Varieties of Environmentalism
While Touchstone’s work on behalf of the intelligent design movement has emphasized fundamental differences in the believer’s and nonbeliever’s understanding of nature, not all believers will agree on the practical outworkings of their faith with respect to the stewardship of the environment, and not all unbelieving environmentalists are of the same sort. The love of nature forms a bond between believers and some of those who do not recognize God as its Maker—and so do not recognize their love of nature as love of the God they “ignorantly worship”—while other forms of radical environmentalism are clearly diabolical, clearly based in hatred of the beauty of the Good. Some important distinctions need to be made here.
No one who loves can rejoice in seeing the world disordered by the greed and negligence of man. Tolkien’s Mordor is a picture of a polluted world, full of the waste of Sauron’s ambition, its life killed, its waters foul, its air a poisonous reek, all of this an expression of a monster’s will to power and the inevitable hatred of everything beautiful and good that follows.
It is also, so far as it depicts the author’s encounter with the ugly results of the industrial revolution, a vision of the work of a large supporting cast caught up in its desire for more money and cheaper “goods,” and to this end supporting irresponsible industry. One cannot simply blame the capitalists, not only because much of the world’s worst environmental pollution is the product of communism, but also because of nearly everyone’s wish for what the modern world considers a better life—a desire that must be disciplined if nature is to be given its proper order and dignity.
One of the great difficulties set before those who believe in God and in man’s mandate to exercise proper care of the natural world, however, is that interest in environmental stewardship seems to be easily co-opted by those whose interests are fundamentally inhumane, and with whom any common cause is compromised by what Christians should recognize as the form of a heresy. Like every other heresy, it seizes upon a truth or a virtue, in this case the essential goodness of the natural world and man’s responsibility to care for it, and uses it to oppose other truths that require equal respect.
In its most radical form it is clearly demonic. C. S. Lewis’s example is sketched out in That Hideous Strength in Filostrato: Man is not only the polluter, but also, because he is organic life, the pollution. The greatest service he can do for the highest good is to rid the world of himself and all other organisms—to turn nature over to pure Spirit with the most tenuous connections possible to matter, that is, to turn nature over to the demons.
Although one hears little of this opinion in its strongest form—few have reached the level of initiation necessary to become enamored with the suicide of the race—one does experience its penumbra in the opinion that man is a compulsive and irreformable destroyer who cannot keep to his place in nature, so that attempts to bring his perverse hegemony to an end, returning the planet to less harmful forms of life, is in the end the chief goal of true environmentalism. Nothing, by this light, would serve the world quite so well as a plague of universal proportions and unprecedented virulence. Ideally it would leave only a small human residue, content to live in a modestly pre-industrial way, subject to, rather than the subjector of, nature.
Most secular environmentalism is not, of course, quite so radical. It has a high regard for man, not because he is made in the image of God, but because it is thoroughly infected with modernist hubris. It invariably regards itself as “scientific,” an attitude Lewis mocks in another character in That Hideous Strength, Professor Weston, who wishes to extend the life of the human race infinitely while wholly unable to give a reason for a valuation that justified it. Such men, Lewis thought, were spiritually salvageable, but only if and when they regained their reason.
This sort of environmentalism regards the belief that God created the world and all it contains for man, the unique possessor of the image of God, nature’s reason for being and its master, as mythological. Man is, in this view, an important and powerful agent in nature, justified in its will for itself in the sense that one competitor is among others, but in no categorical sense different from its other parts. Weston’s conundrum was in his attempt to act as though man was different in kind from other parts of nature while at the same time firmly denying it in principle.
The New Breed
The believer finds himself ambiguously related to those who think this way, for while he agrees that nature is good, his valuation of it is based on a different understanding of reality than those whose love of nature, while it may possess “religious” intensity, only amounts to a kind of devout aestheticism. The believer thinks nature is beautiful and good because it is Creation, with all that implies about the ordering of his approach to the environment.
In the case of a conflict perceived between the good of nature as an independent value and the good of man as the chief value of nature, he will place what he perceives as the good of man—man as responsible to God—first, and so finds himself agreeing with the secular environmentalist so far as he regards his proposals as humane—humane not in a purely natural sense, but natural as comporting with the divine will and order, which to the believer is ultimately the only acceptable meaning of the term. This leaves not only some room for Christian agreement with secularist environmentalism of the more traditional sort, but for disagreement of believing environmentalists among themselves.
The whole picture has been complicated in the last generation, however, by the increasing influence on the environmental movement of radically alienated liberals who, seeking a new morality by way of justifying their rejection of the old, and heavily burdened with guilt over their support of the abortion holocaust, are finding their religion in environmentalism. These are dangerous people, and far more of a threat to humanity than the old-style radical—typically an agnostic who actually loved nature and with whom the believing environmentalist could often cooperate on that basis.
The new breed brings with it a distinctly religious conviction that the Christian way of estimating the value of life is not simply misguided, but evil. It has rejected not only God, but also what amounted to the sort of Deus sive natura Spinozism that disciplined the views of older secular environmentalists. Highly exploitable politically, it evaluates life on merely pragmatic and sentimental grounds. Aggressively unreflective, ahistorical, unphilosophical, and irreligious—because it hates the sexual morality of all traditional religions—it regards itself as enlightened on the assurances of bellwethers who congratulate it on rejecting outdated ideas. (In this unstable world, all opinions have shelf-lives, since they are based not on fact, but mere perception of fact.)
A teary morning with Oprah could have it grinding its grandmothers into soylent green because it is really the kindest thing to do—suffering should be relieved, the hungry must be fed. An afternoon of sensitivity training could have it burning Christians because it is good for society to make examples of the loveless.
When there is no love of man or the world for their own or for God’s sake, only the black flame of anger and fathomless desire with nothing in particular as its object and everything in general as its subject, there is no protection left for man or nature. But for some divine intervention, the Age of Sauron has begun.
—S. M. Hutchens, for the editors
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
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