Is Christianity Bad News for Conservation? Christian faith and the three R’sPosted: May 1, 2017
I’m working as a hotel maid to put myself through grad school. One morning I arrived for my shift to find a couple in the lobby complaining to the manager about noisy students. “They kept us up all night!” they cried, “They were drunk and very disrespectful!” I stepped into the elevator to go to my floor, and the couple entered with me. As the doors closed they eyed me sideways and asked, “You’re not a student, are you?”
Reasoning that most students at my University were well behaved was as hopeless as trying to escape from the moving elevator. In their minds, at that moment, they were convinced that all students were reckless. Part of me didn’t blame them. I came away from the experience wondering if there are similar social biases in conservation.
In 1967 Lynn White argued that Christianity was the cause of our ecological crisis because “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (White 1967). White is not alone in this view. Hitchens argues that Christianity is dangerous to society and the natural world (Hitchens 2009). My own assigned textbook for this course, The Handbook of Ecological Restoration, begins by warning that the Judeo-Christian paradigm shows “no sign of any kindness or respect” with regard to the earth (Perrow 2003).
Natural scientist Dr. Alister McGrath asserts, “Lynn White is completely right when he argues that human self-centeredness is the root of our ecological crisis and completely wrong when he asserts that ‘Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’.” (McGrath 2002). McGrath goes on to argue that the traditional Christian idea of stewardship emphasizes the wise use, preservation and protection of the natural world consistent with a reservation and reconciliation ethos. Additionally, a key theme central to Christian teaching is restoration and renewal, an idea that resonates strongly with the restoration ethic. In fact, one of the core tenets of Christianity is to put the interests of others ahead of self-interests. Most of the first hospitals, hospices and educational institutions have a Christian origin (Aitken 1984). Such a commitment to the wellbeing of others resonates strongly with a reconciliation focus.
It is possible that claims made against Christianity as anti-environmental may stem from not only a misunderstanding of the Christian idea of stewardship, but also from equivocation of Christianity to the Western world. Arguably, most of the damage done to the environment in the last century has been cause by the West. However, Christian groups seem to be highly involved in the conservation movement. Environmentalist Allison Scherberger conducted a study comparing the efficacy of secular and Christian conservation groups in the western world. Christian groups were found to be more numerous and have higher numbers of volunteers than secular groups. She concluded that because reservation, restoration and reconciliation are all based on values, Christian conservation groups are becoming “particularly key players” in the environmental movement (Scherberger 2011). Influences from such Christian groups can be seen in many different facets of conservation.
This begs the question: is Christianity a threat to conservation? To investigate this question, I examined Christian influences in the three major arenas of conservation; namely reservation, restoration, and reconciliation ecology. Reservation ecology seeks to preserve an ecosystem by preventing its exploitation. Restoration ecology is the practice of renewing a degraded, damaged or destroyed ecosystem. Reconciliation ecology aims to alter human-dominated landscapes in order to make them usable by native species (Rozenweig 2003).
On February 12th, 2005, six shots rang out in the Brazilian Rainforest as Sister Dorothy Stang was killed. The Catholic nun had dedicated her life to protecting the Anapu rainforest and its indigenous people from loggers (Domit 2008). Following Stang’s death, Brazilian president Inacio da Silva finally agreed to set aside 20,000 square miles in the region as a natural reservation. Deforestation rates began dropping in the Brazilian Amazon immediately (Figure 1) and have continued to lessen (National Institute for Space Research, INPE).
Figure 1: Annual Deforestation rates in the Amazon Rainforest
Figure 2: Current deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest
The Columbia is the longest river that flows into the Pacific Ocean in North America. It boasts one of the largest drainage basins on the continent. In 2001, twelve bishops representing 1.5 million Catholics in the USA and Canada composed the Watershed Document in which they argued that the Columbia River had been irresponsibly dammed, polluted and overfished. They called on all people of goodwill to work together for its immediate restoration, writing: “Stewards, as caretakers for the things of God, are called to care for the earth as their home, and as a beautiful revelation of the creativity, goodness, and love of God.” (Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project 2001)
A Rocha Aotearoa is a Christian conservation team in New Zealand dedicated to creating sustainable communities. Their website reads: “The rapid decline of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity we currently face are directly linked to unsustainable patterns of living. We believe that we are called to live more sustainably. A Rocha communities offer places to explore with others how we can together seek the well-being of humans, the land and other species.” They are one of the few organizations actively working to create communities reconciling people to nature.
Does Christianity truly pose a threat to conservation? It defines stewardship as the respectful protection of the natural world. Christian environmental groups are involved with every facet of conservation from reservation to restoration to reconciliation ecology.
In academia we often come to our ‘elevator conversations’ with presuppositions. Perhaps these dialogues should be more nuanced and empathetic. After all, the point of coming to university is not to become insensible, but it’s exact opposite: to learn. The crux of Christianity is not to abuse nature, but to be its faithful steward.
Aitken, J. T. (1984). The influence of Christians in medicine. London: Christian
Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project., & Catholic Church. (2001). The Columbia
River Watershed: Caring for creation and the common good. Seattle, WA: Columbia River Project.
Domit, M. (2008). Rancher to be Charged in 2005 Killing of Nun in Amazon. New
Hitchens, C. (2009). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York,
McGrath, A. E. (2002). The reenchantment of nature: The denial of religion, and the
ecological crisis. New York: Doubleday. Page 54.
Perrow, M. R. (2003). Principles of restoration. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Rosenzweig, M. L. (2003). Win-win ecology: How the earth’s species can survive in
the midst of human enterprise. New York: Oxford University Press.
Scherberger, A. (2011) Conservation and Christianity: Outcomes and Values Driving
Faith-based Conservation. Duke University Press. Page 14
White, L. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. Science 155: 1203-7.