To many minds the environmental crisis is the foremost issue of our times. They see it as having displaced the race problem, and even the question of war and peace and the threat of nuclear annihilation. For the latter is “merely” a threat, whereas extermination of human life because of environmental deterioration seems certain unless there is a dramatic turnabout in our way of life.
Feeling that the environment should be a prime concern of Christians, CHRISTIANITY TODAYpresents this interview with Dr. Carl Reidel, assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College. Dr. Reidel holds a master’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Minnesota. He is a member of the First Baptist Church of Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Question. Dr. Reidel, is the environmental crisis as serious as so many make it out to be?
Answer. Put it this way: Things are much, much worse than most people think.
Q. But how reliable are all the dire predictions? Haven’t so-called experts been wrong before?
A. I can only say that there is an almost unanimous consensus on the gravity of the problem among the scientific community. Most issues are just that, with informed people lined up on both sides. But in ecology there is no significant difference of opinion on the truth that we are headed toward the obliteration of life.
Q. And you are among those who are very concerned, right?
A. Let me give you just two examples. A recent study showed that raw energy consumed in the world now exceeds by 10 per cent the input to the world’s biosphere through photosynthesis—the conversion of sunlight to energy by green plants. We are living on stored energy, namely that in fossil fuels like coal and gas. Or take these statistics: In the United States it took us from 1918 to the present to double our population. But we have doubled our food production since 1940. We have doubled our output of manufactured goods since 1954. We have doubled our use of electric power since 1960.
Q. What do you feel is responsible for the ecological crisis? Has science led us to defile our environment?
A. There is nothing wrong with our science. Science in essence is nothing more than sustained inquiry.
Q. Is technology to blame?
A. Only in a sense. Technological applications of science do not necessarily entail environmental pollution.
Q. So what is really at the heart of the problem?
A. Values, the values we have chosen as individuals and as a society. Sometimes we call it growth. Sometimes progress. What it amounts to is ever-increasing affluence. Not merely a high quality of life but an always climbing standard.
Q. How do you mean that?
A. Charles Reich put his finger on it in The Greening of America. He said, “Technology and production can be great benefactors of man, but they are mindless instruments, and if undirected they careen along with a momentum of their own. In our country, they pulverize everything in their path—the landscape, the natural environment, history and tradition, the amenities and civilities, the privacy and spaciousness of life, much beauty, and the fragile, slow-growing social structures that bind us together.” Reich argues that our society has but one value—“the value of technology as represented by organization, efficiency, growth, progress. No value is allowed to interfere with this one.”
Q. So what you are really saying is that environmental evil springs not from technology itself but from love of the affluence technology has spawned and sustains?
A. Yes. Our relentless pursuit of material affluence sustained by a social system that seems to value technological progress above all else.
Q. Is there still the possibility of a turnabout?
A. Only if we can change from a society that insists on crude and destructive attempts to conquer nature to one that learns instead to live in harmony with her.
Q. Can you explain that?
A. Francis Bacon warned us nearly 400 years ago that we “cannot command nature except by obeying her.” His advice would seem to argue that the solution lies in mankind’s ability to understand and respect the immutable laws of nature. And he is right in a sense. The science of ecology clearly shows that man is inextricably linked to the entire web of life on this planet. Every technological innovation that disrupts the delicate processes of nature threatens the very life-support systems on which we depend. For too long we have been reaping the benefits of exploiting nature without counting the inevitable cost. World-wide pollution is just one indication that we have violated the laws of nature, and have lost command.
Q. But man is not driven solely by the knowledge he possesses, is he?
A. No. We are captives of our culture and tradition. Our ethics are seldom shaped by sheer reason or scientific evidence. We know far more already about the ecological consequences of our technology than we employ in making decisions, simply because we are unable to turn from the affluence that technology provides. Pollution is an inevitable consequence of an affluent society that values material progress above all else. We would rather blame “technology” for pollution than admit it is the result of our love of affluence. But the fact remains that we could control most technological pollution if we would be willing to pay the price, controlling pollution where feasible and reducing consumption generally. It seems we would rather reap short-term benefits and leave the debt to be paid in the future, either by our children or by less fortunate people in other parts of the world.
Q. That seems a bit judgmental, but you would say, then, that some fundamental changes are in order?
A. If we are to do even what we already know how to do, much less respond to new ecological imperatives, there must be a transformation of our society, its culture and values. Such a transformation will be possible only when we are able to understand the bases of our culture and the motivation it fosters in us. From a Christian perspective this demands a re-examination of our convictions and commitments.
Q. Dare we try to introduce Christian truth, considering that in some quarters biblical faith is itself accused of being responsible for our ecological dilemma?
A. You are asking about the now famous essay by the historian Lynn White?
Q. That’s it. The essay first appeared in “Science” magazine, dated March 10, 1967. It was reprinted in “The Environmental Handbook,” published by Friends of the Earth for last year’s teach-in. Other contributors to the “Handbook” also got in some digs about Christianity. What are their grounds for these allegations?
A. White places the blame for the Western world’s exploitation of nature squarely on our Judeo-Christian tradition. The crisis, so the argument goes, has its origin in Genesis 1:26, where man is commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion … over every living thing.” This, White says, “not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.”
Q. And doesn’t he argue that modern science is an extrapolation of natural theology?
A. Not only that; White asserts that modern technology, as he puts it, “is at least partially to be explained as an occidental, voluntarist realization of the Christian dogma of man’s transcendence of, and rightful mastery over, nature. But, as we now recognize, somewhat over a century ago science and technology—hitherto quite separate activities—joined to give mankind powers which, to judge by many of the ecologic effects, are out of control. If so, Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.”
Q. Dr. Reidel, is there a rebuttal to this line of argument?
A. The noted scientist and social philosopher Rene Dubos has argued very persuasively that “Judeo-Christian civilization has been no worse and no better than others in its relation to nature.”
Q. And that throughout human history men have disturbed the ecological equilibrium, right?
A. Right. Dubos declares that the ecological crisis in our time has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather comes from the tendency now prevalent all over the world to use land and waters, mountains and estuaries for short-range economic benefits. But this doesn’t really take us off the hook as Christians.
Q. What do you mean?
A. I mean that evangelicals must face up to their own measure of guilt. Affluent countries are well on their way to depleting the natural resources of many underdeveloped countries to sustain their affluence. We are still preoccupied with immediate advantages rather than long-range consequences. As one example, we harvest fish from South American waters equivalent to the protein deficits in the diets of South Americans. And most of that fish harvest is used to feed American cats. We in the United States are but 6 per cent of the world’s population, but we account for 40 per cent of the world’s resource depletion.
Q. This fish-for-cats business, isn’t that a somewhat isolated example?
A. It may seem so, only because we don’t realize that many of the things that have become part of our daily lives contribute to the deterioration of the quality of life of others. But starving South Americans do suffer and our cats eat well. Take another example. We are told we are less than American if our families don’t have the latest gadgetry of modern technology. And our economic system encourages us by making the unit price of electricity less as we use more, even though deterioration of the environment is accelerated through power production.
Q. Some observers contend that such talk is mere rhetoric or overkill, don’t they?
A. See for yourself. The projected need for power generation to satisfy our demands is staggering, doubling every ten years, much of which will be consumed to fuel air conditioners in moderate climates and to drive appliances that will make life easier. This will mean more fossil fuel and nuclear generators that create thermal and nuclear pollution, plus a host of other consequences. We are already using world oil reserves at rates that make exhaustion of those resources likely in the foreseeable future.
Q. But aren’t governments intervening in a significant way?
A. Not very much. As one glaring example, more than a billion dollars has already been spent to build an SST that we don’t need and that scientists tell us will have a global impact on the upper atmosphere.
Q. Aren’t you getting carried away here? We’re only talking about a few dozen airplanes at the most for the rest of the century. Isn’t it better to airlift several hundred people across the country in one jet than to have them drive a hundred cars?
A. Those few jets may alter the global climate. What is more, thousands will be subjected to sonic booms and far more pollution than that generated by a hundred cars. But that’s not the issue. A billion dollars spent on local rapid transit could mean better transportation for thousands rather than for an elite few who can afford transcontinental travel. This is just one prime example of national priorities gone astray.
Q. In this connection, wouldn’t it be well to try to induce suburbanites—Christian and otherwise—to use public transportation in getting to and from their jobs? What, specifically, should be done here?
A. We should provide attractive and efficient mass transportation. For the past few decades most efforts have been toward building bigger and faster automobiles, and constructing freeways. In the same period our public transportation systems have been neglected to the point that few people are willing to use them. But here again we get back to values: Many commuters, for example, insist on driving to work for the sake of personal convenience.
Q. What else?
A. One agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, has plans for every major waterway in this nation that will profoundly upset the ecological relationships of these rivers. Governmental policies for the use of pesticides, inorganic fertilizers, irrigation, mining, oil exploitation, highway construction, water and air pollution abatement, forest management, and estuary protection all put expansion of the Gross National Product ahead of long-term values.
Q. But isn’t it true, Dr. Reidel, that unless there is a healthy growth economy there will be unemployment and consequently a whole raft of social problems? And isn’t it also true that although the United States uses the basic resources of foreign countries, it returns those resources in the form of manufactured goods that those countries would not otherwise have?
A. There will clearly be major problems in shifting from an economy based on growth as we now define it to one recognizing the ecological consequences of present trends. The task is to build an economy that calculates GNP on a new value system. We must recognize that a failure to do so may bring a collapse of life-support systems on a global scale that will dwarf the social consequences of unemployment and poor living standards locally. Why can’t the technology that builds an SST be turned to rebuilding a nation’s rapid-transit system? Or to building needed water-treatment plants, or reclaiming our decaying cities? GNP is just a measure of the rate at which we are achieving the values we cherish as a nation. Again, we need a fresh look at those values.
Q. Won’t people starve without pesticides? Indeed, won’t people die unless we continue to use a myriad of pollution-producing technological processes to produce and deliver?
A. Much agricultural production is dependent on pesticide use, but there are other alternatives to pest control. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that pesticides are losing their effectiveness as pests develop resistance. More important, however, is the fact that pesticide residues building up in natural systems—the ocean, soils, and in living organisms—may constitute a far more serious threat to human life than any temporary losses in agricultural production. As for “pollution-producing technological processes,” the most damaging environmentally are producing luxuries, not basic necessities.
Q. Coming back to the biblical perspective …
A. Yes. Dubos points out that the command in Genesis to have dominion over the earth is more than balanced in the second chapter of Genesis by the Lord’s instruction “to till and keep” the Garden of Eden. Stewardship is a clear theme of the Bible, and one that recognizes the ecological fact that man does occupy a superior place in nature. If, as White argues, our superiority has led us astray, it is because some have misinterpreted this position as transcendence rather than as a niche fulfilled through stewardship.
Q. Is White to be taken seriously?
A. Well, again quoting Dubos, White’s thesis has its real impact in that it “threatens to distract attention from the real problems of the relationship between the earth and mankind.”
Q. What should that relationship be? White picks up some thoughts from Francis of Assisi and urges so-called equality or spiritual autonomy of all creatures. Would that help?
A. Hardly. This amounts to pantheism, which does away with categories and distinctions essential to the ecological perspective I have been defending. It raises more problems than answers.
Q. Like what?
A. The science of ecology defines the interrelationships between living organisms and their environment that have given us our emerging environmental understanding. Ecology depends on our ability to define the subtle distinctions that exist in the natural world. We gain a new appreciation for the worth of every individual organism in the creation, from the smallest microrganism to the largest mammal. Pantheism, whether scientific reductionism or White’s new religion, is unable to affirm such distinctions.
Q. Francis Schaeffer addresses himself to this in his book, “Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology.” He says that out of respect for God’s creation we should, for example, “honor the ant.” Do you agree?
A. Yes, in the way Schaeffer intends. We can honor the ant in that he was created with a unique place in nature, or “niche,” as the ecologist would say. We honor the ant by understanding and respecting his place, not by romanticizing his place in human terms nor by seeking a common essence that destroys the distinctions between us.
Q. How is the New Testament relevant to our environmental problems?
A. Perhaps the most important way the New Testament speaks to this issue is in the simple fact that there is no Christian justification for the accumulation of material wealth at the expense of others. The rich young man was not willing to give up his affluence in exchange for the right to call Jesus “Lord.” You cannot rationalize that you are willing “if someone can prove the need.” Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” And his parables are rich with references to stewardship. His own life style and that of his disciples demonstrated more than a simple willingness to live in material modesty or as good stewards. Moreover, the Christian’s view of creation rests on the belief that all of nature is God’s creation, and that we hold it as stewards for him. We simply are not free to exploit nature for our own benefit if in so doing we destroy its life-giving ability. We now know that every disruption of the complex ecological system in nature affects the lives of men everywhere and even into the future.
Q. Dr. Reidel, where ought evangelicals to begin to combat the environmental tragedy? Would it really make any great difference if we were to give up a few cars and detergents?
A. The ultimate answer does not lie in making a few minor changes in our life style, though what you suggest would make considerable difference if adopted on a large scale. But the Christian ought to know better than to offer a few token sacrifices. Jesus did not suggest that a few “good deeds” made the difference between a Christian and everyone else. Only when individual Christians make a radical reassessment of their personal values concerning material affluence, and start expressing that commitment collectively through the Church, will we see the beginning of world-wide action.
Q. But what are some concrete things that have the potential of initiating globally coordinated action?
A. I wish I could suggest a few “best” first steps. I suppose limiting ourselves to one small car using nonleaded gas and using a non-phosphate detergent are good ones. But we must not fool ourselves that this kind of change is the final answer. Sometimes the substitutes turn out to be worse than the original pollutants. Ultimately there are no technological solutions.
Only a change in values that makes a significant reduction in our consumption and in the global consumption of energy will be sufficient. And that must be accompanied with a significant reduction in birth rates.
Q. Can you be more specific?
A. I would offer one simple step, and this, mind you, is for Christians. Begin to tithe. I realize that is a rather shop-worn reply, but I know of no better way to face up to the personal question of one’s own attitude toward material affluence. Learning to give up a tenth of his income will tell a person more about his willingness to make sacrifices for the good of others than any academic discussion. If a really committed Christian can’t share a tenth of his income for the work he claims is most important to him, I don’t think I can convince him to worry about “the ant,” or starving South Americans, or Lake Erie. Furthermore, we can link the tithe to environmental concern by making that reduction in our own consumption count environmentally: supporting those industries that are ecology-conscious, getting a smaller car, and generally consuming less. This would have a major impact nationally and make our tithe count twice—for the Lord and for the environment. A fully tithing church would also be in a position not only to launch direct environmental efforts but also to tell a world about a life style that gets at the root of the problem. Christianity has a lot to say about the effects of materialism on man’s relation to nature and to his fellow man, and how those relations can be changed by a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Indeed, in terms of value systems, the Christian ideal holds the ultimate answer to the environmental crisis.
Q. And if we don’t take heed?
A. Christianity is becoming a major target of environmental activists, but not because we are worse offenders than anyone else or because we are the contemporary link to the Judeo-Christian heritage some hold responsible for technological pollution. We are criticized, I believe, because we claim the highest values and show little outward evidence of practicing what we preach. And we are back to the tithe. Taking a tenth of our income and time and talent from excess consumption, and putting it into a collective effort to teach the values that motivated the tithe, would say more to a troubled world than any pious defense.
Q. Do we have to behave as if man is going to be here forever?
A. For the Christian I would suggest the opposite. Living as the Bible teaches, that the Lord’s return is imminent, might lead to the immediate reassessment of the meaning of Christian stewardship that I am advocating.
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