The first time I heard about Earth Day was when it interrupted my Saturday morning cartoons. I was probably seven or eight at the time, and this particular weekend NBC decided to air one of their NBC All Star type shows. This one featured the Huxtable family talking about how we shouldn’t be taking long showers as it wastes water. This was a way we could take care of Planet Earth. Next, came the announcement at school: because we had to do our part to care for the planet, we’d be spending a couple hours on Earth Day cleaning up trash in the school yard and the surrounding neighborhood.
Things escalated from there: recycling clubs (yep, I’m old enough to remember when recycling was a new thing), more posters, more TV specials, Ferngully, and Captain Planet:
As a child, I was heavily exposed to the fear of global warming and acid rain. But it didn’t really change my life that much. Nor did it really seem to change the habits of anyone else I knew, either. But I did slowly see it starting to change how people wanted to present themselves. Though there was little overt pressure, people seemed to want to appear to be environmentally conscious, even if they didn’t really care all that much.
Because thinking about something is just as good as doing it, right?
But over the years, I noticed a change as the message shifted and the rhetoric took on a more overtly religious tone. The local coffee shops put up posters exposing the dangers of styrofoam cups and their continued existence over the next 1000 years in landfills (despite only having been invented in the 1940s). Garbage and recycling programs have escalated to require separate bagging of items—paper, plastic and metal, compost, and other (yet still crushed in the same bins in the pickup truck). Our government has even got in on the action, instituting environmental fees on your electronic products (a sure sign of environmentalism being mainstream). Earth is no longer the place we live, but “the mother of my mother,” and the use of fossil fuel is comparable to human slavery.
And then there’s the public schools. I’ll be honest, even though I noticed the changes in behavior, it didn’t really hit home until a few years ago, when my daughter came home from school with a handout that talked about how we were hurting the earth because we drove cars, and should really be using public transit or bicycles instead. This led to the following conversation:
Abigail: “We shouldn’t drive our car. We should take the bus.”
Me: “Okay… So, let me ask you something. Does your teacher take the bus to school?”
Me: “Does she ride a bike?”
Me: “So how does she get there?”
Abigail: “She drives.”
Me: “So does that mean your teacher is bad?”
Me: “So if your teacher isn’t bad for driving a car, then why are we bad for driving one?”
Abigail: *Lightbulb moment*
Now, obviously, I’m not going to declare we should all start driving gas-guzzlers to the arctic circle for a wild weekend of seal hunting. I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying don’t bother recycling (even if I question its efficacy at times). But as we come up to Earth Day and the increase in environmental messages and rhetoric, I want us to consider the question:
What does it really teach?
The more I consider it, the more I wonder if what it really teaches is that humanity is simultaneously the problem, and the solution. We are to be our own saviors, even as we lament our existence. Our world is overpopulated.1 We are consuming our resources at an unheard of rate and within the next 50-ish years, we’ll be running out of water, fossil fuels and possibly even air, as the doomsday prophesying goes. We’ve gotten ourselves into a horrible mess, and we are the only ones who can get ourselves out of it.
Notice the religious contours of this: there’s a state of perfection that’s been lost. There’s a problem to be resolved. And there’s a promised salvation from the problem we face. The problem, of course, is it all centers on us. It’s a religious system without God.
This sort of environmental hoobity-boobity is rooted in what Peter Jones would call Oneism—a radical rejection of the Creator/creation distinction. Because we ignore or outright reject the Creator—the one who created all things and supplies all our needs—the creation becomes the object of our worship. Thus, environmentalism becomes a matter of life and death.
And this religious devotion is fundamentally what Christians must reject. We are not worshippers of the creation. We have dominion over it. Not to abuse, but to carefully use its resources as God’s image bearers—his representatives—in the creation. So what does this mean for us?
1. We don’t worship the earth. A Christian caring about the environment is a good thing. But we must reject anything that smacks of placing any created thing (including the planet) in a position it does not deserve.
2. We consume responsibly. As I’ve written elsewhere, while I’m skeptical that a styrofoam cup in a landfill will still exist in 15,000 years, I’m all for being responsible as a consumer. Don’t buy more than you need. Buy things that last. Just because you can be conspicuous in your consumption doesn’t mean you should be.
3. We trust the Lord to provide for all our needs. If God provides for us—if he makes it rain on the just and unjust alike—then we have nothing to fear. Ever. This means it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever run out of clean drinking water, or appropriate fuels, or lose the ability to produce food to eat. Our problems around these things really have more to do with distribution than actual shortages (even in the case of California).
As wonderful as the earth is, it does not deserve our devotion. There is only one who does, and that is our Creator, the maker of the heavens and earth. Caring for the environment is a good thing, but only if we understand it in relationship with the ultimate thing.