It is not a mistake to draw enough attention to the cultural impact environmentalism has made on our culture. Within the last 30 years the Western mind has developed a deep and often plagued environmental conscience that is a long way from being alleviated. To be sure, like most ideas, environmentalism has been around in various forms, but it has not become a current of mainstream thought for no reason. Its underpinnings are tied to a larger web of cultural shifts that have emerged at a stunningly rapid rate.
Critics of postmodernism do not seem to realize that its twin cultural mooring is environmentalism. When critics spend most of their time arguing over the nature of truth and valid authority, insisting postmodernism leaves on with 'feet firmly planted the air' of relativism, the pragmatic expression of postmodern being is lost.
Environmentalism stems naturally from postmodern thought in that it follows from the repudiation of 'man being the measure of all things.' For example, returning to the subject of epistemology with which critics are so disturbed, postmodernism argues that, unlike the modern knowing project, knowledge does not proceed from first principles or foundations that ultimately give one a 'God's eye view' of reality. We have no privileged place free from the subjectivity of our perspective that allows us such a pristine place of certainty. Thus, the human individual is not at the center of the project of knowing. We are part of a larger web of beliefs that co-exist, often in isolation from one another, relegating us to a status of tribalism.
What does this have to do with environmentalism? The same principle, or the denial of which, that 'man is the measure of all things.' In modernism, man's consciousness was enamored with the idea of progress that ultimately meant the domination of his (and her) environment. The idea of progress worked itself out in many ways, political and economic, that inevitably lead to two World Wars, scores of oppressive regimes, and episodic genocide that brought unimaginable suffering into the world. For the environment, technology dominated ecology and brought similar ruinous effects.
An anecdote may be of help with a memory of a film shown in my middle school biology class. As Mr. Scientist pontificated the wonders of technology for the advance of medicine and genetics in the face of skeptics mired in the thinking of the Dark Ages, he gave illustration after illustration of the possibilities of human achievement. One of his more breathtaking examples was imagining atomic powered heaters in the Hudson Bay making it a year-round warm water port. Even at the tender age of 13 many of the children chuckled as we were all conscientiously aware of the disastrous effects such a scheme could entail. Chernobyl shattered the dreams of the Atomic Age.
With this disillusionment came a displaced sense of self. Perhaps we were not the highest and most center point in creation. Even within the blind and random process of evolution, humanity boastfully interpreted itself as the strongest most able species at the top of the food chain. Yet with postmodernism, scientific reflection has dismissed this as a fairytale. We are simply another offshoot of the evolutionary tree. Or so the story goes.
Environmentalism thus construed the human self as simply a conscious element within the grand scheme of ecology. If it was observed that the ozone layer was thinning, aerosol cans were discarded. If species were going extinct, vigorous campaigns to save their habitats were waged rebuffing the interests that destroyed them. Our role as humans shifted from progress to co-existence. Collaboration rather than domination is how we relate to the environment.
Today environmentalism is a force to be reckon with that has the power to bind consciences not unlike the medieval systems of merit the Church imposed on despairing sinners. Theologically, this has turned into pantheistic expressions that more or less see humanity as a problem or a parasite. Original sin is corporately partaking in the destructive overpopulation of the environment by simply being born. Penance is paid through technological and economic sacrifice. Atonement is a barbarous idea that has been discarded. There is no peace, or at least there shouldn't be, for the wicked: those that contribute to our planet's demise.
If you think I am exaggerating, just ask the 25 year old woman who confessed to me her incredible guilt over driving a VW Bug. She is no fool. She is an Oxford graduate with a degree in environmental science who now works in politics.
Within Christianity, the reaction to environmentalism has been understandably negative. The historic faith will not suffer the notion that its cherished beliefs are seen as part of the problem. Being made in the image of God is thought to be the cause of our environmental folly. The mandate to 'subdue the earth' is tantamount to heresy. We are not 'higher' but 'different.'
For postmodern Christians the compatibility between environmentalism and the way of Jesus is not a problem. For better or worse postmodern Christianity, as expressed in the so-called "emerging church," has accommodated to environmental policies that make "getting green" a priority in the hierarchies of social justice. Though usually thought of as a wedge issue used to divide a Republican voting base, or an economic straightjacket on the free market, traditional Christians of the evangelical ilk are conflicted. They rightly see the ugliness and worthlessness of an ideology that sees humanity as a scourge made a little lower than the animals, yet they correctly realize that the persistence of human rebellion against God brings ruin to the created order. And so the creation groans in eager expectation of redemption.
Paul's understanding of creation inexorably leads to what I would call a chastened environmentalism. Human beings are still the center of God's plan - a God who is distinct from and sovereign over the created order - who works all things together for the good that will ultimately liberate the creation from bondage and decay (Romans 8:18-30). Under God, man becomes servant, not to himself, but to those around him, and thus becomes a steward of all that belongs to God. We may debate the specifics, but this mandate calls for a deeper commitment to be informed of the problems our environment faces that go beyond worldly politics.