christ died. DeWitt’s claim that John 3:16 teaches that God pours “out divine love to all creation” suggests that he thinks Jesus died for flies, tadpoles, shrimp, rocks, rivers, and trees — an obvious indication that either his judgment or his handling of Scripture merits careful scrutiny. When an author attempts to use John 3:16 as a proof-text for radical environmentalism, ideology has clearly taken control of his hermeneutic. Another sign of questionable theology appears when DeWitt writes, “To the Creator of matter, matter matters.” DeWitt certainly appears to suggest here that God values inanimate matter in such a way as to place it on the same level with human beings.
DeWitt reportedly was a member of a group urging congressional support for a problematic endangered species act. He justified his political activism on the grounds that the Genesis account of Noah’s ark mandates such legislation. DeWitt’s position conveniently ignores the fact that all animals other than those saved in the ark were destroyed in the flood sent by God. Genesis 6–8 would hardly seem to be a relevant proof-text for politicians debating a highly questionable piece of legislation dealing with endangered species. To make things worse for his case, 2 Peter 3 teaches that the Flood foreshadows the Day of the Lord in which God will destroy the earth by fire. Neither the destruction of animal life during the Flood in Noah’s day nor the promised destruction of the world in the future seems compatible with DeWitt’s eccentric reading of John 3:16.
Nothing in my comments should be construed as lack of interest toward the earth or its nonhuman population. I simply think it’s interesting to see the odd ways in which religious left extremists twist Scripture to suit the political and environmental presuppositions that form their ecotheology.
Since the primary agent of environmental activism is big government, it is interesting to ask why so many environmentalists ignore the abominable environmental record of socialist states — the epitome of big and coercive government. Furthermore, I cannot help but wonder why DeWitt’s article is silent about the significant improvements in the environment in the United States in the past two decades. At least in the United States, the environment today is cleaner than at any time in the past 50 years. (For information about the many scientists who question extremist claims about global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, and other alleged crises of the present, see chapter 4 of the book Eco-Sanity.3)
Harold O. J. Brown recently noted how the ecology movement has become “increasingly captive to essentially non-Christian and intellectually indefensible ideas.”4 He warns of “an ominous link between radical feminist religion and ecology,” and he notes how “essentially pagan and idolatrous ideas are being insinuated into Western consciousness under the cloak of concern for the environment, personalized as ‘Mother Earth’ and increasingly worshipped as the goddess Gaia.”5 Interestingly, the extremist views found in Vice President Gore’s Earth in the Balance include praise for advocates of the Gaia principle.
While Brown believes that Christian concern for ecology is appropriate, he regrets that insufficient “serious biblical thought is being given to the problem. As a consequence, legitimate concern for the environment and the future of humanity on an earth with limited resources is being infiltrated with and captivated by some of the most eccentric and quasi-pagan varieties of radical feminism. Many church circles — especially but not only the World Council of Churches — have already gone far towards abandoning biblical monotheism in favor of a syncretistic, pantheistic preoccupation with the recently invented goddess Gaia.”6
And where does Calvin DeWitt stand on all this? I have searched his article in vain for any warnings about this pantheistic worship of nature. Indeed, his discussion of proponents of New Age pantheism obscures the issue by failing to see the difference between New Age persons, whom we should love and witness to, and the New Age ideology, which has no place in a biblically informed ecotheology.
1See James Gills and Ronald Nash, Government Is Too Big (Tarpon Springs, FL: St. Luke’s Institute, 1996).2Ronald Nash, Why the Left Is Not Right: The Religious Left: Who They Are and What They Believe (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).3Joseph L. Bast, et al, Eco-Sanity (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994).4Harold O. J. Brown, “Living by Gaia’s Laws?” The Religion and Society Report, September 1996, 5.5Ibid.6Ibid.