Species extinction

May 16, 2010

How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the beasts and the birds are swept away, and because the people said, “He is blind to our ways.”  (Jeremiah 12:4)

On May 10 the United Nations Secretariat on the Convention of Biological Diversity released its third Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3). The situation is dire. Here’s just one excerpt from the section on Species populations and extinction risks:

“Species in all groups with known trends are, on average, being driven closer to extinction, with amphibians facing the greatest risk and warm water reef-building corals showing the most rapid deterioration in status. Among selected vertebrate, invertebrate and plant groups, between 12% and 55% of species are currently threatened with extinction. Species of birds and mammals used for food and medicine are on average facing a greater extinction risk than those not used for such purposes. Preliminary assessments suggest that 23% of plant species are threatened.”

At this rate, we humans in the not too distant future will have brought a close to a geological epoch—not just the Holocene, which began 14,000 years ago with the retreat of the Wisconsin ice sheets, but the Cenozoic, one of the three classic geological eras, which began with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago. ‘Cenozoic’ means ‘new life.’ The new age we are ushering in will be called the Kenozoic: NO life.

Mass extinction at human hands poses two literally earth-shattering challenges to biblically grounded Christian eco-prophets and eco-ministers. The first challenge questions the basic premise of Christian earth stewardship; the second alerts us to the threat of Christian apocalypticism.

If we are stewards of the earth—that is, if God has given into our hands the care of God’s world as stewards, rather than as sovereign owners, which is what the secular world and even most Christians assume—we must ask ourselves at what point in our management are we obliged by our status as stewards to ask the Owner for permission before we proceed?

Take the passenger pigeon, once one of the most populous bird species in North America. This glorious bird had been glorifying its Creator for 65 million years when we wiped it off the face of creation. (“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 19:1, the passage most often quoted by earth stewardship writers to illustrate the principle that creation glorifies God, and therefore so should we, in our stewardship.) Surely, we owed it to creation’s sovereign owner to ask permission before we destroyed this creature’s worship. For destroying worship is Satan’s work, as Tony Campolo has pointed out in How to Rescue the Earth without Worshipping Nature. Can you imagine God saying, sure, go ahead; wipe ‘em out. I was tired of that bird’s worship, anyway.

So maybe we already know the answer to that question. But let’s keep looking at the practicality of stewardship process. Because the question of asking permission only raises new questions: How would we ask God for permission? How would we receive an answer? And how would we know that the answer we got is from God?

Only two Christian communities even have institutions and processes in place to deal with these questions of stewardship practice: the Roman Catholic Church and the Quakers. If the Pope got it, then that’s that. For Quakers (I am one), the problem is a little more complicated, but theoretically, some Quaker could be led by the spirit of Christ to take up the cause of species extinction and could, theoretically, eventually, convince the entire community that something must be done, as happened in the 18th century with human slavery.

The second great challenge is the threat of Christian apocalypticism. This is a big topic, too big to continue here.  So I’ll take it up in subsequent postings. But it boils down to this: what happens when the pace of eco-collapse really ramps up and the locations of eco-collapses move from distant regions like the coral reefs off northern Australia to the heartland of conservative Christianity. That is, what happens when the Apocalypse actually does look immanent? What can we expect from communities that believe that God has promised to destroy the earth as one of God’s last saving acts? What happens when the violent psycho-drama of Left Behind comes to our own back yard?


The disastrous ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news for days (is it weeks?). Energy is one of those areas that lie at the very center of our lives today on which the Bible is virtually silent. Pollution is another one. I’ve been reading biblical analysis and commentary for two decades—dozens of books and articles. Not once have I read a description of energy sources or human waste management in ancient Israel or Judea. Not once.

Books on the Dead Sea scrolls sometimes mention this because the Essenes were obsessed with ritual purity and went to extreme measures to manage their waste. Thus, we know that Gehenna, the word that the Bible usually translates as “hell” in the sayings of Jesus, was Jerusalem’s municipal landfill, where human waste was dumped (including unclaimed bodies). It was a deep, narrow ravine just outside the city that was once the site of Canaanite human sacrifice. It was always kept burning. The Essenes had their own gate in the city wall near Gehenna, just outside of which they had built a complex of latrines and baths. You couldn’t do that stuff inside the walls of the sacred city.

Thus, people concerned about the health and restoration of our landbases who look to the Bible for support, maybe even for guidance, are forced to abstract principles from scattered passages that sort of apply and that, when you look just below the surface, often have meanings and associations that compromise the positive message you were digging for in the first place. The Bible just has very little to say, and almost nothing comprehensive or coherent to say, about land use. (On the other hand, it has a lot to say about land tenure; but that’s another post.)

Jesus has nothing at all to say about land use (but is deeply preoccupied with land tenure). Earth stewardship writers often mention how full of agricultural metaphors his parables are and quote his stewardship parables: the parable of the tenants, Mt 21:33-44; the faithful servant, Mt 24:45-51; the shrewd manager, Lk 16:1-8; the master and his servant, Lk 17:7-10. But these parables aren’t about land use, they’re about economics (secondarily) and about judgment, primarily. The message is that bad stewards will pay. When? At the final judgment.

This is one of the deepest flaws in Christian earth stewardship thinking so far. This theology has grown up inside the sin-salvation paradigm of traditional Christian thinking, in which consequences for sin are deferred to after death (for the individual) and to the endtimes, for civilization. Having thrown out Torah under Paul’s misguidance (at least from the ecologist’s perspective), Christians have abandoned any meaningful covenantal framework for holding each other accountable in real time. As a result, Christian environmentalists have nothing concrete to offer when it comes to accountability—on virtually any topic, let alone environmental policy. So they leave it to the state.

Presumably, some of the executives responsible in the various companies involved in the current oil spill crisis attend church, love God, and even fear judgment. But how can their congregations hold them accountable for their lapses given their community’s eschatology, the belief that God is in charge of all consequences, and that that will all happen—later. Much later.

I have read lots of books on Christian earth stewardship and these writers very consistently try to recover the language of covenant in their work. But they have done very little to develop practical models for accountability at any level—the congregation, the regional synod or diocese, the denomination, or the macro-ecumenical organizations. With no models, no meaningful institution building has been done, either.

The one exception I’ve read about is a movement in Africa, which has green prophets who guide the development of land use and actually police family practice. This is mostly about soil erosion and deforestation, if I remember correctly. I also seem to remember that some aspects of this movement made me very uncomfortable. But it’s worth looking at, I think. Maybe I’ll have to find that reference and read it again.