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Our Environmental Ethic—Our Christian Heritage


[1] During the ten years since the ELCA adopted Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice the environment has taken a beating.  It's not the fault of the statement, which, in and of itself, it very good.  Nevertheless, finite, nonrenewable resources have been consumed at increasing rates; many renewable resources have been depleted or obliterated; and a host of poisonous pollutants has infected the earth.

[2] We Lutherans carry much of the responsibility for all this.  Oh yes, many of us recycle diligently.  But collectively we pay less attention to Creation than the Bible does. In its opening story God describes all of Creation as being "very good." And it closes with a promise of a new Creation.  But we don't have as if we consider Creation as being very good.  We aren't even as good in our "environmental tithing" as we are in our dismal "tithing" to support the ELCA financially.

[3] The most serious pollution problem is the constant increase in the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.  Glaciers melt, raising the sea level, intensifying storms, floods and droughts, shifting areas where crops and trees can grow, and humans and animals find it more and more difficult to cope with abnormally high temperatures. There will be a huge wave of environmental refugees searching for better places to live.

[4] After over a dozen years of intensive, international studies by many scientists of various disciplines, it is now apparent that human activities are causing much, if not all of this global warming.  The warming is due chiefly to combustion of fossil fuels which releases carbon dioxide that acts as a blanket in the upper atmosphere, preventing some heat from escaping into space.  It is ironic that the U.S., which has only 4.5% of the world's population but releases 25% of all the greenhouse gases, has thus far refused to take any meaningful steps to reduce such emissions, as most nations are doing.

[5] Efforts to slow environmental degradation have been negated by population growth, which has been increasing exponentially.  Whereas world population grew by 600 million during the 19th century (from 1.0 to 1.6 billion) and by 4.4 billion in the 20th century (from 1.6 to 6.0 billion), it is expected to grow another 3 or 4 billion by 2050.  U.S. population is growing at a much faster rate than that of any other industrialized nation, thanks to immigration which has been adding 3 million, more or less, every year.  Citizens who have lived in the U.S. since 1970 and their offspring have seen their population growth taper off to replacement level.

[6] Gross National Product (GNP) of the U.S. has increased steadily as the "needs" of this growing population, accustomed to excessive consumption, have been met.  But this GNP is deceptive-its calculation ignores the depletion of natural resources and includes in its total the costs of combating pollution (e.g. cleaning up after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill) and medical care for humans harmed by pollution.  Subtracting for such expenses and for the loss of natural resources gives us a more realistic "Genuine national Product."  According to such calculations, our true productivity has been declining for many years, a foreboding thought for the generations to come.

[7] The amount of arable land and the supply of fresh water have natural limits-we may decrease the supply, but we cannot increase it. As population grows, these resources, essential for producing food, have already been declining on a per capital basis.  One way or another, humans are already consuming 40% of what green plants can produce by photosynthesis. Other forms of life and natural ecosystems need the rest of the photosynthates.  Scientists understand photosynthesis but have not been able to increase its efficiency.  As population grows, the 40% figure will no doubt increase at the expense of all other life dependent on photosynthesis.

[8] The earth that God created is not like other planets which exist in a physical equilibrium.  The earth depends on sunshine, soil, water, and atmosphere on its surface to develop the conditions that support all the forms of life God created.  We call this system the biosphere.  It consists of a stupendously complex array of living creatures, plants and organisms whose activities are interlocked and dependent on each other, following precise energy cycles that produce organic matter.  This occurs constantly in a self-renewing fashion.  It's a truly marvelous Creation.  It blows my mind!

[9] If we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species that comprise Creation, we degrade the greatest benefit that God's earth can offer us. Thereby we threaten our own existence.  Preserving and protecting God's Creation should be our environmental ethic - our Christian heritage.



© September 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 9