“But there is so much human need to worry about that!”

by Andrew Youd
29th January 2016

Most, if not all people value the environment. We are accustomed to enjoying nature and the benefits that nature brings to our lives – and this is something worth preserving. Many become saddened to hear about the local bushland that is flattened to make way for a new development, we are saddened by the shrinking of the Great Barrier Reef, the destruction of the Amazon, and the extinction of species. Our valuing of the environment is also evident in the common cultural condemnation given to reckless polluters or those that unnecessarily destroy the environment.[1] You might recall news stories of a particular corporation that illegally dumped its excess waste into the local river – violating known regulations – and rightly were upset. Or more recently, the story of Volkswagen and the fraudulent rigging of emissions tests on their cars highlights how selfish some people, or corporations, can be.[2] Such events point to the common and intuitive value that most individuals have for the environment, and the distaste towards those that harm it. What is highlighted by such reckless, negligent, or selfish pollution/destruction is the unnecessary nature of it, and the irreverence being expressed towards the fragile ecosystems with which we share this planet.

Before moving on, if one is still in doubt about environmental value, let me briefly ground it theologically. You don’t have to go far through scripture to see the value that the non-human creation has, especially to God. Going as far as Genesis 1 will do, seeing the value of non-human creation stated emphatically (even while humans were absent), that it is good. That the environment is valuable is not hard to establish for Christians, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a theologian who denies this. We don’t need scientists or greenies to pressure us to change our behaviour, we only to need read the bible and get a picture of God’s heart for His creation to have enough impetus for the attitudes and behaviours of care and concern to be extended towards the environment. The starting point is the recognition that humans and the environment have moral value.

So if most people value the environment, then why is there an environmental movement that continues to pester people about how they live? In other words, why is it that so many people seem to continue in activities that harm life on this planet while at the same time desiring for the environment to be preserved?

A World of Conflict

While many answers could be given, one of the most important reasons for the continued dissonance between our attitudes and our behaviours is the conflict that takes place between human goods and the environment. For example, the need to drive a car and the pollution entailed in the burning of fossil fuels. Such conflict seems inevitable and inescapable, and it requires us to make pragmatic choices between what to satisfy and what to sacrifice. This means evaluating the alternative and competing moral goods, so one can prioritise the most significant goods to satisfy, in amount and quality.

As humans are deemed more morally significant than animals or plants, when we do choose, it is more often than not the case that our good is satisfied at the expense of the good of the natural environment. I’m not denying that there are justifiable environmental sacrifices, but they must indeed be justified. Ethical maturity is learning to navigate such choices with wisdom and integrity.

There is, however, a point at which environmental harm is not justified; when the environment should win in the trade-offs. This could be either because of the comparative significance of the environmental sacrifice or the insignificance of the human satisfaction being sought.

When we condemn a reckless polluter we are condemning them for not navigating the choice between personal and environmental goods well. Essentially, we are recognising an intuitive moral line between unjustifiable destruction of the environment, and what we deem to be justifiable and necessary pollution, which is not necessarily praiseworthy but a regrettable necessity. When we condemn Volkswagen, we are criticising them for being on the wrong side of this line – they made an unjustifiable and unnecessary environmental sacrifice.

Excusing Our Actions

So when it comes to our own actions, can we justify the environmental destruction that we are connected to, directly or indirectly, through our consumptive practices?

Considering that so many people, including Christians, carry on with practices that harm the environment, I would like to address some of the common arguments that I hear in response to the challenge to be more environmentally friendly. Responding to these will help to clarify the line between necessary and unnecessary environmental harm. The arguments can be summarised in the following: 1) when my actions destroy or pollute the environment, it is because I could not do otherwise; 2) or if I could do otherwise, my need is a necessary good that I cannot go without; 3) and if I could sacrifice to do otherwise without forfeiting my important needs, such a sacrifice would not be made for the environment. I’ll respond to these criticisms in order.

First, in instances where we know our choices pollute the environment, and possible alternatives are conceivable, people may argue that they are constrained and trapped by their political, economic, and social circumstances. Therefore, they may posit, it is unfair to be held accountable for making an unavoidable choice. Whereas the corporate polluter arguably knows better and could do better, many of us do not know the extent of our pollution, and if we did, it is beyond our present resources to live more sustainably. One might say, “I cannot afford the latest super-efficient electric car, and I have to drive for work, I have no other option but to drive my inefficient polluting car.”

The second defensive response argues that significant aspects of contemporary living which one knows causes environmental destruction are immediately “necessary” for our lives and this therefore justifies the moral trade-off. The proponent might say, “I have to use a computer for home and work and that requires resources from the environment. If I don’t work my family and I don’t eat – it is a necessity.” This person knows that forest clearing or iron ore mining is destructive and they may even grieve such destruction, but his/her need requires this, and so this constitutes the necessary reason to sacrifice the environment.

Third, and probably the most telling of arguments, is the insistence that the cost required to do more for the environment, where it is possible, should be spent elsewhere. The proponent might say, “even if I had more time and money to do something extra that is good, it would not be for the environment. You speak of all this environmental need, but there is so much human need to worry about that!” Essentially, in a world with so much unmet humanitarian need, there are more important things to sacrifice for. The humanitarian cause is compounded with the evangelistic spiritual need of people, leaving Christians with more than enough to worry about without worrying about the environment.

Many Christians in our world are bombarded with charities and church causes. These causes are good, and the need seems overwhelming. Many, or even most, Christians give generously of both their time and money, and wish that they could do more. If you are like me, you still feel a little guilty every time you walk past stalls in shopping centres raising money for important human causes, even though you already give significantly to worthy causes. At some point one has to prioritise, and human need is rightfully at the top of the list of priorities. For many people this is exactly where the focus on the environment ends.

These arguments rightly acknowledge the importance of evaluating moral values or principles and also the limitations that this world throws our way. With so much need, people could have an infinite moral demand placed on them by worthy causes, yet we are finite and we cannot meet all need. At some point the moral demand on our lives must be constrained and priorities made, and when such obligation is constrained, many good moral causes will miss out. So just like the person at the stall in the shopping centre who doesn’t get my donation as I walk past, the environment is one extra issue that just didn’t make the cut.

I understand the logic of real world practical ethics. But I believe that if these arguments lead us to do little or nothing for the environment, then they have morally deceived us. These arguments assume that there are no valid lifestyle alternatives available, that it is always vital human need in conflict with the needs of the environment, and that any sacrifices made for the environment will be at the expense of humanity.

Obviously, I disagree with these positions. I would like to give one theoretical and one practical argument in response.

Rethinking the Trade-off

If creation really has value to us, then it will be shown by the price we are willing to pay for its preservation, and the significance of the human cause required to sacrifice it. I started this discussion with the condemnation of reckless polluters and noted that there is a line to draw between justifiable environmental destruction and non-justifiable (i.e. Volkswagen), and people can be condemned for failing to navigate the line adequately. Remember, we are talking about the destruction of this good creation, God’s good creation. So while we could question what to do with extra time or money, we should also ask questions of our present use of resources and our present actions. Of course, changing our lifestyle will be a cost. But if it is about morality, then we should heed Jesus’ words that the way of Christ will be a narrow path that involves picking up our cross and paying a price. The implication here is that the moral life is not easy. With that in mind, let’s ask the question about paying the price, and whether we have costed the environment adequately in our trade-offs.

It is one thing to compare refugee need with environmental need, or the world’s poor with the world’s forests, but what if I compared your collection of DVDs with the world’s forests? What if I compare the amount of clothes in your wardrobe with the species that will lose their homes? This is not to save a human life, but so that people can keep up to date with the seasons and conform to a culture with questionable values on beauty and fashion. What if I question the excessive size of the houses in the developed world and the energy and financial resources required to maintain these dwellings with the pollution of our rivers and oceans? The list could go on. I understand that we should not save forests instead of children, but most of our consumptive choices are not for the sake of such vital human need, but rather they are for trivial, unnecessary, or wilfully wasteful ends. The important question then is, where do we stand on the environmental destruction scale? On the necessary end or the unnecessary end?

Coming Back to the Starting Point

When confronted with the inevitable conflict between human preference and environmental need, it is easy to allow the conflict to stifle creativity and foster moral apathy. The continual confrontation with conflict between human preference and environmental need can lead to the belief that human need and environmental need is always in opposition.  Further, we could assume that the end result – satisfaction of human need – should become the starting point – that human need is always satisfied first. This puts the environment in the default losing position, where it often unnecessarily stays.

Instead, our starting point should be the biblical and theological foundation that humans and the environment have value. We should start with the vision to see both realised, and only when we have exhausted that possibility do we start making trade-offs and sacrifices. This important methodological step is cut short by moral laziness. There is a fascinating passage in the Bible that speaks to this point and its message is quite counter intuitive. In Matthew 6 the evangelist records these words from Jesus:

25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? (NLT)

What most of us see in this passage is our priority of value and that God wants to provide for us. This is, of course, true. However, at the very same moment as saying that we are more valuable, it is declared that God values and cares for the environment (with humans). God does both, even while acknowledging that humans have more moral value. Now I know that some might respond to this by pointing out that God has infinite resources and we are limited; hence we can’t be held accountable to the same standards. That is true to an extent. But if God is our role model, then our goal, as much as is possible, is to follow His lead. Our starting point is to care for both!

I feel that most people have used the previously noted arguments to actually disqualify themselves from moral effort in this regard – but I disagree. Creative thinking reveals so many areas where environmental need and human need overlap, and we can do precisely more for humans as we do more for the environment.

In Search of Alternatives

While it is not my place to provide a comprehensive law-like list to follow, let me give you a couple of examples. It is the dream for everyone to own their own house with a backyard and multiple garages and living spaces in a nice suburb. However, such houses come at a high cost for humans and the environment alike. Dropping one bedroom and living space in your house could save you more than 100,000 on your mortgage, save your utility bills, and in so doing save the environment. Yes it will cost your lifestyle, but with the extra cash-flow, you could very well devote it to more important causes, like supporting responsible charitable organisations. In so doing you may save your mental health (by not being in as much debt), you will save the environment (by not consuming as much power and water), and you will help others in more need (by spending part of your savings on the world’s poor). How can we justify not doing this?

Another option would be to stop replacing your mobile phone every two years. Phone contracts are more expensive than prepaid. You don’t need that extra 100 pixels per square inch, or processing power to play the latest phone games. Go a little old-school with your phone and you may very well contribute to your social relationships (with less time on phone games), save money, and save the world’s limited resources. Your new phone will thereby be 100% recycled, because it will be your old phone, and you can spend the phone contract savings on your family (helping people), or the poor, or the environment.

One last example. By recycling all paper, plastic, and cardboard, as well as purchasing a worm farm and compost bin for your organic waste, you can potentially reduce your weekly garbage by over half. You may then be able to downsize your wheelie bin and save money on council rates. At the same time, you are saving the environment by reducing unnecessary landfill, you gain the satisfaction of doing something good, and you gain the proceeds of worms for your garden (which, if used for an herb garden, could save you more money).

Here is my point. There are conflicts that are necessary, and in these instances the environment will be sacrificed. But there are too many instances where human wants (not needs) are being used to sacrifice vital environmental needs, and this is a tragedy. The magnitude of this tragedy is made worse in light of the fact that human needs and environmental needs could be mutually met through creative and responsible initiatives that are well-within our grasp. The environment is too valuable, and its present destruction too significant, for us to refrain from effort in this regard.

[1] This is a common exercise that environmentalists go through in conversations with those unsympathetic to their cause is to direct their audience to think about instances of just such condemnation.

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772