Sociologist Sabrina Danielson, in a study of conservative Christian responses to the ecological crisis, notes that the debate over the Lynn White thesis has held back legitimate engagement by conservative Christians on the environment as they attempt to defend Christianity from his accusations. Nearly every major Christian discussion of environmental ethics written since that essay introduced White’s thesis and reacted to it within the first few pages. Responses to White’s proposal of renovating Christian doctrine have been predictable. Theological conservatives have rejected White’s claims that Christianity has been responsible; more liberal commentators have tended to accept White’s claims and encourage doctrinal adaptations or, at least, a shift in emphasis.
In reality, however, White’s essay has been promoted beyond its value. Critiques of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” tend to focus on the ends of White’s essay and miss the weakness, which resides at the heart of his accusation. White’s argument fails because he places blame for the loss of wonder at nature on Christianity. As Alister McGrath argues in The Reenchantment of Nature, however, it was naturalistic influences of modernist philosophies that reduced the universe to its instrumental value for humans and encouraged the abuse of nature. Some Christians went along with that shift, but it was a result of their adaptation to prevailing ideas of their time, not a biblical theology of stewardship. The appropriate answer is not to revise orthodox Christianity, but to restore a Christian vision of the inherent value of creation.
White’s essay was intended to inspire Christians to become environmentalists by changing their doctrines. There is little he could have said that would have more strongly increased resistance to his cause. Unfortunately, his call for revision of orthodox theology was based on a misdiagnosis of the cause of the environmental crisis. His error still impedes reasonable environmental engagement among some conservative Christians today.
2. Aligning Abortion with Environment
The second wedge driven between many conservative Christians and environmental activism is the explicitly misanthropic emphasis of some forms of environmentalism. Concerns about overpopulation are not unique to the 20th and 21st century. In the 18th century, Anglican clergyman Thomas Malthus published a volume, First Essay on Population, predicting the population would grow beyond the means of agricultural production, which would in turn result in mass starvation of the poor. His proposed solution included delaying marriage and voluntarily limiting family size, both reasonable solutions for a faithful Christian. His predictions turned out to be vastly wrong.
In the mid-20th century, Paul Ehrlich, a biologist from Stanford, wrote a contemporary Malthusian proposal in his book The Population Bomb. Unlike Malthus, however, Ehrlich links population control with the legalization of abortion and distribution of birth control. Population control was also a significant plank in the syncretistic philosophy of Deep Ecology, with some advocates of Deep Ecology advocating abortion as a means of reducing the impact of humans on the earth.
The connection was made clearer between abortion and environmentalism in the mind of the American public upon the release of the Rockefeller Commission report, “Population and the American Future.” That report, commissioned by Nixon in 1969, was based on public concern for the environment and overpopulation, driven by Ehrlich and others. It was released in 1972 and openly recommended the legalization of abortion and government-funded contraceptive distribution. Political tensions were high as Nixon was running for a second term. The contentious Roe v. Wade case was already at the US Supreme Court, making abortion a hot button issue. Although he had founded the EPA and endorsed Earth Day, Nixon was compelled by politics, if not by conviction, to undermine the Rockefeller Commission through a public statement rejecting the findings in the report before it was issued, in addition to behind-the-scenes efforts to ensure none of the recommendations ever made it to the legislative process.