Sunday, May 4, 2014

Living in the Garden

My topic is religious environmental ethics. Many of my readers may lack sympathy with a religious approach to the environment, but dialog with those who take such an approach is important given the influence these people have on environmental decision making. Also, philosophers of religion may be interested in illuminating what it is to believe in God, and this extends to thinking about how belief in God might influence our thinking about the environment.

I want to look at two approaches that a theist might take to the environment. The first is an anthropocentric approach, which limits our concern for the environment to its impact on human interests. An anthropocentrist might argue, for example, that we should reduce our emission of greenhouse gases because global warming is a threat to human welfare. She places value on plants, animals, and mountains only insofar as these things contribute to the wellbeing of humanity.

Deep ecology, by contrast, holds that nonhuman components of our environment have value in their own right, and not just by virtue of how they benefit human beings. A deep ecologist will argue that the harm of global warming extends beyond its impact on human beings; she will be concerned with its effect on plants and animals- the biosphere generally- and perhaps go so far as to suggest that there is intrinsic wrong in the alteration it makes to the ecological balance of the earth, apart from its effect on living things.

Which of these approaches is most consistent with Western theism? There appear to be two creation stories in Genesis, and they offer different models of environmental concern. In Genesis 1 God gives humanity dominion over the earth and charges Adam and Eve to subdue it. He instructs them to rule over all living creatures, and gives them seed-bearing plants and fruit trees for their food. I will refer to this as the gift model of theistic environmental ethics.

Lynn White (1969) attributes our current ecological problems to the dominance of this gift model, which poses no barrier to the exploitation of the natural environment by human beings. Other authors, however, have argued that a proper regard for the natural environment as a gift from God calls for us to feel gratitude toward the Creator; Charles Taliaferro (2005), for example, suggests that such gratitude should evoke in us a respect for nature.

It seems to me, however, that the gift model is irredeemably anthropocentric. First, consider the nature of a gift. The value of a gift lies in the benefit it offers to its recipient. My Aunt Hattie, who gives me a brand new Ferrari, has given me a wonderful gift. It would be a moral failing on my part if I were not disposed to feel gratitude toward her. And if I did not properly care for this gift, I might be accused of failing to properly appreciate it; arguably this would constitute a lapse of gratitude on my part. But caring for my car by maintaining it etc. means nothing more than preserving it so as to facilitate my continued exploitation of it.

If the Earth is God’s gift to humanity, it falls on us to treat it with respect. But if this is the sort of respect that is normally due to a gift, it implies only that we must do our best to maintain it for our own exploitation. This is anthropocentrism.

The second model of theistic environmental ethics comes from Genesis 2. There God appoints Adam as caretaker of the Garden of Eden. Nothing is said there of the garden being given to him. Now being a caretaker carries with it certain responsibilities. If I ask Bertrand to care for my home while I am away on vacation- and give him permission to pick fruit from my trees for his sustenance (as God does Adam) - I will be very put out if I return to find that he has cut down my trees, eaten my dog, and dug a 30-foot hole in my front yard. If Bertrand accepts the responsibility of caring for my home, he is obligated to exercise concern for my interests. Asking him to care for my home is very different from giving it to him. I retain a continuing concern and involvement with it..

The caretaker model moves beyond anthropocentrism. On this model, we must consider God’s interests in our treatment of the Earth and its inhabitants, and while it may not be obvious what concerns God has for the nonhuman elements of our environment, it is clear, at least in principle, that our own interests are not dispositive in regard to environmental issues.

Is there any theological reason to prefer the caretaker model over the gift model in constructing a theistic environmental ethic? I offer no knock-down argument here, but theistic religious practice tends to encourage the relationship of human beings with the divine. A God who gives us the Earth as a gift need not remain nearby; little is required of us other than to send thanks his way occasionally, like a message in a bottle. By contrast, as caretakers we are encouraged to think of God as retaining an active involvement with nature; a relationship with the divine in this case calls for us to look toward God, and past our own self-concern.

The caretaker model does not give us deep ecology, however, for while the regard we show to the natural environment on that model extends beyond our self-interest, it still does not give us any ground for thinking that the non-human parts of nature have any intrinsic value. On this model, their value derives from whatever interest God has in them. I do think that a theistic deep-ecology is possible, and I envision such a view as abandoning property metaphors and looking more carefully into the possibility that God is actively present in nature, but that is a subject for a future post.

David Corner
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


Lynn White, Jr. (1967), “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767

Charles Taliaferro, “Vices and Virtues in Religious Environmental Ethics” (2005), in Ronald Sandler and Philip Califano (eds), Environmental Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield


  1. David, thanks very much for this. I find it challenging to stay within the boundaries you set here, since it is difficult for me to take seriously the idea that the earth is a garden to be cared for by humans when in fact it is quite clearly designed to kill us, just as it has killed over 99% of all other species God has seen fit to put here at one time or another. The earth is incredibly incongenial to humans in most parts of the world, and even most places we have managed to flourish it is only because we developed the technology to protect us from its terrors.

    But I guess my main thought is that it really isn't clear what counts as taking care of the earth, if it is not to make it into a place where humans can flourish. I don't believe there is a traditional religious perspective that seriously asks whether the earth might be better off if it weren't infested by humans. Whereas Deep Ecologists seem very much inclined to pose that question. So I guess my point would be that the caretaker model and the gift model shouldn't inherently conflict much in terms of what counts as enlightened environmentalism. though they might be led to disagree on what constitutes human flourishing. Those who see the world as a trust might argue that God intended for us to be able to appreciate the gift of mosquitoes, whereas those who see it as a gift might think we are more at liberty to decide these things for ourselves.

  2. Thanks Randy. I appreciate your teleological understanding of the Earth as a place designed to kill things off. --An important piece of the puzzle here is that- the failings of the gift model aside- God, on the theistic view, surely intends for this as a place that human beings can co-flourish with other species. A theistic model of environmental concern would surely balance human and non-human interests. What is the balance point? We must take from our environment only what is required for humans to flourish. That would have humans placing a very small footprint on the Earth- one that is much smaller than current commercial interests would dictate.