A Christian Earth Ethic

By Timothy D. Terrell
December 01, 2003

Christian responses to modern environmentalism vary from dismissive, joking comments about tree-huggers to the attempt to absorb modern environmentalism into Christian ethics. While those who are claiming Biblical support for modern environmentalism may have the best of intentions, there are some serious problems.

A Land Ethic
Recently, in a magazine called Creation Care , Steven Bouma-Prediger examines Aldo Leopold's "land ethic," which places a kind of intrinsic value in land and all the land contains.1 Leopold is well-known for his summary of the environmentalist code: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." It is obvious from the article that Bouma-Prediger is quite taken with Leopold's land ethic, and attempts to evaluate it according to Christian principles. He suggests a modification called a "Christian earth ethic."

But there are some serious problems in this "Christian earth ethic." According to Bouma-Prediger, a strength of Leopold's land ethic is that it "affirms that the earth and its many creatures are valuable in and for themselves, as well as being valuable for their usefulness to humans." In his earlier work, Bouma-Prediger was less willing to concede that usefulness to humans was any part of the value of the earth and its creatures. In a 1998 article, he wrote:

God's creatures are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans - though some are useful, indeed essential, to us.... [R]ocks and trees, birds, and animals are valuable simply because God made them. Their value resides in their being creations of a valuing God, not in their being a means to some human end.2

Evidently Bouma-Prediger is confused over the nature of value. Fundamentally, the confusion comes from a failure to see value as subjective - inseparable from the individual valuer and the valuer's goals. Value to Bouma-Prediger is more like an objective fact that must be discovered by humans in order to make good decisions.

A Hierarchy of Values
Bouma-Prediger understands that valuation is not simply a binary 0-1, good-bad decision. It is a continuous scale. He writes, "a hierarchy of values is necessary. Some scale of values is required, for within the biotic community relevant discriminations must be made."3 A landowner must decide, for example, whether the land is more valuable as a forest or as a housing development. Both applications of the land have value - it is up to the owner to decide which is more valuable. But this scale of values does not originate in humans, according to Bouma-Prediger. "All value does not 'center' on humans, though some of it does," he says. "Everything of value that happens is not 'for' humans; humans defend their own values, and humans need to recognize these values outside themselves."4

What are these values outside humans? They may be the values of the Creator, who made the earth and pronounced it good. This is what Bouma-Prediger, as well as others who subscribe to this version of evangelical environmentalism, would suggest. Would it not be humanistic, and therefore unChristian, to argue that "man is the measure" of value? Certainly Christians must insist upon seeking out and emulating God's own value scale - how could we do otherwise?

The problem lies in discovering God's value scale. How can we know whether or not God would have a landowner preserve the forest on a piece of property, or put a housing development there? Should the landowner place forest conservation over the provision of shelter for humans? Both goals are consistent with Christian ethics, but the Bible does not provide further information for settling the question (the Bible would of course rule out certain uses, like building a brothel on the land). Bouma-Prediger's call for God-centered rather than man-centered valuation does not eliminate the problem of resolving differing concepts of what the divine valuation actually is.

The "Best Use" Dilemna
We are thus left with competing understandings of the best uses of scarce resources. To the Christian, "best uses" means the uses that reduce the most important discrepancies between the world as it exists and the world God would have us work toward. Obviously, people will differ about what immediate goals are consistent with that mission. Do we use a given acre of land for a forest preserve, for housing, for a library, for a garden, for a seminary, for a garbage dump, or for a playground? All of these different uses serve some godly purpose - even if it means a low use such as having a place to put trash so that our immediate surroundings can be a little cleaner. We need a practical way of resolving conflicts of values.

We do not have continuing divine revelation to resolve these conflicts for us. So we need a way for people to compare their individual assessments of value. In other words, we need a system for providing information about which use of a resource is most valuable. I would suggest that, when it comes to environmental issues, the price system is that system. Talk is cheap. Anyone can say, "The highest and best use of that land is as a nature preserve." Someone else will contend that the best use is as a hospital. It is an irreconcilable argument, without further information. Only the requirement that people back up their value-assessments by being willing and able to pay a price (i.e., to make a sacrifice of other goods deemed less valuable by the bidder) separates mere talk from a serious personal value-assessment.

The Price System of Valuation
In humility, we must acknowledge that we do not possess, independent of other individuals, the information necessary to make good decisions about the natural environment. Sometimes we will imagine that we could have used the land, water, or air in a better way. The knee-jerk response of some environmentalists is to gather together some others with similar imaginations and politicize the situation. They call in the civil government to disrupt the market exchange process. "Market failure! Regulate! Regulate!" they say. A better response would be to try to convince the resource owner of his inappropriate valuation of that resource. Sometimes, the only just recourse will be to raise funds among like-minded environmentalists and bid for the resource.

Yet despite his confusion, Bouma-Prediger at least makes the attempt to apply the Bible to worldview issues, which is more than many Christians will do today. Christianity today has become personal, pietistic, and retreatist. To hear some Christians talk, one would think that a Christian's responsibility in the world consists of sharing the idea that "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," and not much else. This sort of retreatist attitude is nearly as bad as the usurpation of the market by environmentalists because in both cases value and dominion are warped. Christians have neglected to connect the "going" and "baptizing" of the Great Commission with "teaching." Teaching, that is, on how to live in the world according to the Word of God. Bouma-Prediger and the others who write for Creation Care are at least concerned with developing Christian ethics on environmental issues.

Christians concerned about the state of the environment should not dismiss the price system as being incompatible with proper valuation of the environment. To the contrary, we need the price system to help us with those valuations. Otherwise, it is an irreconcilable argument, ended only when the state coercively intervenes on the side of the more politically influential party.


1. Steven Bouma-Prediger, "Living on the Land, Living a Christian Land Ethic," Creation Care No. 22 (Summer 2003), 4, 5.

2. Steven Bouma-Prediger, "Creation Care and Character: The Nature and Necessity of the Ecological Virtues" (Electronic version), Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith vol. 50 (1998), 6-21. See also Bouma-Prediger's 2001 book, For the Beauty of the Earth ( Grand Rapids : Baker), 128, 142, 171.

3. Bouma-Prediger, "Living on the Land, Living a Christian Land Ethic," 5.

4. Ibid.

Topics: Biblical Law, Culture , Science, Statism

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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