Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Anthropocentrism Reconsidered

Environmentalism has for the better part of the last several decades wrestled with the question of the human role in the physical world. Those who believe that human beings degrade the environment out of hubris or brazen indifference spend much of their energy trying to help us remember the inherent value of the physical world. This also sometimes comes with a dose of criticism of inflated human self-importance–what is often referred to as anthropocentrism or human self-centeredness– ideas regarding the supposed human superiority over the rest of the creation that are often assumed to stem from Christianity’s mandate to subdue the earth or from Humanism’s celebration of our exceptional capacities of language use, reason and moral agency, cultural and artistic production, and so on. The problem is that these criticisms often run into a kind of hypocrisy. It is hard to argue that we should no longer consider ourselves unique or special among all of physical life but then, almost in the same breath, call upon our unique human understanding of the fragile processes and complexities of earth’s capacity to sustain life and our unique human sense of morality and ethics in order to protect that capacity. Can we urge upon ourselves a moral obligation to care for the earth while still preserving a sense of our human uniqueness, most powerfully summarized in Christian thought by the notion of our being created imago dei, in the image of God?

In his recent speech at the University of Utah, Elder Marcus Nash of the Quorum of the Seventy began his remarks about stewardship with an emphatic statement that this would in fact be the only proper way to go about the work of protecting the environment. We must remember, he insisted, the purpose of the creation: the earth was created for us, to be our home, and to provide us resources and a unique test of our moral strength to use judgment, prudence, and wisdom in blessing all of the human family. He insisted that if this were our chief focus, we would be consistent environmentalists, caring both for the fragile ecology of our family and community relationships with one another and of the earth itself. This is powerful doctrine. It behooves the most ardent environmentalist to ask: do we exercise the same degree of concern for the poor and needy as we do for the beauty of nature? Are we consistent in our concern for the vulnerable, human and non-human alike? And it behooves the most ardent opponent to environmentalism to ask: if we perceive disproportionate emphasis placed on nature in environmentalism, do we spend more time and effort pointing out such extremism than we spend doing the hard and long and arduous work of relieving the human population of its immense suffering caused by poverty? And such humanitarian efforts surely must involve protecting the very sources of life this planet provides. If sexual relations are the source of human life and are therefore sacred and of utmost moral import, it seems logical that we must also consider the earth’s capacity to sustain all of life as sacred and of utmost moral import, for the sake of human and non-human life. How else can we guarantee quality of life for all if we allow portions of the earth and its resources to waste, if we allow wars to be fought over diminishing resources, if we turn a blind eye to the greed that enables so few to live above so many?

It is a fair question to ask, I think, why this focus in LDS theology and in many other Christian theologies, has not always led to a strong environmental ethic, however, and why environmental degradation is so often justified by using such logic. I believe Elder Nash’s talk made it clear that such distortions of logic are not the result of placing value on human life and experience but are the result of greed, selfishness, callousness toward the poor, and a disregard for the spiritual qualities of the physical world. It is, in other words, a decidedly inhuman attitude that stands at the root of environmental degradation.

The answer, in other words, to hubris is proper humility. I stress “proper” here because it is not true humility to simply hate ourselves, denigrate our human efforts and achievements in some categorical fashion; it is not humility to wish ourselves away. Such feelings are more a reflection of self-hatred, and anyone familiar with the process of forgiveness understands that redemption does not come to those who hate themselves. It doesn’t come to those who can’t see their faults either. It comes to those who accept their brokenness, who love themselves through it, those who are empowered by charity for all life, including their own and those of their fellow brothers and sisters everywhere. St. Francis of Assisi was a model of charity because he showed its extension from human society into the whole fabric of life. His wasn’t a worship of nature at the expense of human value, nor was it a shallow appreciation for nature as mere backdrop to the human drama. He understood that the glory of God moved through all of creation and that human joy was found in tracing and honoring his handiwork wherever it could be found. To love God is to love our fellow brothers and sisters, including our kin beyond our merely human circles.