What kind of Christian faith and ethic is committed to justice and honoring the Earth, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life? What kind understands justice as the never-ending project to reach across the whole community of life in order to set wrongs right and establish the conditions for all nature’s well-being, ours included?
Not the kind of Christian faith and ethic prevalent since the Industrial Revolution. Not modern secular theories of justice, either, or the laws of the nations. Unremittingly human-exclusive, all these have faithfully reproduced the profound modern dualism that cleaves humanity from the rest of nature.
Could this moral void—the startling absence of earth, air, fire, water, light, and their needs in the faith and ethic we live by—be the reason, when coupled to unprecedented human power to affect them, that all life-systems are presently in decline at an accelerating rate?
Think about it. Why have we developed ethics for homicide, suicide, and genocide, but none for biocide or geo-cide? So far, no one has been hauled into court for species extinction—the death of birth itself for millions of God’s precious and unique creatures. Earth and its integral functioning apparently have little claim upon us, despite our total dependence upon it and despite our origins as adam from adamâ (earth creatures from soil; Genesis 2:7).
Perhaps life systems are in decline for another reason. Our habits—driving here and there for work and pleasure, raising and preparing food, clothing and educating the kids, deciding how to use what discretionary income we might have—are all close in and short haul, taken without consideration of their actual global supply lines and ripple effects over time. It appears that our way of life is governed by micro-ethical practice the consequences of which are macro.
In a word, our responsibility is not institutionalized in ways that match the actual impact of routine human powers across space (the whole planet, it turns out) and across time (future generations for decades, and even centuries to come, given climate change).
Who is being taxed for the ecological debt already owed future generations and the poor? Who is paying interest on all we’ve borrowed against our children’s future? Why hasn’t a faith that knows from its own scriptures about blessings and burdens redounding unto the third and fourth generations (Deuteronomy 5:9-10) picked up on this?
Ignorance cannot be the reason. After all, the science is clear: We are wreaking havoc on innumerable lives and their home habitats in a planetary creation that is seamless. Why is this not declared a mortal sin, at least by those who profess love of life as the gift of God for which we have that tilling-and-keeping responsibility?
The reason for extinctions and species holocaust is hardly shrouded in mystery. Species disappear because of encroaching human habitat and the toxic consequences of life lived as industry—“The power industry, the defense industry, the communications industry,” as Wendell Berry puts it, “the transportation industry, the agriculture industry, the food industry, the health industry ... the entertainment industry, the mining industry, the education industry, the law industry, the government industry, and the religion industry,” and I’d add even the hospitality and the cancer industry.
So why don’t we stop?
Maybe because we still cling to the illusions of a way of life made possible by compact, stored energy in the form of abundant fossil fuel.
The benefits have been huge and wholly unprecedented. Economist John Maynard Keynes says that from a couple thousand years before Christ until the 18th century, there was little change in the standard of living for most peoples, at most a 100 percent increase over those four millennia. Whatever the exact number, none of us wishes to revert to pre-industrial eras and backpedal to lives half as long. None wants a return to “the Great Mortality” of the plague and the scourge of pandemic disease.
Yet this way of life—ours—rests on three illusions. First, as a readily available stored energy, fossil fuels let us think we can bypass the rhythms and requirements of nature that pre-industrial populations literally had to observe season in and season out. We, by contrast, think we can create a world on our own terms, in our own image. The built environment, rather than the unbuilt environment of intimate nature, thereby became our primary habitat, a habitat quickly matched to a diminished moral universe featuring only our own species and our own works.
This moral contraction pushed aside the parental elements upon which every built environment and all life depends. Moral claims for the well-being of soil, air, energy, water, and light disappeared. So, too, did the rich truth of humans as kith and kin to all that shares “the breath of life”—“every beast of the earth, every bird of the air, everything that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:30).
Bypassing nature’s generative elements and their requirements for their own regeneration on their own terms made possible the second illusion: We can bring nature under our control and liberate humankind from futility and toil. We now know that planetary processes and the integral functioning of Earth’s great systems are not only more complex than we think; they are probably more complex than we can ever think. They are certainly more complex than any one species can master and control.
Our third illusion is that scale somehow doesn’t matter. Anyone 25 years old, says environmentalist Randy Udall, has lived through an era when “more than half of all the fossil fuel consumed in human history has been burned, and more than half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have ever produced has gone skyward.”
Taking a longer view and another measure—50 years rather than 25—global consumer classes produced, transported, and consumed as many goods and services in the half century from 1950-2000 as throughout the entire period of history prior to that date, according to sustainability activist Alan Durning.
Yet somehow we still imagine that we can have infinite growth on a finite planet. Even the notion of limits offends our way of life and its values. The biblical notion that just enough is enough, rather than either poverty or riches, doesn’t register with us (see Proverbs 30:8-9).
Historically speaking, until the Industrial Revolution the human story was an expression of Earth’s story. Earth set the terms and we had to adapt. Now Earth’s story is an expression of the human story. Now no precincts of other-than-human nature—from genes to grasslands to glaciers—are exempt from human impact and change. The rest of nature knows no life beyond the reach of cumulative human power. Nature belongs to the empire of its most aggressive species, though the subjects, as in every empire, may revolt or refuse to cooperate.
In their book Christian Environmental Ethics, James Martin-Schramm and Robert Stivers put it this way: “Until recently the great ecological systems of the earth were a problem for human beings. Now the reverse is true.” Yet it doesn’t occur to us to call this trouble-making reversal a sin or to lobby lawmakers to render it a crime, despite the fact it results in a vast uncontrolled planetary experiment in which what humans throw at the rest of nature is as fateful as what the rest of nature throws at humans. Or, more precisely, what the rest of nature throws back, since we are now among the agents of weather, climate, and evolution.
Maybe the moral void in Christian faith and ethics rests in a curious omission that stretches back much farther than the industrial era. Why doesn’t our elaborate understanding of human nature include species pride as sin?
Sin is usually defined as the kind of selfishness and inordinate pride that is offensive to God and harmful to neighbor. But what gives rise to this? What is the underlying dynamic in both its individual and collective forms? It is sin as affirming oneself and one’s confreres—but not the other—as the center of value, and from there acknowledging others only in relation to oneself and one’s group. In some centuries this has meant normative whiteness as the basis for judging other races, or European and neo-European societies as the basis for judging other peoples and civilizations (invariably as lesser or inferior, even savage), or Western Christianity as the religious norm, male status as decisive for female, heterosexual for homosexual, etc. The self-referential “we,” viewing the world with its own lenses from inside its own bubble, takes the measure of “they” on the terms of “us” but not “them.”
Protestants indebted to Augustine have elaborated this hearty arrogance as “pride” in a dazzling display of subtle forms, including the temptations of humility. Yet Protestants have joined Catholics and Orthodox in marching away from the logical conclusion; namely, the elaboration of species pride and arrogance as human sin. The species “we” that sins is set over against the “they” of the rest of nature that is sinned against. But the sinned-against goes unrecognized; or, if recognized, lacks moral representation.
The rest of nature thereby holds few if any claims upon us. Indeed, the human “we” hardly even conceives itself in species terms, with a single glaring exception: We see ourselves as a distinctive and segregated species, set apart with domination over. We humans thus end up in a very odd place from a moral and theological point of view: a contracting Earth is jeopardized by its acclaimed stewards, stewards who fail even to wince at the fact they have become un-creators. Human-wide arrogance and waywardness leads to silence about our species’ cumulative threats to life.
But the cause is not inherently pan-human. It is not species-bound or inevitable. Many human cultures have known the profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures, and have recognized it in common ritual and daily prayer. Many have understood other species as kin and the primal elements of earth, air, fire, water, and light as constitutive of their own being and way of life. Many have felt the moral claims upon them for respect, reverence, and reciprocal treatment. Many have crafted their common habits and made their everyday decisions with a view to distant generations.
So why not us? Because our personal morality and ethic, like that of our great institutions, has forgotten the true bottom line: The health and wellness of human beings is dependent on the wellness of our ecosystems.
To remember this means living by a different faith and ethic. It will be an Earth-honoring faith and ethic, asking all those questions with which we began. What kind of Christian faith offers renewable moral and spiritual energy for living our “tilling-and-keeping” responsibility (Genesis 2:15)? What kind understands that justice is not just us, but rather the never-ending project to reach across the whole community of life in order to set wrongs right and establish the conditions for all nature’s well-being, ours included? This needed restructuring will center God and the primal elements of God’s creation—earth, air, fire, water, light. It will, in a word, reframe our lives at a time when both beauty and necessity ask that of us.
Larry Rasmussen is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics emeritus at Union Theological Seminary and author (with Dieter Hessel) of Earth Community, Earth Ethics and Earth Habitat: Eco-Injustice and the Church’s Response.