Is God Green?

To some, environmentalism is a cause that calls for political activism, grass-roots campaigning, or even violence if necessary. To others, it’s nothing but alarmist nonsense or part of a left-wing conspiracy, or perhaps it’s just an opportunity to make money. Retracing the development of his own views on the subject, Vision publisher David Hulme explores an alternative approach in the light of Scripture. 

Looking back over the formation of my views on environmental issues, I realize that it has come from a variety of practical experiences, personal conversations, and the written works of what many would see as alternative thinkers. The very question “Is God Green?” begs several other questions, of course. “What has God to do with it?” some might say. “Why bring God into the discussion of environmentalism? Hasn’t He long abdicated in any case?” And then there’s the thought that greenness is surely a political term and would not be in God’s vocabulary anyway. So please bear with me as I begin with some of those practical formative experiences and conversations and my gradual introduction to another way of looking at the world.

An Enlightening Afternoon

Robert Rodale’s garden in rural Pennsylvania was a remarkably serene place. We taped a video interview together there on a warm afternoon in July 1990. Rodale Press, cofounded by Bob and his experimental-farmer father, J.I., is best known for Organic Gardening and the health magazine Prevention.

At the time, Bob Rodale struck me as unusually at peace with the world. During our interview I asked if he was not disappointed that after so many years in the forefront of the organic movement in the United States, the opposing agribusiness was winning the day with its philosophy of fewer and fewer farmers, larger and larger holdings, and more and more automation and chemically based agriculture. He said he was not and that within five years we would see organically grown foods in the average supermarket. Of course, he was proven right; today many U.S. stores have produce sections devoted to organically grown foods. In the United Kingdom, some supermarket chains even participate in the sale of locally grown organic produce.

Before I left his institute, Bob mentioned that a different environmental spirit was evident a couple of miles down the road, where grain monoculture was being practiced intensively. His own organic garden, with its great variety of crops paired with flowers and other plants that naturally discouraged pests, had a harmonious effect. Sure enough, on the way back to town the feeling among the grain fields that stretched away on all sides was not the same, and it was certainly not better.

Rodale had learned much from his pioneering father and had discovered for himself that there are truths about the environment that lead to harmony, balance, integration and wholeness. But it wasn’t just about improving land; it was also about individual growth. Writing in appreciation, he said, “I will always remember J.I. Rodale not only as my father, but as a man who taught me to think of myself as an organic person, trying to live in nature, striving always to improve the environment while working to improve myself, too.”

Rodale would move forward in his thinking, developing the concept from the organic person to the regenerative person. He began to travel widely and realized that a right relationship with land and nature could lead people to regenerate themselves. Regenerative food production could lead to “people working together to improve themselves and their world.”

Bob Rodale’s unusual calmness that day in Pennsylvania came forcefully back to mind when three months after our interview I learned that he had been killed in a road accident. During a visit to Russia, after signing an agreement to help start a magazine for farmers and gardeners, he was involved in a car crash on the way to Moscow’s airport.

His son, Anthony, wrote that just before his death his father had entered the fourth phase of his life, the spiritual. Though, as Bob told me in our interview, he was not a religious man in any conventional sense, yet some of the practices and principles he discovered certainly have spiritual connections. Of his father and grandfather, Anthony said, “[Their] strength came from an understanding, love, and respect for the soil and for nature itself.”

Founder of Modern Wildlife Management

The values taught by this kind of approach to land and nature echo the work of another 20th-century environmentalist, Aldo Leopold.

Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) assumed a prominent place among the environmental works of the past century. Ranked alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it contains this memorable statement, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Leopold was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is regarded as the founder of wildlife management in the United States. His interest in nature led him to see that humanity’s involvement with it from a domineering perspective led to difficulty for both parties. He wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” There is the question of right use and wrong use. Right use will produce good results for all. Wrong use will ab‑use.

Our remnants of wilderness will yield bigger values to the nation’s character and health than they will to its pocketbook, and to destroy them will be to admit that the latter are the only values that interest us.”

Aldo Leopold, “A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds” (1925), reproduced in Aldo Leopold's Southwest (1990)

What Rodale recognized about regenerative relationships, Leopold had realized before him. It struck me after rereading the almanac recently that Leopold’s wisdom about treating land with love and respect applies equally to how we humans treat each other. When we realize that no one is our possession, our commodity, then we may begin to treat fellow human beings with love and respect too.

Alternative Economics

Another eye-opening book was Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) by E.F. Schumacher. Twenty years after its publication it was regarded by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books in the post–World War II period. It opens with a quote from Aldo Leopold about the need to use technology in a “gentler and more objective” way.

In addition to his many years as a respected economist, Schumacher was a strong supporter of intermediate technology and a member of the Soil Association, one of Britain’s oldest organic farming organizations, of which he was president in 1970. (And not surprisingly, there is also a history of cooperation between the Soil Association and the Rodale family.)

But Schumacher did not start out as an alternative thinker. The son of a German political economics professor, he was a Rhodes scholar at New College, Oxford, in 1930 and remained in the United Kingdom during the Nazi period. A protégé of economist John Maynard Keynes, he also worked with John Kenneth Galbraith and helped in the economic restructuring of Germany following the war.

He later wrote critically of Galbraith’s ideas and of his mentor’s willingness to take advantage of a system he admitted was morally wrong. In 1930, as the world was reeling under the Great Depression, Keynes had speculated that the day of universal prosperity was approaching. Schumacher quoted him as saying that nevertheless “for at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.” Schumacher demolished this approach in Small Is Beautiful, arguing, “If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence.” He knew that the relentless pursuit of materialism destroys both men and women and their environment. The carrying capacity of the world cannot sustain limitless growth, and the moral development of humanity cannot be ignored. Schumacher continued, “There is a revolutionary saying that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God.’”

By 1973, Schumacher’s spiritual journey had taken him through Buddhism to Catholicism. It’s not surprising that along the way he wrote the acclaimed paper “Buddhist Economics” (“production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life”) and freely admitted his belief in biblical truths. He wrote, “We still have to learn how to live peacefully, not only with our fellow man but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us; for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves.”

Schumacher died suddenly in 1977, and his daughter Barbara Wood Schumacher took up his cause. A follow-up to her father’s work, titled Small Is Still Beautiful, was published in 2001.

Farmer and Prophetic Voice

Many of the preoccupations of the alternative thinkers mentioned so far come through in the work of the contemporary American writer Wendell Berry. He describes himself as a Kentucky farmer, though he is also a renowned author of essays, poems and novels. One of his dominant themes is the global cult of bigness and the dis-ease that it causes. It is, of course, related to the growth of industrialized solutions and the development of technology for the sake of it. While many of his works speak to ecological concerns, his analyses encompass the broader human condition and how health and peace can be restored to people.

In a work that I discovered in the early 1980s, Berry invites us to consider that the demise of small-scale agri-culture is simply an echo of the crumbling of culture itself. He addresses our fascination with the future as an obtainable paradise:

All our implements—automobiles, tractors, kitchen utensils, etc.—have always been conceived by the modern mind as in a kind of progress or pilgrimage toward their future forms. The automobile-of-the-future, the kitchen-of-the-future, the classroom-of-the-future have long figured more actively in our imaginations, plans, and desires than whatever versions of these things we may currently have. We long ago gave up the wish to have things that were adequate or even excellent; we have preferred instead to have things that were up-to-date. But to be up-to-date is an ambition with built-in panic: our possessions cannot be up-to-date more than momentarily unless we can stop time—or somehow get ahead of it. The only possibility of satisfaction is to be driving now in one’s future automobile” (The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture).

When I wrote to Berry requesting an interview in the late 1980s, he replied politely in a hand-penciled note on paper without letterhead, that he didn’t think television was his medium. At the time I had just read one of his essays where he wondered whether his use of a power saw was justified (at the time he was plowing reclaimed open-cast mine land with a team of horses rather than a tractor).

Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we must choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” 

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (1977)

Thirty years after his book on culture and agriculture, Berry is still consumed by many of the same concerns and the problems arising from the global “order.” The difference is that the natural world is now in worse condition. What hasn’t changed are the spiritual precepts and biblical statements that underlie his prescription for healing. He writes, “Most of the important laws for the conduct of human life probably are religious in origin—laws such as these: Be merciful, be forgiving, love your neighbors, be hospitable to strangers, be kind to other creatures, take care of the helpless, love your enemies. We must, in short, love and care for one another and the other creatures. We are allowed to make no exceptions. Every person’s obligation toward the Creation is summed up in two words from Genesis 2:15: ‘Keep it.’” I am intrigued by the fact that he understands spiritual law to be the basis of right use.

Biblical Basis

Forty years ago, before I read any of the works mentioned here or conducted any interviews for television on environmental issues, I was introduced to organic gardening and farming as a student. In the United Kingdom I had the privilege of studying agronomy and working as a gardener and composter with men dedicated to the organic tradition. Hence the resonance with the writers I have quoted so far.

But there was more: the people I learned from did what they did because it had a biblical basis. For example, the farming program included the observance of the sabbatical year—a year of rest for the land every seventh year. This is an ecological law established long ago. Further, it demands faith to deliberately avoid planting or harvesting with only the promise that there will be sufficient food in the sixth year to cover the seventh and eighth years. Chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus spells out the law and the promised benefits.

As Berry indicates above, there are biblical precepts that require of us conservation, care for the environment, love of land, balance, harmony and personal growth. His mention of the instruction to Adam to dress and keep the garden in which he had been placed is a reference to one of the first ecological principles in the Bible. It’s significant that this book of human origins has a statement about how we should relate to the natural world around us. The Hebrew words for dress (abad) and keep (shamar) indicate working and guarding, cultivating and protecting. Certainly, there is no suggestion of exploiting and ruining. The oft-quoted reference to Genesis 1:26 about humans being given dominion over all of creation is to a beneficent leadership role, not a dominating or domineering one. They are expected to do so with care and love and wisdom.

We are told that at the end of six days of creation work, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). It is not just good (as on other individual days), but very good. The human view is all too often that the natural world is in need of improvement by human intervention, but God said that it was already very good.

The apostle Paul explained that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). In other words, there is evidence of God’s existence and creative work for those who want to see it in the natural world around us. But not all are willing, and so Paul adds that some “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25). They see the natural world but idolize it and ignore its maker.

Yet God put the first humans in a garden knowing that there is something about communing with the natural world that benefits us. We are part of an interdependent, mutually beneficial, created biosphere. Many people recognize that. The young Jewish girl Anne Frank, while hiding from the Nazis in a secret room in a Dutch house, wrote, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. . . . I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”

In the Genesis account, time is also of great significance. God makes the Sabbath for humanity by resting on the seventh day. This signals that regular weekly rest is necessary for human well-being. Like nature around us, we operate within limits. We function according to daily, weekly, monthly and annual cycles or seasons. Humans take nine months to be ready for birth. Cedars take 80 years to come to maturity; only then do they take on their characteristic shape. Resting food-growing land every seven years matches the needs of land for rejuvenation. Conservation and sustainability are essential elements of a responsible relationship with creation, governed by the law of love.

The recently published Green Bible (HarperCollins) is a welcome addition to all the other available versions. It comes with several introductory articles and includes one of Wendell Berry’s “Sabbath Poems.” Every ecologically related verse in this Bible is printed in green; it’s a surprise how many green verses there are.

On the prophetic side of the ledger, there are some striking passages that show that God has not abdicated his care and concern for the environment, despite what humans have done to it since the days of the first man and woman, and He will yet demonstrate it. Take for example the judgment on those who have damaged the earth: in the book of Revelation the time comes “for destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). Paul writes about the groaning of creation for liberation that will come at Christ’s return (Romans 8:19–22). And the apostle Peter describes that day as “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21)—which would include all that has been degraded by man’s hand.

Is God green? Not in any human political or material sense. But if we are talking about the right way to live in and treat the natural world, then He has laid out a way based on love and concern, respect and care, nurturing and keeping now, in preparation for a full restoration yet to come.