From time to time, I run across a statement in modern environmentalist literature of the frothy-mouthed extremist sort that summarily accuses conservative Christians of justifying the plundering of the environment—the natural world—by the mandate of Genesis 1:28.
God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” (HCSB, italics added)
The gist of their accusation is this:
See, you Bible-thumpers think you have Divine approval to over-populate the earth, pollute the air and water, destroy the lakes, rivers, fields, forests, and soil, and drive species after species into extinction!!!
Frankly, I have never—not once—read or heard anything by any Christian writer or speaker that suggested in even the smallest way that this verse authorized mankind to exploit and plunder the planet and its natural resources, animal, vegetable and mineral, to gratify his own whims and feed his own cravings, without a thought or care for the consequences to the ecosystems of earth or the effects on subsequent generations. To impute such a view and interpretation to conservative Christians is pure caricature, the strawiest of straw men. In fact, the environmental emphasis of the Bible is one very much to the contrary, one of wise use and long-perspective stewardship, the very thing environmental activists claim to be in favor of (though I suspect that there is another agenda afoot among modern “greens” under this facade).
The plainest reading of Genesis 1:28 (along with Psalm 8:7-9) discloses that God has given to man, His designated viceroy over creation, the authority to manipulate the phenomena and features of the natural world. This by reasonable deduction would include the domestication of plants and animals, and the manipulation of their genetic features by selection and breeding to develop newer varieties with qualities more useful or pleasing to man. Man may with Divine acquiescence dam rivers and streams, create lakes and reservoirs, dig canals, build roads, utilize forest products, build houses and business structures and public buildings of wood and stone and metal, mine minerals, produce chemicals, smelt metals, and combust so-called fossil fuels for light, heat and other uses. He may plow up the grasslands, clear forests, and even reclaim ocean bottom land to create fields for the growing of crops. He may also drain swamps, suppress populations of harmful or over-populated species (such as malaria-carrying mosquitoes on the one hand, and over-populated deer and mustangs on the other), develop vaccines and antibiotics to protect himself and his livestock against disease and death, and promote the proliferation of desirable (to man) animals both wild and domesticated. He may do all these things and considerably more by Divine permission, though not with a careless disregard for the immediate impact on his environment or on those who are around him, or the long-term effects on those who will come after him.
The earth was designed “to be inhabited” by man, not left as a vast man-free pristine wilderness.
For this is what the LORD says—God is the Creator of the heavens. He formed the earth and made it; He established it; He did not create it to be empty, [but] formed it to be inhabited—I am the LORD and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:18)
Mankind’s habitation of this planet necessarily requires human use of the Divinely-created resources of this planet to sustain his life and to enable him to fulfill the Divine command to propagate and fill the earth. This situation obtained even in the pre-Fall days when man and his environment were both still “very good,” and as yet uncorrupted by sin and decay.
Even more so, the divine judgment decreed on human sin (Genesis 3:17-19) not merely allows but actually compels man to manipulate the natural word by agrarian pursuits to provide for his nutritional needs.
And He said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘Do not eat from it’: The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field [or, wild plants]. You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust, and you will return to dust.”
In the very next chapter, we find that Cain was a “tiller of the soil” (Gen. 4:2), manipulating for his own benefit, indeed his very survival, the divinely-made “natural” world, though later in punishment for his fratricide, he was compelled to adopt a restless foraging lifestyle (Gen. 4:12, 14). And while there have been since time immemorial “hunter-gatherer” cultures where only wild plants and wild animals are employed for human food—some still persist in isolated areas—with no cultivation of the soil or tending of domesticated livestock, such activity is incapable of supporting anything more than a minimal human population, and that only precariously.
Farming and gardening, along with domesticating livestock, are vastly more productive of food and therefore better capable of sustaining an immensely larger human population than primitive hunter-gatherer activities. Contrast the population of North America in AD 1500 (variously estimated at from 2 to 5 million inhabitants and stagnant) with that of 1900 (before fossil-fuel powered agriculture)—150 million-plus and rapidly growing. Today, the figure is more than 400 million, which is nowhere close to the maximum sustainable human population capacity of North America; if we had a population density approaching that of India, 2 to 3 billion well-fed residents is not unrealistic (whether that is desirable or not is another issue).
In a word, keeping or restoring the world at large to a pristine, untouched, “wilderness” condition unaltered in perpetuity by man is neither necessary nor possible, given the existence of mankind on the planet. But, since man has and will be altering the planet and using its resources, we may ask, how should we use the earth’s resources, what should be our perspective on this?
It is beyond dispute that throughout history—reaching back to the remotest antiquity—much of human use of the resources of the earth has been in the worst tradition of “immediate gratification”/exploitation with not the least thought of the short- or longer-term consequences to the environment, the air, the water, the native flora and fauna, the food, fuel or mineral supply. Cases of ruinously over-grazed grasslands; forest-devastating, cut-and-get-out logging; massive soil erosion and river-choking silting; excessive harvesting of game and fish; soil- and water-poisoning toxic wastes from coal and mineral mining; oil drilling; oil and chemical refining; metal smelting or processing; and waste dumping sites of all sorts can be cited ad infinitem. Man has often been very abusive and wasteful of the rich resources of God’s creation. But Bible-dependent practices and ethics are not to be blamed for this desolation; much to the contrary, biblical ethics requires a careful husbanding of earth’s resources, with a clear understanding of present effects and future consequences, as we will show.
The ancient Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians and Romans, as well as later medieval inhabitants of the Levant and elsewhere (to mention just a few that come immediately to mind) all destroyed their forests and the fertility of their soils by exploitative agricultural and forestry practices, and none of these civilizations can be by any stretch of the imagination identified as guided by biblical principles. In more recent times, it is notable that of the “world’s ten most polluted places” spotlighted in the June 1991 issue of National Geographic magazine, six were in the former Soviet Union (Chernobyl in Ukraine, Copsa Mica in Romania, among them), created under a system that was officially atheistic (and where government had absolute control over the scene of the pollution; there’s a lesson in that fact, as well).
(Part 1-2: My Qualifications to Speak)