Religion and the Environment: Reconciling Apples and Oranges

Posted on June 5, 2013 by James Holtkamp

Setting policy for environmental protection is a bit like mediating the discussion between a father and daughter about her shaggy-haired boyfriend.  Each has a very different perspective – the father looks at the boyfriend with the cold eye of logic (does he have a job- will he ever get a job?) and the daughter sees her suitor as a warm and caring individual (but I love him, Daddy!).  Neither is willing (or sometimes even able) to understand the point of view of the other.

Project proponents often cite additional jobs, taxes and other material benefits in response to concerns about environmental damage from the project.  Opponents argue that the protection of environmental values is important because- well, they are just important.  Quantification of inherently unmeasurable values, such as the cost of illness or death or the extinction of an obscure species resulting from human activities, is at best a clumsy exercise, notwithstanding the legions of PhDs in economics that have tried.  Thus, comparison of the economic benefits with the environmental disbenefits of a particular project or policy is at bottom an unsatisfying exercise because neither side is willing or able to speak the “language” of the other.  This has been especially true in the conversations about climate change, and given the staggering implications of climate change for human society and the environment, those conversations need to be mutually understandable.

So, what common “language” can mediate conflicting world views on environmental issues?  Religion is increasingly serving as a framework for mutual understanding and communication to facilitate resolution of environmental issues.  The debate over man’s impact on the earth under this approach is cast in terms of the sanctity of all creation coupled with a divine mandate for mankind to care for it. 

The notion that human beings have an innate, solemn and God-given responsibility to care for each other and the world they live in is expressed in all of the great religious traditions. For example, in Genesis, God sees that his creation was “very good” and gives man “dominion” over it. (Genesis 1:26, 28, 31).  The Koran commands, “Do no mischief on the earth, after it has been set in order.” (7:56).  Indeed, there are some who suggest that environmentalism is itself a religion insofar as it “shapes a person’s very concept of his or her purpose and meaning in the world and other core beliefs relating to human existence.” 

Can a religion-based ethos of stewardship over creation and care for one’s neighbor solve environmental conflicts?  It can certainly help restore the words “balanced” and “responsibility” to their normal meanings.   It can provide a framework for talking about economic, health and lifestyle benefits to individual human beings, as well as protection of vulnerable ecosystems and esthetic values, based on something other than blind adherence to the laws of economics on the one hand and reflexive opposition on the other.



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