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Tragedy Isn't Overstating It

The articles of faith of the modern environmental movement are widely diverse, but there are a few common themes that stand above the rest.

One popular theme places the human species below the supremacy of nature. In this view, humans are a nuisance, a poison, and a cancer—a plague that needs to be wiped out in order for Pandora (or Fern Gully) to thrive again. The adherents of this view promote things like “soft” societal suicide, frequently fantasizing about a world without us.

Few environmentalist Christians go quite this far, but many do prefer a more passive and detached view of human stewardship, one in which God’s only desire is for us to be observers and protectors, rather than managers and masters. In this view, the extent of Christian stewardship involves trekking into the woods more often, sponsoring an endangered lizard, showering less, buying local produce, and stepping in front of a bulldozer if things get really ugly.

Biblical arguments aside (for now), such a detached view does not bode well for the environment in natural terms. Indeed, without owning certain elements of nature, we may be exposing the planet to the same destructive consequences that come with a lack of ownership in any other area.

What do you maintain better stewardship over: Your car, or the rental car? Your money, or the stuff your parents gave you? Your house, or the landlord’s apartment unit?

Steven Hayward, author of the Almanac of Environmental trends, speaks directly to these issues in his new book from Common Sense Concept, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World.

In a chapter focused on what he calls “the revolution in environmental economics,” Hayward argues that the promotion of ownership through property rights is an integral piece of both a prosperous economy and a thriving environment:

…at the heart of economic development are secure property rights. Just as the role of economic incentives has become more widely appreciated among environmentalists, the key role of property rights — often very insecure in undeveloped, undemocratic nations — is coming into sharper focus as well.

But even though the value of property rights is clear on economic matters, Hayward notes that applying such rights to the realm of environmental stewardship can seem a bit ill-fitted at first glance:

Owning parts of nature — whether habitat or actual rare species — sounds counterintuitive to the secular mind (though plainly not to the Old Testament Fathers), but there are more and more case studies demonstrating the effectiveness of property rights approaches to protecting the environment, from ocean fisheries to African and South American forests and even elephants.

To illustrate this point, Hayward explores the differences between the stewardship methods in the beef cattle industry vs. ocean fisheries.

To raise cattle, Hayward explains, one must own the cattle, as well as the land and facilities to raise them. This gives ranchers an incentive to steward their property in a sustainable way, cultivating and caring for their existing cattle, planning and paving the way for new calves or acquired cattle, and performing all of the related tasks in an ecologically and economically efficient manner. If all ranchers were to share the same plot of land and every cow was up for grabs, cattle (and grassy lands) would soon vanish in a display of foolish, destructive consumption.

When it comes to ocean fisheries, however, fishers are free to navigate the waters and catch whatever they can find. One does not own the fish until one catches the fish, and thus a tragedy of the commons emerges — one in which, as Hayward notes, “fish are a ‘common pool’ resource in the ocean owned by no one, such that the perverse incentive for every individual fisher is to catch as many fish as possible.” Put simply, the fisher becomes less focused on long-term stewardship and more focused on staying one step in front of the other fishermen.

The result: The beef cattle industry is alive and well, but many ocean fisheries are rapidly depleting.

As usual, that which is counterintuitive often prevails, and as is also usual, we should have known.

Here’s what God says about environmental stewardship in the Book of Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

The word dominion tends to make many of us uncomfortable, particularly environmentalists. But God is not talking about rapacious, exploitative eco-destruction. He is talking about fruitful and productive stewardship through ownership. After all, this is His creation.

The fact that God calls us to dominion (as displayed “in his image”) indicates that successful stewardship will only come when we exhibit overarching sovereignty and control. God does not tell us to cohabitate with the animals and feed them butter and bread with sugar sprinkl ed on top. He does not tell us to merely observe his creation and then go about our normal “human” business (though observation is indeed a marvelous thing). We are not to be mere spectators, or even mere protectors. Rather, God calls us to active ownership of creation by which we can take control of it and transform it for the better.

As Hayward notes, the value of property rights has already gained increasing prominence in economics, and I join him in hoping that it trickles into the green movement.

But why, I would ask, is the church so late to recognizing the value of property rights in its own environmental undertakings? Why, with the creation story’s common theme of dominion, are we not promoting such value more directly and adamantly as a community of Christian creators, stewards, and transformers?

The rest of the world has an excuse. We, however, are risking a day when God says, “I told you so.”