return to religion-online

Ecological Degradation As The Judgment of God

by William F. French

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 This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.

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 planetary limits.

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 values.

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 progress."


Viewed 10019 times.