A Christian Approach to Sustainable Development

In affluent Australia today there is very strong support for environmental virtue, in particular for action to counter the perceived threat of climate change - primarily by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. This raises questions of public policy and cost. For the Christian it also raises the big question of what faithful stewardship of God's created world actually means, in practice.

My book Responsible Dominion sets out to do two things in grappling with the stewardship question:
  • challenge some green Christian waffle which has been published over the last 15 years, and suggest that a Christian approach should not only respect God's handiwork in creation - the focus on green and aesthetic aspects, but also encompass a practical understanding of the earth's resources, which are no less his handiwork. Furthermore it asserts that those resources are needed to give all the 6.5 billion inhabitants a standard of living comparable with ours.
  • challenge the basis of secular environmental ideology, which is fundamentally pagan and contemptuous of Christian priorities which understand humankind as made in God's image. That of course doesn't stop it being picked up by Christians and retailed into the churches, as it has been.
The substance of the book looks at what is practical and sustainable in relation to land use, agriculture, forestry, minerals and energy.

It makes the case that Christian stewardship of God's creation should involve attending to the human economy as well as natural ecology, to engineering as much as environment, to expanding the supply of minerals and energy as much as conservation and recycling.

Christians are in danger of being coopted to agendas which are churlish, implying that God has been less than bountiful in endowing the world with a super abundance of resources. Those agendas divert us from recognising that we need get our act together in mediating those abundant resources to the needy majority of his people on Earth.

Part of the reason that we don't is that we have all been conned for a long time by the notion that land and biodiversity is best protected by locking up large areas in national parks, by patronising attitudes to third world development projects, and so on.

I make the point that activist campaigns on environmental issues often lose sight of human need and that they drive the political process in wasteful or even counterproductive directions, through sustained misinformation. Junk science displaces proper consideration and regulation, which are bypassed by appeal to public outrage.

Against this values clash there seems to me an obvious need to embrace economic and technological development in order to achieve ecological salvation - or at least affordable sustainability. Misanthropic preoccupation with population growth leads to a counsel of despair, fanned by credulous media.

We need Christian assertion of a proper stewardship which affirms environmental care but does not place it at the centre of all meaning and purpose and above the issue of widening access to resources.

With "dominion" in Genesis 1 rendered as "responsibility" we are some of the way there. A proper theology will help put people, nature, technology and economics into proper and productive relationship. There is an urgent need for this, starting in the West.

The perspectives canvassed in the book are contentious on several fronts. Even among those who acknowledge God as creator and humankind as having some kind of stewardship role there are many different viewpoints and approaches. This provides both a challenge and opportunity for Christians to transcend entrenched positions by a preoccupation with Truth and a rejection of self interest.

I fundamentally disagree with those who portray human influence and interests as generally bad, inappropriate environmentally, and inevitably damaging. These usually assert "the environment" as being more important than people, which is not a position congenial to most Christians. On the other hand the environment - if that abstraction can be used as shorthand for some aspects of God's creation - does have particular intrinsic value and importance, and this is expounded.

There are some distinctives to a Christian view of stewardship of creation, and while it would be unrealistic to suggest that Christians were thereby divorced from the philosophical and other allegiances discussed, it is important that we can transcend them at least to some degree. The challenge is similar to that for Christians interacting with politics, not to be totally captive to any particular position, nor unable to see and appreciate issues from other perspectives.

Now that Australians are for the first time having to think about energy and water questions as intensely as Europeans have for some years, it is a good opportunity for Christians to join the fray and bring some more sense to the public debate than any of the activist groups are capable of.

I hope that the book will help readers establish firm Christian rather than a second-hand pagan understanding of God's creation and abundant provision so that they can contend for its care and use, and more gratefully worship its creator.



Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, 2006,
Regent College press, Vancouver , ISBN 1573833428 (50,000 words, 170 pp, $28.95 at Ridley College bookshop).


Ian Hore-Lacy is an Anglican layman, member of St Alfred's, North Blackburn and All Souls Langham Place, London. He is a biologist, environmental scientist and is responsible for two web sites providing information on nuclear power and associated issues, which involves keeping up to date over one hundred papers totalling over 400,000 words for the World Nuclear Association. He has written a number of books, the latest being the one discussed here, and the 8th edition of an earlier book as: Nuclear Energy in the 21st Century (World Nuclear University and Elsevier 2006).