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Judeo-Christian Tradition Best Basis for Environmentalism

Robert H. Nelson

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R&L: Although, on its face, the environmental movement seems to be about economics and politics, you have argued that, at root, it is a spiritual movement. Describe the theology at the foundation of environmentalism.

Nelson: The environmental movement, at its heart, is a nervous reaction to humankind's new relationship to the natural world that has developed over the past three hundred years. Modern science and economics have given human beings the capacity to control nature in ways almost unimaginable until recently--to build giant dams to control raging rivers, to go to the moon, to conquer disease, and so forth. At first, this newfound power over nature was seen favorably by many. The modern age has seen a host of secular "religions of progress" based on the idea that modern developments would bring about heaven on earth. However, a number of events of the twentieth century--the atom bomb, for example--have called into question the core assumptions of these progressive religions.

According to environmentalism, modern science and economics tempt human beings with the power to "play God." As the Bible teaches, those who strive to be like God can expect divine retribution--floods, disease, famine, and other natural disasters. Thus, the current environmental movement predicts environmental catastrophes to replicate the old biblical prophesies. Environmentalism is a secular religion, and one that sees modern science and economics leading not to heaven on earth but, perhaps, to hell on earth, the punishment for human beings trying to assume God-like powers.

R&L: This environmental theology, as you describe it, has much in common with the Judeo-Christian tradition but with essential differences.

Nelson: Ironically, there is no place for God in much of environmental theology. The public teachings of leading environmental proponents essentially have nothing to say about God. Environmentalism, not Christianity or Judaism, is their real religion. And taking God out of the picture radically changes the character of their religion, despite the similarities to Judeo-Christian beliefs in other respects. Calvinism preached that human beings are fundamentally corrupt and depraved--the result of Original Sin since the Fall--but it did offer the possibility of salvation in the hereafter. Moreover, events here on earth were given meaning as part of God's grand plan for the world. If you remove these two elements, as happens in a strictly secular environmental religion, you are left with a kind of nihilism.

Robert H. Nelson, Ph.D., is a professor at the School of Public Affairs of the University of Maryland and a senior fellow of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Dr. Nelson is the author of Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management (Rowman & Littlefield) and Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (Rowman & Littlefield).

Read the entire article on the Action Institute website.

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