One more than one occasion I have been critical of the involvement of Orthodox Christians in the environmental movement. Most recently wrote an essay critically of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s own opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which His All Holiness not only offered his support of international environmental regulations but also sought to justify theological his own involvement in the environmental movement.
Publicly and privately, many Orthodox Christians criticized me for my disagreement and assume (wrongly) that I oppose our involvement with the environmental movement. While I see why they draw this conclusion, I would argue not that we withdraw but that that the Church involve herself more fully in the environmental movement. I would publicly encourage and support the involvement of those Orthodox Christians who they believe God is calling them to do.
At the same time, however, I would also challenge my brothers and sisters in Christ to a more critical engagement of the environmental movement as a whole. This would include not simply a careful examination of the science of climate change but also of the political, cultural economic and yes, environmental, consequences of the various national and international public policy initiatives being advance.
While all of these things are important, I think for the Church they are nevertheless secondary matters. What is primary for us is the anthropological vision that informs at least some of those in the environmental movement. Analogous to the Christolgical debates in the early Church, the contemporary environmental movement often assumes a vision of the human person that is not compatible with the Gospel. Anne Applebaum in a Washington Post (Anti-climate change, anti-human) characterized the anthropological vision of the environmental moment as nihilistic.
Though an ”enthusiastically support renewable energy” who believes “strongly in the imposition of a carbon tax” and that “a worldwide shift away from fossil fuels would have hugely positive geopolitical consequences, even leaving aside the environmental benefits” Applebaum is “disturbed by the apocalyptic and the anti-human prejudices of the climate change movement .” She quotes what she describes as the “infamous words of a National Park Service ecologist” David M. Graber who says that humanity is “a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.” For Graber there are only two options. Either humanity decides “to rejoin nature,” or we live in “hope for the right virus to come along” to wipe out, or at least diminish, the human race. Or, to take another example, there is the “former leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once declared that ‘humans have grown like a cancer; we’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.’”
While voices such as these are relatively easy to dismiss, more worrisome are the mainline voices in the environmental movement who don’t simply preach a false anthropology but who actively seek to engage others to act on anti-human sentiment. Applebaum asks us to consider
the Optimum Population Trust, a mainstream organization whose patrons include the naturalist David Attenborough, the scientist Jane Goodall and professors at Cambridge and Stanford—and that campaigns against, well, human beings. Calling for “fewer emitters, lower emissions,” the group offers members the chance to offset the pollution that they generate, merely by existing, through the purchase of family-planning devices in poor countries. Click on its PopOffsets calculator to see what I mean: It reckons that every $7 spent on family planning generates one ton fewer carbon emissions. Since the average American generates 20.6 tons of carbon annually, it will cost $144.20 — $576.80 for a family of four — to buy enough condoms to prevent the births of, say, 0.4 Kenyans.
Am I the only Orthodox Christian who recoils in horror at the suggestion that affluent, mostly white American and Western Europeans, assuage our environmental guilty by working to limit the number of births to people of color? I think Applebaum is more than restrained when she says that:
The assumption behind this calculation is profoundly negative: that human beings are nothing more than machines for the production of carbon dioxide. And if we take that assumption seriously, a whole lot of other things look different, too. Weapons of mass destruction should perhaps be reconsidered, along with the flu virus: By reducing the population, they might also reduce emissions. Perhaps they should be encouraged?
As with the comments by Graber and the PETA spokesperson, it is easy to simply dismiss this as simply rhetorical excess or fanciful speculation on Applebaum’s part. But is it really?
Unlike despair which cripples us, nihilism empowers. It is a false dynamism to be sure and one that also cripples us spiritually, but unlike despair which tends to paralyze is, nihilism can—and often does—inspire us to a frenzy of destructive activity. Just as despair brings a false sense of quiet and acceptance that parodies that peace which surpasses all understanding and which is the fruit of our trust and obedience to God’s will, so too nihilism is a distortion of our creative powers. “Nihilism,” writes Fr Seraphim (Rose) is “most profoundly, a spiritual disorder, and it can be overcome only by spiritual means; and there has been no attempt whatever in the contemporary world to apply such means.”
I would argue that at least part of the Christian witness within the environmental movement should take the form of a call to repentance. Not in the moralistic sense that it has come to have, but in the full, Christian anthropological sense, of coming to see self and other in the Divine Light. Such a call, I most add, is extraordinarily difficult. The challenge is that, unlike other sins, contemporary nihilism often cloaks itself in the language of the Gospel. Again to quote Fr Seraphim, contemporary nihilism is often described in “contrary terms.” What he means by this is that contemporary nihilists see “what they do as a reign of ‘love,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘brotherhood. ’” And they are able to do so
because Satan is the ape of God and even in denial must acknowledge the source of that denial, and–more to the present point–because men have been so changed by the practice of the Nihilist “virtues,” and by acceptance of the Nihilist transformation of the world, that they actually begin to live in the Revolutionary Kingdom and to see everything as Satan sees it, as the contrary of what it is in the eyes of God.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that involvement in the environmental movement is Satanic. It isn’t. It is, or at least should be, the fruit of our stewardship of creation which has been our vocation from the beginning (see Gn 1-2). At the same time we need to be mindful that our witness must overcome the strong nihilistic influence within the environmental movement itself. We cannot, as some have, given in to apocalyptic and anti-human rhetoric. Nor can we such let such language stand unchallenged. Applebaum does a fine job of this in the penultimate paragraph of her essay.
For while it’s true that humans are often greedy, stupid and destructive, it’s also true that we got to where we are at least partly thanks to human creativity, ingenuity and talent. Electricity is a miracle, an invention that has brought light and life to millions. Modern communication and transportation systems are no less extraordinary, helping to create economic growth in places where poverty and misery were the norm for centuries.
Yes, she says, the advances of the last several centuries “depend on fossil fuels, but they don’t have to: A profound change in the nature of human energy consumption is possible—thanks to the entrepreneurship that created the Internet, the compassion that lies behind the advances in modern medicine and the scientific reasoning that sent men into space. “ Unfortunately, the nihilism that has come to dominate our conversation rather than encouraging us to the compassionate, entrepreneurial exercise our creativity, ingenuity and talent, fosters in us a “hatred of humankind” and “teaches us nothing, except to give up.”
There is much for Christians, and indeed all people of good will, to admire in the contemporary environmental movement. Chief among these things is the renewed impetus it has given to all humanity to see ourselves not simply as consumers but as the stewards and artisans of creation.
At the same time, however, there also are elements within this movement that are simply heretical. Chief among these is its unbalanced, negative view of humanity. For Christians to leave unchallenged this deficient view of the human is a betrayal of not only our own concern for creation but also the very men and women with whom we would make common cause. More seriously (if unwittingly) this betrayal open the doors to injustice committed against the poor and demonstrate our own lack of commitment to Christ and the Gospel.
It must not be this way among us.