William C. French taught ethics at Loyola University in Chicago and was a member of the Chicago Center for Peace Studies at the time this article was written.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 6-13, 1993, pp. 22-23. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
French approaches the ecological issues facing the world from the theological position that the ecological destruction occurring is evidence of God’s judgment on our misuse of creation. Citing books by Al Gore and Bill McKibben to support his critique of our consumer-oriented culture, French emphasizes the crucial role churches can and should play in sensitizing us to the need for sacrifice if we are to reverse the destruction.
Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. By Al Gore, Houghton Mifflin, 407 pp., $22.65.
The Age of Missing Information. By Bill McKibben, Random House, 261 pp., $20.50.
In an essay in this journal 50 years ago, "War as the Judgment of God," H. Richard
Niebuhr argued that the Jewish and Christian "interpretation of history centers in the
conviction that God is at work in all events. Our powers of ecological destruction had
not yet matured when Niebuhr wrote, so it is not surprising that he stressed God's action
in history. Today, however, we must recognize that God's sphere of activity includes
natural events and processes as much as historical ones.
To see God's love and action in the world today we must look beyond the end of the
cold war or the slow demise of apartheid to the complex modes of interspecies
interaction that sustain our ecosystems. We must look in gratitude to an ozone layer that
shields us from solar radiation and to the vast water and oxygen cycles which allow
plants to grow and mammals to breathe.
To see God's grace acting in nature also means seeing in ecological destruction a sign of
divine judgment and anger. Niebuhr saw "the act of God in war"; we would do well to
see the act of God in our increasing war against nature. God's judgment is evident as
governments and peoples take only timid or reluctant steps in restraining economic
patterns of growth that promote further ozone depletion, global warming, species
extinction, decertification and jungle destruction. As Niebuhr suggested, to see the
world in this way is to "stand where Isaiah stood when he discerned that Assyria was the
rod of divine anger."
It is out of fashion, however, to speak of divine anger and judgment. Such language is
seen as anthropomorphic and crude. But if God is for creation, is there not divine
sadness at our damage to creation and divine judgment upon our irresponsibility? God's
judgment is not some primitive vengeance. Rather, divine judgment and anger are
rooted in love and aimed at redemption. Divine judgment is a way of chastening sinners
and encouraging a new direction. Such judgment clarifies our vision by the painful
reminder that many of our productive and consumptive practices are out of balance with
Vice-President-elect Al Gore and Bill McKibben have given us excellent books which
in different ways map the significance of this great drama and suggest reasons why so
many are ignoring it. Gore provides a rich historical account of our impact on the
ecosphere. McKibben meditates on the distinctive ways that TV impoverishes our
culture by cutting us off from vital information about God that earlier generations once
received from the farm, the woodlot or the starry night sky. Gore details major areas of
ecological concern and focuses on how entrenched notions of economic health, national
security, moral value and religious truth block our attention to ecological issues.
McKibben's book is centered in an experiment. On May 3, 1990, he had the entire
output of the country's largest cable TV system -- almost 100 channels -- videotaped. In
the following months McKibben viewed almost every film, episode and commercial on
the tape. His book probes the nature of electronic media and how it reduces the sort of
information that we receive. He intersperses this account with reflections on the
information presented to him on an overnight stay in the Adirondack Mountains.
These books share three overriding commitments. First, they both believe that what we
are doing to the earth is the great drama of our time. Second, they understand that our
ecological problems are rooted in an inattention to the natural world that has eroded
serious moral concern and committed action. Both books constitute an extended
reflection on obstacles to vision and the costs of not seeing. Third, Gore, a Baptist, and
McKibben, a United Methodist, write out of a Christian stance and stress that the
ecological crisis is grounded in an inability to relate the natural world to the sacred.
While Gore's presentation of the data doesn't break new ground, his emphasis on the
need for both planetary and personal balance situates the data within a compelling
framework. Gore begins by charting our disruption of various spheres -- climatic
patterns, atmospheric content, water cycles, soil and forest cover, genetic banks. He is
frustrated with those who dismiss the environment as a "fringe" issue, and he critiques
our political system for responding only to short-range concerns like elections and
immediate economic growth while ignoring our long-range environmental security.
In the book's second part, Gore probes the reasons for our myopia about the ecological
crisis. Where many in the environmental movement have advocated big-government
solutions, Gore reminds us that some of the worst ecological damage can be found in
the former Soviet Union and in Eastern bloc countries. He concludes that "an essential
prerequisite for saving the environment is the spread of democratic government to more
nations of the world." Gore's ethic links stewardship of the earth to our political
"stewardship of freedom" and "self-determination."
While noting problems with the Judeo-Christian heritage, Gore argues that this tradition
has been wrongly charged with supporting a domination ethic. He agrees that
Judeo-Christian communities have been slow in responding to the ecological crisis, but
he believes that the biblical heritage sustains an ethic of kindly stewardship of nature
rooted in the admonition to give glory to God. "How can one glorify the Creator while
heaping contempt on the creation?"
Gore concludes by outlining a detailed plan of action. We must make "the effort to save
the global environment the central organizing principle of our civilization." Where we
once pulled together to defeat totalitarianism, so we must commit ourselves to defeating
the "ideology of consumptionism." This is a much tougher fight, for consumptionism is
more seductive and tends to dilute a sense of responsibility. Where some believe that
ecological stewardship is simply not compatible with capitalism, Gore believes that
ecologically responsible policies are much more likely to develop in societies that are
enjoying democracy and free markets.
Gore calls for a new "global Marshall Plan" committed to "stabilizing world
population," "developing and sharing appropriate technologies," changing our economic
accounting to make visible the social and ecologic costs of productive and consumptive
practices, negotiating and approving a "new generation of international agreements,"
and developing a worldwide program to re-educate peoples about our participation
within, and responsibilities for, the planetary ecosystem.
Gore often hurls so many data, dates and concepts that one feels a bit guilty for being
unable to remember it all. McKibben's style is looser. Where Gore wants to provide a
comprehensive "state of the world," McKibben wants to talk about what he saw on TV
and what he saw on an eastern mountain and the sorts of information each experience
provided. And whereas Gore is optimistic that democracy and free markets are
compatible with ecological responsibility, McKibben sees capitalist societies promoting
an insatiable lust for economic growth and consumerism.
McKibben notes that the average American home has a television set on for seven
hours a day. TV-channeled information drowns out the quieter truths of nature -- truths
about limits, simplicity, virtue and the sacred. TV teaches us that place no longer
matters, that consumption is the chief value and that economic expansion is the source
of the good life. In a TV-dominated culture, we are kept abreast of stories and news
from around the world at such a frenetic pace that it overloads our ability to care or to
reflect deeply upon events.
McKibben asks: "What habits of mind and body" do TV ads and jingles "help produce"?
Sloppy habits, he concludes, where we cease to be mindful of how we are connected to
a finite earth.
McKibben is often poetic, but his analysis remains forceful and realistic. It won't be
easy to change our habits or to promote long-term ecological sustainability at the price
of short-term economic sacrifice. There are vast incentives to continue with our binge
of high-energy consumption, high mobility (cars and planes) and high economic
growth. Overcoming these incentives will require discipline and a transformation of
Gore's book is the best general introduction I have seen to the range and gravity of these
problems. It is aimed at a broad literate readership and would serve admirably as a text
for concerned citizens, church study groups or college classes. Whatever environmental
action Gore takes as vice-president, he has already made a major contribution with this
book. McKibben, too, has given us much to ponder and rightly points us to the powerful
media and cultural forces which distract us from ecological degradation.
It is not surprising that Gore's book is being hit hard by conservatives who suggest he is
a wild-eyed "liberal" bent on pushing a "big government" agenda of environmental
protection. They argue that our current data about global warming are not sufficient to
justify costly changes in consumptive and transportation policies. It is odd and
disturbing how ecology issues have come to be perceived as "liberal" concerns.
Conservative virtues of prudence and vigilance were repeatedly invoked during the cold
war to justify the vast sums spent on national and global defense. Though the precise
magnitude of the threat was not certain, prudence seemed to require us to prepare for a
worst-case scenario. The town on the river does well to build a levee to handle not only
the once-every-20-year flood but also the every-100-year disaster. The leaders who for
so long justified economic sacrifice to resist the Soviet threat seem unable to see that
ozone depletion, global warming and species extinction constitute genuine threats to
national and global security and thus warrant defensive steps, even if such steps entail
significant national sacrifice.
Fragile ecosystems the world over suffer from human encroachment. All around us this
great drama surges. We are undercutting key elements of the structure of creation, yet
we do not acknowledge what we do and what is at stake. Economic growth has become
the political mantra, the last word, in all nations. But how long can the planet continue
to support our rates of growth? In this century the world's population has tripled and our
annual global industrial production has increased 50-fold. Most of this production has
been made possible through the accelerated burning of fossil fuels.
High material consumption is not a rich enough goal to provide individuals with
meaning or even to sustain communities over time. We may come to renew our spiritual
energies and convictions through a commitment to a mission much greater than
ourselves. McKibben and Gore are right to emphasize the vital role that religious
communities can play in invigorating a critique of our consumerist system. As
McKibben stresses, they are among "the few institutions potentially capable of
elevating and celebrating sacrifice, or embracing some goal besides human material