What is Christian Environmentalism?

on January 09, 2020

Since humanity as a whole is meant to act as stewards of creation, Christians should not neglect their responsibility to the world at large. It is not just a Christian duty, but Christians are expected to recognize it and follow it, not just for the reasons the rest of humanity understand as to why they should take care of creation, but because they see their actions as a way of showing their respect to God. Thus, as Christians, we must recognize that we are called to take care of the earth and its inhabitants. We are responsible for what happens to it when it is under our care, and this responsibility is not just for us now, but for those coming after us who will inherit what we have left behind.  

This is not an easy task, especially when it becomes evident that by taking care of the earth, and its environment, we sometimes have to make prudential decisions which might inadvertently cause harm to some creatures dependent upon the status quo. That is, we often have the impossible task of supporting life, all life, being open to it, by trying to protect it all. In trying to live out our role as stewards, we will find out that we will sometimes, if not all the time, negatively affect various forms of life as we try to manage and improve the environment. While the responses we make will sometimes appear to be, and sometimes will actually be, utilitarian, in that prudence we engage will seek for the greatest benefit, we should still take care to help those who would otherwise be negatively affected by our actions, and in general, have a sense of compassion for all involved. The problem lies with the taint of sin which finds itself infecting every created thing so that all things have been adversely affected by it, all things have been corrupted by it, making it nearly impossible to act if we want to avoid any cooperation with evil. Morally speaking, we should seek for the most remote material forms of cooperation with evil as is possible, and when forced to act, to seek to heal the harm which is the result of our best prudential decisions.

The way we are to act as stewards often becomes a matter of debate between environmentalists and animal rights activists, with environmentalists often “system oriented” seeking for overarching solutions which tend to ignore the plight of particular individuals, while animals rights activists tend to be concerned with individuals over systems, and so they might do good to individuals while ignoring the systems in which those individuals act, allowing, therefore, the over-arching structures put in place by sin to remain in place if not end up being reinforced.

But, to be sure, another problem is that environmentalists, especially Christian environmentalists, often focus on environments that are good for humanity, ignoring the needs of the rest of creation. That is, they are concerned with what is good only for humanity. Animals are welcome, and needed, because of the function they play in the environment which humans need in order to survive, but beyond such an instrumental view of animals (and the environment at large), care and concern for creation is lost. Jay McDaniel explains this problem well:

Christians have sometimes equated stewardship with the prudent management of natural resources for human consumption. Furthermore, when we have thought of stewardship in relation to future generations, we have often thought only of future human generations, forgetting that an appropriate ethical stance must be directed toward the well-being of future nonhuman generations as well. Deep ecologists remind us that stewardship, too, must be deep. We rightly preserve wilderness areas, not simply so that future humans can enjoy them, but so that future species with value in their own right can dwell in them. From deep ecology we learn both to affirm our kinship with fellow creatures and to allow evolutionary history — past, present, and future — to serve as a frame of reference through which we understand ourselves.[1]

Pope Francis, therefore, made an important point when he told us that each creature, indeed, everything in creation which has been given existence by God, has its own value which must be recognized and respected by us: “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”[2] Christian environmentalism, indeed, environmentalism as a whole, must take into consideration more than humanity and its interests, because all things have their own value, a value which must not be reduced to being an instrument for our own enjoyment. Desiring to care for the earth is a good concern, a concern which Christians should take as an important part of their role of being a Christian, should lead us to preserve and protect as best we can the needs of all other forms of life. Thus, as Jay McDaniel, in his book, Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reference For Life, indicates, Christians must truly follow God in affirming the value of life, all life, and not just human life:

To be life-centered is to be respectful both of life and environment. As a way of looking at the world, biocentrism is an antidote to that human-centeredness that sees humans as the measure of all things and that believes humans, and humans alone, are worthy of our moral regard. Inasmuch as human beings are members of the family of terrestrial life, and perhaps even its most precious members, life-centeredness involves a deep and abiding commitment to their wellbeing. [3]

Environmental concerns should come from this kind of respect for all life because it helps make sure the prudential decisions made for the sake of the environment are based upon a solid moral ethic. When we reflect upon our actions and judge them, this ethic, this concern for life, can be used to make sure our actions truly took into consideration the full range of our responsibility to life, and when we have not, to indicate areas of moral failure. This will be the least we can to do make sure our environmental concerns do not end up being based upon some self-seeking principle that ignores moral objectives. Environmentalism should not be some theoretical system which uses the creatures of the earth as tools for its construction, but rather, it should be a system which sees those creatures as subjects for which the environment is to be managed. This does not mean prudential decisions will not come into conflict with the desires of particular animals and animal species living within a particular habitat, but it will mean that those desires should be properly considered and weighed when environmental decisions are made.

While Christians must be willing to look at the diversity of animals, and recognize they each have their own particular value all to themselves, this does not mean all animals need to be looked at as having the same value. The differences which exists between species should indicate their different potentialities, different levels of personal and moral autonomy, giving them different levels of claims to the environment.  Looking purely at animal rights, pointing out all animals have rights which must be respected, can lead us to ignore such distinctions, causing difficulty in determining which species should have its rights affirmed and which should not when conflict arises between them. This is not to say it will be easy to determine the right course of action when various rights come into conflict with each other: it should not be.  Sometimes, indeed often, the response is to take on the role of a neutral observer, letting animals act naturally without any intervention from us; but even when we do that, we are making a choice not to act and to do that, we must have sufficient grounds for our decision. At other times, we might note that the good of all animals will be hindered by the actions of one or another animal, so that for the good of all, we must act (for example, when a particular animal species overruns a particular habitat, they can ultimately destroy the biodiversity which they need to survive; to fix the situation, we will have to intervene for the good of all). The key is to remember why we act, and why we act is to be stewards of the earth, looking to care for and show concern for the interests of all the best we can. We need compassionate conservation such as what David Ramp and Marc Bekoff have written about: “Compassionate conservation is challenging decisionmakers to have clear objectives where the lives of animals are affected. If interventions are necessary, the range of values of different stakeholders (human, nonhuman) should be articulated so that trade-offs may be transparently evaluated.”[4]  This, then, is why Pope Francis said:

Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment. Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.[5]

We make the decisions based upon what we know at the time we make them. In order to make better choices, we need better information, and so we must invest our time and energy to understanding both animals and the environment around us better, so we can then act properly.  Prudential decisions must, therefore, be made not only with the best moral principles, but the best scientific knowledge. The more we know, the better decisions we can make; the more resistant we are to science, the more likely we are going to reject our moral responsibility and cause undue harm to the world. Is that not what we have learned with climate change? But it is not just climate change; it is the way we have managed, or mismanaged, animal species, allowing many to come to extinction due not only to our carelessness but by our outright moral failures (because we have often been interested only in the welfare of humanity and not the world which we have been called to protect and serve).

Being stewards of the earth requires us to be concerned both with overarching ecological concerns but also with the animals living in the environment. We should not ignore the plight of the animals which are affected by our environmental actions. We must recognize that even the best decisions can and will benefit many, but many others will not experience those benefits, indeed, they might perish because of them. We should be concerned about both, and act with basic moral principles guided by the best scientific understanding we have of the situation, creating solutions to problems on a case by case basis. Each habitat will have a different mix of rights and concerns to deal with, which is why there will not be one solution to all environmental concerns. With no preconceived solution being enforced before we judge the details of the problem and look to the various  possible outcomes and weigh them out according to what justice tells, we will more likely come upon a better, if not the best, possible solution, than if we tried to predetermine our actions before investigating the problem thoroughly. It will not be easy. We want simple, overarching answers to follow. But when making good, ethic choices, the decisions rarely will be easy.


[1] Jay B. McDaniel, “Land Ethics, Animal Rights, and Process Theology” on Religion Online. (Originally published Jay B. McDaniel, “Land Ethics, Animal Rights, and Process Theology” in Process Studies vol. 17, no. 2 (1988): 88-102).

[2] Pope Francis, Laudato si’. Vatican translation. ¶84.

[3] Jay B. McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans: A Theology of Reverence For Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 14.

[4] David Ramp and Marc Bekoff, Compassion As A Practical And Evolved Ethic For Conservation” on The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy Animal Studies Repository (2015).

[5] Pope Francis, Laudato si’, ¶42.

Article written by Henry Karlson and published originally on Patheos

1 comment
by Amy Webb on May 21, 2020

This article is great! What you are doing with this article is exactly what I want to be doing with my future career, educating Christians on environmentalism and why it is important for us to take care of the environment and be stewards of it so that we may honor God. It is very inspiring to see other Christians pursuing the same environmentalism ideals as me! Thank you for your work!


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