Christians and Environmental Stewardship
Creation care or crying wolf?
The howls of wolves were unmistakable. The moon was full, and the pack was on the prowl. Inside a sparsely furnished cabin a small group of researchers huddled anxiously in a corner. Strangely, they weren’t at all concerned about the hunt outside. Instead, their attention was focused on a computer screen displaying results from years of painstaking research. The story told by the graphs and statistics was as riveting as the howls that pierced the night air.
These researchers were studying the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem in the United States, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after being killed off nearly 70 years prior. Remarkably, the findings suggested that the presence or absence of just one species—the wolf—could potentially affect an entire ecosystem. 1
Shortly after the wolf was restored, the elk that the wolves hunted changed their behavior and moved away from their favorite grazing areas. The aspen forests and streamside vegetation began to grow again when the saplings were no longer consumed by the elk. Next, amphibians, reptiles, beavers, and songbirds staged impressive comebacks as vegetation increased. Tree roots stabilized the stream banks and reduced erosion. Beaver activities raised the water table. Thus, the wolf’s presence in Yellowstone appeared not only to improve the ecology and richness of the ecosystem dramatically, but indirectly changed its physical geography as well!
So what have we learned from Yellowstone’s wolves? Complex relationships exist among plants, animals, and their abiotic environment. By altering just one component, we often change that environment in unforeseen ways. The lesson is clear: we should reflect carefully on how we treat creation.
The wolf is a fitting icon of humankind’s relationship to nature. Our need to subjugate nature and tame it to our liking is typified by the expression “the only good wolf is a dead wolf.” Early Americans declared war on the wolf, and sought to exterminate it with bounties that resulted in the deaths of millions of wolves.
Today the tables have turned dramatically. As Americans have become more environmentally conscious, wolf preservation has become a rallying cry. Nevertheless, some continue to deplore the policies that maintain the wolf’s existence in Yellowstone. Through no fault of its own, the once-feared shaggy canine has found itself at the center of a controversy between those who support and those who oppose hands-on creation care.
Caring For Creation—Or Crying Wolf?
We live on a rapidly deteriorating planet. The profound impact of humanity has been devastating and undeniable. 2 Almost a quarter of the earth’s land area has been converted for human use. Nearly half of our tropical and temperate forests have been chopped down or bulldozed. Pollution of our air, land, and water has become pervasive. Because of our overexploitation and neglect, plants and animals are disappearing at unprecedented rates, with thousands of species becoming extinct each year. By transporting microbes, plants, and animals to new places, we have unwittingly spread diseases and greatly accelerated extinctions of native species.
Does the Creator who declared all life-forms “very good” (Gen. 1:31), who lovingly feeds and waters the creatures (Ps. 104:24-27; Isa. 43:20; Matt. 6:26), and who sees the sparrows that fall (Matt. 10:29), take notice of what has become of His creation? Does He see that “the whole creation groans” (Rom. 8:22, NKJV)? 3 Of course He does.
Some Christians express more concern about the current state of God’s creation than others. Many read in Scripture a clear mandate for us to care for creation, yet others see implicit permission to plunder it. Curiously, numerous published surveys reveal that Christians and those of other faith groups are measurably less concerned about environmental issues than the public at large. 4 Why should this be?
At least three reasons explain the indifference or even anti-environmental sentiments of some Christians.
First, some argue from dominion theology (Gen. 1:26, 28) that God permits humans to exploit natural resources without concern for consequences.
Second, our eschatological views lead some to insist we need not be concerned about our earthly home and its creatures because this world will be destroyed and re-created at the second coming of Jesus.
Third, the aforementioned studies show that environmental attitudes can be strongly influenced by political leanings and media exposure. 5
Many Christians take offense at the secular view that the creation came about by natural processes over millions or billions of years. Yet some of these same Christians express anger toward those who believe we should care about that which remains of creation. They denounce government efforts to curb environmental damage. They believe that many environmental concerns are grossly distorted, and serve surreptitious purposes. They insist that pro-environmental scientists and politicians—and those Christians who agree with them—are crying wolf.
Why We Should Care
So how should Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians relate to the creation? Here are four reasons I believe we should embrace environmental stewardship.
1. God expects us to care
Scripture makes a compelling case for environmental stewardship. Properly understood, the “dominion” given humans to “rule” over all living things and “subdue” the Earth (Gen. 1:26, 28) refers to His expectations for us to take care of the land (Ex. 23:10, 11; Lev. 25:2-7, 23, 24) and to treat animals humanely by providing them sufficient food and rest (Ex. 23:5, 12; Deut. 25:4), rescuing them from harm (Matt. 12:11), and never torturing them (Num. 22:23-33). The world and everything in it belongs to God, not us (Lev. 25:23; Ps. 24:1; 1 Cor. 6:15-20, 10:26). God even authorized the first “environmental protection act” (Gen. 2:15) and the first “endangered species act” (Gen. 6:19).
Clearly, God expects His appointed rulers of creation to exercise benevolent, selfless stewardship (Ps. 72:8-14; Eze. 34:2-4; Matt. 20:26, 27).
2. Caring brings us into communion with the Creator
Christians who seek to preserve creation recognize the clear relationship between our understandings of nature and God: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you” (Job 12:7, 8).
Ellen White urged upon us the importance of studying and preserving God’s creation. “God has surrounded us with nature’s beautiful scenery to attract and interest the mind. It is His design that we should associate the glories of nature with His character. If we faithfully study the book of nature, we shall find it a fruitful source for contemplating the infinite love and power of God.” 6
Indeed, let’s study nature, learn from it, and preserve it for future generations to do the same!
3. We should care for economic reasons
God has bequeathed to us extraordinary natural resources that make our lives comfortable and productive. But these resources are finite and subject to overexploitation.
We can characterize natural resources as ecosystem services, which we depend upon for our very existence. They include provision of food and water; pollination of native and agricultural plants; cycling of nutrients; moderation of extreme weather, including flood and drought mitigation; protection against erosion; regulation of plant pest and human disease organisms; decomposition and detoxification of wastes; purification of air and water; and maintenance of biodiversity. These services, provided to us for free, have been valued globally at $125 trillion per year.7 Obviously, they’re irreplaceable.
Without these services, which we are rapidly degrading, our quality of life—and that of future generations—would be fundamentally diminished.
4. We should care for health and social justice reasons
Healthy humans need healthy environments that provide natural resources and processes that sustain human life. Unhealthy environments provide diminished ecosystem services and promote disease, tension, conflict, and inequality. Sadly, those who are poor and impoverished usually bear the brunt of problems that arise from unhealthy environments. Selfish individuals and corporations often conduct business in ways that exploit the environment and diminish its capacity to sustain local people. Wealthy nations often benefit at the expense of developing nations.
Lax environmental regulations or corrupt disregard of them threaten the health and livelihoods of millions. An estimated one in seven human deaths in 2012 resulted from exposure to soil, water, and/or air pollution, and 93 percent of these 9 million preventable deaths were in developing countries. 8 As Christians, we should have the loudest voices in defending the victims of environmental injustice, which include not just humans but also other life forms.
A Need for Critical Thinking
As followers of Jesus, we have an obligation to care for creation and to alleviate human suffering whenever we can. Yet understanding how we should do so is made more difficult by the polarized opinions we hear. When it comes to environmental issues, we should seek to become informed by the most reliable sources. We should recognize the language of propaganda that we encounter daily in the media and blogosphere, often from pundits who understand little about complicated interactions of the natural world. We need to be open-minded to the possibility of holding wrong views, apply critical thinking to the best of our abilities, and treat with respect the views that others hold, even if we believe they are wrong.
As it turns out, further study has questioned the primary role of wolves in restoring Yellowstone’s ecosystem. Although the wolves certainly contribute by preying on the elk, the picture appears to be more complicated than originally believed, as it also involves interactions among bison, beavers, human hunting, rainfall patterns, and temperature changes. 9 As a human enterprise, science has its imperfections, but when used correctly to test alternative hypotheses, it is eventually self-correcting. Science provides a way of gaining knowledge and insight about the creation; it is God’s gift to help us gain understanding.
Witnessing Through Environmental Stewardship
The indifference of many Christians toward environmental issues prompted renowned Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson to publish in 2006 his insightful book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Couched in the form of a series of letters to a fictitious Baptist minister, Wilson pleaded for Christians to join the largely secular effort to save what remains of the creation. In his words: “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth, and they should come together to save the Creation.”
It seems ironic, with the elevated view our church holds toward the original act of Creation, that any of us would be indifferent toward caring for it. Yet, for the most part, Adventists and other Christians have stood idle while nonbelievers have taken the lead in creation care. If we would work together, imagine our opportunities to witness, especially to those most in need of a knowledge of Christ!
Personally, I am proud to belong to a church that takes the study of God’s second book—nature—seriously. The Adventist Church has embraced environmental stewardship with several official statements. 10 With these statements, the denomination acknowledges that “the ecological crisis is rooted in humankind’s greed and refusal to practice good and faithful stewardship within the divine boundaries of creation.” But in spite of these statements of support, the church’s institutions currently allocate negligible resources toward what could be a powerful witness via creation care.
Creation Fully Restored
Although sin has marred God’s original creation, we can still see His handiwork. We have been tasked to ensure that the signature of God’s handiwork remains for all to see and benefit from. It is a gift from God; we show our gratitude by appreciating it. We can also contrast the present creation with that of the original, which will one day be restored. We have been given a brief glimpse of how different things will be one day for the iconic predator of Yellowstone: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6).
Now, that’s an ecosystem we should all long to experience, and it’s one that I will want to study one day!
- For a useful review, see A. P. Dobson, “Yellowstone Wolves and the Forces That Structure Natural Systems,” PLOS Biology 12, no. 12 (2014): e1002025, http://tinyurl.com/qamzfaw.
- W. K. Hayes and F. E. Hayes, “What Is the Relationship Between Human Activity and Species Extinction?” in S. G. Dunbar, L. J. Gibson, and H. M. Rosi, eds., Entrusted: Christians and Environmental Care (Mexico: Adventus International University Publishers, 2013), pp. 183-197, http://tinyurl.com/pvj3ab2.
- Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- J. M. Clements et al., “Green Christians? An Empirical Examination of Environmental Concern Within the U.S. General Public,” Organization and Environment 27, no. 1 (2014): 27:85-102, http://tinyurl.com/jjy4qwx.
- Examples include A. Williams, “Media Evolution and Public Understanding of Climate Science,” Politics and the Life Sciences 30, no. 2 (2011): 20-30, http://tinyurl.com/pga9ck9; M. Feinberg and R. Willer, “The Moral Roots of Environmental Attitudes,” Psychological Science 24, no. 1 (2013): 56-62, http://tinyurl.com/mb5w98b.
- Ellen G. White, My Life Today (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 294.
- R. Costanza et al., “Changes in Global Value of Ecosystem Services,” Global Environmental Change 26 (2014): 152-158, http://tinyurl.com/jt7bqw9.
- Pure Earth (www.pureearth.org/) provides sobering details in their annual reports at www.worstpolluted.org/.
- Again, see Dobson.
William K. Hayes, Ph.D., M.S., is a professor of biology and director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Loma Linda University.