27 October 2003

People versus the environment

This morning two of my colleagues, John Boersema and Henry Brouwer, engaged in something of a dialogue on the relationship between the free market and the physical environment. It was meant primarily for interested students, but I sat in for about half of it. John teaches in the business department, while Henry teaches chemistry and has a longstanding interest in environmental issues. While there was a considerable amount of agreement between them on the divine mandate given to human beings as stewards of the earth, there were also differences. John expressed the belief that creation exists primarily for the benefit of humanity, thus in any effort to improve the environment human costs, such a job losses, ought to be taken into account and balanced against the dangers of pollution. Henry, by contrast, is convinced that human beings must be seen as part of creation, all of which has worth insofar as it is created by God, and not merely for its usefulness to people.

I suppose I am closer to Henry than to John on this point. At the same time, it must be admitted that human beings have a special place in God's creation, as affirmed repeatedly in scripture. After all, swatting a fly is not murder; killing a human being is. Any legal system that would conflate the two acts would effectively countenance massive injustice, to put it mildly. Similarly an environmentalism unable or unwilling to understand the difference between these acts risks falling prey to an ideology in the sense in which I use that word in my book.

I would put the matter this way: The worth of every element in the creation is derived directly from its relationship of radical dependence on God himself. Accordingly we must treat nonhuman creation in the awareness of our responsibility to the Creator who has given us stewardship over it. However, we do not treat all of creation in the same way. To treat human beings as we treat, say, cattle or cacti would be unjust. Creation's diversity means that we properly treat it in diverse ways. This treatment must include the preservation of our physical environment, as both of my colleagues would agree.

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