Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer
The sub-discipline of environmental ethics has seen a torrent of publications in the past few years, with volumes that claim to present an authentically Christian version of environmentalism. Most of the books have juxtaposed a basic theological foundation for environmental stewardship with accepted scientific data to make ethical pronouncements consistent with those of explicitly non-Christian sources. The ethical methodology used by many of these authors tends to be utilitarian, rather than theological. This means that the majority of the books on Christian environmentalism tend to backfit theological concepts to previously accepted conclusions.
Kathryn Blanchard and Kevin O’Brien present a different approach to Christian environmentalism. They seek to engage this important contemporary issue using virtue ethics as the model. Their approach builds on what Steven Bouma-Prediger began to do in his book, For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), by applying virtue ethics to the environment. However, Blanchard and O’Brien use a more fully developed approach that builds on the seven classical virtues and the now expansive literature of Christian environmental ethics.
Based on their ethical formulation, the volume is constructed in a predictable fashion. After a brief introduction, the authors lay out their argument in eight chapters, followed by a concise conclusion. The first chapter details the failure of many ethical approaches to helpfully solve moral problems. O’Brien and Blanchard recognize that environmental ethics is not, as many seem to believe, a puzzle that has one universal answer for all time and situations. This is helpful in avoiding a fundamentalism on either side of the ethical spectrum, whether libertine or legalistic. Their introduction expresses a concern to legitimately listen and engage in conversation with different perspectives in hopes of finding the so-called golden mean.
Once the basic framework is laid, Blanchard and O’Brien isolate each of the virtues in a chapter, addressing prudence, courage, temperance, justice, faith, hope and love, respectively. While considering each of the seven virtues, the authors select several positions they feel illustrate the issue that must be navigated. For example, in the chapter on courage, they emphasize being courageous in choosing a lifestyle that balances the impact of energy usage against the benefits that lifestyle provides. They highlight three perspectives on energy usage: T. Boone Pickens’ lobbying for balanced energy production that includes fossil fuels, Bill McKibben’s advocacy for a diminished lifestyle that abstains from fossil fuel use, and Brayton Shanley’s promotion of an ascetic lifestyle that attempts to drastically reduce all energy consumption. Similarly, in the chapter on the virtue of faith, Blanchard and O’Brien present the basic options as faith in individual action to change consumption habits, faith in political action to preserve the environment, and faith in technological innovation to solve climate change. Ultimately, they do point toward faith in God being necessary for all three possible solutions, but their focus is on the three perspective that really have little intercourse with an explicitly Christian worldview.
By discussing the virtues in this manner – presenting different views using the same virtue as a unifying theme – the authors appear to be presenting various positions in order to enable legitimate conversation. This is helpful and represents one of the most significant strengths of the book. While many of the volumes published in environmental ethics tend to be combative in their opposition to other positions, Blanchard and O’Brien strike a much more helpful note. They recognize the complexity of the environmental issues and encourage virtuous balance between extremes. They also repeatedly call for an end to apocalyptic predictions from all sides and mutual respect even when there are vast differences in worldview. These aspects make this book one of the most helpful books on environmental ethics I have read recently, with hopes that future efforts along this vein will begin to heal the rift between perspectives and encourage co-belligerence where possible.
Ultimately, the degree of success that can be attributed to this book will largely be dependent upon the reader’s assessment of the value of virtue ethics as an ethical methodology. The chief problem of using virtue ethics as a primary approach to Christian ethics is that it tends to divorce the decision making process from the norms of Scripture. This, for instance, permits the authors to accept acts of vandalism by activists like Dave Foreman and his Earth First! movement, which has claimed responsibility for driving bulldozers off of cliffs, bombings, and other destructive actions. Instead of recognizing that these methodologies defy the respect of private property that is represented by the eighth commandment of the Decalogue, the authors note, “Because Christian environmentalism beyond fundamentalism means taking multiple perspectives seriously despite the fact that we may disagree with them, it is crucial to acknowledge that all these environmentalists act from love” (pg. 162). In this case, the reduction of Christian ethics to a pursuit of virtues results in a situational ethic that has largely lost sight of the biblical foundations of Christian morality. Untethering virtue from the deontological foundation of Scripture permits an ethical drift that appears to allow the acceptance of sin or the notion that scriptural norms can conflict, both of which have implications that undermine a robust Christology.
Additionally, seeking the golden mean implies that the poles are chosen correctly. However, Blanchard and O’Brien demonstrate this is not a given. In their discussion of the virtue of hope, the authors offer two poles to mediate between: (1) fear of overpopulation and (2) fear of excessive government oppression to control population growth. This assessment only works if the reader assumes, as Blanchard and O’Brien do, that overpopulation is a major concern (pg. 135). While they point to a mediating view between the two poles they identify, in this case it is not clear they have selected two truly extreme positions. The two extreme positions would more likely be: (1) fear of overpopulation and (2) fear that diminished reproduction results in failure to robustly fulfill the mandate to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth (cf. Gen 1:28). The risk of choosing the incorrect poles demonstrates the fundamental problem in isolating a simple methodological approach to complex ethical issues. It points toward the necessity of more complex ethical schemes such as those developed by John Frame (Doctrine of the Christian Life. Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R, 2008) and David W. Jones (An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2013).
Despite its weaknesses, An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics is a valuable contribution to the ongoing conversation. The weaknesses of the book are largely those native to virtue ethics. However, the encouragement to engage in dialogue with dissenting perspectives and pursue well-reasoned environmental stewardship reflects a more thoroughly Christian appreciation of neighbor-love and cultural engagement than many other recent works that have a more dogmatic and apocalyptic approach. As the discussion continues, this book will likely be relevant in shaping a robust Christian ethics of environment.
Andrew J. Spencer
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
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An Introduction To Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, And Ethics