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Spring 2000 · Vol. 29 No. 1 · pp. 38–45 

The Environmental Crisis: Thoughts of a Christian Ecologist

Max Terman

For some time, things have been interesting for those of us who call ourselves ecologists. Ecology is no longer just an obscure field of scientific study practiced by a few field biologists roaming the prairies, forests, and streams in search of truths about how nature works. Increasingly, we ecologists have been asked to take positions on some of the most hotly debated issues of our day.

Is there really an environmental crisis? Is the greenhouse effect going to cause climate change, severe droughts, and the flooding of islands and coastlines? Is the protective ozone layer disappearing—will cancer rates skyrocket? Will acid rain kill our lakes and forests? Are our air, water, and food safe? Will there be any soil left for agriculture? Are natural ecosystems and their wildlife species (such as the tropical rain forests) really disappearing? Will an exploding human population result in mass starvation and standing room only on our planet?

Humans are called to a special task of caring for creation in a shepherdly manner, since they reflect God’s image in a unique way.

These are important but difficult issues. I must admit to having apprehension about discussing them since my professional training is limited to certain aspects of animal ecology and behavior. No one person can expect to ask all the relevant questions let alone have all the answers to such complex issues. I ask the forbearance of others with different points of view if they believe my statements are incomplete or inaccurate. I hope my comments will help concerned persons understand these critical issues a little more fully. {39}


Environmental problems involve not only ecological issues but political, economic, and religious ones as well. Scientific questions about how the world works and the impacts of technology are intertwined with very emotional social agendas. 60 Minutes, the popular CBS news program, once compared the environment to the abortion issue in the intensity of the responses being evoked from various groups. A segment of the program broadcast on Sunday, September 20, 1992, showed persons who complained about industrial pollution being personally attacked and harassed by those who considered their complaints as threats to their jobs. The program also identified several aggressive political movements which are backlashes against environmental ideas and policies. A popular talk-show personality has categorized the environmental movement as the new home of the communist party because environmentalism is equated to big centralized government.

Controversy over environmental issues apparently exists even in Evangelical Christianity. Reacting to an editorial in the May 18, 1992, Christianity Today entitled “It’s Not Easy Being Green—but the time has come for evangelicals to confront the environmental crisis,” one conservative Christian writer labeled the environmental crisis as “another Chicken Little Story” which is out of step “with Scripture and credible science.” He goes on to quote Proverbs 14:28 as a reason not to heed calls for population control: “A large population is a king’s glory, but without subjects a prince is ruined” (NIV).

Furthermore, this writer reasons that since the whole world population of (then) five and one half billion could fit into the state of Texas with each person having fourteen hundred square feet of area, there is “a strong argument that we haven’t got the job [of filling the earth with people] done yet and actually run the risk of losing ground in the near future.”


Since any person’s perception of the issues is influenced by their experiences, background, and worldview, I feel it is appropriate to provide certain information about myself before trying to provide insight into these questions about the environment. I am an ecologist and an Evangelical Christian. When I enrolled at Spring Arbor College in 1963, I approached the science classes of Dr. Eldon Whiteman and Dr. Leslie Gibbs with a latent curiosity about science, nature, and God. These two men along with many other fine professors at SAC ignited the flames of that interest and set me on a course which led to a career as an ecologist and Christian scholar. {40}

In my occupation, I have been privileged to experience the natural world up close and in an intimate way that is perhaps difficult for nonscientists and others to understand. To me, the natural world is priceless—its ecological organization is a valuable gift from God which allows us and other forms of life to survive. I believe humans are part of the Creation and cannot survive without it. My views, therefore, could be very different from someone who does not view nature in this way.

Environmental Stewardship is Biblical

One of my basic assumptions is that we are to be stewards of Creation (the environment). In the words of Cal DeWitt, director of Au-Sable Institute, a Christian educational organization in northern Michigan serving over eighty Christian colleges, “humans are called to a special task of caring for creation in a shepherdly manner, since they reflect God’s image in a unique way.” We are to be modern day Noahs, striving to rescue the fauna and flora of Creation from the rising flood of degradation and destruction. The Bible contains many verses which direct us to value and care for Creation (for example, see Job 38; Pss. 24:1-6; 65:11-13; 84:3; 148; Isa. 24:4-6; Mal. 3:11-12; Matt. 6:10, 26-29; Luke 12:16-21; 16:1-2; Rom. 8:20-22). For this reason, I have difficulty understanding claims that true environmental stewardship is a threat to Christianity.

Perhaps the presence of this type of controversy among us in the Church is a sign that we need to meet and converse more about what the Bible says concerning the environment. We need to discuss our fears about what some perceive as non-Christian aspects of the environmental movement, such as pantheistic and New Age ideas. We also need to discuss what it really means to live a Christ-centered life in the modern world—a world that is becoming more uncritical of unbridled consumption and development, technology, materialism, and selfishness. I hope this essay facilitates this type of interchange.

There is a Crisis in Human Nature

I first suggest that there is a crisis in human nature. We are innately selfish and short-sighted, hampered by ignorance of God and his purposes. For Evangelical Christians, this is the foundation of the salvation message and the redemptive power of Christ. Our selfishness is at the root of the sin and injustice which characterize human society.

When it comes to caring for the environment, this same ignorance and greed also becomes evident. There is abundant confirmation that we have had difficulty living with our newfound technological powers, a {41} situation made worse by our increasing numbers. Creation, like justice and peace, has fallen prey to our imperfect natures, as humans through history have abused the Creation in pursuit of resources and a better life.

It is noteworthy to discover that others consider an understanding of human nature to be crucial to solving the environmental crisis. G. Tyler Miller begins his popular textbook, Environmental Science, with this quote from Lynton Caldwell:

The environmental crisis is an outward manifestation of a crisis of mind and spirit. There could be no greater misconception of its meaning than to believe it is concerned only with endangered wildlife, human-made ugliness, and pollution. These are part of it, but more importantly, the crisis is concerned with the kind of creatures we are and what we must become in order to survive.

To be sure, there are differences in the definitions of human nature and how to address its shortcomings, but it should be clear to Christians that 2 Corinthians 5:17 has special meaning both for human society and the environment:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (NRSV)

There is an Environmental Crisis

I further suggest that there is an environmental crisis. There is now broad agreement in the scientific community that there are serious problems with the life-supporting processes of our environment. Air, water, and soil are being rapidly degraded in all countries. Natural habitats and their wildlife are being lost as human populations expand, especially in the tropical regions of the world. Species not even observed by scientists are disappearing forever. There is clear evidence that ecosystems are breaking down.

The pollution and environmental degradation can be easily seen by almost anyone in Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico City, Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro, or even Wichita, Kansas. And who would deny the reality of starving people in Somalia, India, or other countries which are desperately trying to cope with millions of homeless, landless people. Six billion people now exist and seven billion are expected by the year 2006, nearly eleven billion by 2045. {42} h

No One Did This on Purpose

I further postulate that lack of knowledge of basic ecological processes and incomplete economic and political views are behind much of our environmental difficulties. None of us wants to be part of the problem rather than the solution. Nobody would consciously poison the water or air or engage in activities which lead to the misery and death of other people. So why do we find it so difficult to protect the ecological integrity of Creation?


Many people believe that the environment is indestructible. It is so big and encompassing that normal economic activity will not harm it. The claim is put forth that all the environmental reports of destruction are “just overblown stories,” and that environmental regulations are unnecessary and merely hamper economic growth and the production of jobs. Furthermore, many people believe that economic incentives will cause people to treat the environment as a resource and thus protect it.

To date, there is little evidence that economic systems, whether capitalistic, communistic, or socialistic, are by themselves able to protect the environment. Environmental destruction is found everywhere, regardless of the economic system. Air, water, soil, habitats, wildlife, and other public resources are almost impossible to protect in a straight economic system because such public treasures cannot be bought and sold; they are public resources owned by everyone. Environmental protection is a rare occurrence in human history because there is no inherent mechanism in society for protecting it. In the past, nature has survived only because humans lacked the power to destroy it. This is no longer the case.

The last fifty years have seen our race pollute the farthest reaches of the globe, including the ocean depths and the outer reaches of the atmosphere. One does not have to look far to see thousands of forests and lakes dead or dying from acid deposition—the Black Forest in Germany and the beautiful-but-dead lakes in Sweden, Canada, and the northeastern United States stand as stark examples. There is objective (but disputed) evidence that even the global climate and the earth’s protective ozone layer have been affected by human activity. Since 1880, the average global temperatures have risen sharply, and the 1980s were the warmest decade in the last hundred years. Ozone decreases of up to twenty-five percent have been detected. Topsoil is eroding faster than it forms on approximately thirty-five percent of the world’s cropland. An estimated 36,500 species of plants and animals become extinct each year, mostly because of. {43}


Some people question whether a society having environmental priorities could be free and democratic. They fear that environmental regulation is harmful to free enterprise. I can see no reason why free economies could not operate within the bonds of responsible environmental stewardship. A logical role of the government is to protect public interests such as the environment. The most important requirement in a democratic system is that the people agree on the importance of environmental protection and agree on a governmental mechanism for providing long-term leadership in this area. Like other things in our society, the motivation for doing this will most likely come from enlightened self-interest. The science of ecology can provide some understanding in this area.

Eugene Odum, a respected ecologist from the University of Georgia, illustrates a possible role of government in his text, Basic Ecology. Let us assume that there are ten thousand acres of land available for development. Two-thirds of this land is sensitive ecological habitat providing important “ecosystem services” such as ground water recharge, soil stabilization, wildlife habitat, and air and water purification. Odum claims that economic development should occur on only one-third of the area and that two-thirds should be managed as natural intact ecosystems.

To ecologists, this “one-third developed and two-thirds natural” ratio seems like a favorable situation. Clean air, water, and wildlife could coexist along with free economic activity. Transition zones, such as parks and golf courses, could be planned into this scheme. If development had been done this way in the past, much of our environmental degradation could have been avoided. Promoting this kind of development requires an active role for government in the protection of public resources—clean air, water, soil, and wildlife. Many understand this to be the most logical role for any government.


However, governmental action is only as good as the involvement of the people—and enlightened self-interest can only go so far. There must be an ethical foundation for environmental protection or it will, as history shows, be sacrificed to short-term economic interests. Here is where religion, science, and ecology meet. Again the words of ecologist Eugene Odum:

When both the study of the household (ecology) and management of the household (economics) can be merged, and when ethics can be extended to include the environment as {44} well as human values, then we can indeed be optimistic about the future of mankind.

A Scriptural parallel comes from Job 12:7-10:

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. (NRSV)


Recognizing that there are real differences among well-meaning persons about governmental policies needed to address environmental problems, I make the following suggestions for critical examination and debate.

Resolved that governments and the people under their rule should:

  • Encourage energy efficiency and conservation
  • Encourage alternate energy development—we should begin the transition from oil and coal to natural gas, solar, hydrogen, wind, geothermal, and other forms of renewable energy
  • Encourage recycling—remove subsidies for resource depleting activities and reward recycling
  • Preserve habitat and regulate development—i.e., preserve vital ecosystems such as wetlands and estuaries, and halt deforestation and overgrazing in forest and grassland ecosystems; use Odum’s “one-third developed, two-thirds natural” guideline
  • Promote population control, i.e., support the education and elevated status of women, and advocate appropriate birth control measures
  • Protect the global atmosphere by controlling or banning harmful emissions—such as CO2, CFCs, and other greenhouse gases—and those causing acid deposition
  • Place taxes on gasoline to fund energy efficiency and other environmental measures
  • Transfer pollution control and energy-efficient technology to lesser developed countries at cost or as foreign aid; in essence this is a debt for nature swap
  • Place taxes on pollution to internalize external costs to the environment {45}
  • Encourage sustainable agricultural techniques, e.g., soil and water conservation, crop rotation, new crops, integrated pest control, diverse farming operations rather than monocultures

May God lead us as we prayerfully seek his guidance in these matters. If we do integrate ecology, economics, and ethics, perhaps the words of Isaiah 58:12 will be a fitting declaration for our generation:

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. (RSV)

Max R. Terman is Professor of Biology and Chair of the Biology department at Tabor College where he has taught since 1969.
This essay is slightly modified from a version originally published in the Spring Arbor College Journal 17 (Winter 1993) and is reprinted here by permission of the publishers.

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