Speaking of environmental care can be a dangerous topic. Like most issues, this one has lunatics at both ends of the spectrum. For some, environmental care is a sissy’s task, meant only for those tree-huggers who smoke pot and are passionate about throwing Frisbees. Others, however, take environmental care to the extreme and practically deify the nature surrounding us. In spite of the danger, this is still a topic that Christians should discuss.
One person who has shaped my views on Christians’ responsible stewardship of creation is Wendell Berry, the Kentuckian writer/farmer/economist/poet. While I may not be in complete agreement with Berry’s outlook, he has caused me to ask more questions concerning our society’s approach to the use of natural resources.
What is the cost of a product? What is the cost of my living habits? Until quite recently, the answers to those questions would have been a simple dollar figure. My hamburger was $3. This shirt was $15. My monthly cost of living is $___. That was cost to me. But Wendell Berry encourages readers to consider the costs beyond the monetary. For example, our society’s massive rate of consumption is taking a toll on farms across the land. More specifically, it is affecting, among other things, our topsoil, which is vital for the future use of farmlands. If we desire for our future generations to have healthy and plentiful natural resources to survive, we must take these costs into consideration.
Before we proceed any further, I guess it would be helpful to see what the Bible says about mankind’s God-given stewardship of creation:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth…And God bless them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the fall of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food (Gen. 1: 26, 28-29).
God placed Adam on the earth to have dominion as His vice-regent, or rule over creation on His behalf. Mankind was called to glorify God through the way he cared for and used the creation around him. Nature was neither unimportant nor deity. It was a good gift from God that was to be celebrated and used wisely. Today, nature remains the same, though it has been severely affected by the fall. Nevertheless, we, as God’s vicegerents, must use wisdom in the ways we use natural resources.
In his book, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry addresses two approaches to the use of the environment: the exploiter vs. the nurturer. Comparing these two, he writes:
The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible…The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind (pp. 7-8).
I’m not a farmer, though I hope to learn how to provide for my family from the ground through gardening. Therefore, should I ignore the exploiter/nurturer distinction and go along my merry way since I don’t actually make decisions regarding farming and land use? No. And Wendell Berry doesn’t believe so either.
At the very least, I can change my own consumption methods. He explains, “One must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions.” He later clarifies:
If a consumer begins to think and act in consideration of his responsibilities, then he vastly increases his capacities as a person. And he begins to be effective in a different way—a way that is smaller perhaps, and certainly less dramatic, but sounder, and able sooner or later to assume the force of example.
A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them.
If I take Berry’s words to heart, neither agricultural corporations nor the environment will feel much of a difference. But if I take his words to heart, start discussions with some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and teach my children (if He blesses me with any) our responsibility to care for nature, then there is a chance that the effect will grow, possibly to a level of visible change.
Therefore, consider the levels of waste in your own life. Evaluate the true cost of your living habits. Is your lifestyle simply feeding the exploiter?
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, it deserves our attention. Christians must dialogue about how the gospel affects our charge to care for the land. Hopefully, this will be a launching pad to get the discussion going.
What are your thoughts about this? What are some ways that Christians can approach this touchy subject? Or do you believe Christians should be spending our time discussing more important topics?