A Biblical Perspective on Environmentalism: Part 2-1

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com
The series so far.

Man the taker, man the exploiter

God provided man with a remarkably rich world to inhabit—abundant in edible plants (man and the animals all being originally vegetarian, Genesis 1:29) and land that could be agriculturally extremely productive when worked by human hands. There were great expanses of fresh and salt water for human use and teaming with huge quantities of fish (Genesis 1:20-22). The skies and the land supported vast numbers of birds, mammals and reptiles (Genesis 1:20-22, 24-25), some of which were suitable for domestication. There were immense forests of thousands of distinct species of trees suitable for an endless list of uses (a list limited only by man’s ingenuity), to say nothing of the herbaceous plants, whose species number in the tens of thousands (Genesis 1:11, 12). And the world was richly provided with minerals—in all, more than 100 separate elements, and untold compounds of those elements. From these, man could refine metals, purify or create chemicals, and fabricate an endless number of objects for his material needs, comfort or whim.

Amidst the very hostile external environment of outer space, earth provided man and the other earth-bound creatures with a long series of defenses against what would otherwise be certain and immediate death from radiation, heat, cold or toxic substances. Our dense gaseous atmosphere composed of a remarkable mix of elements and compounds shields us from the worst radiation, and moderates the earth’s temperature from extremes of hot and cold. It also facilitates the essential water cycle of evaporation, transportation and precipitation without which nearly all of earth’s landmass would be completely uninhabitable. Earth’s magnetic field provides a further shield against harmful solar radiation that would be detrimental to all life.

The highly productive world as it came into existence at God’s command was efficiently “solar-powered” for the greater part (through plant photosynthesis, and sun-generated weather patterns) and the supply of plants (and later animals) for human consumption and use as well as the supply of fresh water and useful minerals were potentially perpetually renewable for as long as man would dwell upon the earth. Potentially.

Even though all of the original creation on earth’s surface was desolated and transformed by the year-long universal flood in the time of Noah, and no doubt much of its original diversity and richness was washed into the sea or buried in the mile of sediment that, on average, covers the surface of the planet, even so, the world of plants and animals that developed in the centuries afterward was still very diverse, very rich, and potentially very productive so that it might continue to meet every genuine, earthly human need. And not only was the supernatural world of God’s creation rich and abundant, it was also extremely resilient—able to restore itself in short order even after the worst of calamities: tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, fires, earthquakes, droughts, meteor impacts, and even extensive human abuse of resources.

And just how has man conducted himself in his Divinely-appointed role as the earthly king over God’s productive creation? Fallen man being fallen man—inherently selfish and extremely short-sighted—he has left a rather dishonorable record on the whole as the steward of creation. As with everything else that has fallen under human control and domination, man’s “stewardship” of the creation has often been characterized by short-term utilization—exploitation—with no thought or concern for either the immediate or the longer term consequences of his actions. “Instant gratification” has been the driving motive far too often, to the immediate and longer term detriment of the environment, the squandering of natural resources, and subsequent human suffering from hunger, disease and deprivation.

In truth, a great deal of the history of human existence on earth is of Man as exploiter and plunderer:

  • over-grazing, especially in the Middle East, but also in Greece, Romania, and America (to note but a few locations among the many that I have seen personally);
  • soil “mining” by farming year after year once pristine soil without replacing the extracted soil nutrients until it will no longer yield a profitable crop, but is fit only to revert to weeds and scrub trees—or desert—at which point the land wreckers move on to new virgin land and repeat the process, until there is no more new land;
  • timber cutting of the worst kind, with much waste, severe damage to the forest’s capacity for natural regeneration, extreme loss of topsoil to erosion, degradation of the water supply and worse;
  • mining, whether of coal, salt, precious stones, copper, lead and other metals and more, that leaves the landscape littered with mining debris, often creating strongly acidic conditions (which ruins water supplies), heavy metal residues and land ruined for any agricultural or forestry uses;
  • metal smelting that leaves toxic metal residues for miles around;
  • petroleum exploration, extraction, hauling and refining that can pollute the soil with oily residues and brine, pollute ground water, and poison the air.

Then there has been the slaughter of wildlife—sometimes to near- or complete-extinction—for food, sale, or merely for “sport.” These, and more, are part of man’s legacy as a sometime—often-time—selfish exploiter of earth’s resources, for immediate gain with no concern for long-term consequences. Man seems to regularly “foul his own nest” in a very short time, while the process of reclamation and restoration, if undertaken at all, is considerably more time-consuming and expensive than prevention in the first place would have been.

Generally speaking, whenever there has been a present “surplus” of natural resources—water, fertile soil, timber, wildlife, fish, or whatever it might be—there has been little or no motive for humans to conserve or preserve present resources, since there seemed to always be “more where that came from.” This was especially true in North America. It took almost 300 years of continuous cutting of the native forests in New England, then the Great Lake States, the Southern pineries, and finally the beginning of the harvesting of the great conifer forests of the Pacific Northwest, before someone said “Wait a minute—at this rate, we’ll be running out of timber soon.”

More than 200 years earlier Englishman John Evelyn (1620-1706) famously said, “Men seldom plant trees till they begin to be wise, that is, till they grow old, and find, by experience, the prudence and necessity of it” (quoted from Trees: the Yearbook of Agriculture 1949 , p. VII). The time of that realization had finally come to the forests of North America. Greater efficiency in utilization of forest products began to be practiced as well as replanting of cut-over land, stand improvement by thinning or removing undesirable species, sustainable harvesting, and other practices that led toward a permanent, renewable domestic wood supply. (For an account of the abuse, over-use, and exploitation of our forests and the beginning of their conservation, see The Great Forest [1947] by Richard G. Lillard).

One of the little-considered factors that led to a remarkable resurgence in the percentage of forested land in North America, especially in New England , was the development and wide-spread use, beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, of so-called “fossil fuels”—coal, oil and natural gas—as industrial and domestic fuels, thereby greatly diminishing the demand imposed on the forests to supply fuel in the form of wood.

Only as late as the 1890s was the first professional forester employed in the United States—Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946), who got his training in Europe (where the timber shortage had been felt centuries before—see John Evelyn’s epic book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-trees and the Propagation of Timber [1664]), and was employed at Biltmore, the Vanderbilt estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where he and a sizeable crew of laborers worked for almost a decade to repair and improve the nearly 10,000 acres of forested land.

And it was only after the great thundering herds of bison (originally numbering as many as 60—maybe even as many as 90 million animals) were reduced to perhaps as few as just 88 animals, did anyone seek to save them from extinction (and successful it has been—they now number between 450,000 and half a million).

In ancient Israel, the inheritance in land was “inalienable,” that is—the land could not be permanently sold, but at most “leased” for 50 years, at which point, the year of jubilee, the land would revert to the original owners. Any sale or transfer of the land had to remain within the tribe, as in Boaz’s acquisition of the land of his deceased blood relative, Elimelech, as reported in Ruth. It was a refusal to transfer land outside the family that led to Naboth’s judicial murder at the behest of Jezebel and her acquiescent husband Ahab (1 Kings 21). The fact of permanent possession of the land would have been a strong motive to be good stewards of the land, to preserve, protect, maintain and improve its fertility and agricultural productivity for the sake of the coming generations who would be directly dependent on it for their food, fuel and fiber.

In contrast, in originally land-rich North America, whenever the typically extractive farming practices exhausted the soil (a matter of a few decades, at most), the owners could simply pack up and mover further west—to New York and Pennsylvania, then the Northwest territory, then across the Mississippi River to the prairies and the Great Plains, at which point—again nearly three centuries since the first European immigrant farmers worked the soil of the North America—did anyone realize that there was no more new land to move to, and stewardship of what we had was essential (for an instructive account of pioneering American agriculture, see A Long, Deep Furrow: Three Centuries of Farming in New England [1976] by Howard S. Russell). The utter ruin of the soil that characterized much of the land in the deep South where cotton was “king” (and the cause of much of the devastation), and which persisted into the 1930s and beyond is chronicled in Rich Land, Poor Land: A Study of Waste in the Natural Resources of America by Stewart Chase (1936; his proposed “big-government” solution to the problem, however, is not persuasive).

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