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Bumper Sticker Environmentalism

Moving Beyond Earth Day Sloganism
by Jordan J. Ballor 5/1/07

Every year the days and weeks leading up to Earth Day are filled with news reports about the latest trends in going "green." And more often than not, the media attention is characterized by the kind of slogans better fit for bumper stickers than the formulation of public policy. This is why in the weeks and months following Earth Day the conversation among evangelicals, the broader Christian community, and indeed, the entire public square needs to move beyond mere sloganism to substantive debate about what it really means to care for the environment.

Nowhere has this confusion of environmental stewardship and superficial mottoes been more apparent than in the debate about global climate change. In many cases the entire cause of "creation care," a term preferred by many evangelical Christians, has been conflated with the issue of climate change, so that a person or group's attitude toward the environment is defined wholly by their overt action to combat global warming.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. [go to Ballor index]

In an Earth Day column last week that was skeptical about the gospel of global warming consensus, Glenn Shaw, a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, expressed hoped that the climate change debate might spark a more comprehensive conversation about humankind's complex environmental responsibilities. In fact the opposite seems to be happening: the activist buzz over global warming is reducing the broader concept of environmental stewardship to a litmus-test on climate change.

The exhaustive reality of the responsibility for caring for the earth goes beyond single-issue activism. And far too frequently even these single-issue campaigns are depicted in an unacceptably simplistic fashion.

Here are three brief examples. One of the most common symbolic gestures for political figures and community leaders to engage in on Earth Day is to plant a tree. And the push to plant trees has grown in strength as the potential for reforestation to offset carbon emissions, effectively sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, has become better understood.

But the reality is that simply planting a tree, or even a whole forest, might at best have no net effect and at worst could even accelerate global warming. A deeper perspective on reforestation techniques shows that where you plant the tree might matter more than planting the tree itself. New trees at higher latitudes can trap heat, while plans to add trees at tropical latitudes would have the desired cooling effect.

Another popular campaign this year was the effort to replace conventional incandescent light bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, or CFLs. The Home Depot, one of the world's largest home improvement companies, planned to give away 1 million CFLs to celebrate Earth Day, and many governments, including Australia and the state of California, have either implemented or are considering plans to mandate the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs.

Despite the promise of these CFLs, which use two-thirds less energy than standard bulbs, there are complications. The manufacture of CFLs requires the use of mercury, a toxic metal. The mercury poses no threat while the bulb is intact, but the risk of mercury pollution is real when bulbs are broken or thrown out. The environmentally responsible use of CFLs goes beyond simply replacing incandescent bulbs and extends beyond the lifespan of the CFL to its proper disposal.

Finally, the promise of the electric car has made a comeback. Tesla Motors is a new initiative focused on bringing high-performance electric cars to the mainstream automotive market. Even General Motors, infamous for "killing" the electric car in the 1990s, announced a new hybrid offering this week.

Moving from a combustion engine to a plug-in electric car gives the appearance of solving environmental problems, but as in the cases outlined above, appearances can be deceiving. We need to inquire about the sources of electric energy to make an accurate comparison to gasoline-based engines. In the United States, the majority of electricity is produced from coal-burning power plants.

For Christians especially, the sometimes rancorous dialogue about climate change must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the responsibility to care for the world is about the whole of creation, and not just a single activist cause, no matter how grandiose. After all, as the Judeo-Christian tradition confesses, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1). This means both that the scope of environmental stewardship extends to the whole of creation and that the responsibility to be stewards involves complex factors and calculations, facts that are regularly hidden by bumper sticker environmentalism. CRO

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor with the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.

copyright 2007 Acton Institute





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