Earthkeeping revisited

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I recently came across an introductory environmental science book that I had once owned, and it was a pleasant trip back in time. One continuing topic in this blog has been about how our individual and collective minds change on important topics over time. This has especially been true with conservative Republicans and their views on the environment and climate science. This book, called Earthkeeping: Stewardship of Creation in its original 1980 edition, presented basic environmental science to a conservative Christian audience in an accessible and non-threatening way. The intended audience of this book was much more receptive forty years ago than it is today.

I do not know how the book’s authors would state their case today, but I do know that many of their propositions would be politically risky for many conservative Christian and Republican politicians to advocate in the current arena. Times, and attitudes about basic science unfortunately, have changed. However, I thought a few quotes from the book would be a pleasant trip down memory lane.

The version of the text that I uncovered is a lightly revised edition from 1991, published by religious publisher Eerdmans under the title Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation. [1] Both editions were edited by environmentalist Loren Wilkinson, who finished his career at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and it was authored by several scholars associated with Calvin College (now Calvin University) in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Calvin University is affiliated with the more conservative of the two Reformed Christian denominations that have long dominated Western Michigan culture, with its strong Dutch immigrant heritage. One of the contributors was Vern Ehlers, a physicist who later held Gerald Ford’s U.S. House of Representatives seat for eight years (and was also of Ford’s moderate Republican stripe). Ehlers regularly bucked his own party’s gradual anti-environment shift.

Earthkeeping in the 90s

Earthkeeping might best be called a Christian apologetic. That is, it approaches a secular topic, in this case the post-Nixon, largely bipartisan, environmental movement, from a Biblical presupposition. [2] This book is neither deep theology nor difficult science. Rather, it covers a broad span of environment-related issues and links them to scriptures falling under the Christian rubric of stewardship. I personally grew up in a different Christian tradition where stewardship over “God’s Earth” was seen as a primary human response to “the ministry of God’s Son.” As such, this book spoke in the same “God language” I had heard all my life, even though I was not affiliated with that denomination.

The tie to familiar Bible verses was not so much the point of the text. Rather, the verses act more as a kind of imprimatur, bridging the modern language of environmental science to a traditionalist religious audience without betraying the sola scriptura (“scripture alone”) authority that good Calvinists place in the Bible. You will not see any Bible references in this post, but I found fascinating how the authors managed to weave in decidedly Christian phrases into their discussion of more modern “science world” problems. However, that use is not in the “creationism” sense that Christian anti-evolution “science” later gravitated to. [3] That sprinkling of traditionally religious wording may not go over well in a state university classroom, but the ability to “speak the language” is an essential communication bridge to a religious audience. Even Albert Einstein was known to use “God language” when speaking to groups outside the university.

The more urgent environmental priories of the 1980s

If you can remember back to the 1970s-80s environmental movement, the term climate change was rarely heard as the most pressing environmental concern. Rather, the regular burning of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River was more emblematic of citizen concerns about more visible pollution. I frequently worked in Ford Motor Company’s massive River Rouge industrial complex near Detroit through the 1970s, and I compared it at the time to images from Dante’s Inferno, with steam rising everywhere from blackened ground and no visible sign of plant life anywhere. “The Rouge” is a very different, much greener place today.

Cuyahiga River - 1967

Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1967. www.cleveland.com

The authors of Earthkeeping did eventually get to the issue of climate change, but they first dealt with the more familiar realities at hand in the 1980s and 1990s. When they did address the topic, they were quite prophetic (although not alone – scientists have known about the consequences of increased atmospheric C02 and the “greenhouse effect” since 1896):

“[B]y far the most serious problem with burning coal is that doing so will continue to build up atmospheric C02 until global warming (and consequent sea-level rise) will be catastrophic. In a century or two we will have restored to the atmosphere C02 that was removed over millions of years; the likely result, in the next century or two, will be a climate like that of the Carboniferous era…To burn them is foolish if there are alternatives to doing so.” [p. 80]

I have collected a few other quotes from this text that you would not hear many conservatives publicly voicing today. Many otherwise conservative environmental scientists have been driven from the Republican Party, and sometimes even fired from their government jobs. It took another Republican Party president decades later to try his hardest to dismantle Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency literally during his last days in office.

The Earthkeeping chapter titles noted below nicely flavored the book’s “stewardship” theme on these topics. Remember that these quotes are from 30-40 years ago. Where have we made progress? Where have we failed the planet? The bolding of certain portions is my editing, not the authors’:

“The Land Entrusted to Us” (industrial agriculture)

“But more often, our attempts at replacing natural ecosystems with synthetic ones end in failure. This is depressingly true of the current highly mechanized agriculture in North America. Increasingly, the principles which sustain the productivity of a natural ecosystem are largely ignored. They are replaced instead by an agriculture which draws largely on a diminishing supply of fossil fuel in order to produce crops more cheaply.” [p. 27)]

 “The Creatures Under our Care” (wildlife diversity)

[T]he pressing demands of the human population for food, minerals, energy, and living space are inexorably reducing the chances for life of most other creatures on the planet…and there is little to indicate that the Christian vision has improved the generally destructive human attitude toward the rest of creation. Humankind has exploited much life to extinction, or near it.” [p. 40]

 “The Human Deluge” (the population explosion, the food crisis and birth control)

“But the vast increase in human population in recent years suddenly brought the limits of the earth’s productivity — as well as the decline in the earth’s environmental health — home to us with startling suddenness…Thus it is necessary for us to consider the increasing human impact on the biosphere as a consequence of our increasing population and our increasing technology.” [p. 51]

“One result of this excessive food demand on the part of the wealthier countries is simply that people eat too much…not that people demand extra helpings of things, but rather that they demand high-quality protein. To meet the world’s protein needs we could use our land to grow protein-rich crops, which, when eaten in the proper combination, would provide the bulk of our protein requirements. Instead, we use a large percentage of our cropland in North America to grow feed for livestock. Ultimately we eat the livestock, but by the time grain gets converted into beef, about 90 percent of the energy content of the food has been lost.” [p. 54]

“[W]hat a healthy planet requires is not simply declining birth and death rates; what is required is that the birth rate and the death rate at least be balanced — as they appear to have been throughout most of human history… Certainly a task arising from the Christian gospel is to bring about such stability, and to do it through means other than starvation and warfare. Those tasks are our Christian obligation, not only for the sake of other humans, but also for the sake of this Eden of a planet placed in our trust… We have already exercised our abilities to control death. It is clear that we must also exercise our abilities to control birth.” [p. 62]

“The Earth and its Fullness: Minerals and Energy” (carbon use, alternative energy and recycling)

“[W]ind power harnesses sun-moved air in ways analogous to how hydro-power harnesses sun-lifted water. Like water power, the technology is ancient, unchanged in basic principles for centuries. Yet in the past decade new materials for windmills, computerized control of rotors, and mass production have brought wind power from being marginal and experimental to being competitive with conventional technologies.”

“One such source is electrical generation from direct solar radiation. This takes two forms: one is the use of the sun’s heat to vaporize a liquid and turn a turbine to produce electricity; the other, photovoltaic, is more elegant: it produces electrical current from the light of the sun with no pollution and no moving parts. There have been remarkable advances in both technologies during the past decade…As a result, “solar farms” in high sunlight areas are much closer to economic viability than they were a decade ago.” [p. 84]

“Thus a strong argument for the ideal of recycling everything environmental. In the largest sense, it is a matter of earthkeeping: wise stewardship of creation. But the Christian has an even stronger argument. By keeping materials out of landfills we are restoring to them a place and a purpose: consciously or not, we are honoring them and the Creator by saving them, giving them a new life. Language of salvation and new birth is not entirely inappropriate here — even for minerals. By re-using things, by finding new uses for them, we keep offering God’s good gifts back to him in thankfulness and service. And by giving some parts of creation anew life, we are preserving other parts of creation from contamination.” [p. 101]

Oh, for a time when the political right and left, the committed religious and the non-believers, could come together to agree that working toward the environmental sustainability of our planet was in the best interests of all of us. We were nearly there once in the United States.


Notes:

  1. Wilkinson, Loren, editor. Earthkeeping in the Ninties: Stewardship of Creation. William B. Erdmans Pub. Co., 1991.
  2. I wrote about the Nixon-created Environmental Protection Agency in a recent post about the Actuaries Climate Index.
  3. I have written in the past about how I first learned the principles of Darwinian evolution in a ninth-grade Earth Science class in 1965 in that same conservative hometown.

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