Climate Change and Ecological Justice

It is undeniable that unmitigated climate change threatens the way of life known to humans since the agricultural revolution. While those of the one-third world who profess religious belief might find it easy to believe and trust that God would never allow humankind to mess things up so terribly (the two-thirds world knows better), this is a problematic assumption if we take seriously the vision of some biblical prophets. Consider the description of the day of YHWH found in Isaiah 34:

For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause. And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever. But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it; the owl and the raven shall live in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plummet of chaos over its nobles. They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing. (Isa 34:8-12 NRS)

When read alongside the forecasts of climate scientists, this prophetic oracle achieves a new significance. It’s theology, likewise, is worth considering. The “day of vengeance” signifies a destructive and enduring scenario. The landscape is catastrophically altered to preclude the possibility of human habitation, and this alteration will endure well beyond lifespan of those who bring this day upon themselves (the day of YHWH in the prophetic texts is never presented as a capricious act of the deity).

What is all the more remarkable, however, is what this day means for the wild inhabitants of God’s land. Here, I quote Hilary Marlow’s essay, “Justice for Whom? Social and Environmental Ethics and the Hebrew Prophets” in Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue:

But this is not something arbitrary or unexpected. Verses 16a-17a suggest that this is YHWH’s deliberate provision for these animals: “Seek and read from the book of the lord. . . . for the mouth of the Lord has commanded, his spirit has gathered them.” From a wider ecological perspective, the desolation and depopulation of the urban landscape has allowed another part of the created order to flourish. YHWH’s outpouring of vengeance against humanity shifts the ecological balance in favour of the non-human natural world. The explicit sense of divine purpose and plan cautions against the anthropocentric assumption that human wellbeing is the only thing that matters. The power of the natural world, whereby settled land reverts to wilderness and is colonized by wild animals, is a reminder, then as now, that human settlement and cultivation is not the default mode of the natural environment. (116)

This perspective is not unlike that of Leviticus 26:34-35.

For more on this topic, watch the PBS documentary Radioactive Wolves and/or read the sobering book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (warning, I found this book to be über-depressing).


10 thoughts on “Climate Change and Ecological Justice

    1. I have seen it but haven’t yet read it. Bauckham has done much on this topic for which I am thankful. I have in mind to write a paper on the way animal morality in the Hebrew Bible informs human morality. I know he is coming at the subject from a different angel (a moral relationship humans have toward animals), but it is something I will need to look at in the course of my research. I look forward to seeing your review. SCJ just sent me Enns’ Ecclesiastes.

  1. My wife bought me The World Without Us. I would not have picked it out myself but learned from it and am glad to have read it. Back four or five years ago, my assignment for the Sunday night small group came up, giving me the opportunity to dig into the book of Job. A surprising thing I learned was the role of nature and the theology of nature conveyed by that work. God’s love of nature comes out and inferences about respecting creation may be drawn. I enjoyed, for example, an essay by Harry Hahne on Nature and Theodicy in the Book of Job. We humans are causing the world to heat up and it is deplorable that we are letting it happen.

  2. The moral relationship humans have toward animals. . .based on the Hebrew Bible. . .how it informs us. . .really? I would definitely like to read your interpretive stance on this issue, Joseph, because this relationship doesn’t speak well for most Bible believing Christians. Plus, do we really NEED to inform our moral stance with animals based on the Hebrew Bible, or are you merely going to be looking at it from the perspective of an exercise in academics? Is there really a modern pragmatic approach to that relationship? Looking forward to your ideas! Thanks for your posts.

  3. I believe I misread your comment, Joseph. Sorry. I don’t think you were getting at what I inferred from your post. Anyway, I have the Problem of Suffering/Evil weighing heavily on my brain. Blog on!

    1. For clarification, there are many instances in the Hebrew Bible where animals are portrayed as (im)moral beings, and this portrayal is saying something about human morality. The serpent in Genesis 3 is “shrewed.” Balaam’s donkey does the right thing by “turning aside” from the divine messenger. The ox knows its master (Isa 1) but Israel doesn’t know Yhwh. I am interested in the phenomenon of animals being portrayed as moral exemplars (or otherwise) and what this says about human (im)morality as conceived in the Hebrew Bible. Certainly people of faith could draw upon such research inasmuch as the Bible is a source of theology. My interests for now are primarily with describing what I see. I have no idea where such a research project would lead. I do have one Hebrew Bible ethics project underway (The Ethics of Obedience in the Hebrew Bible – a monograph on how obedience to divine will functions in the Hebrew Bible) and one Old Testament ethics project in the works (a confessional book about how the Old Testament can help shape a “moral vision”). I’m thinking that regardless of the outcome, there will be something I can use for one or both of these projects.

  4. Joseph, I know you have SO MUCH spare time to be doing a lot of extra reading ;-) (especially from hardcore atheist blogsites) but I would LOVE to have your thoughts on this link as you mention Biblical ethics. There is a part 2 as well, a few posts later. What informs our sense of morality (Bible, natural selection, culture, community, fear) is another topic of interest to me at present. Jon MS Pearce has some interesting ideas. Enjoy!

    1. Loftus’ blog is insubstantial. Every time I read it I regret it because it is laden with uncritical assumptions, and I am at a loss to know where to begin. Of course the God of the Bible is a consequentialist! The God of the Bible is also a utilitarian and a deontologist. So are all its human characters, and frankly, so is Pierce. Few people like Kant ever live out a single ethical theory to the exclusion of others (allegedly, Kant did, but he is the exception and not the rule). We pick and choose based on circumstances or consequences or fundamental convictions about reality (there is a reason all these ethical theories persist). A great test to apply when reading atheist bloggers like Loftus or Pierce who are trying to comment on problems in the Bible is to ask yourself, “What if Loftus argued this with ____ from the Bible.” In this case, I doubt Moses (for biblicists) or the Deuteronomists (for biblical scholars) would see the conflict that Pierce proposes, and that speaks volumes.

      1. So what, if any, do you feel are the implications of God and other Biblical characters (human/animal) following normative ethical theory? For me, it seems that it is simply a pattern in human history that we, like you said of God, employ all these types of ethics. Do we, perhaps, also see a form of pragmatic ethics in the New Testament with Paul redefining Jewish food laws for Christians? So why, if all societies, from the dawn of recorded history, observe some form of these various ethical standards, do we assume the Bible has enlightened us anymore than what is, seemingly, instrinsic in human nature and not unique to ancient Hebrew texts?

        BTW, Loftus isn’t really running DC anymore. Jon Pearce has pretty much taken over and lets others post. I think John said he believes he has done all that is within his scope to do. His outsider test of faith is the big hitter over there, and worth challenging yourself with. Ugh, prepositional phrases!

      2. We don’t have to assume the Bible has enlightened us anymore than what is intrinsic in human nature. The Bible participates in celebrating what is intrinsic in human nature. That having been said, “my sexual inclinations are natural” is hardly an adequate ethical defense for the pedophile, even if it is true (likewise for the sociopath).

        Refer to Deuteronomy 4:6: “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'” At least some portions of the Bible assume that the laws that God gives to Israel will be self-evidently wise and indicative of understanding. If this is true, then the laws of the Bible MUST be intrinsic in human nature (and largely culturally conditioned if Israel’s neighbors are going to find them ethically persuasive). It simply doesn’t do to assume that when God gives laws in the Bible people everywhere and at everytime are supposed to blindly accept their normative significance (again, some verses may argue differently, and we must engage these texts).

        What about the ethical contribution of the Tanak/Old Testament to human society? There are texts in it that are easily (ab)used to promote ethically problematic activities (e.g. indiscriminately kill all the Canaanites has been understood to promote genocide and ethnic cleansing). That having be said, those who have (ab)used these texts in these ethically problematic ways (e.g. crusades, manifest destiny) are a fraction of those who have read and engaged with these texts differently (e.g. allegorically against spiritual wickedness) or recognized their limited hermeneutical applicability. Others may agree that the texts are justified, but they never engage them in a hermeneutically significant way (e.g. they do not use them to justify genocide or ethnic cleansing, etc.). To varying degrees, these latter groups of people “get it.” Ethically speaking, they recognize that these texts do not and/or should not motivate them to engage in ethically problematic activities.

        These texts aside, what of all the texts that have contributed meaningfully to society in ways that even Atheists can appreciate? What of love your neighbor as yourself or the triumph of mercy over judgment? At no point can you actually separate the Western intellectual tradition from the Judeo-Christian faiths. Perhaps our moral progress was inevitable; perhaps it would have happened even had religion never appeared on the scene. But that is not the universe (or the part of the multiverse?) in which we live! So the question is not whether or not religion has made an ethical contribution to society, but how and why.

        The Bible does not claim to be our only source for ethics and theology, nor does the natural world dictate that we ignore the ethical/theological influence of non-natural forces. For the Bible, it is a matter of both/and, not either/or. Biblicists may tip the balance in the direction of the Bible; Liberal theologians in the direction of that which is not the Bible. At the end of the day, the Christian tradition is strongly influenced by an incarnational theology, and this too has ethical implications for the Bible and for theology.

        As for Loftus’ “Outsider Test of Faith,” it still assumes biblicism, and only a subset of it (i.e. the one that Loftus came from). Libral protestants would scoff at it. C. S. Lewis (not a liberal protestant) answered it in The Last Battle. I would add his outsider test of faith completely ignores texts like Mark 9:41.


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