Thursday, June 19, 2008

Not Sweating Over Global Warming

Long have I wanted to hammer out a rudimentary theology on the enviroment. Lazy me just wouldn't do it until someone at church simply had to ask if anyone had thoughts about it. Oh bother! :)

I confess that I used to buy into the ecovironut view of the planet. I used to believe that unless we banned styrofoam and aerosol cans that we would all eventually go blind. Back in high school, the rage was how the depletion of the ozone layer was going to allow radiation to end all life on earth (as evidenced by the ozone 'hole' over Antarctica). I believed that humans were going to shoot the earth to pieces with our automobile exhaust pipes. To recap my own experiences, global cooling turned into deforestation-induced soil erosion, which turned into ozone depletion, which turned into greenhouse gas emissions, which turned into global warming. Although the panic-button pushers never sleep, ever constantly beating their war drums, I've since grown up, learned some facts, and developed a healthier perspective on such matters.

Now as we pass the decade or so mark of the global warming panic, we see the rhetoric shift toward "climate change," and this time even Christians have been caught up in the frenzy to "save the planet" from our environmental misdeeds. Observe the following rather iconic remark:

"The plan [sic] fact is this; If we don't do something to change our current wasteful consumption of the Earths [sic] resources and Jesus doesn't come back within the next 25 to 50 years we are all completely DOOMED!! But, by all means don't appear to [sic] overly concerned about these issues at the cost of saving one more soul for the Kingdom. Question: What good is it to save one more child from being aborted if the world they are born into is toxic and unable to sustain there [sic] basic needs of air,water [sic] and food? Wake up and smell the organic bird-friendly coffee Mr." (Taken from Christians' Environmental Forum)

Doomed for want of organic bird-friendly coffee...I can't beat that kind of drama. Let me make perfectly clear: I'm no environmental expert (but a B.S. seems to suffice nowadays for expert status, and I have one of those. Hm.), and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But, I do know that there is no consensus about the nature and cause of global warming; there is no consensus that carbon dioxide causes rising temperatures, and there is even less agreement that global warming is necessarily a very bad thing or a very permanent thing for the planet; there is also no consensus as to how much human activity contributes to environmental damage--any contribution is currently unquantifiable and speculative. Lastly, when did a "consensus" determine the validity of any scientific conclusion? If indeed climate change threatens life on earth, it should be incontrovertible, yet though the earth has warmed a wee bit, the consensus is that we are not going to die.

Could it be that we lack a reasonable theology of the environment? Is that why Christians get as bent out of shape about the environment as most secular environmentalists? No, I don't think a lack of an articulated theology causes this pathological right-brainedness, but having a theology would answer a lot of questions as to how believers should tie together their faith and the world (literally). In the history of Christianity, believers have always sought to find the mind of God in in the life challenges of the day, and today's environmentalism is no different. Although I believe Christians on the whole are rather late to arrive at such a theology, but, as they say, better late than never.

Christians Are Not Silent
A few noteworthy statements have been published online, drafted by Christians that outline basic biblically derived principles on environmental issues. Even my pastor Darrin Patrick has signed one of these statements. In general (and some are quite general), they all spell out the same principles of stewardship and responsibility on the part of the Christian. I'd say this is a fair step in the right direction. This generality is also the greatest flaw, for in an effort to sound humble, they admit so much ignorance and speak in noncommittal language, one wonders about the real worth of such statements in the first place. The most problematic statement, The Evangelical Climate Initiative, emphasizes the belief that human activity is at the center of climate change, a dubious claim. At any rate, Christians are speaking out. Check out the following sites:

Southern Baptist Environment & Climate Initiative
We Get It!
Christians and the Environment-A Study Guide by Alan Marshall
The Evangelical Climate Intitiative

I hate making theology a matter of opinion, but on such an issue that is as nebulous as climate change, I find little to work with. But since that hasn't stopped fellow Christians from making an offering, they give me courage. I have titled the next section "Towards a Theology of Environmental Stewardship," mainly because there is more that scientists and experts do not know about the planet and its processes than they do know. In the unfolding of scientific discovery and knowledge, at best, anyone attempting to address the environment on theological grounds will always find himself working towards a theology rather than having arrived at a definite end.

Towards a Theology of Environmental Stewardship

1. God owns His creation. The earth is the Lord's, and all that is within it, the world, and all who live in it (Psalm 24:1-2).

Christians must first recognize that creation is a work of God and, thus, should value it. The earth sustains our bodies and is our only resource that must ideally provide for every person and every animal alive.

2. Good stewards invest and care for what's been given in their charge. Jesus' parable of the talents teaches this one principle: that God expects believers to act and produce something greater than what He initially provides (Matt. 25:14-28).

The earth's natural resources are tremendous sources of "talents," though I believe evironmentalists give human activity too much credit. We are managers, not demigods. The burning of a little petroleum can hardly compare to the billions of years of geologic turmoil that has given us the habitat we have now. We should respect the power of the earth itself to change and not make the mistake to think that we are so mighty to control it. When we yield to natural changes and make the best of our resources is when we glorify and respect the Lord's handiwork the best.

3. We are part of the environment.

Strictly speaking then, we cannot do anything that is unnatural. We should avoid the mentality that we must save everything and elevate the status quo of "virgin" environment over the needs of humanity. We should recognize that the earth is organic, constantly changing and cycling through phases and is thus able to repair itself over time. This should free us to focus on improving the lives of the most disadvantaged in the world and to integrate environmental concerns in its proper context.

4. We have the greatest potential for abusing anything and any ideal, especially in the name of good intentions, and the environment is a good example.

Not caring enough about environmental impact hurts the environment and spoils our ability to invest and produce and harms people in the long run; environmental protectionist attitudes hurt people as long as those attitudes prevail. Either way, the ones that pay the primary price are us; let us recognize that the enviromnent has its limits; convenience is not the highest ideal, but we are not slaves to what we care for either.

5. Enviromentalism is often its own religion (see Deep Ecology), and Christians should avoid falling into the hysteria of its radicals.

Environmentalism often turns ecology into idolatry and preaches that humanity's highest priority is social engineering, not unlike Marxism, though achieved through oppressive governmental environmental policies. Like the caricature of Christianity, environmentalism can be known for what it is against rather than what it is for (i.e. capitalism, industry, and truly helping the proletariat the poor).

6. Value the collective individual actions that often serve the greater good better than government mandates.

Few people dispute that governmental regulation of individual lives is generally an overstepping of authority on the part of legislators, but we don't apply the same attitude toward regulating businesses (even though businesses are run by people). How often have we heard of big businesses that regularly pollute, preferring to "pay the fine" over the higher cost of disposing of their wastes properly? Many of our energy-producing facilities are woefully old and operating at efficiencies only appropriate for decades past, yet current government directives to improve their facilities require more of them than their abilities can accomplish at one time, so companies often do nothing. In this way, government too often serves to do no better at actually improving the way working America handles environmental issues than if it had legislated nothing at all. The most effective agent for change is public pressure. More and more companies are "going green" out of concern for their images as well as the bottom line, not because of a government regulation. Shouldn't we applaud this and encourage it?

1. The cultivation of a personal Christian ethic that glorifies God by respecting His creation.

2. Utilizing natural resources to benefit all of humanity, especially those too poor to care for the environment without help.

Truly responsible Christians, it seems to me, should exercise truly helpful methods of conservation. On any given trash day, I see multiple trash bins loaded to overflowing with a week's worth of discarded items, most of which are recyclable. I see this as a symptom that most of America doesn't care about our shrinking landfill space, which is a greater and more immediate concern than "saving the earth" for several reasons:

o Expansion of landfill space - hardly happens, because no one likes to approve of a landfill in their backyard

o Potential public health hazard - the more trash that is thrown in a landfill, the higher the probability of problematic disease-causing microbes to flourish and spread by animal contact or eventual contamination of ground water even if distant from human habitats. (As an aside, this is why I dislike the use of disposable baby diapers and the disposal of animal waste into the trash. See below*.)

o Non-biodegradation - ever hear about the decades-old newspapers and discarded foodstuffs have been dug up out of old landfills in nearly intact condition? It happens. This should lead us to consider that even though some trash is biodegradable, the chances for organic matter to actually biodegrade in a landfill is greatly reduced due to the nature of landfill management. I would add that since most trash is bagged in plastic now, I can't imagine how anything properly biodegrades at all.

Ideas for living more "green"
(all relatively painless and all easy to implement; but many of which I have found conflicts with the conveniences of the average American lifestyle. I wonder, even for most Christians sympathetic with the environmental movement, when the rubber meets the road, are they are more content to sign a declaration rather than actually change their lifestyles?)

"(It) don't go there" trash management:
1. Recyclable items go--guess where? In the recycling bin!

2. Greatly reduce or eliminate the use of disposable items, such as
a. *disposable diapers - instead, cloth diaper your babies; cloth diapering saves energy, money, and is more healthy for your child; most, if not all, states prohibit the disposal of human waste in the trash as it is a public health hazard, but we are doing it anyway to the tune of millions of disposable diapers in our landfills annually. Your waste goes in the toilet; why not your baby's?
b. paper towels, paper napkins, and those dreadful disposable washcloths - again, the cloth option
c. disposable take-out containers - try using your own food containers to eliminate the doggy bags that have no other destination than the trash can once you bring home leftovers
d. plastic food wrap - it's just cash in the trash, and besides, plastic is a petroleum-based product; maybe the less of it that resides in your cabinet, the more can go in your car (?).
e. *puppy poop - when did this become disposable? Ever since city ordinances were passed requiring dog owners to clean up their dogs' business, as they should. However, owners need to take it one step further and flush that puppy poop. Really, the only difference between Fido's and yours is that yours comes out of you, but you don't bag yours up and throw it in the trash, do you?
e. lawn waste - most city ordinances require homeowners to separate lawn waste from trash nowadays

Lifestyle Choices
3. Breastfeed your baby - the longer, the better (The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding to a minimum of age two); breastfeeding saves money, time, energy, and waste, not to mention is superior for the health of your baby; just think, if more children suffered fewer illnesses and thus visited the doctor less, the already beleaguered medical community would not need to dispense as much medication and reduce the amount of paperwork that goes into each patient.

4. Cut out the electronics; apparently, ecovironuts love ipods and Guitar Hero like anyone else, and who isn't titillated by an electric broom? Let's keep things in perspective: all electronic devices have one thing in common--wattage.

5. Plant a garden - with the high price of food and fuel, this seems to make more sense everyday.

6. Grow a worm farm - worms will compost a good deal of food waste in every home, greatly reducing the amount left to fester in a landfill somewhere. Learn more at these websites:

Vermicomposting at Wikipedia
Red Worm

7. Use home appliances to maximize their efficiency and reduce the energy drain on municipal supply as well as reducing your energy bills.

8. Eliminate the number of personal care"products" that marketers insist that everyone must have - that you need all the products offered is an obvious lie. I count a minimum of eight separate products people are regularly encouraged to purchase: shampoo and conditioner (2), soap/body cleanser (1), facial cleanser (1), toner (1), facial moisurizer (1), shave lubricant (1), body lotion (1). If you think about it, we don't need to use a lot of separate products when many will do double duty for us already. I won't get into details, but a little online research might enlighten Americans to just how much we're being played. Here are some highly recommended websites:

Note: this list is not an endorsement of the products found on these websites
Paula Begoun, the Cosmetics Cop
Wen Hair Care (disclaimer: this website is good for information only; I wouldn't pay the outrageous $30/month for anyone's hair care no matter how good it's supposed to be)
No Shampoo Experiment

9. Collect rainwater to save on your water bill; hey, what could be better than free water that literally falls from the sky to water your garden with?

10. Co-op your shopping with neighbors; save gas and extra trips to the store; a great way to get to know your neighbors and build community.

11. Do not buy a hybrid vehicle unless you are in total need of a new car. If you do, your old vehicle will only be sold to another shmoe and will likely go back on the street within a week. So how will you have really helped the environment? If you are considering it for the fuel efficiency, you'll fare no better in overall outcome either. Unless you drive that hybrid to the moon and back, the money you'll save in gasoline will be negligible to the cost and maintenance of the vehicle in its lifetime; add to that the fact that hybrids have unconventional engines, which force owners to service them exclusively at dealerships ($$$).

12. Do not buy bottled water. Filter tap water and bottle it yourself with a reusable bottle.

13. Do not buy into carbon credits. 'Nuff said.

14. Get involved in your community; it is one thing to preach that other people should do something to reduce waste; it is quite another to be that person. Being involved means building credibility and awareness with others that you work with.

Other websites with suggestions on green living:
Serve God Save the Planet - has some useful tips, but not all of them I would agree with.
Check any state, county, or local municipality website for more tips on saving energy in your home.

A Word About Politics
What about politics? I have found that our politicians are neither interested in true conservationism nor committed to utilizing the natural resources we have for the sake of the citizenry. Thus, we have a political stalemate over policies. Vote however you wish, because I'm just cynical enough to think that government will never achieve the balance that individual citizens can on their own.

Concluding Remarks
Achieving a responsible balance with earth's resources is no easy task. As Christians, I think we are inclined to believe we are more responsible than we really are, even those of us most vocal about protecting the environment. It's hard not buying into the hysteria. It's even harder to adopt stewardship practices over simply signing your name to a document stating that you care. As a person who values substance over symbolism (especially if I believe the symbolism is misguided), the best thing I can do is follow my own advice, which is why you won't find my name attached to any declarations or initiatives anytime soon. God be the glory!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this was very thorough. i appreciate it!