Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Creationist environmentalists

Bernini elephant, Rome
I've been mulling this over for a while, and I think I'll throw it open to the Tangled Bank gang. A while back, the Post had a story on Green Evangelicals, evangelicals who see it as part of their charge to protect Creation. And yes, that's Creation with a capital C.

Today I came across The Evangelical Ecologist an environmentalist tracking pollution, conservation, endangered species – the gamut of green issues. He also has the occasional post on the dangers of teaching evolution.

Now I don't want to pick a fight with this guy, or any of these people. He's doing good work, and his motives for his blog are pure. I think it's high time the evangelicals started recognizing the dangers of global warming and the despoilment of God's planet. Anything less would be grossly inconsistent with their claims.

But how long can you look into these things without seeing how evolution works? How deep can you delve into the ecology, atmospheric chemistry, aquatic chemistry, and other parts of scientific conservation and not see the value of the scientific method?

One important variable in evaluating conservation plans is preservation of evolutionary diversity. That means looking at the systematics of the organisms, and prioritizing the most evolutionarily distinct species. There are other criteria, and it's important to balance ecological complexity with evolutionary diversity. But evolution comes in.

How can you understand the danger of global warming without understanding the patterns of extinction and the history of global warming and cooling over millions of years? No one ever "observed" an Ice Age, but understanding the science of global warming, and the dangers it poses, requires that we infer the existence of these cycles from incomplete fossil evidence. How can you accept that data for global warming and not accept it for evolution?

One of the most compelling lines of evidence for the horrific consequences of global warming (as distinct from the evidence that it's happening) is from the fossil record. People use radiometric dating of various sediments to correlate major extinction events with previous global climate change, and then they look at the rate at which species which survived could shift their ranges or adapt to new conditions. The current bout of climate change is many times faster than previous changes, and will do dramatic harm to species because very little can move that fast. If you reject geology and paleontology, what basis is left for concern about the effects of global warming?

On a positive note, this is a sign that the perception of global warming has progressed past the skepticism that lasted through the millennium, and still hangs on in some corners. I doubt that it's a wedge issue yet, but it's an opportunity for progressives/liberals to talk with evangelicals and look for other common ground.

Is it appropriate to try to bring this guy, and those like him, over from creationist madness, or is it best to work toward a common goal, and ignore the differences? I think that evangelical allies on environmental issues could be incredibly powerful, and I'd hate to make them feel unwelcome. On the other hand, I don't want to give tacit approval to any theocratic authoritarian agenda they may have.

But this dude thinks that one can't be an environmentalist without being a creationist. I disagree. He says

The only rational reason for being an environmentalist, let alone a Christian one, is to recognize that God created nature to exist as He planned it, and recognize that we were created after God's image. We are not only unique in creation, but we have been given a specific role in its stewardship and its preservation.

I think it's obvious I don't derive my environmentalism from religion. I derive it from a different sense of duty.

Why did the US rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII? Why didn't we just bomb Iraq to rubble and turn inward? It's what Colin Powell referred to as the Pottery Barn principle: You break it, you bought it. Humans, through ignorance in one age and selfishness in this age, have broken many natural systems. These systems evolved over millions of years, the species in them are the products of a grand and beautiful history. When humans recognize that we broke something, it's our duty as moral beings to fix it.

Aldo Leopold explains it through the land ethic, and does so without specific reference to any particular religion. He argues that human ethics inevitably broaden from the relations between individuals, to the relationships between individuals and society, and one day will broaden to include the relations between individuals and the living world. The details of that ethic can flow from a Creationist perspective, or a transcendentalist view, to pure Burkean political conservatism. All that's necessary is that you ascribe moral value to the natural world.

I think that humans are special because we can recognize the broad consequences of our actions, and that compels us to be more than mere meat bags. Whether it's a soul or an emergent property of consciousness, there it is and it obliges us to take responsibility for our actions. That means applying more than purely materialistic assessments of our actions, and that's what brings me and these creationists together. We arrive by different paths, but we reach the same place.

Update: To clarify, there are Christian environmentalists who aren't creationists. This guy is. Talking about Creation doesn't imply that someone is a creationist. There are lots of ways to derive a love for the world, for Creation, without denying the legitimacy of science.

You Are The Everything” by R.E.M. from the album Green (1988, 3:44).