Amid the haze of information darkening the environmental horizons of planet earth, Christians of all stripes are often inclined to take a reactionary approach.
Recycling, bike-riding, reforestation and species preservation efforts become lumped together with aggressive population control and dubious animal rights under the common banner of “tree-hugging, hippie bilge.”
The problem, I think, is that environmentalism often takes on the character of a religion. Mother Earth becomes an idol to be propitiated with offerings of organic body soap and unborn children. Recycling becomes a sacrament, biking to work a holy rite, and the rights of seals and polar bears are elevated above the dignity of the human person.
Angry by the blood offerings made to the environmental gods, opponents of environmental extremism may want to drive the biggest SUV that they can find, and plan trips up to Labrador in the winter to collect baby seal pelts. The problem with such iconoclasm is that Mother Earth is not merely an idol; she is our home, whether we worship her or not.
Benedict XVI places the environmental issues in the context of “spiritual alienation from creation” and notes that “the relationship between individuals or communities and the environment ultimately stems from their relationship with God.”
When “man turns his back on the Creator’s plan, he provokes a disorder which has inevitable repercussions on the rest of the created order.”
The Creator’s plan for our civilization is not a plan of greed, sloth and self-absorption. It is not a plan in which the wealthy few chew up the majority of the resources and glut their insatiable appetites on the underpaid work of the poor.
Real attempts to fix our ecological problems must begin with the heart of the human person. We are accustomed to railing against the sexual sins — and these are important, because they cause self-absorption, and because lust is often used by advertisers to encourage us to over-consume. More important, though, are the sins that we tend to overlook: those that arise from greed, from pride, from sloth, from gluttony.
The impetus behind our consumption patterns is an impetus of sin.
We fail to respect both the creation that God has given us, and the work of the hands of our fellow man. One needs merely walk along the roadside of a middle-class neighborhood on garbage day to see the evidence of this contempt. Televisions, lawn mowers, clothing and baby strollers are discarded because we can’t be bothered to fix them or drive them to the second-hand store. Trash cans are filled with junk bought on impulse, so little worth owning that even the Salvation Army wouldn’t want it.
Ordinary efforts to reduce our impact on the environment make sense. Recycling is not a moral triumph, but it is an act of basic prudence. But cutting down on the amount that one drives — walking to the grocery store, or biking to work in good weather — does make moral sense as well as ecological sense. Sloth is still one of the seven deadly sins, and getting out of our cars can help us overcome our alienation from nature and neighbors.
We need not join the modern environmentalists, wearing the latest eco-fashions and munching on organic spelt bagels. This lifestyle is expensive, and unless you can get a job printing pamphlets at the local Greenpeace chapter, the money that you are spending on “green” garbage is generally going to be made working overtime for a company that spews greenhouse gases into the air.
Nor must we cut down on family size. The virtues that are needed to combat climate change and other environmental ills are virtues that are taught much better in a large family, where everyone is aware that resources are limited and must be shared, than in a small family where the single child learns to expect that all her desires will immediately be gratified.
We must practice poverty of spirit, fasting, gratitude, simplicity of dress, almsgiving, industriousness and consideration for the poor. Turn your eyes away from the billboards on which the prophets of the latter-Baal display your neighbor’s wife and cow.
Leave God’s creation one day a week to rest from the stresses being placed on it. Give the firstfruits of your income to the Church and to the poor who will spend it on necessities instead of frills.
If Christians do this, the world will change. The climate, the storms, the floods and the diseases are all, ultimately, in the control of the God who made heaven and earth. If we put his Kingdom first in our hearts and learn the virtues that foster an attitude of grateful stewardship over his creation, then these problems will cease.
Any other means of trying to solve the problem is doomed, for “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer at VulgataMagazine.org.