The Things People Do To Nature (RJS)

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times last Sunday – The Ecology of Disease by Jim Robbins:

THERE’S a term biologists and economists use these days — ecosystem services — which refers to the many ways nature supports the human endeavor. Forests filter the water we drink, for example, and birds and bees pollinate crops, both of which have substantial economic as well as biological value.

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

The argument is that the things we do can have profound unexpected consequences. This is something about which we should be concerned. We live on earth in a closed and interconnected ecosystem. There are limited resources, and there is not infinite potential. Deforestation, carbon dioxide emissions, hunting, farming, urbanization can have potentially devastating effects. Whether the most dire predictions of global warming are accurate or not, there is no way to deny that human actions are capable of altering the balances in nature in ways we cannot really understand beforehand. This leads for the need, not for alarmist rhetoric, but for prudent action.

Later in the article:

The best way to prevent the next outbreak in humans, specialists say, is with what they call the One Health Initiative — a worldwide program, involving more than 600 scientists and other professionals, that advances the idea that human, animal and ecological health are inextricably linked and need to be studied and managed holistically.

“It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth. “It’s learning how to do things sustainably. If you can get a handle on what it is that drives the emergence of a disease, then you can learn to modify environments sustainably.”

This article puts something of a different twist on the issues of ecology and environmentalism.

The Blame and Conflict Model. Unfortunately environmentalism has a bad odor to many Christians.  It seems to run counter to the Christian view of the world. The reaction to claims of climate change and global warming are an indication of this. There was a famous essay published in Science in 1967 The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis by Lynn White, Jr. (155, 1203-1207) that lays the blame for many of our ecological woes at the feet of a Christian worldview and understanding of nature, although he also looks to Francis of Assisi as an example of the way things could be different.

Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), “when you’ve seen one red-wood tree, you’ve seen them all.” To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. (1206)

And toward the end of White’s 1967 essay:

Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists. (1207)

The sentiments of this essay, which are not unique to White, have turned the ecology and environmentalism into a conflict between science and faith. Too many conservative Christians decry both evolutionary biology and environmentalism. The reaction to environmentalism is almost as much of a knee-jerk rejection as the reaction to evolution and common descent. When the call for environmentally sound policy is transformed into an alarmist rejection of the modern way of life it is easy for many to dismiss it as politically motivated. The global warming crisis has a bit of an impersonal feel, disease is another issue – SARS and AIDS are immanently personal. The impact of environment on changes in cancer rates is somewhat more difficult to see, but is also immanently personal.

I think there is a change in the air – and Christians are becoming much more conscious of ecology and the things we can do to nature. The call to dominion is also a call for care. But this is something that is worth a conversation, and is much more interesting than questions of the historicity of Adam or the conclusions of evolutionary biology.

What do you think we can or should be doing about problems like the ecology of disease or global warming?

What should the Christian reaction be?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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  • Paul W

    I’m sure plenty of folks here are familiar with the idea of a hermeneutical spirial. Here goes one for a sustainable ecological design spirial
    1. Do something
    2. Fail #1
    3. Figure out a better way (books/forums/people)
    4. Implement improved design
    5. Fail #2
    6. Figure out a better way (again!)
    7. Implement even better design
    8. celebrate any success
    9. Move on to the next failure loop.

    I’d suggest, regardless of religious orientation, that one might want to consider DOING something– anything positive for the environment. Focus on learning how to do good things for the earth rather than on debating knuckleheads or being angry at “bad” people. Start at your doorstep. Start small and close by. Find success in a small space that you can connect with and also easily focus your efforts upon. Repeat successes at a larger scale.

    I also tend to think of working from the ground up. That is, work on building healthy soil. There is lot of information out there on composting, mulch, hugelkultur and what not. Then plant a garden (God did– Gen 2:8). Plant things you love in the good soil whether veggies, fruits, flowers, herbs, medicinal plants, or whatever. That way you’ll see some here-and-now reward for the effort.

  • Scot McKnight

    Paul W, Kris and I are composting for the first time this summer … and we have been amazed at how much shrinks to such small spongy balls. Quite interesting… we will “plant” our composting into our garden and are looking forward to it.

    We have also been surprised at how little garbage we now have — most of what we toss away is now recyclables.

  • DRT

    PaulW excellent comments. Do something. Yes, that’s. Anything, something, start, there is genius in boldness. Start.

  • RobS

    If Psalm 24:1 is true, and the earth is the Lord’s then I should probably be taking care of it in some way — just like a Genesis 2:15 example. The Bible doesn’t call me to extreme environmentalist actions, but it does ask me to be a good steward and responsible for what I’ve been given.

    Scot (2), yeah, the composting thing is amazing. It’s amazing how it breaks down. We got our composter for Christmas a few years back. For the person that “has it all” (or it feels they do) then I think it’s a good gift for anyone willing to try it — like DRT (3) suggested… just getting started.

    I’m also a pusher for improved single stream recycling — once we finally got it going here, the city got us big 55 gallon style bins that we can toss near-anything into and it all sorts out and gets taken care of at the facility. It makes recycling so easy. And the kids can learn how to sort things in the house as well. When we go out of town and see the horrible recycling options in other places, it confirms that these higher tech facilities could be added around the country to improve things in a lot of ways.

    All that said, the real “trash” that goes out is about 2/3 of a medium sized can for our family of five.

  • RobS

    Oh yeah, and Youtube has some good videos on single stream recycling. It’s pretty neat how it all works. Preview one so you know it’s good and let your kids see it — they can appreciate how things work through the system and are bundled to make new product. It can be good and fun education for them to know where things go after they put it in the bin.

  • Lance Vaughters

    It is amazing to me that the christian world has so dissed the instructions (torah) of Yahweh (God) so as to be mystified at how to keep His earth. The instructions are all there folks. The Laws of the kingdom have not changed since the beginning or from the first and second covenant. walk by the laws of the Kingdom and you will benefit from their blessings. Part of the Good news (gospel) is that the blessings attached to the law get to be realized by those who keep the law by faith through the Spirit.
    May your day be filled with Justice Mercy and humility.
    Grace & Peace

  • Lance Vaughters

    BTW. Here’s what we are practicing along with other torah instructions for our very large garden up here in Saskatchewan Canada. take a look at the film included in this link and remember that on of the first commands to us as mankind was to til the ground this is part of the good news as well.

    Grace & Peace,

  • brb

    some themes/actions I love and find relevant from our faith tradition…
    ) steward the gifts of nature and our animal companions
    ) acknowledge sin and ‘turn away’/repent
    ) focus on the grand story of our redemption
    ) look for and care for those on the margin
    ) don’t rely on self
    ) witness through alternative, positive behaviors, and attitudes (i.e. recycling, composting)
    ) co-create
    ) ‘gatekeeper’ model, we should be on the front lines! 🙂

    anything that overcomes inertia seems to be good way to start

  • AHH

    I have never understood the logic, but I have fairly often heard Christians reject climate science and other environmental science on the grounds that God is sovereign over his created Earth and would never allow us to mess it up too badly.

    This idea that the Earth is somehow super-resilient to our attempts to mess it up smacks of hubris (maybe like OT Israel assuming that God would have to protect them and then being surprised by the exile). And it flies in the face of the facts, not only with global things like the climate but with the fact that God has allowed us to mess things up significantly on smaller scales (air pollution in China, oil in the Gulf of Mexico, species extinction, etc.). But the idea that God’s Earth is so resilient that we don’t need to worry too much about messing it up is pretty influential.

  • phil_style

    We live on earth in a closed and interconnected ecosystem. There are limited resources, and there is not infinite potential
    This is not strictly true. The earth has an in/out flow of energy via the suns radiation, and subsequent re-radiation from earth out into space. If it were not for the constant (and renewable and limitless with respect to biological timespans) energy input from the sun, life on earth would have ceased a long time ago.

  • DRT

    RobS, I wonder how many would recycle the way I have to do it. I don’t have trash service so I have to take my own trash to the dump, and for the recycling I have to drive to different dumpsters and put it in separately. So it ends up being quite an ordeal from loading it all up and hauling etc.

    But I do remember when I lived in a neighborhood and it was a big deal just to carry it out to the curb.

  • DRT

    …I don’t have trash service because I live in a rural area.

  • Patrick

    Other than how to dispose of human waste to prevent diseases, what does Torah teach about environmental stewardship?

  • RJS


    I teach thermodynamics when I have to – and this influences my use of the terms here. “Closed” usually means no mass transport, but energy transport is present. Certainly there is energy input from the sun as well as radiative loss. I am not sure there is any relevant material input though. There can be material loss as well. We lose helium for example. But I don’t think this really changes my point. (An “isolated” system has no energy or matter transport).

  • John C. Gardner

    We need to be better stewards of God’s creation. I am not a scientist but I do find it somewhat disconcerting that many(too many?) Christians seem to lack interest in preserving the environment. Prudence would suggest that we need to take positive steps. I am also pro-nuclear energy as a way to protect the environment(with again rigid safety standards. Fracking for oil and natural gas would seem(with proper safety standards) good way in the nearer term to produce job while there are longer term investments(perhaps over decades) in alternative fuels. A carbon tax would also seem to be a good Pigovian way of mitigating pollution.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I don’t know how Jeremiah did it where he kept preaching message after message to people who did not want to hear it. I preached about the ecology and biblical stewardship and the response of the church was indifference to this really has nothing to do with my spiritual life.

    Of all the stupid things I have said in my life from the pulpit, I may not had many people angry at me but I have never met so much resistance or apathy to a topic before as this one by the local church. I know things are a changing but the church often does not want to even hear what the Bible says about good stewardship of God’s creation. Maybe this says something how we have disconnected a theology of creation from the gospel many preach today?

  • Jag

    My church got involved with a project to help low-income people that included giving them CFL bulbs to replace their incandescents. We had people from other churches emailing and calling our senior pastor to complain about our heresy, with one theme being how we were helping big government and opposing capitalism.

    If we were not so eager to make an idol of the free market, we’d be a lot better off in the environmental and health arenas.

  • E.G.

    From RJS’s article:

    ‘“It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth.’

    That’s exactly it! And, as a Christian I’d add that we Christians should be encouraging our people to spend more time in nature. It is God’s “other book.” And we western, urban Christians often ignore it and neglect it. “Devotions” to us means, rightly, spending time in Scripture. But there is enough Biblical warrant to show that it also ought to mean spending time in nature.

    I could run on with a huge comment here listing chapter and verse to that effect, but it’s been well covered by others previously (Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and many others) and more recently (Steven Bouma-Prediger, Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, Jonathan Merritt, etc.).

    As a scientist – a biologist – I have given up on the interminable origins debate. It is interesting, and it does have faith implications for many upcoming youth. But it so often feels like I’m banging my head against the wall with no tangible result.

    However, I am very excited about the (finally!!!) move towards Christ-based creation care and stewardship. And, there is no reason for Christians to go into this alone. There are myriad organizations – both established and new – that are more than willing to help out. And they all need volunteer service as well. Perhaps you can find a ministry of this sort in your neighborhood… or start one on your own.

    I’d like to link some more examples, but the spam-stopper won’t let me. So here’s one:

    Others include the Evangelical Environmental Network, the Au Sable Institute, and Blessed Earth.

    Have fun!

  • Lance Vaughters

    Torah has much to say about how to care for the land.
    don’t mix two kinds of seed in the same field.
    give the land a rest every seven years.
    honor god with the first-fruits of your produce and herds.
    don’t shed innocent blood on the land because it carries a curse with it.
    Many other details that directly impact environmental stewardship or at least our attitude toward the creator/owner of the earth are found in the Torah, writings and prophets.

    If your embark on this study you will be amazed at how much critical info we as Christians have tossed out because we don’t want to submit to Law it seems maybe too impersonal. Yet we declare to everyone that we serve a Personal God and Savior. Our, Savior, Jesus authored the law that we don’t often think too highly of.

    Grace & Peace,

  • E.G.

    Lance #19: “Torah has much to say about how to care for the land.”

    Heh… and the Sabbath law was very closely linked to the land and to creatures.

    This is a *great* resource via A Rocha. John Stott’s ideas on this topic:

  • E.G.

    And, if you like that one, here’s a raft of similar resources:

  • Jamieson


    I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but many of us here are old enough to remember when global freezing was the greatest threat facing mankind. And when the only recourse is a massive tax imposition, we become very suspicious. It’s not that we don’t value God’s handiwork, it’s that we don’t value a government that seems more interested in control than encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in taking care of what we have.

    I am a stay-at-home husband who loves tinkering in and with my garden. I have composted for years and, like Scot, am amazed at how two bales of straw, a couple trailer loads of leaves can be reduced to a couple wheelbarrows of compost. Chipmunks and snakes love it too.


    Watch the short films in the dropdown movie section

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS and others,

    Yes, by all means, do all that good stuff and encourage others to do the same. Environmentally conscious people have been doing this for a very long time, so the more the better. However, from a senior biologist’s point of view, this is very old hat – conservation, living simply, protecting forests and streams, protecting habitat, reducing antibiotic use, and on and on, and on. But, in spite of decades of excellent science and environmental activism that has been screaming loudly about the cliff, brick wall or whatever just ahead, look at where we are politically on this large collection of highly related issues. And, to make it worse, look at who is leading the charge to continue to ignore the mountain of scientific evidence. It’s all about exploitation at every level, and outspoken, Bible believing Christians are leading the way! This is sin if the first order, and Christians who actually see the writing on the wall still treat the brothers and sisters who do not as if it’s a minor misdemeanor.

    “Unfortunately environmentalism has a bad odor to many Christians.  It seems to run counter to the Christian view of the world.”

    I know this is correct, but I have no idea how the running counter to the Christian view of the world ever became the prevalent view. Unless, somehow, the Christian view of the world is essentially exploitive. And yet, where in Scripture are we encouraged to exploit anything? Should we exploit situations, people, those not like us, the land, the air, the water? We do, excessively so, but this is most definitely not Christian behaviour, because the Bible tells us it is not – over and over. So, how is it that millions of people who say they believe the Bible from cover to cover find warrant or permission to exploit anything? 

    These are all rhetorical questions, but they point to an incredible mis-interpretation of Scripture running rampant, particularly in  evangelical circles. These are people who don’t want any authority figures interpreting Scripture for them – except certain self-appointed gatekeepers. Given what they appear to enjoy doing in the area of exploitation on all fronts, I guess they do need some sort of warped way to read the Bible, and protection from any alternative reading. Millions even seem to think that we are supposed to mess this place up as fast as we can so Jesus can come back and fix it all up. What must Jesus think? is probably a better question for our time than What would Jesus do?

    Is this too hard on evangelicals? I don’t think so. Saying that non-Christians are equally guilty exploiters doesn’t cut it at all. We are the ones claiming to have the revelation from God. We are the ones claiming to believe the Bible – every chapter, every verse, every line. It’s professing Christians and believing Jews who should be leading the environmental movements not fighting against them – if we really believe the OT. Christians are doubly guilty because we say we believe in the revelation of Christ. What indeed must Jesus think? 

     It’s way past time to grow up, on so many fronts. This childish head-in-the-sand approach to modern science really must stop. It’s probably time for those evangelicals who do understand the harmful scope of the problem to stop treating the see no evil, hear no evil crowd so gently. There is a time for understanding, and a time for telling it like it is. Sites like this and articles like this are a great help. However, I think we are even past the time when more direct confrontation, from within the evangelical community, was called for. This stuff has already been apparent for decades, and we are still almost at the starting point with millions on the infamous Christian right.

    The devastation that awaits just around the corner will swamp anything we can do individually. Strong political will to massively change our exploitive lifestyles is the only solution. Since very conservative Christians by the millions still don’t yet get it, perhaps Christians who do get it, and who love our conservative brothers and sisters for many good reasons, should insist on some serious family meetings. 

    It’s rewarding to hear that CGC appropriately tackles this from the pulpit, but sad to hear of the lack of response. Don’t give up. Scare the pants off them if you have to. This is serious stuff! E.G. is so right. The “interminable origins debate” is peanuts in comparison to what’s brewing because of our over- exploitive lifestyles (socially, financially as well as environmentally). It’s all tightly related in any case. This stuff won’t be accepted by many, but they still must be told. Also, their political agenda to exploit even more must be strongly opposed. Look at the sites E.G. mentions. As he/she says, Christians don’t need to go it alone. Many have been on this road for fifty years or more. 

  • Tom F.

    Its hard to overestimate the possibility of disaster here; if global warming happens it will of course be a devastating blow to millions around the world, perhaps hitting hardest those who are poor and who have few resources to adjust to the new climate.

    If global warming happens, one response will be to attempt to geo-engineer the world through various proposals, many of which are politically fraught with danger (i.e., they create very, very clear winners and losers on the world stage…hard not to see how that doesn’t mean war.) The biggest losers here will again be the poor, who lack the political resources to advocate for solutions that won’t hurt them…and then because they always lose during war anyway.

    If global warming happens, it will be a daily, visceral, concrete reminder that conservative Christians were dead, dead wrong. It will be a knock-down argument against Christian apologetics in America (Christians in the rest of the world are not nearly so dense on this issue): “How can you ask us to trust you on God when you got global warming so badly wrong?”.

  • Percival

    Another good Christian environmental organization link – this one focuses on creation care in missions. I recommend the podcast episode on John Stott especially.

  • Percival

    “If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

    I don’t want to show my ignorance here, but what is the connection between the breakdown of systems and these epidemics? I can see where the spread of mosquitoes, for example, can spread West Nile virus, but some of the others? Aids? Ebola? SARS? Diseases become epidemics when they spread. Isn’t the increased mobility of the world’s population more to blame for these becoming epidemic? Not my field, so I’m just asking.

  • Percival

    Final comment.

    How much is enough when it comes to being a good steward of creation? It seems there is no end to measures that the Christian should take. Drive a Prius. Ride a bike. Compost. Buy local. Buy organic. Buy bulk. Don’t buy anything. Re-use your gray water. Get rid of your AC. Reuse and recycle. Don’t use too many antibiotics. Use ladybugs and worms. Dispose of batteries properly. Don’t have a lawn. Don’t shop at Walmart. Don’t drink that kind of coffee. Etc. It never ends. And I haven’t even mentioned the political and social aspects of environmentalism!

    I’m afraid that we are in danger of a new kind of legalism and we have no framework to understand which actions are truly strategic and most beneficial. Unfortunately, many of these decisions require an understanding of science and access to years of studies in a field where ‘orthodoxy’ emerges over decades instead of over centuries.

  • E.G.

    Percival… #27 – HIV probably derived from the butchering of apes for food (so-called “bush meat) in west Africa.

    That’s one connection that I can think of off hand.

    #28 – do what you can. Learn. Journey along the road. Study God’s “other book.” Yes, legalism is always a danger. But so are apathy or “I can’t do anything anyhow, so why bother?” attitudes.

    Bev #24 – thank you!

  • Bev Mitchell

    Percival (28)
    It’s not so much a bunch of things we have to do while maintaining the same exploitive attitudes and essentially the same goals. What we need is a complete re-orientation of how we see the world, how we define the “good life”, how we relate to others. In short, we need massive repentance and conversion in this whole area.

    As for what is related to what and how – have a look at Jared Diamond’s excellent “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”. If you dare, turn next turn to his newer, and scarier, “Collapse”. These realities will not disappear by ignoring them or minimizing them. 

  • Percival

    EG #29,
    Yes, but eating apes is not new and neither is the leap of the virus to humans.

    I agree that apathy and resignation are dangers. But I am concerned that the ‘just do something’ attitude leads quickly to apathy and resignation for those who feel that their lives are increasingly under the control of moral authorities who keep demanding more and more.

    Bev is right in that we need a change of ethos, but it needs to be informed by something other than mass media and alarmism. Again, my hope is that we can learn to be strategic in what we advocate.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Mass media is a big part of the problem. They basically ignore the real issues. And, it would be great to have some workable strategies, but many (the majority?) of evangelicals don’t know there is a really big problem, and most don’t even want to inform themselves. We can’t develop a strategy with people who are not even paying attention. The strategies proposed by the secular world are many and varied. They do, however, work against the interests of the big winners who have prospered mightly from the status quo. For evangelicals who have some idea of the urgency of the matter, the first item on the agenda is to awake the millions of brothers and sisters who still favour the status quo (and do so against their own interests). But, I agree with you that scare tactics probably won’t work for most. Frankly, we are in a bind. Millions of awakened evangelicals would be a great help in turning the ship around. The question is, how to awaken them and instill in them the proper sense of urgency? Note what CGC said re the response he gets when prodding gently from the pulpit.

    It would be interesting to know something of the experiences of other pastors who raise these ethos, lifestyle issues (not to mention challenging a politic that favours shooting at any and every imagined problem) in more or less conservative settings.

  • E.G.

    #31 Percival: Novelty, or lack thereof, does not necessarily correlate with wisdom.

    Have you read the article that RJS linked?

    I’m also curious… are you for or against wanton exploitation of a creation that God called “good”?

  • Percival

    E.G. Novelty? Not sure what you are referring to.

    Interesting that you might question my dedication to creation care because I question the way we try to go about it. What kind of question is “Are you for wanton exploitation of …”? Come on, brother.

    As for the article, I have read it and I remain a bit skeptical that what he is describing accounts for all these diseases becoming widespread. It is more complex than human encroachment. For example, to suppose that HIV came about because in the 20’s people started to eat apes for the first time strikes me as naive.

    Mainly I was responding to RJS’s more general post and trying to comment on how Christians should be thoughtful and proactive rather than reactive, ignorant, and driven by moral fads. Hope that is not too controversial.

  • CDL

    I think, to a large extent, this is just one result of the pervasive dualism that has so infected our thinking–the idea that the spiritual is good, the physical bad. This manifests itself nowhere more clearly than in the sloppy eschatology of waiting to be rescued from planet earth to go be a disembodied spirit in heaven forever.

    Though no one says it in as many words, the mentality is, “It’s all gonna burn, and the sooner, the better.”

    Have we forgotten the resurrection?