Access your downloads at our archive site. Visit Archive

Ugliness or Ignorance? Francis Schaeffer on the Environment

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
Share this

Francis Schaeffer certainly contributed a great deal to Christian thought in his writing on philosophy and theology. His influence is widespread, and no matter what the worldview issue, one can usually find a few salient comments by Schaeffer. Several years ago, while preparing to teach a course on environmental economics, I purchased a copy of Schaeffer’s little book Pollution and the Death of Man. In this newer edition, published eight years after his death, Schaeffer fairly effectively deals with alternatives to the Christian approach to the environment, such as pantheism. Schaeffer also responds to an attack on Christianity by Lynn White, who places blame for environmental problems on the God of the Bible. White complained that the Christian God required man to take dominion over the earth, placing man in a position superior to nature. Schaeffer maintained the distinction between man and nature, but contended that Christians should place a higher value on the creation because it also was made by God. This, Schaeffer wrote, should lead us to reduce pollution, choose technologies less intrusive into nature, and build a greener, more beautiful society.

In the thirty-two years since Schaeffer first wrote this book, a number of Christian environmentalist organizations have sprung up that continue to spread ideas similar to Schaeffer’s. We have despoiled the environment, they say, and we are morally bound to be more careful in our stewardship of God’s earth.

Once we begin to make attempts to apply these concepts, however, we encounter major problems. Running throughout Schaeffer’s short book — and the statements of modern evangelical environmentalists — is a serious oversight: how do we know how to make the inevitable tradeoffs between environmental purity (tending and keeping the garden) and human growth and development (being fruitful and multiplying)? There is nothing in Schaeffer’s book that describes a practical answer to that question.

Schaeffer writes that “the Christian church ought to…exhibit that in this present life man can exercise dominion over nature without being destructive.”

Why has strip mining usually turned the area where it has been used into desert? …What has brought about the ugly destruction of the environment? There is one reason: man’s greed.
If the strip miners would take bulldozers and push back the topsoil, rip out the coal, then replace the topsoil, ten years after the coal was removed there would be a green field, and in fifty years a forest. But as it has usually been practiced, for an added profit above what is reasonable in regard to nature, man turns these areas into deserts and then cries out that the topsoil is gone, grass will not grow, and there is no way to grow trees for hundreds of years!
It is always true that if you treat the land properly, you have to make two choices. The first is in the area of economics. It costs more money, at least at first, to treat the land well. For example, in the case of the school I have mentioned [Schaeffer had previously mentioned an ugly Christian school building that had no trees around it], all they had to do to improve the place was to plant trees to shield the building they built. But it costs money to plant trees, and somebody decided that instead of planting trees they would prefer to do something else with the money. Of course, the school needs money for its important work; but there is a time when planting trees is an important work.
The second choice that is involved is that it usually takes longer to treat the land properly. These are the two factors that lead to the destruction of our environment: money and time — or to say it another way, greed and haste. The question is, or seems to be, are we going to have an immediate profit and an immediate saving of time, or are we going to do what we really should do as God’s children?1

There are several problems with Schaeffer’s thoughts here. First, Schaeffer is offended by ugliness that results from a low-cost approach to strip mining (and other production processes). But he ignores the benefits of having inexpensive products available to consumers. The lower the costs in production, the lower the prices of final products will be. This means that everyone can enjoy a higher standard of living (i.e., longer, healthier lives, greater comfort, more education). Schaeffer does apparently recognize that there are tradeoffs between planting trees and education (or to state it negatively, ugliness and ignorance), and he claims to know that those tradeoffs are not being made appropriately. But you can’t beat something with nothing. How does Schaeffer know what the proper tradeoffs are?

Schaeffer wants profits to fall to allow for higher-cost, more aesthetically appealing approaches to production. To judge from this book, he has either equated profits with greed or deemed profits a useless option that can be dismissed if only the entrepreneur is willing to bear the sacrifice. Here, I am afraid, Schaeffer has made a serious error.

Profits are not equivalent to greed, and they are anything but useless. Economists say that profit is a reward, or payment, to an entrepreneur for his innovation, risk, and initiative. If the profit were smaller, without a corresponding decrease in risk and entrepreneurial labor, the entrepreneur would be getting paid less than the worth of his efforts in the marketplace. Probably Schaeffer would not have advocated paying someone less than the value of their work, but this is the logical outcome of his statements on profit.

Profits also serve as a signal to entrepreneurs — higher profits in an industry attract entrepreneurs and resources into an industry, and lower ones encourage them to go into another line of work. If profits no longer accurately reflect the relative needs for resources in their various potential employments, the information necessary to put resources toward their highest-valued uses is missing. Societies where the government has banned or restricted market profits have also suffered greater environmental damage, as formerly communistic Eastern Europe plainly demonstrates.

What about the long-run effects on the environment of a present concern for profit? As profits and standards of living increase, people tend to have a greater concern for the environment. So a long-run view may accommodate some marring of the earth in the present in order to achieve future wealth that will allow for a cleaning and preserving of the earth. It is possible that by cutting down trees for fuel and building materials now, the economy will grow so that in thirty or forty years, people can afford to use substitute resources and replant what they have cut down. Environmental purity and beauty can mesh with a market economy. In fact, the market encourages a long-run view much more so than politics, where the time horizon is limited by the term in office. Profits can be harnessed to the long-term benefit of the environment, if property rights are protected. Owners of wilderness land will find that people are willing to pay to view or camp on their land. Groups like the Nature Conservancy protect land by purchasing it or seeking out donations of land. The Nature Conservancy could not exist if there were no legal guarantees that what they acquired would remain in their control.

Schaeffer’s comment on time is problematic, as well. There is a tradeoff between time and money. You can do something slowly and cheaply, or spend more money to get it done faster. There is nothing necessarily wrong with working speedily; in fact it is generally desirable to get a job done quickly if it is not too expensive to do so and the quality does not suffer too much. Determining how expensive is “too expensive” and when quality has suffered “too much” is done by looking at the costs of production compared to the willingness of consumers to pay — in other words, market forces of supply and demand.

The market cannot be ignored as we seek to make good decisions about the use of resources. Prices, wages, and profits provide a way to “count the cost” of an endeavor — regarded by Jesus Christ as a necessary part of wise decision making (Luke 14:28). Sometimes doing “what we really should do as God’s children” is to gain “immediate profit” and an “immediate saving of time.” Frequently, that is evidence of good stewardship over our resources.


1. Francis A. Schaeffer and Udo Middelmann, Pollution and the Death of Man (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), 1992 [1970], pp. 81, 82.

  • 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.

More by Timothy D. Terrell