The Degree of Charity Required for an Ecologically Healthy Society

The metal Iridium is extremely rare in the crust of the Earth, but abundant in comets and asteroids. Scientists have found that a thin layer of this element was deposited across the globe about 66 million years ago. It is thought that this geological signal records the impact of a vast asteroid that left a crater spanning 112 miles of the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula. The collision ejected enormous volumes of material into the atmosphere, initiating an impact winter that is likely to have changed the global climate for centuries. This brief period in the Earth’s history marks the massive Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event in which the large dinosaurs and about three-quarters of known animal and plant species abruptly disappeared from the fossil record.

In 2015, the leading scientific journal Nature published a landmark paper by scientists from Stanford, Princeton, and other prestigious universities. This study explored the emerging idea that Earth is now entering another mass extinction event. The analysis concluded that the number of species becoming extinct in the last century should typically have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear. In other words, human activity is currently driving species loss at a rate many times greater than in the long-term geological record, and closer to dramatic events like the K-T extinction.

The idea of mass extinction has provided the tag line for a loose coalition of environmental campaigners oriented around a group called “Extinction Rebellion” or “XR.” XR describes itself as an international “non-violent civil disobedience activist movement,” and is principally concerned with climate change. The movement hopes to illicit a global sense of urgency on this issue, and uses the symbol of a circled hourglass to warn that time may be running out for many species. 

The activists of XR have participated in an ongoing series of protests in major cities. This “Mass Resistance” mostly involves peaceful roadblocks, but extends to so-called “escalation strategies” such as breaking windows. These actions have met strongly contrasting responses; wide fashionable approval (especially on social media) has been offset by the anger of delayed commuters and frustrated businesses on the ground. The Metropolitan Police in London briefly initiated a ban against XR gatherings on the basis that they caused unacceptable disruption to the life of the community. This ban was subsequently ruled unlawful, but not before hundreds of arrests occurred as activists continued their public protest.

The early focus of XR was on encouraging governments to implement radical pro-climate legislation, built around the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. This approach reveals something about the political perspective of the leadership, and how they (at least initially) viewed responsibility for both inducing and solving the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Teenage activists, including the now-iconic Greta Thunberg, tend to place both blame and power in the hands of the establishment. XR claimed in 2020 that “our leaders are failing in their duty to act on our behalf.” The apparent conclusion was that effective change in climate-related behavior must be externally imposed and legally enforced.

The leaders of XR did not define exactly how governments should fulfil such extremely onerous environmental demands. Their model comprised strong actions by central government, mediated through a citizen’s assembly which could leverage “the common sense of citizens.” The weight of scientific evidence for rapid and potentially catastrophic climate change is compelling. In theory, such assemblies would react by recommending appropriately radical action—what XR leaders call a “miraculous” response. Citizen’s assemblies remain at the heart of XR strategy, but it is unclear whether such loosely democratic collectives can or will make the desired choices. Achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2025 would require almost complete cessation of “recreational” (e.g., vacation) flights and the rapid development of vast new areas of renewable energy generation (solar and wind farms). The likely trade-offs are obvious: “my foreign holiday vs. reduced emissions,” or “my countryside panorama vs. renewable energy.” This awkwardly ascetic reality will impose on any citizen’s assembly a highly personal carbon dilemma, which has potential to parse and weigh the philosophical drivers of XR-style activism. This tension was exemplified in 2020, when celebrity XR supporters admitted in an open letter to being “hypocrites” over their own high-carbon lifestyles.

Climate politics have moved rapidly over the last two years, driven partly by top-down cultural forcing associated with COVID-19. The 2022 strategy of XR in the UK now reveals explicit opposition to concentration of power in “markets, corporations or the state” and a new emphasis on public participation in governance. This “love and rage” shift is perceptive, in that it comprises a call to personal responsibility as well as the rejection of elite hypocrisy. Successful environmental policy change is grounded in personal decision making, because repeated choices on individual resource use and consumption cumulatively drive large-scale outcomes. Substantive social change may occur when new altruistic behaviors are activated through a sense of moral obligation and normalized as part of individual and group identity. This is a predominately bottom-up process.

The activists of XR certainly desire sweeping change. They “imagine a world where love, care, freedom and justice are truly centered.” The challenging (and clearly perennial) question is how to realize such as vision? The personal motivations and moralities underlying secular environmentalism are not often rigorously articulated. A senior offshoot of XR calls itself “Extinction Rebellion Grandparents,” and has slogans such as “We are rebelling to save our children.” This perspective has much in common with the teenage theme that the CO2 emissions status quo will ultimately deny today’s youth their legitimate future. In both cases, the ultimate concern is effectively utilitarian. In other words, the Earth provides some set of goods and services that should be exploited in accordance with the concept of sustainable use, i.e., to meet our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

In contrast to this apparently pragmatic approach, there is a spectrum of philosophic frames that tend progressively towards the esoteric. The vegan movement radically anthropomorphizes animals, at least for advertising purposes. In this mode, dairy farming has been condemned because it separates young cows from their mother (cattle are people too). Such mutualist values have been invoked to grant certain animals or even habitats (for example a river in New Zealand) the status of legal “personhood” or “dignity” that is susceptible to human interference. There is also a strong neo-pagan strand in western environmentalism, in which the Earth is seen to have an explicitly divine dimension. This phenomenon differs from authentic indigenous practice in being a complex of “rediscovered” (and largely fabricated) pre-Christian ideas. Fora such as the “Pagan Earth Alliance” comprise a diverse list of parties, including “Witches, Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Goddess Worshipers, Pantheists, and Animists.” This constituency consider the Earth to have some inherent and transcendent value that extends beyond sustainable use, and which is being desecrated by overexploitation and pollution.

There may be considerable underlying (and perhaps unconscious) commonality between the broad sustainable use and pagan perspectives. Perhaps few secular activists would state their biodiversity motives in strictly utilitarian terms, even if they were reluctant to elucidate their suspicion that the Earth seems to be more than just the sum of its resources. This is an inevitable paradox of de facto atheism, in which the subject has no convincing framework to explain their own spiritual and nurturing response to the persistent wonder of creation. The pagan community are in an easier psychological position, phrasing an amorphous spirituality in largely flexible terms. They may even contrive an explicit rubric for justifying some right to derive physical goods (apparently including “eco-ritual bath products”) from their spiritualized planet. Such implicit overlap becomes evident in its “fruits,” here in proposed strategic responses to climate change and to other environmental problems.

The philosophical contradictions between these two parties could ultimately converge in similar management outcomes. Pagans may fail in practical implementation of climate change mitigation because their world view is largely subjective, i.e., focused on individual self-realization rather than responding to objective truth. Pagan Earth Alliance claim to be a movement that “exists in the heart of every Pagan and Nature-centric spiritualist: A visceral desire to save the Earth.” This “visceral” but nebulous framework results inevitably in problems with integrating such tenuous faith with reason, especially when reason is expressed through definitively anti-esoteric science and the hard end of western technology. More seriously, the pagan construct tends to render humanity as indistinguishable from other creatures: “you and your Pagan gatherings can live and practice with and for the Earth.” Christianity realizes that humans are both integral to ecology, and set apart. This understanding differs from the pagan subservience to mythic demigods which can explain vocal concern about desecration of nature, but does not naturally impart the mode of personal and weighty responsibility for creation that may be necessary to invoke behavioral change.

Different mechanisms impose vulnerability on utilitarian actors in the environmental forum. When nature is defined as a common pool of resources, then a tragedy of the commons can emerge in which some players maximize personal gain by taking or wasting more than their share. The climate change version of this game is exemplified by the celebrity XR supporters mentioned above. They implement a winning strategy by nobly admitting to a disproportionate ecological footprint, while simultaneously inciting others to endure a parsimonious low-carbon lifestyle. The obvious difficulty is that immediate goods, e.g., an overseas vacation, must be directly traded against the more abstract good of future climate stability. The utilitarian mindset emphasizes fear—my resources may be compromised by climate change (or by you)—but establishes a bartering platform in which altruism is easier (and more profitable) to fake than achieve.

The classic example of convergence between utilitarian and pagan environmental philosophies is the tendency towards human exclusionism. This zero-sum logic concludes that the problem of anthropogenic impacts on nature can be simply resolved by removing humans. Some associated policy proposals are uncomfortably ironic. There are on-going suggestions by western politicians that climate change can be mitigated by population control in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, pre-COVID data from the World Bank indicate that annual per capita carbon emissions in the USA are around 16.5 metric tonnes, while the figure for South Sudan is 0.1t. In other words, the carbon footprint of one North American equates to that of about 165 South Sudanese. This imbalance aptly expresses the goods trading (and blame-gaming) that characterizes utilitarian environmentalism, especially on a global playing field.

So much for sustainable use and soy-based pagans. Importantly, there is a third group in the XR mix, comprised of members of the major world faiths and including a strong Christian component. This group seems to have a different approach to climate action: “we are not coming to ask for change, we here to claim change; we are here to be the change.” They explicitly propose personal responsibility as “stewards of this beautiful Earth.” This rhetoric reflects the broad aspirations of secular XR, who cry out for “moral leadership” and “real democracy,” but it has a fundamentally different foundation. Christian stewardship is derived from the Genesis mandate for humanity to have “dominion . . . over all the earth.” It is an error to interpret such dominion as a carte blanche for domination or tyranny. The Garden of Eden expresses God’s plan for the dynamic between humanity and the natural world: Adam’s just dominion combines loving nurture of lower creatures with joyful submission to the Father above.

Biblical commentators have extensively unpacked this coherent hierarchical model for right relationship between creator, man and nature. The Genesis narrative affirms repeatedly that God saw his creation to be good, but ultimately that humanity is “very good.” God made man in his image and likeness, thus “Human beings are someone, not something” (Pope Francis in Laudato Si). We are distinguished from the rest of material creation by “intellect, love and freedom.” In turn, “Creation has more meaning than nature, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own meaning and significance” (Cardinal Ratzinger in Communion and Stewardship). Christianity thus surpasses the utilitarian view that nature is effectively a finite pool of resources, by recognizing that Creation has a sacramental dimension. However, by separating Creator and creation, the earth is simultaneously de-mythologized, which “emphasizes all the more our responsibility” (Laudato Si). Instead of consuming or worshipping nature, humanity can “participate in the divine governance of creation” (Communion and Stewardship).

Christian stewardship thus offers a robust response to the complexity of current ecological crises by proposing the image of the wise and loving servant king. This intellectual and spiritual framework can succeed where the movements of secular environmentalism have proved inadequate. Two dimensions of stewardship underpin this hope: personal responsibility and divine accountability. The subservience of paganism works against the necessity to assume a legitimate lordship of creation. Man has been divinely granted an awesome responsibility that operates at individual and corporate level; each of us has been appointed to a leadership consistent with the abundance of our God-given talents.

This mandate is also in radical contrast to the utilitarian balance between personal and societal goods relying on a moral feeling that cannot emerge from the system itself, and which may be insufficient for the degree of charity that is required for an ecologically healthy society. Critically, the hierarchy of human authority is then ultimately accountable to God. We are going to be judged on whether our stewardship was that that of a “good and faithful servant” who multiplies his talents in honest service to his master.

This biblical framework founds environmental stewardship firmly in the development of virtues, i.e., good habits oriented towards happiness and human flourishing. Individual pro-environmental behaviors—virtues stimulated by an “ecological conscience”—are the appropriate response to awareness of both anthropogenic impacts on nature and our divinely appointed responsibility (and capacity) to mediate the situation. If we adopt virtue as our stewardship mode, we can shepherd nature as it “groans in the pain of childbirth.” Importantly, the requirement for virtue and the inevitability of sin reaffirms our dependence on the Creator. Only conversion to Christ, the way, the truth and the life, can derive sense and success from the good intentions of environmentalism. Achieving the Christian dynamic of responsibility and accountability demands daily prudence and self-control that is informed by a pressing but hopeful eschatology.

So now we are faithful and virtuous, what next? It is a practical requirement of successful stewardship that we comprehend the rhythms of the earthly garden that we have been asked to tend. The Adamic labor of naming the animals was a call for him to know them and to understand their place in God's creation. This call to fuller understanding endures, and the appropriate tool for investigating the material world is the scientific method. Science reveals that the universe is rational and intelligible, pointing towards an underlying creative mind.

Scientific research imparts the technical knowledge that is required to correctly inform our calling to “lead all creatures back to their Creator” (Laudato Si). Humans now intervene in nature at a massive scale via industrial fisheries, forestry, and agriculture. These activities are often justified, as we legitimately derive sustenance from the Earth, but they demand careful and intelligent management. We must predict and comprehend how our actions will propagate through the ecosystems that we use. The need for scientific comprehension of the world thus follows logically from a stewardship that is implemented through the mandate for wise and loving dominion. Developing this reasoned technical capacity, at the service of Christian stewardship, is the correct realm of science.

Here emerge some political implications. To propose and uphold Christian stewardship in the public square, we need to maintain intellectual credibility in the realm of science. It is unfortunate that much social discourse in the US has declined towards intractable polemics. Part of the problem is a straightforward a priori rejection of the other; not just their ideas, but their entire personal or intellectual space. This rejection is expressed on the political left by unwillingness to consider inconvenient research on the development and learning of the unborn child, or to criticize the marked lack of objective scientific evidence for gender ideology. Unfortunately, there is also a growing conservative denial of science, initially concerning evolutionary theory but extending latterly to climate change research.

Abstention from science is a retreat from reason that will be counter-productive, partly because it impairs Christian credibility in the ecological debate. In the familiar words of St. John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Reason, and its expression in natural science, is a tool that belongs to Christendom and that we cannot concede to secular environmentalism. Christianity that accepts, understands and leads in the field of science is an irrepressible force for tackling global environmental challenges as it credibly proposes Christ as the ultimate solution. Faithful, dogmatically orthodox Christians can use prestige in the professional apostolate of science as what St. José Maria Escriva called their “bait” as fishers of men. This is part of how failing secular environmentalism and confused esotericism can be converted to Christ.

On this theme, credible participation in the public sphere also allows Christians to help shape broad-scale narratives around culture and politics. Current trends in marriage and family make it easy to see how little social influence is imparted by so-called rational debate relative to accessible and compelling fairy tales. If we want to write futures that diverge from the metaverse or the World Economic Forum, we need to have a visible presence and a powerful voice. Thankfully, we already have a narrative. In fact, it is the greatest story ever told. We must also have faith: if the Church is right on family and social policy, she is also right on stewardship of nature!

Scientific fluency thus provides Christians with credibility in social discourse. It also provides the appropriate theoretical framework for evaluating the concerns driving (predominately left-wing) eco-activism. We need not agree with the climate solutions proposed by groups like XR, but we must fairly evaluate the research on which they base their calls for climate emergency on the planet for which we claim divinely endowed responsibility. Summary conclusions can be derived from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which assesses the science related to climate change. Thousands of international scientists volunteer their time to assess the numerous research papers published each year, and to provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about the drivers of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks. Many Christians are justifiably angered by the UN for using human rights committees to advance family and population policies that are contrary to the dignity of human life. However, the IPCC differs substantially from these internal committees in being a much more neutral forum for independent scientists working across countless institutions and scientific disciplines.

Physicist John Tyndall recognized in the 1860s that the Earth experiences a natural greenhouse effect, and suggested that slight changes in atmospheric composition could induce climatic variations. The IPCC now estimates with high confidence that human activity has caused about 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Continued warming at the current rate is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2050. It is tempting to hope that these temperature shifts are simply part of natural climate cycles. Indeed, a cycle of warming and cooling is evident over the millennia, with the most recent little ice age following a medieval warm period. However, the anthropogenic effect is imposed on such background climate dynamics. Scientists can use polar ice cores to place the rapid 1.0°C shift within the context of very long-term change in the global climate. Successive years of snowfall become compressed in the polar ice caps, trapping bubbles of CO2 as well as dust, ash, pollen and trace elements. These ancient air pockets provide samples of what the atmosphere was like when that layer of ice formed. Ices core samples provide a time-series back to about 800,000 years ago, and show a long-term atmospheric CO2 profile about half the present level.

Likely environmental effects of climate warming can be predicted from empirical outcomes in countless study ecosystems. In the probable 1.5°C scenario, biophysical impacts will include accelerated land degradation and desertification, and consequent food insecurity. The U.S. EPA reports that higher CO2 levels may temporarily increase plant growth, but that other factors such as changing temperatures, ozone, and water and nutrient constraints can counteract potential increases in yield. University of Washington scientists published a 2019 paper in the journal Lancet Planetary Health that showed how elevated CO2 worsens the nutritional quality of food crops by decreasing protein and mineral concentrations. A warming climate will push many marine species to higher latitudes, with reduced productivity in fisheries and aquaculture. Numerous studies across global food systems from tropical to polar environments, show similar serious results. Each of these impacts will be strongly exacerbated if anthropogenic carbon emissions drive warming above 1.5°C.

China is currently the largest carbon dioxide emitter, but most of the observed historical increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide has been driven by western nations, especially Europe and the USA. A compelling injustice is that the human populations at disproportionately higher risk of adverse climate consequences tend to be in the developing world. It is disadvantaged and vulnerable societies, some indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal resources who will suffer earliest and most severely.

These conclusions impose pressing concerns for Christians who take seriously the idea of biblical stewardship. It is possible to find reasons to deny the science: the global climate system is definitively complex, and modeled ecological projections rapidly accumulate statistical uncertainty as they integrate numerous parameters. However, the evidence for anthropogenic climate forcing is broad and conclusive. Importantly, for Christians who are suspicious of political motivation in climate science, the ecological pressures and solutions involved in climate mitigation are closely tied to much more tangible aspects of our stewardship responsibilities.

The IPCC confidently identify five options that have large potential for mitigating climate change, without adverse impacts on the other familiar social-ecological challenges. These options are increased food productivity, reduced deforestation and degradation, increased soil organic carbon content, fire management, and reduced post-harvest losses. The significance here is that each relates to ecological concerns which are all too familiar across the globe, which disproportionately affect the poor, and which are easy to relate directly to our failure to justly tend God’s creation.

Uncounted Christian missionary projects have improved the lives of the poor through practical sustainability interventions in the developing world. It remains useful to consider the five broad IPCC options in the context of Christian duty and evangelization. For example, reducing deforestation allows trees to capture atmospheric carbon dioxide, but also provides food security to vulnerable rural societies. Small-scale tree planting projects in Africa accumulate soil, produce animal fodder and fuel, and yield income for subsistence farmers. Additional trees stabilize and fertilize the soil, increasing its ability to sequester carbon. Soil improvement is further enhanced by projects focused on optimizing fertilizer use, including the reuse of manure. Within the realms of subsistence agriculture, there are now exciting initiatives in micro-scale solar irrigation. These tools improve farming infrastructure and water use in rural Asia and provide incidental cash income, while decommissioning many thousands of inefficient diesel pumps. Numerous similar interventions connect very local welfare of the poor to global-scale climate mitigation.

There is appeal in such ground-up entrepreneurial enterprises that enhance local communities while driving environmental sustainability. Perhaps this is an opportunity for fiscally conservative Christians to help establish local economies with genuine trickle-down benefits. It certainly seems preferable to support autonomous environmentally sensitive food and energy projects than to perpetuate a centralized aid culture which frequently imposes western ideologies of sexuality and family. The point is that truly Christian social-ecological partnerships from village to international scales will emanate into reduced carbon dioxide emissions, even if the climate debate is not explicitly invoked. 

The activists of XR are reacting to very real environmental issues with a set of philosophical assumptions that are largely inadequate. Nonetheless, well-publicized rebellion and certain positive outcomes of secular environmentalism are currently defining public perception of how we should respond to ecological crises. This situation is partly because of the fundamentalist retreat from science and an unwillingness to accept and engage with the good work of political opponents. It may also reflect loss of public confidence among ecologically aware Christians that Christ is also the Way in questions of environmental stewardship. Many believers already implement personal stewardship behaviors to act in concert with God’s plan for creation. There is an imperative here to participate in ecological discussions and solutions in a way that tests and converts secular efforts and actively proposes the Christian option. We have the responsibility, the fullness of faith and reason, and the eschatological motivation to succeed where others cannot.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The author would like to note that this article was informed by discussions with Dr. Thomas Black (University of Nottingham), Dr Jason Baxter (Wyoming Catholic College) and Anna Shephard.


Featured Image: Extinction Rebellion Sverige, Greta Thunberg participating in an Extinction Rebellion event in Stockholm, CC BY 2.0.


Samuel Shephard

Samuel Shephard is an ecologist and Catholic convert who has published numerous international peer-reviewed scientific articles. Samuel is currently Senior Researcher at an environmental State Agency in Ireland.

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