A New Thing on the Earth: Christian Environmentalism

Is it an oxymoron to juxtapose the two words Christian and environmentalism? If so, it is a shame because Christianity is rooted in Israel’s story, and Israel’s story is rooted in the land of Israel. The literature of Israel describes the precarious relationship between the land and its inhabitants, how faithfulness to YHWH and to his Torah can result in a positive and fruitful relationship between the Israel and the land (Deut 11:8-17). The prophets, no doubt informed by the curses recorded in Deuteronomy 28, interpret ecological disaster as a warning sign that Israel is not right with YHWH (cf. Amos 4:6-9). The book of Joel uses ecological imagery to describe the day of YHWH, a day of definitive judgment on YHWH’s enemies, among whom Israel has been numbered.

The current ecological crisis facing the world, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has provided fuel for almost every environmentally minded group to criticize our society’s addictive appetite for oil. If such language were in vogue, our addition would undoubtedly be labeled sinful. (Of course, such value-laden language is not something our society is likely to adopt.) Perhaps the most crippling aspect of this crisis is our perceived inability to do anything substantive in response. It was fortunate for my wife and I that we were able in our most recent move to rid ourselves of one of our two cars and transition to using bikes for local transportation. Few will be able to rely on public transportation systems (that don’t exist widely enough) or bikes (which don’t conform to our society’s preferred method of transportation) to get around, so it is reasonable to assume that most people continue to fill up at their tanks at the pump–albeit with some twinge of guilt.

There is, however, some substantive changes that most individuals are capable of making that would help reduce our society’s dependence on oil, namely we can change the way we shop for food. This may at first seem like a silly suggestion, but the way Michael Pollan in his book, The Omnivore’s Dillema describes  our society’s dominate method of agriculture shows that this is no laughing matter.

Ecology also teaches that all life on earth can be viewed as a competition among species for the solar energy captured by green plants and stored in the form of complex carbon molecules. A food chain is a system for passing those calories on to species that lack the plant’s unique ability to synthesize them from sunlight. One of the themes of this book is that the industrial revolution of the food chain, dating to the close of World War II, has actually changed the fundamental rules of this game. Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete reliance on the sun for our calories with something new under the sun: a food chain that draws much of its energy from fossil fuels instead. (Of course, even that energy originally came from the sun, but unlike sunlight is finite and irreplaceable.)

Pollan borrows biblical parlance in describing industrial agriculture as “something new under the sun.”  The irony of the use of this language is that it is in direct conflict with the way the language was originally employed. Qohelet asserted that there was nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9-10). Of course, Pollan isn’t the first to argue with Qohelet. The post-exilic voice of Isaiah also attempted to promote the idea that “the fundamental rules of [the] game” have changed. “For behold! I am creating A new heaven and a new earth; The former things shall not be remembered, They shall never come to mind” (Isa 65:17). The subsequent description of this new earth is as radical a change to the post-exilic situation of Israel as the change wrought by industrial agriculture in our modern context. The irony, however, is that the voice of Isaiah spoke of a change toward ecological harmony where Pollan is describing ecological disaster.

According to Ellen F. Davis, the solution to the crisis described by Pollan is not a far cry from the ethical worldview the biblical authors would invite us to embrace. In her book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Davis writes,

The essential understanding that informs the agrarian mind-set, in multiple cultures from ancient times to the present, is that agriculture has an ineluctably ethical dimension. Our largest and most indispensable industry, food production entails at every stage judgments and practices that bear directly on the health of the earth and living creatures, on the emotional, economic, and physical well-being of families and communities, and ultimately on their survival. Therefore, sound agricultural practice depends upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involves questions of value and therefore of moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it. (22)

Is a shift toward a more agrarian-minded lifestyle possible? Fifty years ago, it would have been nigh impossible. But there is a growing movement of individuals who have said no to the sins of industrial agriculture (honestly, let’s not kid ourselves that it is anything but!) and who have taken it upon themselves to change the rules of the game. The evidence of this change can be seen, not only in rural areas, but especially in urban areas. Farmer’s markets and CSA’s, local grocers promoting local produce, community groups advocating for and educating people about eating locally, seasonally, and a more vegetable based diet–these are the types of things going on that make it possible for you and me to become involved in solutions to our ecological crisis. As the recent documentary Food Inc. described it, we are voting at the checkout lane for the type of future we want.

It is unfortunate that Christianity has not been at the forefront of the changes promoting ecological solutions for an ecologically depraved age, particularly when you consider what all the Bible has to say about these things, but there is no reason why Christians cannot now recognize the many ways in which they can get involved in being a part of the solution. In order to realize the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, we need a new type of Christian, the one who takes seriously the ethical imperative before us.

Office Hours with Ellen Davis on Christians and Creation

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2 thoughts on “A New Thing on the Earth: Christian Environmentalism

  1. Joseph,
    I had to write a book review on Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture and was wondering if I could send it to you for you to comment on. It is not too long (four pages, double spaced), so hopefully it would not take too much of your time. What do you say? Thanks for the blog either way.

    charlesteldridge@gmail.com

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