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Many Christians Still Don’t ‘Get’ Environmentalism

I still haven’t forgotten a casual remark made by a Baptist pastor friend of mine about 10 years ago. He wanted to communicate to me how “environmental” issues can get out of hand, how “enviros” can go overboard.

The example he used was how large projects such as the building of a bridge could be thwarted “because of some little fish.” In other words, it was ridiculous to halt, delay or alter the plans of a major project simply because the existence of some “insignificant” animal species was endangered.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Unfortunately, this view is still prevalent. To be blunt about it, when it comes to endangered species, too many good Christian folk still don’t get it.
 
Two things have recently helped to bring the issue of God’s endangered creatures back to the fore.
 
First, this year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, and this law and other policies designed to protect endangered species have never been in more danger than today. Many policies are not enforced because of a lack of funds.
 
The Bush administration has consistently sought to undermine governmental protection of endangered species through administrative actions. For example, the Department of the Interior has announced that it no longer wants to designate areas as “critical habitat,” i.e., areas that need protection because they are critical to the survival of a species. And yet the evidence is that species with designated critical habitat are recovering twice as fast as those without.
 
Congress is getting in on the act as well, taking a more sophisticated “under the radar” approach than in times past. Rancher Richard Pombo, a Republican congressman, has now ascended to the chairmanship of the most important House committee dealing with endangered species. A recent Washington Post article claims that Rep. Pombo is “…finished trying to recast the Endangered Species Act in one fell swoop” and “…wants to take it on bit by bit.”
 
The courts have also recently been a hostile environment for endangered species. A federal claims-court judge ruled recently that the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. government must pay irrigators in California $14 million for water they never received. In the 1990s, the federal government cut back water deliveries to Central Valley irrigation districts to protect two fish species, the threatened delta smelt and the endangered Chinook salmon. Legal experts say that if this ruling stands, it could cripple the Endangered Species Act by making it too expensive to enforce. One law expert said that the court, in finding a “taking,” elevated water rights above any other kind of property right. The U.S. Justice Department has not decided whether to appeal the case.
 
The second recent event that has pushed endangered species once again to the foreground is a study published in the January 2004 issue of Nature that identified a new, serious threat to the continued existence of species. This study indicates that 15 percent-37 percent of known terrestrial species could become “committed to extinction” due to global climate change by 2050.
 
Conservation biologists have been in agreement that the major threats to biodiversity are: (1) habitat destruction/fragmentation/alteration; (2) the introduction of exotic species into habitats where they previously didn’t exist; (3) over harvesting and (4) pollution. Loss of habitat has been considered the major threat followed by the introduction of exotic species.
 
Global warming must now be added to this list. Indeed, given this recent study in Nature a Christian conservation biologist and colleague who is a professor at Messiah College believe it should be put at the top of the list and considered the number one threat.
 
Worldwide, progress has not been made to significantly stem the threat in any of the original four areas, and now global warming must be added to the burden. If current trends continue, human actions will bring about a holocaust of God’s other creatures (and I don’t use that term lightly).
 
I’m the first to talk of how pollution and environmental degradation hurts people, especially the poor, children and those yet to be born. Creation-care is people-care. But creation-care is also care for the rest of Christ’s creation. The Bible will not allow us to pit caring for people over against protecting the existence of a whole species God created to glorify him.
 
Lots of extreme examples are used to tarnish efforts to protect God’s endangered creatures. Usually it’s a “jobs versus environment” caricature, or how some massive project was suddenly put in jeopardy because an endangered species was found to be threatened. Rarely are such situations the stark either/or they are made out to be. And given that as human beings we have the intelligence, creativity and free will to find a way to resolve these situations so as to protect God’s other creatures and satisfy legitimate human needs. Because we can create new jobs, a human job–or even a bunch of jobs–is not the moral equivalent of the life of an entire species. It’s not even close.
 
To extinguish a species is to literally curse what God blessed (Gen 1:22).
 
When we do so, it’s because we really don’t value God’s other creatures the way God does. As such, we fail to be God’s image or stewardly representative on earth. In this instance, to begin to reflect God in our actions would be to protect and care for his other creatures, not drive them to extinction and snuff out the glory they proclaim to God.
 
To extinguish them is to act as if we were God, to grasp at god-like power when our very actions prove we are too spiritually immature to come close to handling such power.
 
Who is the proper image of God? Jesus is, according to Col. 1:15. Did Jesus grasp at his God-like powers? No. Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant …” (Phil. 2:6b-7a). Paul admonishes us to have this same Christ-like attitude of humility in our exercise of the power we have been given. Let us do so in protecting God’s other creatures from extinction. Literally, it is the least we can do.
 
Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine.