Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day and its Detractors

Stop worshipping that blue heron!
What is it with you Earth Day types!?
Today, April 22nd, is Earth Day. Established by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970, Earth Day is now an international event devoted to environmental issues. Earth Day events abound, intended to raise consciousness about our relationship with the natural world.

Predictably, some Religious Right figures have voiced their displeasure with Earth Day and environmentalism, which they brand as allegedly anti-Christian. As we celebrate Earth Day, we should also be aware of its detractors and the myths circulating about environmentalism.

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You were worshipping this bird,
weren't you? Knock it off.
I mean it.
First, at his Vision Forum blog, Doug Phillips posted a commentary entitled "A Christian Response to Earth Day: Understanding the 4 Lies of the Radical Environmental Movement." Phillips insists that many modern people are "earth worshippers" and "sanitized pantheists" in their alleged religious devotion to the natural world. Pantheism, he claims, is not only at the core of the green movement, but has also seeped into entertainment, advertising, politics, and schools. Earth Day, supposedly, is a holy day in honor of the "earth God". In other worlds, Phillips associates environmentalism with pagan Earth worship and pantheism, assuming that it is antithetical to Christianity. The fact that most environmentalists are not pagans, and that plenty of green Christians and ecotheologians have reconciled faith and environmental awareness seems to have escaped him. To boot, he assumes that Earth worship is automatically negative, which many modern-day neo-pagans would disagree with!

Phillips accuses the environmental movement of promoting four lies: (1) Earth is our mother, (2) human life holds no greater intrinsic value than animal life, (3) environmental harm is the greatest crisis facing humanity, and (4) environmental problems will lead to an end of life on Earth unless public policy and private practices change. In doing so, Phillips makes sweeping assumptions about the environmental movement that do not necessary reflect reality. For instance, not all environmentalists would agree with statement #2, which is reflective of biocentric ethics (i.e., deep ecology) but not of anthropocentric or virtue ethics approaches to the environment.

In response to these alleged "lies", Phillips lists four Christian assumptions about Earth: (1) Earth is a reminder of the power of God, but only God is to be worshipped, (2) Earth was made for the glory of God and the benefit of humans, who are the pinnacle of God's creation and who have far greater intrinsic value than animals or the planet, (3) Earth is under human dominion, and humans have a moral obligation to be wise stewards, and (4) Humanity's fallen state is a bigger problem than Earth, as God has promised that the planet will be stable until the end of time.

I beg to differ. Like it or not, humans share the planet with a multitude of living creatures and ecosystems deserving of ethical consideration. For argument's sake, even if we only award intrinsic value to humans, we cannot ignore the devastating impact of environmental harm on human society. Nuclear plant crises, pollution, and ozone layer depletion have been shown to have significant public health consequences, and climate change may have a serious impact on public health as well. If we care about human flourishing, we need to take environmental issues seriously.

Visit www[dot]visionforum[dot]com/news/blogs/doug/2011/04/9402/ to read his entire commentary. (Hat tip to Julie Ingersoll at Religion Dispatches.)

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Second, conservative Christian news website OneNewsNow posted an article discussing a Culture and Media Institute study on media coverage of Earth Day. On its website, the Culture and Media Institute alleges that the U.S. media has covered Earth Day in a positive light, while "bashing" the Catholic church over clergy abuse scandals and supposedly airing few positive Easter stories. (See www[dot]mrc[dot]org/cmi/eyeonculture/2011/Holy_Week_Media_Worship_Earth_Day_Attack_Easter.html)

The whole thing left me scratching my head. Why is coverage of the clergy abuse scandal a bad thing? Why is the article framing Earth Day and Easter as somehow competing for media attention?

The Culture and Media Institute website had more to say. In an article entitled "Good Friday: Google Celebrates Earth, Ignores Jesus", Erin R. Brown accuses Google of supporting "liberal eco-celebration" and ignoring Good Friday. Criticizing the animated nature scene on Google's search engine page, Brown lambastes Google for allegedly worshipping nature rather than God. (See www[dot]mrc[dot]org/cmi/articles/2011/Good_Friday_Google_Celebrates_Earth_Ignores_Jesus.html)

I saw the animation on the Google site, and frankly, I have no idea how anyone could interpret happy animal art as a form of Earth worship.

AHA! Caught you worshipping
this boat-tailed grackle! Stop it.
This is your last warning

Brown also claims that Earth Day was a creation of the "anti-hippy war movement" and "spawned" in part by the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Actually, the environmentalist movement that "spawned" Earth Day has roots from long before the hippies or Silent Spring. See the Environmental History Timeline and the Environmental History journal for more information.

These two articles, which present Earth Day as somehow in competition with Good Friday and Easter, baffled me. Honoring Earth Day does not necessarily detract from Good Friday and Easter for Christians. Can't people of faith celebrate both?

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Fine. Go ahead and worship your
stupid landscape. You're not
listening to me anyway.
Finally, Concerned Women for America posted an audio interview with Cornwall Alliance founder E. Calvin Beisner the day before Earth Day. CWA president Wendy Wright and Beisner discussed Resisting the Green Dragon, a curriculum designed by the Cornwall Institute that accuses environmentalism of harming the poor and promoting unbiblical ideas.

During the interview, Beisner complained about a pervasive environmentalist movement that is allegedly anti-Christian, detrimental to the poor, and prone to using poor economics and science. As evidence that environmentalism is harmful to the poor, he cited a study by Indur M. Goklany linking global demand for biofuels to increased poverty and disease in developing countries. He also accused environmentalists of promoting "population restrictions", but did not name any groups or individuals who allegedly do so.

Much to my surprise, Beisner spoke positively of DDT as a cheap way to eliminate malaria-carrying mosquitoes, chiding environmentalists for banning DDT and allegedly allowing millions of people to die from malaria.

However, the DDT debate isn't nearly that simple. In a commentary at the Washington Post, entomologist May Berenbaum observes that mosquitoes have developed DDT resistance in many locations. In a 2007 statement, the World Health Organization recommended DDT for indoor residual spraying only, noting that its accumulation in the environment and tissues of exposed organisms creates concerns about possible long-term toxicity. In 2009, a panel of scientists from South Africa and the U.S. urged caution regarding DDT use due to its toxicity, recommending that safer alternatives should be tested and used in place of DDT if efficacious. Finally, what about less toxic means of killing mosquitoes, such as larvicides? In my opinion, to advocate for the use of DDT without discussing the risks it poses to public health and the environment is irresponsible.

Beisner claimed that environmentalists are targeting U.S. churches, singling out the National Religious Partnership for the Environment for their supposed "theological compromise." Claiming that the NRPE's message is not truly Biblical, Beisner accused the group of infiltrating churches, greening pulpits, and indoctrinating children in environmentalism.

Beisner urged parents to look at their children's textbooks and school curriculum and compare them to supposedly good information, such as that in Resisting the Green Dragon. He favorably noted a lecture in the series by Michael Farris, co-founder of Homeschool Legal Defense Association, on the environmentalist "indoctrination" of young people via schools, government programs, and entertainment.

In short, the CWA podcast with E. Calvin Beisner cast environmentalism in a negative light as a supposedly anti-Christian force polluting American culture. In demonizing environmentalism, he makes sweeping generalizations that ignore the movement's many facets. In labeling environmentalism as anti-Christian, he belittles the contributions of Christian ecotheologians and green Christians who have discovered intersections between environmentalism and faith. Most importantly, in accusing environmentalism of harming the poor, he ignores the environmental justice movement, which advocates for low-income and minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental damage.

To listen to the CWA podcast, visit www[dot]cwfa[dot]org/content.asp?id=20195. For additional commentary on E. Calvin Beisner and Resisting the Green Dragon, check out "The ‘Green Dragon’ Slayers: How the Religious Right and the Corporate Right are Joining Forces to Fight Environmental Protection" by People for the American Way.

As jarring as these examples are, I still feel hopeful this Earth Day. In spite of the efforts of some Religious Right figures, more and more people are taking environmental issues seriously. Let's hold onto that realization and work together to make our planet cleaner and safer.


  1. Fabulous post. You totally caught me worshipping those gorgeous birds ... and that incredible landscape.

    I'm afraid this constant exposure through your blog to crazy irrational fundie Christians has forced me to conclude that "bird brain" is, indeed, a compliment. Now I admittedly worship the Almighty Blue Heron, the god of both reason and responsible environmentalism.

  2. Cognitive Dissenter -- Thanks. Almighty Blue Heron will be pleased with your piety and pure heart.

  3. I'll never understand the bizarre aversion Christianists have to environmental causes. The Bible said humans were to be stewards of the earth. Furthermore, it only makes sense to take care of the planet as we depend on it for our very lives. This notion that we can do whatever the heck we want; pollute, let entire species go extinct, use natural resources until they're gone, etc--and nothing will happen because god's got it all under control--is woefully shortsighted and dangerous.

  4. Buffy -- A loud and resounding AMEN! Humans are dependent upon the planet for our survival, so it is in our best interest to keep the planet in good working order. Now if we could just convince fundamentalists ...

  5. Great post! I'm always confused at how some people think that the environment and religion are irreconcilable. You don't have to pray to the earth to take care of it.

  6. Loni -- Thanks! I don't understand their closed-mindedness either.


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