Energy Ethics Reaches the Church’s Agenda

by Bruce C. Birch

Dr. Birch is professor of Old Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 1, 1978, pp. 1034-1038. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Seldom are the complexities of energy issues seen in moral terms, and seldom does energy appear high on the church’s ethical agenda, especially within the local congregation. The Energy Study Process of the National Council of Churches has been a fortunate exception to this lack of attention.

Unlike concerns for food and hunger, attention to energy issues has not been highly visible in U.S. churches. With the exception of some statements by denominational boards and agencies, there has been a notable lack of programs and materials designed to sensitize local congregations to energy as an area of Christian moral concern.

The reasons for this inattention are many. The dramatic urgency of starving families is hard to duplicate in presenting energy issues. No picture can show radiation from improperly stored nuclear wastes contaminating the soil. Congregations cannot send shipments of electricity to relieve the poor from rapidly escalating utilities costs. More important, many church people are not convinced that an "energy crisis" exists. They reflect the confusion of the national debate over the nature and extent of the "energy crisis" and the remedies needed. But many of those willing to list energy as an extremely important societal issue tend to define it solely in managerial terms. How do we produce and distribute more? Seldom are the complexities of energy issues seen in moral terms, and seldom does energy appear high on the church’s ethical agenda, especially within the local congregation.

A Wide-Ranging Study

The Energy Study Process of the National Council of Churches has been a fortunate exception to this lack of attention. The NCC’s concern for energy issues dates back to fall 1974 when the Division of Church and Society (DCS) asked Margaret Mead and René Dubos to chair a study of the implications of using plutonium as fuel in the nuclear cycle. The resulting report, "The Plutonium Economy: A Statement of Concern," forcefully questioned the advisability of proceeding with plutonium use without further investigation and public discussion of the risks involved. A proposed policy statement based on this report became the center of immediate and vigorous debate. The controversy began to make clear the impossibility of separating the plutonium issue from the broader energy picture. In March 1976 the DCS adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on the commercial use of plutonium and mandated a broad study on the ethical dimensions of energy issues.

The product of this study is a "Proposed Policy Statement on the Ethical Implications of Energy Production and Use." It was presented to the NCC Governing Board for a first reading in May 1978; if adopted by the board at its November meeting, it will become official NCC policy.

The process that produced this policy statement was remarkable for its scope. An energy study panel of 120 members was assembled, representing a wide array of disciplines: theology, ethics, labor, energy industries, technical sciences, social sciences, economics, and environmental and consumer interests. At its center was a committee on energy policy with responsibility for receiving information from the panel and drafting a proposed policy statement.

Throughout 1977 DCS staff, working with the panel, collected data on energy use and production, generated papers representing different points of view on basic energy questions, and held smaller consultations with subgroupings in the larger panel. In October 1977 the entire panel was assembled for an Energy Ethics Consultation, at which an effort was made to assess technologies and policies for energy use and production in terms of their consistency with Christian ethical concern for the social impact. This consultation’s reports left a clear mark on the subsequent policy statement proposed to the NCC Governing Board,

Urgent Questions

The energy study process and the final consultation were not without significant areas of conflict. One oft-expressed fear was that the final document would betray an antitechnology bias, objecting pointlessly to the realities of a world dependent on technology. Some were uneasy lest the statement slight concerns for justice -- such as employment, majority/minority rights, or Third World development -- in favor of a major stress on environmental or life-style issues related to energy. Others simply feared that the final policy would be expressed in such broad general terms that no forceful position would be taken.

The policy statement itself does not seem to justify these fears. The document is not antitechnological but stresses the responsible use of technology. The forceful and insistent linking of environmental and justice concerns makes clear the drafters’ conviction that these cannot be dealt with separately. Finally, the document does not waffle on the hard issues, nor has there been an attempt to please everyone with generalized statements of concern. It has tried instead to develop and put forward ethical criteria, rooted in the Christian theological tradition, and to begin the process of applying those criteria to energy issues in a straightforward and responsible manner.

The proposed policy statement will certainly be a controversial document, but it is also certain to stimulate a long-overdue discussion in the churches on the matter of energy. Let us look at some of its contents.

1. Although acknowledging the considerable confusion and disagreement over factual energy data, the document leaves no doubt that an energy crisis exists and that energy questions are urgent. Two differing perspectives on the nature of that crisis and its appropriate remedies emerge. One view argues that a shortage of gas and oil, whether resulting from an embargo or from a longer-term depletion, "would produce severe economic and social dislocations." These would likely fall most heavily on the poor. This view is "pessimistic about the prospects of solar energy" and argues for the "substitution of nuclear energy and coal for oil and gas."

A second perspective maintains that "nuclear energy, and to a lesser extent coal, have such severe social and environmental impacts that they not only threaten serious economic and social dislocations, but also place at risk the entire life-support system (the biosphere) on which all people depend." The argument holds that "this is a time for implementing measures for wider and more just distribution of material benefits and for rapid commercialization of solar energy and other benign energy sources and mixes."

Regardless of one’s perspective, energy issues are urgent and demand serious attention from church and society. "Both perspectives share the view that society and its energy systems are interrelated and the concern that inaction or wrong decisions will result in disaster."

The policy statement’s case does not rest on socioeconomic grounds alone, insisting that energy issues involve ethical choices and therefore concern us not only as citizens but also as Christians. "Energy decisions must be based . . . on values concerning the future of the world which human beings wish to inhabit. . . For Christians, the ultimate objectives of society are based on the biblical witness to creation, redemption, stewardship, justice and hope."

Accountable Stewards

2. The drafters of the policy statement have considered the theological framework for their approach to energy issues with unusual seriousness. A section titled "Theological Dimensions of the Energy Situation" is a direct response to the anticipated questions, "Why should the church be involved in these matters?" and "What could the biblical tradition possibly have to say with respect to energy issues?"

In the biblical theme of creation we are reminded of the interconnectedness of humanity with all of creation -- organic and inorganic. Within that creation, humanity has a distinctive role. "Persons are unique in their capacity to respond to God with faith, to their human neighbors with love, and to the nonhuman part of creation with respect and responsible care." Humanity has been given a commission to act as "accountable stewards of the whole earth and as bold advocates for fairness and freedom in the human community." This understanding grounds energy ethics in the widest possible concern for wholeness in the human and natural community. It is a concern epitomized by the Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness and harmonious relationship in creation and in community. Energy technologies and their use can be measured by their ability to build shalom.

But the biblical tradition speaks also of sin, the distortion of the divine commission and the breaking of shalom. The policy statement refers to sin as the "perversion of dominion into domination." The desire of some to dominate nature (including energy resources) without regard to wholeness is related to the domination of some groups of humans over others without their participation or consent. Sin as domination is also sin as injustice. Energy technology systems can become instruments of economic and social domination no less easily than other instruments of power.

Sin can also find expression in the form of idolatry. "When faith in the Creator is replaced by faith in human ability to solve all problems by technological means, humanity has fallen into the sin of idolatry . . . distorted trust for our salvation in other sources of power." A crucial task for the church must surely be to assess whether energy technology is being used in accordance with God’s will for wholeness in creation or distorted into a deity in its own right whose service demands sacrificing the welfare of some segment of the whole creation.

For Christians struggling with energy issues, Jesus Christ is the good news that God has acted redemptively in human society to restore the wholeness of creation. The church participates in that redemptive activity as it seeks to promote social, economic and environmental justice in energy decisions. "In Christ, we are freed from preoccupation with our own rights and needs so that we can give ourselves to the securing of justice for our neighbors in their need."

It is at the point of a radicalized notion of the neighbor that this theological perspective comes clear in terms of its implications for energy production and use. "Our understanding of ‘neighbor’ is now being radically expanded to encompass all humans in past, present and future generations, as well as the rest of creation." In general discussions of energy issues, we commonly find a very narrow definition of human concern. We are likely to place our own immediate interests above those of the environment, the rest of the human family outside our own national boundaries or economic class, and even our own unborn generations.

The church enters the energy debate with a different frame of reference. If we take our own theology seriously, we cannot accept any prior limitations to the interrelationships for which we seek to care. The scope of relationship must extend to the human and the nonhuman. The geography of relationship is not bounded by political barrier or economic class. The duration of relationship is not limited by time; we care for the generations of humanity yet unborn and the generations of the earth which must endure. Such a broadening of human interest and responsibility will change the operative methodologies for making energy decisions, urging that power not be used in its own immediate interests. There are few entities less powerful than the poor of our planet, an unborn infant or a tree, but it is within a definition of our neighbor which includes these powerless ones that the church must wield what actual and moral power it possesses.

Ecological Justice

3. Perhaps the policy statement’s most substantive contribution to the churches’ discussion of energy ethics is its development of an "ethic of ecological justice." The phrase itself is symbolic of the document’s intention to counter the false dichotomy often drawn between environmental and social justice. Ecological justice stresses the interrelationship of these concerns. For example, those who argue for allowing the risk of serious environmental damage in order to produce more energy contend that this course of action will produce sufficient supplies to ensure energy for the poor. Their argument ignores the common practice of imposing environmental risks on one group (usually poorer, less powerful, and often rural) for the benefit of others who suffer none of the environmental risks.

In Black Mesa, Arizona, the proposal to construct six large, coal-burning electric plants and three strip mines meant that the health risks of air and water pollution would be suffered by a predominantly native American population, but the power generated would be distributed to distant urban areas. The welfare of the human community, of even the most powerless, is tied to the welfare of the biosphere on which we all depend for basic life needs. Any energy policy which tries to play one area of concern against the other cannot be encompassed in an ethic of ecological justice.

In concrete fashion the document advances three values against which energy policies and technologies may be measured for their consistency with the goal of ecological justice: sustainability, equity and participation.

Sustainability refers to the earth’s limited capacity to provide resources and to absorb the pollution resulting from their use. Sustainability requires that biological and social systems which nurture and support life be neither depleted nor poisoned. Sustain-ability provides the boundaries within which all participate in the equitable satisfaction of needs.

Equity refers to a fair distribution of resources on the basis of need. Equity embodies the rights of today’s generation and those yet unborn. A central concern of energy policy is the equitable distribution of positive and negative impacts of energy production and use. This distribution is difficult because what is beneficial to one group of people often is detrimental to another; because frequently those who receive the benefits are not those who pay the costs; and because there is a considerable time lag between the imposition of either costs or benefits and the realization of long-term effects. Energy equity questions include: Energy for whom? Energy for how long and for what? How much and what kind of energy?

Participation is a basis of equity in that the individual community member must have the opportunity to be involved in determining public policy and the hierarchy of values which guide that policy. Participation includes representation of the interests of future generations.

Using these three value areas as a measure of ecological justice, the policy statement turns to an assessment of specific issues. It does so with the apt warning that energy policies must be evaluated in terms not only of their objectives but also of the means used to achieve those objectives. The social and economic costs of particular technologies and the ways in which they are used can undermine otherwise desirable ends.

A Concern for Equity

We can only briefly highlight some of the issues addressed by the policy statement in this area of ecological justice. All are approached from within that framework of concern.

A section on "Ethics, Energy and Risks" makes clear that all energy technologies involve some element of risk. Nevertheless, the judgment is made that a coal- and nuclear-fission-based energy policy is centered on high-risk technologies. The level of risk approaches the unacceptable because there is the very real possibility of irreversible damage to the biosphere itself; further, many of the social costs of such high-risk technologies are postponed to future generations while the benefits accrue to the present generation. Plutonium technologies are judged a particularly unacceptable risk because of the extreme toxicity of plutonium, its capability for use in nuclear weapons, and the unusual safeguards necessary for its security and error-free use. Such high stakes force those concerned for ecological justice to seek the development and use of lower-risk technologies such as solar energy.

The need for equity leads to sections addressing such topics as these:

• The guarantee of adequate energy supplies to the poor at proportionate economic cost.

• The protection of minority rights in the face of majority energy needs.

• The social impact of energy development in rural areas which produces a "boomtown syndrome" and its accompanying social and economic dislocations.

• The importance of assuring a fair share of energy supplies to developing Third World nations, and the availability of technologies appropriate to Third World needs and economies.

The policy statement zeroes in on ecological justice’s demand for appropriate patterns of energy use. "The United States, with 5.8 per cent of the world’s population, consumes 33 per cent of the world’s commercial energy." Current efforts at energy conservation are inadequate; while the need for more appropriate patterns of individual and corporate energy consumption is clear, the statement also recognizes the necessity of avoiding unnecessary economic and social dislocations in the transition to energy efficiency (e.g., unemployment or increased costs due to lowered volume). The document appeals for the creation of an ethic of sharing as the expression of ecological justice in the area of energy use. Energy waste and inefficiency have become so endemic in the U.S. that this appeal to a principle most Christians profess to affirm sounds almost radical.

The U.S. and the World

In an important Section on government energy policy, the statement reiterates the values of sustainability, equity and participation, arguing strongly that these can realistically be applied in the formulation of an alternative national policy. No attempt is made to set forth particulars; instead, a convincing case is made that, in ignoring elements of sustainability, equity or participation, we open ourselves up to the risk of serious and unavoidable consequences.

In regard to the decision-making process in matters of energy policy, the document calls for "a national commitment to anticipate serious threats posed by certain technologies to the quality of the community of life and to design appropriate energy policy. The process of anticipating threats must include Technology Assessment and Social Impact Assessment." Technology assessment would analyze the effects- of particular energy technologies on society, the environment or the economy. Social-impact assessment would measure the effect of particular energy policies and decisions in "at least the areas of community development, employment, industrial development, land use, health and community services." One gathers that these are modeled on the success of environmental impact statements, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970. It is to be hoped that the National Council staff will develop this proposal in detail as a follow-up to the distribution of the policy statement.

Challenging the Churches

4. Having advanced the ideal of ecological justice based on the ethical implications of the Christian tradition, the statement concludes with a challenge to the churches -- one that is appropriately set in visionary terms. After all, the church is heir to the visions and dreams of prophets and apostles.

The summons is for the church to join in "shaping an ecologically just society." The dream of such a society is best shared in the language of the document itself:

Such a society will respect the limits of creation -- the fallibility of human beings, the finite supply of resources, the inability of the natural world endlessly to absorb unnatural substances, and the reality that every thing and every one is connected with every other thing and every other one in the community of life.

Such a society will respond to the demands of equitable distribution by ensuring that finite resources are thoughtfully conserved so that they may be equitably shared to meet the needs of all persons, now and in the future.

Such a society will ensure that satisfaction of human needs takes immediate priority over the satisfaction of anyone’s desires, and that the dignity of each individual is honored by providing opportunity for all persons to participate responsibly in decisions which will affect their individual lives and the common good.

It is fitting that, even in dealing with a subject as complex and difficult as energy production and use, the church should end on a note of vision and hope. The "NCC Policy Statement on the Ethical Implications of Energy Production and Use" will surely meet with some disagreement and controversy, but if it provokes the churches to join the debate, we can only be grateful. The recognition is long overdue that energy issues should be of particular concern to the church since we have inherited a divine mandate to work for the welfare of the whole of God’s creation.