On Saving the Earth

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Ignatius of Loyola teaches that man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God and by this means to save his soul. Modern man thinks little of saving his soul, if he has one. He wants to save the earth. He does not want dominion over the earth to achieve his worldly and transcendent purposes. His transcendent purpose is immanent, to save the earth from himself. Save it for what? Well, for future generations. For whom do future generations save the earth? For generations beyond the future, and so on, down the ages.

The “dominion” priorities in Genesis are today not much in vogue. Man today has no transcendent meaning that would explain why he temporarily inhabits this green earth. He pursues a worldly global purpose in lieu of a transcendent personal one. What might this purpose be? The old twentieth-century ideologies thought it was some inner-worldly political society with all the exploiters out of the way. But man, in his present arrangement, is not likely to be perfect. In the current view, we must find a way to protect the earth from the common man’s greed and exploitation.

How do we do that? At the presumed demise of communism, Paul Johnson, the English historian, surmised that totalitarianism was not dead. It just needed a new domicile. He shrewdly suggested that environmentalism might do the trick of putting ideology and state-control back in the saddle. Morality would now function to conserve the earth’s resources for the indefinite future. Individuals had to be subsumed back into the whole; their every act watched.

What had impeded the triumph of ideologies was human dignity. Man was not just a means, but himself an end. The old Christian prejudices implied that the earth was for man. But individualism also seemed to be indifferent to the earth. Earth was a means in that older perspective to be used. But ecology put a damper on notions that man was individually absolute in any sense. He only exists if the fragile, finite earth supports him. He was responsible not to his ancestors, but to his posterity. Natural resources were rapidly running out as population and consumption increased and self-discipline decreased. Then someone discovered global warming. Apocalyptic panic set in.

I notice in recent news reports that the earth has actually been cooling slightly over the past ten years. In my Iowa grammar school, we used to worry about the return of the Ice Ages (it happens periodically for rather long periods). We had charts and maps about how far into Iowa the glaciers penetrated. I was quite concerned about it.

Considerable evidence exists that the earth alternately warmed and cooled before any human beings existed on it. We are now told that the ice caps are melting. We can expect the worst, even though a warmer earth might in fact be a good thing. But some spirit is abroad that says we need to do something. We need to control man.

To claim to be saving future, not present, generations, gives any government a transcendent purpose: To save man from himself. What could be nobler or more statesman-like? Human beings are mired in original sin. They need to be redeemed, protected from themselves. They need laws and regulations. They need to be subject to a Spartan regime where everything they eat, drink, or do is factored into the good of future generations—who do not yet exist, indeed may never exist, since population control is allegedly part of the answer to warming.

How much longer will this planet last? We are sure it will eventually collapse as the sun cools. Our immediate worry is natural resources. We have told that we have already used much of the world’s oil, gas, coal, zinc, copper, and who knows what. Though there seems to be no impending scarcity. Still, governments need to be empowered to control us, we are told. That’s it. That gives it real purpose.

Much of the world’s supply of oil is under Arab lands. It was there for ages. Few knew it was there or what to do with it. Arab governments with western theories of profit and property became rich by selling it. But the market was invented by someone else. Suppose the Arab rulers were modern men who wanted to preserve the earth. They would have then said to the potential purchasers, No thanks, we are saving the oil for future generations.

No one knows what future generations will need or want or know how to do. The Lord probably created a world in which just enough resources are present for His intentions. With the help of the human brain, the only real resource, human beings might reach the end for which God created them. The end God intended is not in this world. The earth-warmers are really heretical theologizers who somehow think the purpose of the species man is to spin round and round on this planet forever, with the aid of much government control. Meanwhile, all actual men will have died, after being told that their only purpose in life was to save the earth.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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  • Willie

    Father how well you point out the hypocrisy and twisted thinking of radical environmentalists. The idea of a transcendent Creator has been considerably eroded. Today we are more concerned with saving whales, trees and birds, but certainly not the human species. Nature and the State are the objects of our idolatry these days. We have told God to get out of ours schools, courts and the public square. We will take care of the future by State controlled rules of behaviour! The hubris of the Garden?

  • Stephen MacLean

    Organic Tory
    Fr Schall’s wise observation echoes Benedict XVI: ‘It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when [they do not] respect themselves. Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other (‘Caritas in Veritate’, §51).’

  • Joe

    Taste and See
    Yes. It is the same deception as was offered in the garden. One could know as God knows and then one could manage creation without His help. The stunning irony is that as god was lowered to level of man; man did not become god-like, but ceased to have any value. The promise of the forbidden fruit was equal outcomes. The inevitable result was (and remains) universal misery.

  • Robert Sheehan

    What if we had the chance to prevent a global environmental catastrophe which caused the suffering and deaths of millions and we did nothing about it, because we weren’t going to be around to see it? This is similar to not doing what we can to prevent abortions (not exactly the same but similar).
    The major difference is that the abortions are definitely being carried out and we are always going to be unsure of the future.

  • John McCarthy

    While concurring with Fr. Schall’s concerns, I also believe that the conservation movement can be perceived positively, as a form of asceticism, as a practice of charity, as a way of preserving nature’s beauty, as a path to peace, and as economic common sense…Is there a touch of the “cantankerous curmudgeon” in Fr. Schall’s essay.

  • John Humphreys

    With all due respect, we were bestowed this beautiful Earth – with its wonderful ecosystems – by God for our use but not our abuse. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the US Catholic Bishops follow in a long line of Catholic and other Christian writers to protest senseless exploitation of the Earth and promote responsible Creation Care. To focus on Heaven and let the Earth be trashed is not an option…and to eradicate species by global warming or other means is to “erase God’s fingerprints”.

  • Achilles

    “Cantankerous curmudgeon”? I don’t think so. We are called to be good stewards, that is sure, but environmentalism is mostly fetishistic idolatry. Another beautiful essay with undercurrents of quiet and powerful dignity articulated by an incisive intelligence. Thank you so much Fr. Schall!

  • William

    It is interesting, disturbing and, sadly, predictable to see how some will read anything critical of any sector of the modern environmental movement and decide to interpret it as being in favor of “sensless exploitation of the Earth” or dismissive of our responsibility of be good stewards of Earth. So many environmentalists seem to lose grip on reason for such strong emotions about this subject, as evidenced in some of these posted comments.

  • Leonard K

    Fr. Schall reminds us that we are obviously not being told the full truth. Also, if we are saving the Earth we must have in mind for what we are saving it. Advocates sometimes thoughtlessly lapse saying we must “offer up scary scenarios” and balance between “being effective and being honest.” This anomaly should interest even the secular atheist because the purpose seems culminate not in Man at all, but the Earth — for the Earths sake alone.

  • Lea

    Please Learn Science
    First, Father Schall should actually take a geology course or two before he makes such broad statements about science, energy, and economics, of which he is woefully and obviously ignorant. Second, “saving the environment” IS saving people–just try to live without a healthy environment. Thirdly, he is encouraging a hedonistic, live-for-today-and-who-cares-about-tomorrow lifestyle. How, exactly, is that Christian? Does anyone here really care so little about their own children and grandchild

  • JamesM

    I am with Lea
    Lea is absolutely right. These displays of utter ignorance under a religous guise are really quite disturbing.