The Things People Do To Nature

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times last Sunday – The Ecology of Disease by Jim Robbins:

THERE’S a term biologists and economists use these days — ecosystem services — which refers to the many ways nature supports the human endeavor. Forests filter the water we drink, for example, and birds and bees pollinate crops, both of which have substantial economic as well as biological value.

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about. A critical example is a developing model of infectious disease that shows that most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature.

The argument is that the things we do can have profound unexpected consequences. This is something about which we should be concerned. We live on earth in a closed and interconnected ecosystem. There are limited resources, and there is not infinite potential. Deforestation, carbon dioxide emissions, hunting, farming, urbanization can have potentially devastating effects. Whether the most dire predictions of global warming are accurate or not, there is no way to deny that human actions are capable of altering the balances in nature in ways we cannot really understand beforehand. This leads for the need, not for alarmist rhetoric, but for prudent action.

Later in the article:

The best way to prevent the next outbreak in humans, specialists say, is with what they call the One Health Initiative — a worldwide program, involving more than 600 scientists and other professionals, that advances the idea that human, animal and ecological health are inextricably linked and need to be studied and managed holistically.

“It’s not about keeping pristine forest pristine and free of people,” says Simon Anthony, a molecular virologist at EcoHealth. “It’s learning how to do things sustainably. If you can get a handle on what it is that drives the emergence of a disease, then you can learn to modify environments sustainably.”

This article puts something of a different twist on the issues of ecology and environmentalism.

The Blame and Conflict Model. Unfortunately environmentalism has a bad odor to many Christians.  It seems to run counter to the Christian view of the world. The reaction to claims of climate change and global warming are an indication of this. There was a famous essay published in Science in 1967 The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis by Lynn White, Jr. (155, 1203-1207) that lays the blame for many of our ecological woes at the feet of a Christian worldview and understanding of nature, although he also looks to Francis of Assisi as an example of the way things could be different.

Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), “when you’ve seen one red-wood tree, you’ve seen them all.” To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. (1206)

And toward the end of White’s 1967 essay:

Hence we shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.

Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature may point a direction. I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists. (1207)

The sentiments of this essay, which are not unique to White, have turned the ecology and environmentalism into a conflict between science and faith. Too many conservative Christians decry both evolutionary biology and environmentalism. The reaction to environmentalism is almost as much of a knee-jerk rejection as the reaction to evolution and common descent. When the call for environmentally sound policy is transformed into an alarmist rejection of the modern way of life it is easy for many to dismiss it as politically motivated. The global warming crisis has a bit of an impersonal feel, disease is another issue – SARS and AIDS are immanently personal. The impact of environment on changes in cancer rates is somewhat more difficult to see, but is also immanently personal.

I think there is a change in the air – and Christians are becoming much more conscious of ecology and the things we can do to nature. The call to dominion is also a call for care. But this is something that is worth a conversation, and is much more interesting than questions of the historicity of Adam or the conclusions of evolutionary biology.

What do you think we can or should be doing about problems like the ecology of disease or global warming?

What should the Christian reaction be?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you wish to comment please see The Things People Do To Nature at Jesus Creed.

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