01/23/2006 09:07 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Searching for Environmentalist Values

In October 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published The Death of Environmentalism, which strongly criticized the environmental movement. The authors observed, "Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from 'the real issues' -- Environmental problems like global warming." Fifteen months later, environmentalists are still scrambling to clarify their values.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus concluded, "If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics." In "A New Environmentalism" Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, saw signs of progress. He reported "the ecumenical Christian network... recently sent a letter to President Bush with the line, 'Protection of the global climate is an essential requirement for faithful human stewardship of God's creation on Earth.'" "The National Council of Churches, which represents more than 100,000 congregations nationwide, has begun to describe stewardship of the earth as a critical 'moral value.'"

Jimmy Carter writes about stewardship in his bestseller, Our Endangered Values. "When humans were given dominion over the land, water, fish, animals, and all of nature, the emphasis was on careful management and enhancement, not waste and degradation." "Our proper stewardship of God's world is a personal and political moral commitment." Progressive evangelical Pastor Jim Wallis agrees. In a Beliefnet interview, he observed, "I think religion must talk about the environment as God's creation to protect and be good stewards of."

To better understand how Christians of various persuasions see stewardship, it's useful to look at how Americans describe their religious beliefs. An August Zogby poll conducted for Newsweek and Beliefnet found that 85 percent identified as Christians, 6 percent as "Atheist/Agnostic/no religion," 5 percent as "Non-Christian" religion, and 4 percent as "undesignated." Of the 85 percent who self-identify as Christian, 33 percent were "Evangelical Protestant," 25 percent "Non-Evangelical Protestant," 22 percent "Roman Catholics," and 5 percent "Other Christian." (Many of the latter are members of non-denominational churches -- the mega-churches that are the fastest growing segment of American Christianity.)

The category Fundamentalist overlaps the categories "Evangelical Protestant," "Roman Catholic," and "Other." Fundamentalists are Christians who believe that the Bible is literally the word of God, and that the ultimate interpretation of the Bible comes from their pastor. These conservative Christians -- about 36 per cent of Americans according to a survey cited by Bill Moyers -- believe that America's problems, such as environmental degradation, are irrelevant, as we are in the final stages of the "end times." Most Fundamentalist Christians don't see stewardship as a moral value.

That leaves 58 percent of American Christians who are not Fundamentalists. However, many disagree with Jimmy Carter's statement, "When humans were given dominion over... all of nature, the emphasis was on careful management and enhancement." Their Church tradition argues that dominion implies sovereignty. That is, humans have supreme authority over what to do with the planet; therefore, the existence of other life forms is at our discretion. Some authors describe this as the Dominator Paradigm.

Most Liberal Christians -- roughly one third of American Christians -- reject the dominator principle and substitute that of stewardship. The differences between the various Christian denominations stem from a single source -- the Gospels do not record Jesus teaching about the environment. He had a lot to say about peace and justice, but not about care for the planet.

However, while Jesus of Nazareth failed to mention the environment, he did instruct his followers to pray the Lord's Prayer; a prayer that is used by all Christians. It contains the phrase, May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it in heaven. Words that many interpret to mean that God's "kingdom" will come on earth and, therefore, the planet must be protected.

Conservative and liberal Christians disagree on what "may your kingdom come" means. The Conservative interpretation, the more pessimistic, downplays the concept of "heaven on earth." As a result, this perspective produces ethics focused on personal salvation -- getting into heaven, rather than hell. Environmentalism is not a high priority for these believers. Indeed, many argue that environmentalism is irrelevant as the end times are coming.

The liberal interpretation, the more optimistic, has what some call a "utopian" perspective; all of humanity will eventually live together in a world of peace and justice. This outlook leads to ethics concerned with saving the planet. It is aptly expressed in the Amish proverb, "We did not inherit this land from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children."

Stewardship is a core liberal value that all environmentalists should embrace. Whether or not they identify as Christians, most liberals believe that it is possible to save the planet; they cling to the hope that life can get better. In this sense, they subscribe to the idea "we are borrowing [the planetary environment] from our children."

Environmentalists must recognize that their deep beliefs are the reason why they engage in common struggle on particular issues. It is their values that compel them to take action to save the planet. Action made urgent by the recognition that it will soon be too late to honor our commitment to our children.