Biblical Discussions

Christianity and the ecology

In 1967, Lynn White, an historian from the University of California, published an article in Science magazine entitled ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’.[i] In the article, White maintained that because modern science and technology are products of Western culture which has at its roots Christian attitudes and principles, and because Christianity is arrogant toward nature and views nature as having no reason for existence except to serve mankind, then Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt for our current ecological crisis.

In 1866, the term ecology was first coined by Ernst Haeckel (remember him- the guy who faked the drawings of embryos), from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘house’ or place-to-live[ii] and ology, study of. The study of ecology concerns the relationship of organisms which include both, interactions with each other and with the abiotic environment. The field is an integration of many sciences including geology, physics, chemistry and biology. These complex biotic and abiotic interactions comprise the ‘ecological system’ or ‘ecosystem’. The ecosystem concept was developed in the 1930s by English ecologist, George Tansley,[iii] and ecosystems can range in size from a drop of water to the biosphere, depending on where researchers want to draw their study boundaries.

As with all scientific disciplines, interpretations of ecosystem dynamics are often dependent on the presuppositions of the researchers, who are ultimately affected by their worldviews. Unfortunately, public school and university educators do this deliberately and end up producing a blend of scientific facts with worldview interpretations. The confused result is a belief that the creation/evolution issue is a war between science (evolution) and religion (creation). All observations are interpreted through the lens of a worldview.

I prefer to take the view that the issues surrounding ecosystem origins are not issues of science verses religion, but worldviews of materialistic naturalism verses biblical theism (supernaturalism).

The environment is understood to provide the selective forces needed in the concept of natural selection. Thus, understanding ecology would seem to be an important first step in understanding evolution. As relationships and conditions vary in a community, different selection pressures are imposed on its members. Thus, a community is dynamic with species varying over both space and time. Nevertheless, the concept of natural selection does not answer the question about how ecological relationships originated, except to invoke co-evolution as a universal underlying theme. It is supposed that as species evolved, so did ecology.

Coevolution is defined as: ‘… joint evolution of two or more non-interbreeding species that have a close ecological relationship; through reciprocal selective pressures, the evolution of one species in the relationship is partially dependent on the evolution of the other [emphasis added].’[iv] The problem is, since coevolution requires already existing ecological relationships, it cannot account for the origin of ecology.

It is possible for two species in close ecological relationship to refine their relationship through mutual selection, but this does not explain how they came to be ecologically related in the first place.

evolution vs creation timeline

Figure 1: Two views of the origin of ecology. In the evolutionary origin, there is little ecology at the beginning. It develops along with the proliferation of species. In the creationary origin, ecology is highly developed from the beginning, but it degenerates over time to where we are today.

Accumulating evidence from ecology and biodiversity studies suggests something quite different from gradual evolutionary accumulation of species and step by step development of what would eventually become essential ecological relationships. The current indispensable nature of many ‘ecological services’, and the relationships that provide them, suggests that, just as ecological services are necessary now, past ecosystems would also have needed them, but not necessarily in identical ways. Moreover, the essential nature of ecological relationships now does not appear to allow time for evolutionary development of ecology. Ecosystems would have failed many times over without the full range of ecological services (see Figure 1).

Biodiversity refers to the collection of species in ecosystems, different populations of those species with their genetic variations (estimated to number as many as 220 populations per species for an estimated total of between 1.1 and 6.6 billion populations world-wide[v]). In its greatest sense biodiversity is the collective ecological services all the populations provide. Taken together, these three entities produce an enormous amount of structural and functional variation and interdependence. Ecological linkages between organisms in ecosystems make it difficult to remove just one species.

No organism lives independently, but both gives to and takes from its environment. Thus, there is a range of interdependent organisms. Just as an individual body depends upon a division of labor among its cells, so an ecosystem depends upon division of labor across a diversity of organisms. Without biodiversity services, there would be no ecosystem and probably no life.

As the value of species in ecosystems started to became evident, then the complexity of services and the interdependence of species derived from those services, speak beyond the immediate needs of ecosystems to the origin of ecosystems and ecology and even of life itself. However, very few individuals have made such connections; the immediate conservation problem of the ‘endangered species of the moment’ has been the primary focus. In recent decades biodiversity information has been accumulating. Unfortunately, much of the information has come from ecosystem damage and destruction.[vi] That is, after species become extinct or rare, it has been easier to guess at what their ecological roles might have been. But only a short-sided ‘snap-shot’ can be produced, because we are unable to assess the entire biodiversity interactions of that species over a long period of time.

The portion of Scripture most quoted by critics who consider Christianity to be arrogant toward nature is found in Genesis:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:27–28).

These two verses tell us three critical points about the Christian and Biblical bases of land conservation and stewardship.

  1. Human beings did not evolve from non-human primates, but were created in the image of God. Men and women possess physical attributes that are not shared by animals, such as an erect posture, hands with a highly developed opposable thumb that can do work, faces capable of expressing great emotional feelings, and a brain and tongue capable of articulate speech. In addition humans posses spiritual attributes not present in animals, such as a moral consciousness, the ability to think abstractly, an understanding of beauty, emotion, and the capacity to know and worship God.
  2. Human beings are commanded by God to be fruitful and to populate the earth. Men, women and children are this world’s greatest resource, not its greatest liability. Estimates of the world’s human carrying capacity, that is, how many people this world can sustainably support, are meaningless unless we answer the question of how many people can be supported at what level of material affluence and habits of consumption. While the six-fold increase in world population over the past two centuries has been alarming (nothing as bad as Paul Ehrlich postulated), a clear picture of the worlds population and density can be found here. Be sure to look at the link at the bottom for graphic images.
  3. God entrusted humans to be the Earth’s stewards. To subdue the Earth and rule it, while not stated in today’s ‘required’ politically correct speech, is similar to the process of gardening. Gardening involves subduing and ruling a small patch of wild nature to yield a benefit useful to people. The Scriptures even tell us that it was God who planted the Garden of Eden as a home for the first man and woman (Genesis 2:8)—as if providing an example for us to follow. Humankind has been given the honor and privilege of managing and administering God’s creation, with the expectation that we will do it responsibly.

If Christianity is not to blame, then what is the root of our ecological crisis? Interestingly, the answer to that question—and a solution—can be found in an examination of the historic roots of the environmental movement itself.

George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature, the first book to attack the myth of the superabundance and inexhaustibility of the earth. His legacy is honoured at Woodstock’s Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Vermont, the only US national park to focus on the theme of conservation history and the changing nature of land stewardship in America. The best known quote from Man and Nature is, ‘Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.’[vii] Except for the use of the obscure legal term usufruct (in Roman-based legal systems, the temporary right to the use and enjoyment of the property of another, without changing the character of the property.), Marsh’s words are as powerful and relevant today as they were 137 years ago. They are also Biblically and theologically correct. Having defined the symptom, Marsh also correctly defined the cause as human indifference, short-sightedness, selfishness and greed.

Biblical Christianity, far from being the root of our ecological crisis, in fact offers not only a credible explanation for our ecological crisis but also the very solution to our ecological crisis. As the popular author Wendell Berry has stated it, our ecological crisis is a crisis of character, not a political or social crisis.[viii]

God’s command to have dominion and subdue creation has been misunderstood.[ix] People have used this verse as a justification for wonton environmental harm. In biblical theology, Christians are to manage and take care of that which is God’s. The Hebrew for ‘have dominion’ is רךה (radah) and ‘subdue it’ כבש(kabash), both carry the idea of being in charge.[x]

Why does Christianity not have the earth in perfect condition every where? Two reasons for it as far as I am concerned.

The first reason deals with Christianity’s unqualified embrace of the current economics of growth and consumerism. Traditional capitalism’s emphasis on work and the rewards of honest labor, restrained by Christianity and the Bible’s many admonishments against greed and covetousness, has produced great benefits for the good of society.

With Christianity now relegated to the edges of society, the economics of growth and consumerism are spiralling upwards, unchecked, driven by relentless advertising. It is putting forth a worldview based upon dissatisfaction and a craving that tells us we will be happier if we buy more things that wear out that we don’t really need, that provide only fleeting pleasure, and ultimately leaves us in greater debt. This has been at a disastrous cost to the human spirit and world ecology.

The second reason is a false assumption that this world does not matter in the eternal scheme of things. The minds and hearts of Christians (rightly so) should focused less on this life and more on the life to come. Biblical prophecy predicts the destruction of this world and the creation by God of a new heavens and a new earth. If this world and everything in it is headed for destruction, then why should we worry about some ecological degradation along the way? And that lays in the fault of many pastors for concentrating their focus more on the goodness of God and on living an obedient life than on sin. They are trying to teach Biblical principles in a simple way, emphasizing the power of love and a positive attitude.

Christian stewardship is based on the concept that everything we have was given to us—our health, our emotions, our intellect, our talents, the social and economic benefits into which we have been born, and all we do or earn or make with what God has given us—all ultimately are gifts from God for which we cannot take credit. In fact, because God created everything, He owns everything and they are only on loan to us. We are not owners but caretakers. And as the Biblical parable of the Talents[xi] tells us, we will be held accountable to God for what we do with the resources He has entrusted to us.

What are ethical Christians—as stewards of God’s creation—to do in light of the environmental challenges thrust upon us? We certainly are supposed to be taking care of creation, but I doubt that means that industrial and agricultural development should be stopped or severely restricted. Nor does it mean that the needs of human beings should be subjugated to the desire to maintain a pristine environment.

With respect to the environmental challenges mankind now faces, and with a fair assessment of what needs/should to be done, I believe the following principles should be taken into account:

  1. Is the problem definable. Can it be empirically and scientifically verified? Is the perceived problem really a problem or just a reaction to a ‘perceived’ problem? Is the scientific and factual basis still in dispute?
  2. Is the problem caused directly or indirectly by human action, or is it a result of natural processes or a combination of both?
  3. Is the cost (in money or human life, of human suffering) of fixing the problem greater than the cost of coping with the problem?
  4. Is the environmental impact or damage insignificant when compared with the overwhelming benefit it provides to human beings? For example, if we build a powerstation that services a city of several million people, does it really matter, in the grand scale of things, if we destroy the habitat of some obscure bird or animal?

These principles are based on the Christian belief in, and respect for, objective truth, and that human beings are God’s image bearers and the pinnacle of His creation

 Since the early 1960’s the “Precautionary Principle” has been the environmentalists best friend. The precautionary principle infers that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.

The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

On closer inspection, however, the Precautionary Principle makes little sense. One of the most basic principles of logic is that every effect has a cause. Yet the Precautionary Principle absurdly assumes that we can be absolutely certain of the effect, even though we are unsure about the cause. Further, the claim that the cost of drastic action to reverse the perceived problem is much less than the cost of not acting, is not only dubious in the extreme, it is totally myopic. Who exactly will be bearing this cost, and how much will it be? In has in the past lead to a much lower standard of living and massive unemployment.

In my opinion, environmentalists, both Christian and non-Christian, seem far too eager to make radical changes in governmental policy to affect the environment without any careful consideration of the impact on the lives of the people affected of those policy changes. Their demands for virtually immediate action without respect to the cost, both financial and in human life, appear, in many cases, to be motivated by a sense of moral superiority. Such people appear to be more interested in feeling good than actually doing good!

When Noah stepped out of the ark 4,500 years ago, the world had just gone through the most drastic change yet (except fot the Creation). God’s judgment on the his people, the land and its creatures was devastating and complete. That judgment has implications for how we interpret the current mechanisms of geologic processes, organism diversification and distribution (biogeography), and complex biological interactions. Insights learned from understanding the land within a biblical creation model have biblical implications and applications in origin of life assumptions, godly stewardship, human relations, world hunger, sustainable agriculture, and energy use among many more.

The more humans understand complex ecological inter-relationships within a creation ecology model, the better managers they will be of it. The potential is there to create opportunities for representing God, in the management of his resources, for the benefit of all.

[i] White, Jr., L., The historical roots of our ecological crisis, Science 155(3767):1203, 1967.

[ii] Spurr, S.H. and Barnes, B.V., Forest Ecology, 2nd Ed., John Wiley and Sons Inc., New York, p. 3, 1973

[iii] Floyd, D.W., Forest Sustainability: The History, The Challenge, The Promise, Forest History Society Issues Series, Durham, NC, p. 83, 2002.

[iv] Smith, R.L., Elements of Ecology, Harper Collins, New York, p. 3, 1992

[v] Calculations by Hughes, J.B., Daily, G.C. and Ehrlich, P.R., as cited in Science News 152(17):260, 1997.

[vi] Daily, G.C., Introduction: what are ecosystem services? in: Daily, ref. 9, p. 5

[vii] Marsh, G.P., Man and Nature (1864), Lowenthal, D. (Ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p. 36, 1965

[viii] Berry, W., The ecological crisis as a crisis of character; in: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996

[ix] Genesis 1:28–30

[x] Wieland, C. and Sarfati, J., Earth day: is Christianity to blame for environmental problems? <>.

[xi] See Matthew 25:14–30.


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