Before mankind was created, God was deliberate in engineering an ideal environment. The ground was fertile, the vegetation lush, the air invigorating, and a pristine river flowed. The siting, land use, and topography of Eden were meticulously executed, and in that perfect environment, God required man to care for and maintain the beauty of his surroundings. Nature was a gift.
The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, and there He put the man whom He has formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food […] Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads. Then God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. (Genesis 2:8-16, NKJV)
Alas, sin entered, and the harmonious relationship between man and his environment was challenged. “[T]he Lord sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:23). Yet even in a world marred by sin, God’s love is still revealed in nature–spectacular sunsets, resplendent rainbows, and wondrous waters are only a few examples.
Amid man’s social and economic progress, history also records man’s contribution to environmental degradation. In the United States, before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, whose stated purpose was “to declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation.”
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is only seven pages in length, but it is one of the most comprehensive of all environmental laws passed by Congress; it has stood the test of time. NEPA declares that “The Congress recognizes that each person should enjoy a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.” Responsible care for the environment is a commitment which is often expressed in the form of legal mandates. Society depends on laws and regulations to preserve and/or restore a healthful environment.
Environmental agencies like the EPA face a very difficult balancing act in enforcing laws to protect human health and the environment. The EPA is often sued by environmental advocacy groups for failing to enforce and/or adequately implement laws and regulations. Industrial lobbyists, on the other hand, sue if regulations are deemed to be too burdensome. Environmental priorities have become very partisan, with the aforementioned purposes of NEPA embraced or overlooked depending on which political party is in power.
What should be the responsibility of Christians with regard to environmental stewardship? God expected Adam to preserve his surroundings before the fall and that expectation did not change after sin entered. “Do not be deceived,” Paul writes in Galatians 6:7, “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Even though human health impacts from environmental degradation may be latent, or the mechanism not clearly understood, this should not relieve the Christian of his/her obligation to be a good steward of the environment.
Even a breath of fresh air should not be taken for granted. Initially, residents paid little notice to the dense fog blanket over London on the cold Friday morning of December 5, 1952. Londoners had become accustomed to the many dense “pea-souper” fogs and smogs in the past. But on this fateful Friday, traffic and pedestrians were brought to a standstill. The sky became dark, and visibility was reduced to 3 feet in many parts of the city. Tens of thousands of people began to have trouble breathing. The fog persisted throughout the weekend and did not dissipate until Tuesday, December 9, 1952, But by then, however, over 4,000 people had perished.
The Great Smog caused over 150,000 people to be hospitalized; the death toll based on recent studies was over 12,000. Emissions from the burning of coal was known to be the cause of the smog, and thus the government’s initial response was to deny that it had any responsibility for the catastrophe. However, soon after the incident, Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister at the time, appointed Sir Hugh Beaver as Chairman of the Committee on Air Pollution to make recommendations. Beaver called for “a national effort” of “costs and sacrifices” to address “a social and economic evil which should no longer be tolerated.” The Great Smog led to the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956 by the British Parliament.
The exact chemical process that produced the Great Smog of 1952 were not clearly understood until recently, when a group of researchers tackling the problem of China’s severe air pollution published their findings in the 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. The danger of uncurbed emissions from coal burning was dire to the people of London over 60 years ago, and the present danger to the residents of the northern cities in China (including Beijing) is likewise real.
Many of the problems we face today with regard to environmental degradation are linked to human selfishness and greed. A denial that climate change exists is used by many, even many professed Christians, as an affront to not take responsibility. Some claim there is no definite link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming/climate change, even while there is great progress in the scientific understanding of climate change. As a Seventh-day Adventist Christian and a practicing environmental engineer, I am proud of the church’s official statement on “The Stewardship of the Environment,” published over 20 years ago.
Furthermore, in 1979, the National Research Council, the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S, reported on its investigation into the subject of carbon dioxide and climate change: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible […] A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.” However, it took a U.S Supreme Court case involving a lawsuit brought by twelve states and several cities 28 years later in 2007 to compel the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
Emission limitations by EPA regulations or otherwise may not reverse global warming, but as faithful stewards, this does not relieve us of our God-given duty to take steps to slow or reduce it, or to call for our elected officials to do the same. “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask more” (Luke 12:48, NKJV).