In recent years climate change has come to be recognised as perhaps the most important issue facing modern society. The Conservative Party’s adoption of the slogan “Vote blue, go green” is a measure of the changing attitude towards environmental issues and highlights the fact that climate change is now at the forefront of the political agenda. This may be due to the fact that the global community is now beginning to witness the effects of global warming in the form of extreme weather conditions resulting in floods, droughts and landslides.
The devastating effects of these recent natural disasters, including the loss of thousands of human lives, makes climate change a more real and immediate threat than ever before. Whilst it is now widely acknowledged that human activity has made a significant contribution to global warming, there is still debate over whether or not humankind’s destruction of the environment is morally unsound. An important question to address is whether or not it is justifiable to continue our exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources in order to fuel extravagant lifestyles in the knowledge that this will cause further damage to the environment, and therefore threaten the existence of humanity. In order to evaluate the above statement effectively, this essay will examine the approach of Christian Ethics to environmental issues and also take into consideration other ethical theories such as Deep Ecology, Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism.
In Genesis 1 God grants human beings ” dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth”. 1 Some Christians interpret this statement to mean that the human race has absolute domination over all the earth, including every animal that inhabits it. We can therefore treat the earth as we wish, without any consideration for the harm we may cause to plants or animals, as we are their masters. This view is supported by early Christian writers such as St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote, “all animals are naturally subject to man”.Singer writes that according to Aquinas “there is no possibility of sinning against non-human animals, or against the natural world.”This suggests that damaging the environment is in no way improper or sinful. If this rule is followed it grants human beings the right to continue with activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats and the exploitation of the oceans, all of which are damaging to the environment.
Many people would argue that this approach to the environment is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to the extinction of the human race. However, there is an alternative way of interpreting Genesis 1:26, and many Christians feel that God has granted us stewardship over the world, rather than domination. This means that we are not simply ruler over nature but also have a duty to care for God’s creation. Geisler agrees with this view, writing, “humans are duty-bound to serve and preserve that earth.” This interpretation of Genesis 1:26 results in a more responsible approach to environmental issues and instructs us to reconsider our exploitation of God’s creation. Geisler also allows for the possibility of sinning against animals, when he highlights the covenant that God made with all creatures. He argues for the preservation of all species because of the place they hold in God’s overall plan. Whether one believes in “God’s overall plan” or not, one should be aware of the need for biodiversity in fragile ecosystems. This interpretation of Christian ethics is more useful when approaching environmental issue as it recognises the need for a more responsible attitude.
It has been suggested that Christian Ethics is too anthropocentric and views the earth only in terms of how it can benefit human beings. Singer criticises this view of the earth and points to God’s drowning of “almost every animal on earth in order to punish human beings for their wickedness” as an example of the disregard for all non-human animals. However when viewed from an alternative perspective, the anthropocentric nature of the Christian faith appears to support a more environmentally friendly approach. Jesus told us to love our neighbour and show compassion for the poor, which has certain implications when discussing environmental issues. Climate change is largely due to over consumption in the developed West, whereas developing countries in the southern hemisphere have much less impact on global warming.
However, it is the inhabitants of these countries that are the worst affected by our un-environmentally friendly life styles. A major aspect of this is natural disasters. According to Stephanie Bunker, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “the number of natural disasters is increasing and it is linked to climate change.” Bangladesh has been badly affected, with over three thousands residents killed by a recent cyclone. Climate change has been cited as the reason for recent droughts, which have destroyed the crops of peasant farmers, therefore forcing them into greater poverty. There have also been cases where indigenous rainforest communities have been displaced in order for rainforests to be cleared and used as grazing land for cattle, which are then slaughtered and shipped to Western countries. It could be argued that by contributing to global warming we are indirectly causing human suffering and even thousands of deaths, which clearly stands in direct opposition to Christian beliefs. The Catholic Church has stated, “A way of life that disregards and damages God’s creation, forces the poor into greater poverty… is contrary to the vision of the Gospel.”7 Many Christians believe this to be a compelling argument for urgent action to lessen our impact on the environment.
An alternative approach to environmental issues is that of Deep Ecology, which rejects anthropocentricism and instead views human beings as equal to all other life forms. Deep ecologists believe that non-human life forms have intrinsic value and therefore have the right to life regardless of whether or not they serve a purpose for human beings. In his book The Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold writes that the field of ethics ought to be extended to include “soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.” He writes, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Arne Naess and George Sessions went on to develop Leopold’s ideas and asserted that “humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity [of the Earth’s life forms] except to satisfy vital needs.” On the surface Deep Ecology appears to be a useful approach to environmental issues as it respects the natural world and instructs humans to tread lightly on the earth, causing as little damage as possible.
This is beneficial to all life forms, including human beings as it preserves our environment for future generations. However there are also several problems with the application of this theory. It is difficult to accept that all parts of parts of the ecosystem have equal rights to human beings. If humans are not granted priority then how do we resolve situations where the interests of human and non-human creatures conflict? For example, if a mountaineer has an accident and the only way to rescue him is by helicopter, should he be left to die because landing a helicopter on the mountainside will destroy numerous plants and possibly kill several insects and small mammals? Most people would agree that human life is worth more that that of plants and animals. Whilst Singer believes that “it is wrong to limit ourselves to a human-centred ethic”9 and agrees that animals have some rights, he does not accept that non-sentient entities should be conferred rights. Deep Ecology is perhaps too extreme in its approach; nevertheless certain aspects of it are useful when addressing environmental issues.
Similarly to Deep Ecology, Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis takes a holistic view of the earth. He points to the fact that over billions of years the temperature of the earth has remained within the variables that allow life to be sustained. He proposes that in order for this to happen the earth must have developed complex mechanisms of self-regulation, in the same way that the human body self-regulates through homeostasis. From this he concluded that the earth is not simply a lump of rock that sustains life but instead it is a living organism. If one accepts the Gaia Hypothesis this has certain implications for one’s attitude towards the environment. One interpretation of the hypothesis is to recognise that the planet’s mechanisms are complex and delicate and humankind’s interference with the natural world could disrupt such mechanisms.
This calls for a halt to human activities that alter the composition of the planet’s atmosphere, for fears that the consequences could me more severe than we predict. However one could also argue that the Gaia Hypothesis implies that the earth has mechanisms in place that can compensate for the impact of humankind on the environment. If this is the case then it is not necessary to take measures to protect the environment, because the earth is capable of protecting itself. The usefulness of this particular approach depends on the validity of the hypothesis. Dawkins criticises Lovelock’s conclusion that all living things cooperative with each other in order to maintain life on earth. He points out that this view is contrary to evolutionary theory, which says that different species are in competition for survival. Dawkins certainly damages the credibility of the Gaia Hypothesis, and for this reason it difficult to see how it can be of any use when considering environmental concerns.
In Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant distinguishes between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is dependant on an ‘if’, for example: “if you want to loose weight, take regular exercise” whereas a categorical imperative is absolute and unconditional. For Kant only categorical imperatives are true moral statements and demand action. The following statement: “if you care about humanity and its future generations, do not act in a way that damages the environment” is a hypothetical imperative and is therefore conditional and does not demand action. Following this logic Kantians may argue that we have no moral obligation to care for the environment. However if one focuses on Kant’s belief that human beings are the most important aspect of creation, this could lead to an entirely different approach to environmental ethics. Kant would immediately reject Deep Ecology as he believes that mans’ ability to reason makes him superior to all other living creatures. A follower of Kantian Ethics would probably favour an anthropocentric, Shallow Ecology approach to the environment.
Decisions concerning the environment should be made out of good will and should be based on reason alone rather than emotion. It is difficult to predict what stance Kant would take on the environment in general; instead we can merely apply his process of good decision making to specific situations. Kant’s ideas about individual autonomy may pose a problem because there is often a conflict of interests where environmental issues are concerned. For example in the case that the clearing of a section of rainforest will bring prosperity to the nearby city dwellers but will result in the displacement of an indigenous community, whose autonomy is to be respected? Another major problem with the application of Kant’s ethical theory to environmental issues is his refusal to consider consequences when making decisions. This renders it a somewhat useless approach, as many would argue that the fundamental concern of environmentalism is the preservation of the earth for future generations.
Unlike Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism can be based on either a Shallow Ecology or Deep Ecology approach. A utilitarian who follows Shallow Ecology believes that nature has no intrinsic value but instead has only instrumental value in the respect that its existence is necessary in order to bring about human happiness. They would argue that we have no obligation to care for neither plants nor animals unless they serve to promote happiness for human beings. A utilitarian who follows Deep Ecology on the other hand, believes that nature does have intrinsic value and ought to be treated accordingly. The writings of Bentham and Mill suggest that we do have an obligation to treat animals with respect because like human beings, they feel pleasure and pain. In Bentham’s words: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”10 Whether a Shallow or Deep Ecologist, the utilitarian’s primary concern is the promotion of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This rule should therefore be applied when approaching any decisions concerning the environment.
Bentham’s Felicific Calculus can be used to asses each individual situation and decide on the best course of action based on the predicted consequences. For example it is reported that China is currently building two new coal fuelled power stations every week and the country’s carbon emissions have risen by nine percent in the last year.11 The Chinese government justifies this against the economic prosperity that the new power plants will provide for their country. The question is whether or not the benefit to the Chinese population out-weighs the suffering that environmental damage will inflict upon both human and non-human life forms. In terms of the propinquity of the pleasure, the Felicific Calculus favours the Chinese population, as they are likely to benefit relatively quickly.
However when considering the purity of the pleasure, one cannot be certain that economic prosperity will bring long-term happiness and will not be followed by pain. For instance Britain has enjoyed economic stability for many years, however depression is prevalent in our society. Another major issue is whether or not the happiness of future generations should be considered. If so this clearly has implications for the extent and duration of the pain or pleasure caused by our actions concerning the environment. Whilst exploitation of the earth’s resources may bring a certain amount of superficial pleasure to a small percentage of the world’s current population, it must be recognised that by destroying the environment we are threatening the existence of the entire human race.
Most utilitarians would agree that this possible consequence out-weighs all other considerations and should therefore conclude that we have a responsibility to care for the environment. For this reason Utilitarianism could be seen as a useful approach to environmental ethics in general terms. However there is a problem when the theory is applied to specific situations in that it relies the prediction of consequences. Given the complexity of many environmental issues and the apparently precarious state of the planet it is difficult to accurately predict what will happen in the future. One could therefore reasonably conclude that that it would be irresponsible to apply Utilitarianism to some environmental problems.
Having taken into consideration several different aspects of the Christian approach to environmental issues, I feel that depending on one’s interpretation of the scripture, the usefulness of this approach is variable. The work of Christian scholars such as Geisler and Edge has put forward compelling arguments that challenge the Church’s traditional emphasis on human dominion over the earth. By redirecting the focus to the role of stewardship a much more responsible and sustainable approach is achieved. I have also considered some alternative approaches proposed by Deep Ecology, Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism.
Whilst each of these ethical theories offer some useful considerations to be taken into account when making decisions concerning the environment, I found that each also had its unique disadvantages. Of the ethical theories I have studied, non has offered a truly satisfactory approach to environmental issues. In conclusion, I disagree with the statement that religious ethics is not the best approach to environmental issues. However, as Hardin points out there is a difficulty in applying ancient moral absolutes, such as those found in The Bible, to a modern society, writing they that they are “poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world”12 I recognise, therefore that there is still a certain amount of modernisation that needs to take place in order for church teachings to be properly adapted to the current environmental situation, but still consider this ethical approach to be the most appropriate in terms of environmental decision making.
Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics.
Findley Bartow Edge, The Greening of the Church.
Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics.
Robert Bowie, Ethical Studies.
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics.
Aldo Leopald, The Land Ethic.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.
Immanuel Kant, The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals.
Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248
1 Genesis 1:26.
2 Quoted by Robert Bowie, Ethical Studies, page 245.
3 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, page 267.
4 Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics, page 305.
5 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, page 266.
7 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (July 2002)
8 Quoted by Robert Bowie, Ethical Studies, page 249.
9 Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, page 274.
12 Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, 162(1968): 1243-1248