There is a way of living in the world that promotes and sustains right relationships between God and man, between man and his neighbor, and between man and the rest of the created order. The Orthodox Church teaches this way, and its teaching offers insights into ways we might address the environmental issues that confront us today. This teaching can be found in the classical texts of Christian tradition, as well as in recent and contemporary Orthodox writers. We will be drawing heavily on their work throughout these pages.
The Orthodox voice has not been widely heard on environmental issues. In the 1890s, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov anticipated modern concerns for the environment when he put forward a new consideration that “has never yet been insisted upon,” namely “the duties of man as an economic agent toward material nature itself, which he is called upon to cultivate.” Solovyov claimed that “without loving nature for its own sake it is impossible to organize material life in a moral way,” and “the ideal is to cultivate the earth, to minister to it, so that it might be renewed and regenerated.” However, his considerations on the treatment of material nature were not developed further. In our own day, the first major declaration by an Orthodox Christian on environmental concerns was issued on September 1, 1989. The Message on the Day of Prayer for Creation, by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Demetrios I of Constantinople, decried “the merciless trampling down and destruction of the natural environment which is caused by human beings, with extremely dangerous consequences for the very survival of the natural world created by God.” It went on to declare, “the first day of September of each year to be the day of the protection of the environment, a day on which, on the occasion of … the first day of the ecclesiastical year, prayers and supplications are [to be] offered … for all creation.” The next year, an important document, An Orthodox Statement on the Environmental Crisis, was drawn up under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate by a group of theologians and environmentalists in Ormylia, Greece. Since then, Orthodox writing on environmental issues has continued to grow. In addition to statements and conferences on environmental topics, the Orthodox world has seen a blossoming of “hundreds of local initiatives and projects ranging from soil reclamation projects in Russia to tree planting initiatives in Romania to wildlife preservation programmes in the Greek islands and to forest preservation on the Holy Mountain.”
Despite its promotion in the highest circles of the Orthodox Church, we confess our disappointment with much of the Orthodox writing on the environment. In light of the capture of environmental issues by the left-of-center portion of the political spectrum, we are not surprised that many Orthodox writers concerned with environmental degradation display a deep left bias in their writing. We are particularly disappointed, however, to see the following five issues.
First, appeals to the Orthodox Tradition and left/liberal policy recommendations that merely run parallel to each other, rather than deriving policy prescriptions clearly from Orthodox theological principles, as if abandoning Styrofoam cups at the parish coffee hour or encouraging population control self-evidently followed from the Tradition.
Second, the subordination of the Tradition to preexisting political or environmental agenda; for example, the tendency to minimize inconvenient truths, such as the centrality of mankind and his role in creation. As Christians we cannot agree with American environmentalist and wilderness advocate John Muir (d. 1914), who said that the idea that the world was made for man is a “presumption not supported by all the facts.” As Christians, we know why the world was created and why it was entrusted to our care.
Third, the all-too-common tendency (not limited to the Orthodox) to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of Western society without acknowledging the benefits that accrue from it. For example, the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, a significant document from the Russian church that addresses many contemporary social issues, begins its consideration of The Church and Ecological Problems, with a catalog of environmental woes. It goes on to say, “All this happens against the background of an unprecedented and unjustified growth of public consumption in highly developed countries, where the search for wealth and luxury has become a norm of life.” Leaving aside the dubious claim that wealth and luxury are the engines of Western life, the Bases does not acknowledge that “highly developed countries” are among the cleanest, least polluting, and most energy-efficient societies in the world, nor does it draw on the Russian church’s experience with the Soviet-era despoliation of the Russian environment; or that effective measures addressing the environment may appear to be luxury goods outside of developed countries with enough wealth to give attention to environmental concerns, as demonstrated by the “environmental Kuznets curve”; or that Western technology has fueled the recent advances in pollution control, food production, and energy efficiency. Yes, there are problems to be addressed, but credit should be given where credit is due.
Fourth, policy recommendations that take little or no account of economic reality. Here, we can cite Patriarch Bartholomew’s Message on the Nuclear Explosion at Fukushima, issued on March 14, 2011, a scant three days after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan (and several days before the Patriarch’s message of sympathy to the Japanese people). The Patriarch wrote,
With all due respect to the science and technology of nuclear energy and for the sake of the survival of the human race, we counter-propose the safer green forms of energy, which both moderately preserve our natural resources and mindfully serve our human needs.
Our Creator granted us the gifts of the sun, wind, water and ocean, all of which may safely and sufficiently [emphasis added] provide energy. Ecologically-friendly science and technology has discovered ways and means of producing sustainable forms of energy for our ecosystem. Therefore, we ask: Why do we persist in adopting such dangerous sources of energy?
Why indeed, if sun, wind, water, and ocean can sufficiently provide our energy needs? Of course, the answer is that they cannot. They cannot for both technological and economic reasons. The sun shines only part of each day, the wind does not blow continuously, and tidal energy generation is in its infancy. The costs of these technologies are currently dramatically higher than conventional energy sources such as natural gas, coal, and hydroelectric power. Wind turbines, solar panels, and tidal energy stations have serious environmental impacts of their own, including the need for massive transmission infrastructure that itself damages the environment. The problem faced by human societies, therefore, is one of making choices among imperfect alternatives, not a simplistic choice between “clean” and “dirty” energy sources. Further, our Creator also granted us energy stored in coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as embedding it within the bonds of matter, enabling us to meet our needs by responsibly using those sources of energy as well. Given the strong correlation between human well-being and electricity use, and our mandate to care for the poor, is it more important to raise energy costs by shifting to new “green” technologies or to provide electricity to the world’s poor who lack access to power? Should getting cheap energy to the 412 million people in India (equivalent to the combined populations of Britain, Italy, and the United States) who lack any access to power be a higher priority than shuttering existing nuclear plants, as Germany is doing? Should providing natural gas to the 668 million Indians (equivalent to the populations of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) who cook with dung or wood (a practice that is particularly damaging to the health of women and small children), be a higher priority than developing solar energy for Americans and Europeans? Is giving the 917 million Indians lacking refrigeration (equivalent to the entire population of the Western hemisphere) access to the electricity that would make that available more important than government subsidies for wind energy in rich countries?
Fifth, ignorance of modern economics. We do not follow certain teachings of the Fathers when later theological insight showed that they were in error, nor do we follow the Fathers when they express the faulty scientific or medical thought of their day. Similarly, we need to be careful when the Fathers speak of economic matters. There is something to be learned, to be sure, in citing St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), that man is a “housekeeper” entrusted with the riches of the earth, and that these riches, “the air, sun, water, land, heaven, sea, light, and stars” are “divided among all in equal measure as if among brothers.” Failure to recognize that he is working in the context of a Malthusian economy where the ancient and medieval view of zero-sum economics prevailed can lead us to misapply St. John’s words in the contemporary world in which much of humanity has thankfully escaped the Malthusian trap and entered into a positive-sum economy. Indeed, a significant challenge for Orthodox (and Christian) thought is to avoid an outlook colored by envy and focused on distribution but rather to find ways to bring the insights of the Fathers and the teachings of the gospel to a world in which many faithful servants have multiplied the resources that God entrusted to them.
Given the problems we have just enumerated, we would like to propose that a sober Orthodox approach to the environment requires not only a faithful reading of the Tradition but also a critical engagement with everyone working on environmental issues—not a facile adoption of activist principle or policy. Having said that, we do not offer this work primarily as a right-of-center or conservative response to the existing body of Orthodox writing on the environment, for we all have much in common. We freely acknowledge our bias in favor of market-based approaches to environmental problems precisely because we care deeply that there be results from these policies that can genuinely improve the world, not merely provide us with good feelings because “we care.” Thus, it is important to preserve endangered species, not merely make a statement that we wish to do so.
The real environmental problems we face require study and meditation; they are far more likely to be solved by technological progress than by mandates from politicians responding to special interests. Neither will progress in solving environmental problems come about in response to naïve invocations of Orthodox Tradition, by (perhaps willful) ignorance of contemporary advances in economics, biology, and technology or a failure to take into account the political reality of a world in which public as well as private institutions have flaws stemming from the fallen nature of man. Rather, we hope to present a reading of the Orthodox Tradition and apply the insights we find there to contemporary environmental issues in ways we think are faithful to the Tradition and that can advance the discussion of contemporary environmental issues in Christian terms. To that end, we will consider how God is related to the Creation, the central place of mankind in the created order, and the role of mankind in the care and ultimate salvation of the world. Our application of these principles will be enhanced by the consideration of insights from economics, political science, and other disciplines that provide us with insights into how actions play out in the context of the natural world and human institutions.