Christianity and Environmentalism

With the recent release of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, the connection between Christian thought and Environmentalism is being thrown into the spotlight. The two, while compatible, haven’t always had the most symbiotic relationship. Environmentalism is often criticized as idolization of the planet, which is a valid fear when forgetting to recycle that cardboard cereal box is considered by some to be grounds for moral judgment. At the same time, discussion about faithful stewardship of creation can help us as Christians to view natural resources as a gift from God, and help us to be grateful in the small acts of daily life. There is a balance to be struck here. To really dig into what this balance might look like, and why it is so important, I highly recommend reading the encyclical.

Here, however, I want to take a minute to look at what Christian Environmentalism can teach us about living in cooperation, not only with God, but with our fellow human beings, especially those who do not have faith.

When it comes to living an environmentally friendly lifestyle, there are different ways of reducing your impact. Purchasing sustainable, biodegradable, and organic products is one. This option, while it often costs more, allows a consumer to reduce his negative effect on the environment, without having to sacrifice convenience. Choosing these products, if you can afford to, is good. I have no doubts that unprocessed lifestyles are healthier for many, if not all parties involved.  

Before Sprouts and Whole Foods became the backbone of green living, however, being environmentally friendly was a matter of applying a few simple principles to your daily life: reduce, reuse, and recycle. The idea was not to make the waste we produce safe for wildlife to ingest, but to actually reduce the amount of waste we produce.

This idea fits remarkably well with Christian teaching. When we use what we consume the planet doesn’t have to provide as much space for our waste, there is more to go around to those who need it, and we are not storing up treasures in this world that will be of no use to us in the next.

And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he though to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?

            —Luke 12:15-20

When we consume intentionally we take the time to consider whether something is necessary or superfluous. We apply this question not only to products directly connected with environmentalism, such as gas, but to the amount of clothing we purchase (and the amount that spends years in the back of our closet). We think about the amount of food we buy (and the amount we scrape off our plates at the end of a meal). We think about how often we will really use the latest tech gadgets, or if we really need more décor to sit on our shelves. Let it be clear, the point here is not to live a drab life with white walls and 3 outfits for the sake of less waste, but to put thought into our intake of ‘stuff’ and to realize when we have enough.

This lifestyle in which enough is enough, not only helps us to reduce the amount of waste we contribute to the environment, but also puts us on common ground with those who are extraordinarily concerned about our planet. This lifestyle opens doors for companionship and recognition of a shared mission as we all try to live peacefully with one another. This lifestyle recognizes we all share a common home, and speaks to others, acknowledging your willingness to live simply with a reasonable share of resources. This lifestyle, lived with joy, shouts to the world the emptiness of things. As Thomas Dubay says in his book Happy Are You Poor, “We need people who in their way of life challenge the prevailing false ideologies bearing upon the production, distribution, and use of material goods” (85).

Even with the new encyclical (which, again, I highly recommend) Christianity and Environmentalism are likely to continue butting heads. And while there are still many conversations to be had, finding common ground to stand on will make the process a lot easier. I invite you to take a look at your life, and start taking the time to think before you buy, before you put more food on your plate, before you grab the paper plates, and make intentional choices. I invite you to live simply, and to be joyful. And I invite you to invite others, especially those who are working to protect the environment into that life. Perhaps, just as everything in nature is interconnected, we can start something small that just might help save the world.