What are Christians to make of the big environmental questions in 2021: climate change, deforestation and habitat loss, water quality and water shortages, the extinction of species, fossil fuels?
In Laudato si (Item 14), Pope Francis states, “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity…All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.”
Conclusions about the status of the environment and climate—threats, degradation, progress, rely on science, on measurable evidence, and the more independent evidence the more reliable the conclusions. Ironically, many of those who label opponents “science deniers” do not themselves understand the science. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes about Steven Koonin, a theoretical physicist who was chief scientist of President Obama’s Energy Department and taught at Caltech for nearly three decades (“How a Physicist Became a Climate Truth Teller,” Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. interview with Steven Koonin, Wall Street Journal, April 2021). According to Jenkins, Mr. Koonin’s new book “argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.”
On many occasions, scientists—experts—have reached a consensus on something that was subsequently demonstrated to be incomplete or false. Nobel prize-winning physicist, Brian Josephson, adopted the motto of the Royal Society, which he paraphrased as “Take nobody’s word for it.” (Andrew May’s profile of Brian Josephson, “30-Second Quantum Theory: The 50 Most Thought-Provoking Quantum Concepts”, Metro Books, 2017). Psychologist, neuroscientist, and biologist, John Staddon, puts it this way: “Science is strengthened not by praise but by criticism…Checking the truth of something should come well before getting agitated about it.” (“Science Needs Criticism, Not Cheerleading,” J. Peter Zane’s interview with John Staddon, Wall Street Journal, February 2021). Many impactful scientific advancements were made by people who challenged the prevailing scientific consensus, including Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Werner Heisenberg. One of the most important things a scientist can learn is when to say, “I don’t know.”
In “The Scarcity Fallacy: The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out” (Wall Street Journal, April 2014), zoologist/science writer Matt Ridley identifies instances when ecologists predicted the world’s resources would run out, though technological innovation has since broken through those limits again and again, including predictions of worldwide famine that haven’t occurred because of the extensive agricultural innovations (Green Revolution) of Norman Borlaug and others. Against the evidence of history, many believe that if we can’t solve a problem today, then it will still be a problem next year and forever. Dire predictions and forecasts are often based on this misconception. This is not to say we should have “blind confidence in technical solutions,” as Pope Francis warns, but we should not commit the opposite error of assuming little or no innovation in the future.
On the evidence, America’s environment is cleaner than it’s been for over 100 years. In the 19th century and into the 1920s, waterborne diseases (pathogens) annually sickened thousands in American cities. Today, waterborne pathogens have been practically eradicated in the United States, to such an extent that most Americans take safe drinking water for granted.
Because we now measure pollutants in dramatically smaller amounts than a generation ago, many think we are releasing more pollutants. On the contrary, the quality of treated wastewater discharged to rivers and lakes has been steadily improving. Some wastewater treatment plants now produce water of higher quality than their receiving streams. As to air quality, combustion processes are more efficient, with fewer polluting products of combustion and better air pollution abatement technology.
Concerning habitats, a 2010 Detroit News article authored by Jim Lynch reported: “After decades of struggling to overcome the Detroit River’s polluted past, a variety of fish and bird species have re-established themselves in the watershed. The budding osprey population is joined by increasing numbers of walleye, lake sturgeon and whitefish as well as bird species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.” A Detroit Zoo plaque reads: “After a 150-plus year absence, in 2008, beavers were once again spotted living in the Detroit River.”
The Christian tradition insists that technological advancement should not be an end in itself but ought to be a means for uplifting humankind and furthering the stewardship of the natural world. Nonetheless, technological innovation means we can make drinking water from sewage if the psychological barrier could be surmounted (just one citation among many—“As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows from Taps,” Felicity Barringer, New York Times, 2012), and we could mitigate the western states’ droughts and wildfires if a zero-environmental-risk mindset could be surmounted by treating ocean water and conveying the water inland for additional treatment to meet varying needs—drinking water, wildfire fighting, irrigation. Today, de-salting technologies require less energy and are less costly to build than a generation ago.
Where have these environmental improvements most often occurred? In countries with participative governments, where human rights (including religious freedom) are enshrined in law, where most people have basic needs met and exceeded, and with innovating free markets—not in command and control or oppressive countries.
For a vocal and visible element in the environmental movement, we live in a universe of quarks and energy devoid of God, where truth is self-defined or culturally defined, and environmentalism is a moral lodestone where facts, data, and evidence are of secondary concern. For those who embrace this ideology, man should have no more legal or ethical standing (and maybe less) than any other living organism; in short, a materialistic interpretation of the relationship between man and the planet.
In contrast, the Hebrew Book of Genesis (Chapter 1) relates that after each “day” of creation “God saw how good it was”, and after the sixth day when human beings were created, “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.”
Certainly, there are environmental issues of concern today, even in a cleaner America and other cleaner countries: invasive species, oil and chemical spills, failing and leaking infrastructure, ecological backsliding, and the human impact on Earth’s climate, but considering our track record in the past century, these threats are solvable or improvable. The science surrounding the environment and climate is so dense that it’s easy to be misled about whether we’re moving forward or backward. We should attempt to separate legitimate science from ideological noise and organizational self-interest—not an easy task these days. While the Christian Bible (Genesis, Chapter 1) tells us the human race was granted dominion over the Earth, we are also required to be good and faithful stewards of this world and its resources because all creation belongs to the Lord (Psalm 148).