Christian Environmentalism

St. Jacob church in UrtijÃĢi, Northern Italy
This magnificent photo was taken by  Wolfgang Moroder.

Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si presents for Christians (and the world) an alternative vision of environmentalism that puts mankind in harmony with God, each other, and the environment. The Holy Father gives us a vision of authentic Christian environmentalism, which on the one hand overlaps Secular environmentalism, but on the other hand repudiates many of its shortcomings. In every way the encyclical corrects the errors of the modern world, and seeks to redirect man's ecological efforts toward a moral and sustainable future. I will leave the detailed reviews to others, but instead point out a general theme, and follow with practical ways that normal people can implement the teachings of this encyclical in their regular lives.

The general theme of the encyclical is Christian, and it is a correction of the two political extremes we see popularised in modern society...

On the one hand, we have Secular Environmentalism, which is often embraced by the political Left. Secular Environmentalism views mankind as an aberration of nature, as if we are interlopers upon the earth. This view is spawned by atheism, which holds that human beings are nothing more than sand monkeys with oversized brains. These monkey brains grew too big for our own good, and went far beyond what mother nature intended. In other words, in the Secular Environmentalist point of view, nature made a mistake and allowed human beings to become too highly evolved. Once that happened, human beings overpopulated the planet and began destroying it. Therefore, their solution to the problem has less to do with living in harmony with nature, and more to do with eliminating human beings. The popular consensus among those who subscribe to Secular Environmentalism is that the earth is overpopulated with human beings, and that population must be reduced by any means necessary. The most popular solution is widespread availability of artificial contraception and chemical abortion. Even though these substances have proved to be harmful to the environment itself, let alone contribute to the breakdown of society, the ends justify the means in the minds of many of these people. A smaller number of elitists in this camp advocate the forced sterilisation of entire populations and cultures. Some radical elitists within that group even advocate the creation of man-made plagues to reduce the population entirely. The underlying theme of Secular Environmentalism is a murderous and childless future, all in the name of 'saving the planet'. One begs to ask; saving the planet for who? For it would seem that in the final apocalypse of Secular Environmentalism, the rich shall inherent the earth.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have American Neoconservatism, which is often embraced by the political Right, particularly in the United States, but certainly not limited to it. American Neoconservatism views mankind as a force of nature, like a hurricane or forest fire. Under this point of view, man and nature are one in the same thing, and mankind is reduced to the level of an animal herd. Human beings may do intermediate destruction to the environment, like a swarm of locusts, but in the overall scheme of things, man is incapable of hurting the environment in any significant or lasting way. Therefore, global efforts to clean up the environment are largely a waste of time, and should only be pursued when it involves enriching the lives of those who can afford it. In this mode of thinking, wealth is the key to conservation, and the way to conserve more nature is to simply increase the riches of more people. While appearing to be logical on the surface, it denies a fundamental truth Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us -- 'the poor you will always have with you' (Matthew 26:11). We most certainly can do things to reduce the damages of poverty, but we shall never eliminate poverty completely. Consequently, there will always be richer nations and poorer nations, and since this is the case, the natural tendency of man is for richer nations to exploit poorer nations. In recent decades such exploitation has equated to environmental degradation in poorer nations, as big corporations are permitted to do things in poorer nations they would not ordinarily be allowed to do in richer nations. This of course is not a problem to American Neoconservatives, because man is just a force of nature in their view, and cannot do any real harm to the environment in the overall grand scheme of things. This mode of thinking makes it virtually impossible for a Neoconservative to accept the premise of greenhouse gases and man-made climate change. So just as Secular Environmentalists embrace man-made climate change with religious fervour, so too American Neoconservatives reject man-made climate change with equal and opposite religious zeal. For both parties, it is a matter of personal faith.

The pope's encyclical repudiates these two extremes and corrects the religious errors. Mankind is neither an aberration nor a force of nature. While man's spirit is alien to this world, because it comes from God, his body and mind is very much a part of this world. God has placed man as the apex of his creation on earth, and in doing so, he has charged him with the responsibility to gently tend and care for the planet he's been given. The earth was made for man, but in like manner, the earth is all man has at his disposal. So when it is damaged or destroyed, man must bear the consequences of his actions. There are no 'other earths' nearby for man to exploit. Mars is a dead planet, and the hope of planting and harvesting that world is a dim one. Venus is a burning hell, incompatible with all life as we know it. Nothing in our solar system is even remotely appealing to mankind as an alternate home, and the stars are simply too far away to even consider on a rational level. So what we have now, is all we have. The earth is 'it'. If we damage this planet, we have nowhere else to go. We must reap the consequences of our sin, and herein lies the one and only crisis we must face. God will forgive. Man might forgive. Nature never forgives.

The issue of man-made climate change has become the hot topic of this encyclical. The pope is careful to point out that climate change is both the result of nature and mankind working together. While man is certainly not 100% responsible for climate change, as some would have us believe, he does have a significant role in it. The encyclical is careful not to weigh in on the merits of various scientific theories or proposed political solutions, unless those theories present a theological error, or such solutions are immoral and cause more harm than good. For the time being, the pope appears to trust the general consensus of scientists who assert that man plays a role in climate change, while those who say that man plays no role are clearly in the minority. (Science is never in 100% consensus on anything by the way.)

Those who deny any possibility of man-made climate change, even at the smallest level, will not be pleased with this encyclical. They will simply go back to their religious belief that man is a force of nature and cannot possibly do any real damage to the environment even if he wanted to. Of course such a notion is a blatant denial of Christianity. For the Christian faith teaches that while mankind is very much a part of nature, he was also given free well, and that has resulted in sin. You see, unlike nature, man is free to operate outside of the will of God. A hurricane is a force of nature. A swarm of locusts is a force of nature. A forest fire is a force of nature. All of them operate within the limitations of nature, that God has imposed upon them, because they have no free will to decide on their own, and therefore they cannot sin. Because they cannot sin, they do not normally result in any significant or lasting damage on the global environment, because you see for the time being, that is God's will. Mankind is different. The Christian faith has always taught that mankind is a free agent, that he was given free will by God, and that in turn has given him the ability to deny the will of God and operate outside of natural limits. Therefore, when man is at peace with God, he will do nothing to substantially harm the environment, because that is God's will. However, when man sins, he most certainly can operate outside his natural limits, in such a way that harms the environment with significant and lasting effects. One need only look at the radiation fallout of nuclear accidents and atomic weapons to see how significant and lasting the damage can be, just in one local area alone.

The issue of man-made climate change will not be settled definitely in our lifetime. History will be the judge. By the time man knows for sure just how much impact he has on the global environment it will be long past the time when changes could have been made to make a difference. This is why it is so important to act now, just on a moral level alone, so that when the science finally catches up with us, history (and our descendants) will judge us as prudent and reasonable. Pollution isn't just a scientific issue, it's a moral issue. If we cannot settle on the science, than let us at least settle on the morality. It is morally wrong to pollute in any way that could be harmful to human beings or their natural habitat -- the earth. Let scientists hash out their theories, but let mankind take the moral high ground in the meantime. In a previous essay, before the pope's encyclical was released, I pointed out the moral and ethical reasons why we must make an effort to clean up our pollution. I stand by that essay today, even more so than I did before.

As I said above, I leave the detailed critiquing of Laudato Si to others. Here I will just point out a list of actions that average people can do in response to it, in their normal everyday lives. As an economic Distributist, I find no inconsistencies with this pope's encyclical, and previous encyclicals on social justice. It is rather people's refusal to accept Distributism that causes them to see 'inconsistencies' between papal social encyclicals. So with that in mind, you will notice I include distributist points within my list. This is because I see them as working together quite harmoniously toward creating a truly Christian environmentalism...

  1. Go back to the Catholic Church, and get a real appreciation for a balanced Christian approach to environmentalism. It's not just about peace with nature. It's about peace with God, man and nature. One relates to the other, and they're all interconnected. 
  2. Admire nature in all of its beauty. Come to appreciate the natural world around us in every way you can. Get outdoors. Go to parks. Take walks in the wilderness. Do a little fishing or hunting (legally of course) if that is your thing. Do some bird watching. Take a kayak or canoe down a river. Be close to nature. Don't shut yourself up in a house or apartment. Get outdoors!
  3. Spend time with others. Get to appreciate your family, friends and neighbours. Keep your emotions in check and don't lash out at others. Along those same lines, don't let computer or virtual relationships overtake personal relationships. The internet was made for communication, but it is no substitute for face to face human contact.
  4. Stop all forms of chemical abortion and contraception. DON'T DO IT! Not only is this a great sin, but it also destroys the family, and wrecks havoc on the environment. Use natural means of birth control instead, such as Natural Family Planning, putting our bodies in harmony with nature and in submission to free will in accordance with God's plan. This also means embracing the gift of pregnancy when it is given. And that means of course helping pregnant mothers and their children in need.
  5. Get married. Traditional marriage between one man and one woman is what God and nature intended. Married couples can produce children more responsibly, and raise them in the most stable environment. Attacks on the traditional family do not in any way help the environment and can potentially harm it. Unnatural sex is environmentally unfriendly sex. No rational or sane person can deny that nature, and nature's God, intended one men and one woman to be together in a lifelong committed relationship. If you're involved in any way in attacking the traditional family -- stop it. If you're involved in a committed relationship between a man and a woman, and you intend for that relationship to be lifelong, get married.
  6. Look for ways to limit extreme consumerism in your life. For example; in the summer time, turn off the air conditioner and open the windows. Use ceiling fans, or stationary fans, in place of air conditioning when possible. Use air conditioning only when necessary for health reasons during extreme heat. Keep your thermostat set a little lower in the winter time and wear some more clothing indoors instead of turning up the heat.  
  7. Ditch the plastic and Styrofoam cups, plates and utensils. This causes unnecessary waste. Use real cups, classes, plates and utensils instead. 
  8. Save water.
  9. Recycle.
  10. Reuse items as much as possible before discarding them.
  11. Turn off lights and appliances when not in use.
  12. Always buy and prepare just the right amount of food so it doesn't go to waste, and save anything unused to eat as 'leftovers' later.
  13. Try not to use unnatural substances for gardening or pest control. If they must be used, limit their use as much as possible. Consider natural alternatives instead.
  14. Get out and walk to places more, or use a bicycle if you can. Otherwise carpool as much as possible, and use public transportation whenever possible and practical.
  15. Respect animals and plants, understanding that God put them under our care and we shall answer to him if they are abused or misused.
  16. Buy locally grown foods! Go to farms, farmers markets, cooperative markets, etc. 
  17. Request locally grown foods at your grocery store, and keep pestering them about it. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
  18. Support consumer advocacy groups. They're trying to prevent you from being poisoned by what you eat.
  19. Pull your money out of the big banks and put them into a local credit union.
  20. Support cooperative corporations that are worker owned.
  21. Support local family-run businesses.
  22. Start your own family-run business.
  23. Homeschool your children, or put them in a religious school. Demand the government support you in this.
  24. Exercise naturally, outdoors if able. Take care of your body and your mind.
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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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