On Being Dissatisfied with Christian Environmental Ethics

I’ve been reading around environmental theology for a few years now, seeing as how my dissertation aims at creating an ecological way of thinking about philosophy, religion, and ecology, and am very dissatisfied with almost all of it. The primary reason for that dissatisfaction is the all too facile nature of a lot of the literature. One almost knows what the book will say without actually reading it (though, sadly, I’ve had to discover that by reading them!). For instance, in the seminal book by Michael S. Northcott The Environment & Christian Ethics we get the usual declension narrative (which I talked about before), some very dark and alarming discussion of the state of the environment, a review of some of the debates going on, and a few chapters where Northcott offers his own view, i.e. that natural law ethics, of a particularly Anglo-Thomist variety, i.e. “it’s the parish, stupid!”, is the way to think about the environment ethically from a Christian perspective. You have a similar structure, with a very different outcome, in Rosemary Radford Ruether’s God and Gaia, so it isn’t just the kind of conservative approach that I’m finding dissatisfying.

So what is it, though, that is the cause? I’m still not sure, but my gut reaction is that I’m just not finding ecology to be all that challenging to the initial theology. All the thinker’s seem to have an unshakeable faith in the theologizablity of environmental problems. Is it surprising that Ruether thinks a kind of feminist theology is the way to think through these problems? Or that Northcott thinks the same with the natural law tradition? No, because that’s the kind of theology the already believe in, so it is natural that they would then deploy that theology to understand certain environmental problems. Biblical environmental ecology is perhaps the worst, in my mind, since it doesn’t examine in any way the underlying presuppositions of its field. It just seems to think that, for some reason, there is something massively ecologically important about the creation myth in the bible or, at best, that there is some kind of massively interesting debate to be had over this claim. I wouldn’t deny a kind of academic validity to the question, the sort of strange interest many of us may have in a variety of subjects (like my recent obsession with the idea of Islam in French theory), but to elevate this to something that is vitally important in the political issue of environmentalism is bizarre and telling of a real misunderstanding of scale. You get similar problems in all the religious literature, from Islam to Buddhism, near as I can tell.

It is perhaps somewhat comforting that this problem isn’t just restricted to the religious. EO Wilson’s latest book also has this kind of cheap amalgamation of the religious ethical stance and environmental ethics, making a somewhat cynical appeal to the believers whose beliefs aren’t all that appealing to him (from what I can gather from his other writings, many of which are great).

This is all a problem for me as, ostensibly, this is a research area of mine and because I’ll be teaching a course on this next year as well. It doesn’t mean the course will suffer for it, since the current course I teach, theology through film, is also a field whose literature I find deeply, deeply flawed. It does mean I have my work cut out for me though in terms of the teaching, since I’ll have to spend some of the course giving the students a primer to scientific ecology and another part of the course going through the literature before I then say something like “I find all of this dissatisfying”. If any reader’s are knowledgeable about this area I am open to suggestions as I plan to work up the syllabus over the summer after I finish this year’s marking.

11 thoughts on “On Being Dissatisfied with Christian Environmental Ethics

  1. This might be a totally un-useful path, but perhaps some specificity can be gained by looking down various paths used in current environmental theory in particular areas, such as the ecological ethics of urban/suburban development (i.e. Phillip Bess’ Till We Have Built Jerusalem or Rykwert’s The Seduction Of Place), or of consumerism (Affluenza by DeGraaf, Wann, Naylor), and then using some of these paths to open up some more vivid theological takes on specific pieces of a larger ecological theory/outlook/whatever.

    anyways, just a thought. glad you are really digging into this and not just compiling an aggregate of forbears.

  2. I suppose the bright side to the state of the field is that, if it be so dire, your publications will be original and interesting – this is a good thing.

  3. I have taught environmental ethics classes twice now, and I essentially feel the same way – dissatisfied. Last time I effectively turned this into the theme of this course – “What of value can we get out of this discussion”…

    The most interesting thing about environmental ethics to me is that it makes it quite easy to show why conventional utilitarian or deontological ethics are no good. But the theories in environmental ethics out there certainly aren’t much better. For example, the entire discussion on non-anthropocentric ethics seems to me to be a huge detour, as are the discussions on how to asign “value” to animals etc…

    I don’t know, maybe the environmental problems just do not really pose ethical problems in the sense that it is difficult to know what to do or why we do differently. The problem is largely how to act on the knowledge we have, and that is more a political problem than an ethical one.

  4. I’ve had similar dissatisfaction. The claims that are made for ecological ethics from a theological perspective tend to be banal (only marginally “theological”), involve special pleading (“it’s really, really important to care about this now”), or unhelpfully extend to discourses that presuppose (human) moral agency and moral status to other creatures, only to labor (usually unsatisfyingly) to justify that extension.

    One stream of thought which I find to be compelling (probably because it’s only circuitously either “ethics” or “ecological” ) places a huge theological value on the discipline of paying attention to the details of “insignificant” things. Explicitly theological pieces of this sort would be Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb (in which a whole chapter is devoted to the proper way to slice and sautee an onion); or the more obscure, “Theology of Pipesmoking” by Arthur Junker. I’d make a case for including certain poems of Hopkins, certain essays of Simone Weil, and a few of the short stories of Chesterton in the same vein. Both Junker and Capon make the case along the way that a life of virtue includes an orientation of appreciative awe even toward “inanimate objects.”

    What these authors instill (that most theo-eco-ethics only talk about) is a reverence that is credibly authentic—because it’s a fascination.

  5. I take one of your central points to be that traditions should be open to challenge and reformation, and that is certainly true. But it raises and interesting difficulty about how much that can be put into practice. If one revised one’s tradition at every turn, wouldn’t one end up flip-flopping around so much it would be questionable as to what one really believed? Once a person becomes committed to a tradition or cause, it’s very difficult not to follow it’s lead. Terry Eagleton uses the example of how it is pretty much impossible for him to like or value Henry Kissinger because to do so he’d have to become a different person. That’s not to say the people involved in this case shouldn’t have changed more over this issue, it’s just a general point.

  6. Andrew,

    I take your point, but I disagree that liking or valueing Henry Kissinger qua war criminal has anything to do with the defense of tradition like I see in a lot of environmental ethics. It also has more to do with the kind of interminable war between ethicists and theologians too, a trading of warring stats and warring theological foundations, without a kind of meta-ecological perspective. So in a sense, it isn’t about reformation as such, but what gets priority – the tradition or the ecology.

    More obviously needs to be said.

  7. Andrew’s comment seems to presuppose a fairly impoverished concept of what a tradition is and how it functions over time. If a tradition is too static to respond to pressing issues like the environmental crisis, then it’s not worth adhering to — and in fact, one would marvel that it managed to survive so far at all.

  8. I should have probably more explicitly separated helpful and important forms of thought and practice that we can extract from traditions and do things with and the defense of traditions over and above everything else that I’m finding myself dissatisfied with in the literature.

  9. I’m increasingly interested in this subject as well. Your analysis is striking. Andrew’s comment above sort of misses the point, I think, which is not that theologians have failed to “change” with respect to ecological questions, but that they have not yet really heard the questions or understood the import of the genesis of those questions. I think there’s a general tendency among theologians to seek the roots of any clearly vital call for the reform/rethinking of human behavior as always-already implicit in the judaeo-christian tradition. Consequently most of the so-called “environmental theology” that I’ve read doesn’t really seem basically interested in addressing environmental questions or in thinking ecologically, but in demonstrating that the theologian’s prior framework is already primed to deal with environmental issues. It’s an ass-covering move. Maybe the attitude could be summed up like this (speaking for the environmental theologians I’ve read): “Clearly environmental questions are urgent and thinking ecologically is an absolutely vital step for the human race. Oh shit. The tradition to which I’m committed didn’t come up with that idea — now I’ve got to find a way to convincingly pretend it did or at least to argue that it could have.”

    Isn’t the problem behind the problem, then, something like this: how a religious tradition should respond to “alien” truth. Indeed, almost above all things, ecological thinking has to do with changing the consequences of the gulf created by the idea of the alien. So far, perhaps, according to your survey of the literature, theologians’ way of dealing with that gulf is to deny how fundamental it is to what they already believe, to “swallow” the concerns raised by environmental issues and ecological thinking without recognizing them for what they are.

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