Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Two recent books on what may be called “environmental theology,” one rooted explicitly in the Christian tradition, the other in a kind of loose deism, reveal an oft-overlooked theme of modern environmentalism. While neither is overly occupied with the policy concerns of the larger environmental movement¯global climate, carbon capture, alternative energy, the future of nuclear power, and so on¯they help illuminate a common narrative that places nature above human need.

L.H. Bailey’s The Holy Earth is a reprint of a 1915 book judged newly apposite by the press of Michigan State University, where he taught and where a statue of him graces the university’s horticultural garden. Bailey’s musings are vague and not always consistent. He is a nature romantic who can wax lyrical over the shape of well-bred potato (really), but he is also a realist about the farmer’s tasks. He believes firmly that humans should fit into nature without upsetting it, but at the same time believes we should manage it scientifically, as good stewards of the earth. He has a communitarian view of society, but at the same time champions individual ownership of small farms as the foundation of good social order. He has a disarming way of acknowledging these inconsistencies¯ apparent, only, he claims¯with locutions like “my reader must not assume . . . ” then “balanced” by a statement contrary to what has just been said.

Perhaps we should not be too fussy about his arguing style. He was a horticulturalist, distinguished in his field, honored by being elected the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1926, but only derivatively and secondarily an environmental philosopher, in the mold, say, of the much-celebrated Aldo Leopold. Perhaps the republication of this book is an effort to raise it to the status of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac ¯some kind of classic.

I doubt that will happen, though. Holy Earth ’s musings are too vague, its hopes too utopian, its prescriptions too contradictory. The language has a quaint and innocent ring, redolent of the countryman upset by the vices of the city and the new temptations to the young, like movies, while worrying about land use patterns and the waste of resources¯part seer and part curmudgeon.

Nevertheless Bailey is still relevant, for he represents a kind of basic environmentalism, what I would call the “standard brand” or “classic model.” All of nature, not just the earth but the vast cosmos and its plan and destiny, has priority over human concerns. Humans must give the natural world priority over their own interests. His viewpoint is biocentric, not anthropocentric. “Mother earth” is “good in itself.” What appears to us to be brutal violence in the natural world, the struggle for survival among species, is actually “right” because it represents “adaptability.” It is wrong to say that we humans must conquer nature, which, despite disease and disaster is not our enemy but our friend. “The earth is perhaps a stern earth, but it is a kindly earth.”

So Bailey can say that the earth is “holy,” the benevolent issue of a good Creator, whose goodness we know through his creation. In a commingling of Creator and creation, he says that God is actually “immanent” and it is thus correct to say that the earth is “divine.” He dislikes any talk of a human destiny or salvation beyond the earth, which he thinks degrades the earth and makes us hostile to it.

Bailey would have loved contemporary bioregionalism, which seems to have sprung directly from his vision. He opposes importing food and urges instead that we depend on local produce. He doesn’t like “accessories and frills” and “fancy dishes.” He’s even against the use of herbs and spices and anything which would hide the straight-from-the-earth naturalness of food. There is little of art in his vision of good cooking; except for his just complaints about adulteration of food with harmful substances, he often sounds simply like an old grump complaining about the menu.

There are some things to admire in Bailey’s book. He correctly understands the Biblical injunction to humanity to “have dominion” over the earth as “stewardship,” not dominance. He has an admirable regard for our obligation to future generations and justly warns of dangers to our food supply, the consequence of lax safety regulation. And his cri du Coeur at environmental devastation will find many an echo in contemporary readers.

But there is also problematic material in Holy Earth . In a crypto-eugenic mood Bailey would shape future society “by selection of the folk in a natural process, to eliminate the unresponsive.” He would redistribute land to small parcels; but if the landowner does not use it responsibly, “society will take away his privilege.” Less threatening but simply utopian is his distaste for urban industrial society and his Jeffersonian conviction that the man who works the land is the source of public virtue.

The Holy Earth is thus an ambiguous guide for contemporary environmental concerns, though its bedrock beliefs are close to the heart of the movement.

Much more to the theological point is Willis Jenkins’ Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology . His project is to refocus Christian environmentalism from a formation around the doctrine of creation to one around views of salvation, which, he says, is the natural language of people who find a saving, healing experience in encounters with nature. The heart of his learned, thoroughly researched book (laden with over 1200 footnotes and burdened with dense academic jargon) is an exploration of the environmentally appropriate thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, and Sergei Bulgakov. But that is preceded by a useful, if finely sliced, review of every conceivable Christian take on environmental ethics, chasing down variations within variations so as to leave no thought unlabeled.

It will not do here to rehearse his careful and intelligent survey, and I will focus instead on some of the major points. Jenkins proposes to supersede the common argument in environmental ethics between those whose emphasis is on human welfare (“anthropocentrism”) and those concerned to give the natural world independent moral standing (“non-anthropocentrism” he usually calls it, though “ecocentrism” or “biocentrism” will do). Yet that distinction pursues his analysis in spite of his intentions. It is certainly true, as he points out, that any strong separation of the human and the natural is false to the facts, as nature comes mixed with human interaction, and humans are inextricably biological in any case. The argument is really whether non-human nature is an actor in its own right, an active agent which limits human activity, not in the sense that we are prevented from escaping our bodily natures, but in the sense that the non-human world has “moral considerability” which requires us to allow for the “rights” of nature and to subordinate our own interests accordingly.

Many of us, however, see nature as a poor moral guide. While it is full of renewal, creativity, and beauty, it is also full of violence, suffering, and decay. Best, we say, to regard it as amoral. Yes, God is its Creator, but for this age it “groans in travail” awaiting a consummation wholly different. About that destiny we can know very little, except that in God’s good time it awaits us, and divine mercy will bring all to resolution. Jenkins, on the other hand, describes appreciatively theological schools, from the Orthodox doctrine of theosis to Teilhard de Chardin to the modern “creation spirituality” movement, which one way or another allow humans to share with God in the evolution of the world to a glorious transformation¯although, as Jenkins points out, there’s a danger that that could veer off into anthropocentric management. My own inclination is to be more modest about knowing the course of divine intention.

Jenkins makes much of “ecojustice,” an odd word with a funny history. As first used in environmental argument it was meant to answer the charge that environmentalism was indifferent to social justice, implying instead that sound ecological practices would automatically lead to justice for the poor, that the two were not in conflict. This was too often just wishful thinking, if not downright deceitfulness. In fact they were in conflict, the long history of environmentalism showing a disdain for the aspirations of the poor, and in our time strongly opposed to economic development in the weaker countries lest global environmental harm result.

But the more logical meaning of this coined word is justice for nature , and Jenkins and the writers he cites use it, approvingly, in that sense. This connotation implies that nature has something like rights, moral standing, and is an actor who can be served justly. It awards nature “dignity,” a term usually reserved for human beings. He likes the way the World Council of Churches moved from its program slogan “the just [participatory] and sustainable society,” to “justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.” As it happens, I coined the original slogan in an attempt to keep together the western environmentalists and the Third World economists and church leaders; and of course I frowned when, subsequently, “the integrity of creation” was substituted, an expression which scientists I know find meaningless.

In his conclusion Jenkins becomes as eloquent as any conservationist lamenting human damage to the natural environment. We must, he says, truly and deeply repent. Even newfound practices of sustainability and restoration of ravaged lands border on cheap grace, helping us too easily to forget our past sins and too readily easing our needed lamentation. Apparently it takes sackcloth and ashes before we are allowed to be practical.

But what follows repentance? Jenkins seems uncertain about the place of the human managerial activity needed to sustain the world’s population. He offers an attitude, a sense, a feeling, drawn from theological motifs of grace. He professes neutrality among many theological strategies he describes, saying he is merely setting them forth so their resources are available for ecumenical use. But his leanings do come through, especially toward giving nature that “moral considerability” and practicing “ecojustice” toward it. He says he means to change the tone of the discussion, and perhaps he has. But I am not so sure he changes much of substance. The quarrel, if that’s what it is, between the primacy of human need and the independent moral standing of nature seems to me ultimately irreducible, and we shall have to lean one way or the other. My choice is that an ethically sound environmentalism must intend first of all to make the earth a fit habitation for humanity.

These two books are not comparable in age, sophistication, focus, or intention, but they do share that “standard brand” environmentalism I alluded to above, that human interests must be restrained before nature’s rights. It may be hard to remember that this background philosophy/theology underlies the actual broad, diverse, and ubiquitous environmental movement we see all around us. In all the inevitable noise it will be easy to forget that the “classic model” informs the current policy debates. But its narrative is always in the background, and these two books, different as they are, both represent it unflinchingly.

Thomas Sieger Derr is the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles