What if I told you that a proposed industrial development that would employ 5,000 workers may not proceed because it would destroy habitat of a scorpion species? Would you argue that the development and the economic benefit it would provide to the local population are more important? Would it change your perspective to know that an enzyme in the scorpion’s venom was critical to the development of more effective cancer treatments, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives? Consider another hypothetical: would you be in favor of land use regulations aimed at halting urban sprawl and land development that causes fragmentation of honeybee and other pollinating insect habitats? Would it change your response to know that these insects are in danger of extinction from habitat fragmentation and pesticide use, and without the pollination services they provide society would need to pay an extra $29 billion to sustain its food systems? What if I told you that those same bee and wasp populations were critical to the development of medicines that prevent anaphylactic shock in children with deadly allergies to bee and wasp stings? As someone severely allergic to yellow jackets, I have great concern over this year’s bee and wasp venom shortage, which restricts the development of such medicines. What if I told you that certain amphibian species contain cancer fighting agents, but that more than 70% of all amphibian species worldwide are in decline due to a myriad of factors—pathogens, climate change, habitat fragmentation caused by human developments, and other causes? Would this knowledge change your perspective on the degree of protection species should be afforded, even if there are economic costs involved?
Consider that over half of the drugs approved for treatment in the last thirty years were derived from natural sources, including nearly half of cancer treatments. According to Jim Rasband, John Nagle, and Jim Salzman:
Extracts from the rosy periwinkle, a plant found in Madagascar, have proven effective for many sufferers of Hodgkin’s disease and acute lymphocytic leukemia, two deadly cancers. Taxol, a derivative from the bark of the pacific yew tree, is now used as a treatment for ovarian cancer. Even the lowly and slimy leech produces an anticoagulant called himdin, which now is used to treat rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and other conditions. Future discoveries of similar derivatives are considered quite likely as so few known species of plants have been examined for medicinal properties.
But what if those species are never discovered because their habitats are destroyed? It is easy for society to say “well, it’s ok if we lose this small bit of habitat to development. The economic benefits outweigh the environmental costs in this instance.” The problem is that, when aggregated, these individual instances combine to eradicate vast amounts of critical species habitat. When that happens, society runs the risk of destroying species the utility of which we have not even begun to understand. As Aldo Leopold once warned:
If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but we do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
Why then do conservative Republicans (often supported by rural Christian evangelicals) want to reduce the scope of protection provided by the federal Endangered Species Act, a statute aimed at protecting species like these? Because of “federal overreach” or “bloated administrative bureaucracy” or “regulation run amok” or some other dogmatic ideological justification? Framed another way, do conservative Republicans really want to make it more likely that we might miss a cure for cancer? Do they really want future generations’ wealth to be greatly reduced in order to sustain food systems in the absence of pollinators? Do they really want to make it more likely that children will not survive an allergic attack from a wasp sting? Does the latter framing sound consistent with conservative values, Republican ideals, or a Christian worldview?
The stewardship versus dominion “debate” in evangelical Christian circles is not really a debate, at least theologically. Genesis 2:15 of the Bible states that God placed humans on earth “to work it and take care of it.” This is stewardship. Genesis 1:28 commands humans to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This is dominion. The two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are inherently linked—though some would argue that the dominion mandate gives humankind the right to pave over as much ecosystem as it pleases for the sake of human economic gain and advancement (a shortsighted position since humans cannot truly advance without the resources nature provides). This distorted view of dominion appears to be the position of some evangelical groups, like the Cornwall Alliance, which (as I noted earlier) has taken stances against numerous important environmental protection efforts—rendering the “stewardship” they espouse quite bereft of credibility (Cornwall’s only mentions of “endangered species” on their website are in posts criticizing species protections).
Regardless, exercising dominion merely means exercising “sovereignty” and “control.” Dominion over one’s bank account carries a great deal of responsibility in the management of that account—it does not give carte blanche to blow all of one’s finances. And what demonstrates man’s control over the environment better than environmental policies detailing management directives? Some evangelical conservatives’ response might be: “well, stewardship should not be mandated by governments. Individuals should take care of the earth because it is the right thing to do, and they should not be coerced into doing so. Especially when the coercion involves my tax dollars or lost economic opportunities.” Well, that may be true, but as Christians know all too well, people do not always do the right thing (in fact, that basic premise is the entire foundation of Christianity). Governments exist to catch and punish murderers, for example. Public defenders are provided (by our tax dollars) to defend those who may be wrongfully accused (assuming those tax dollars are available, that is—if unavailable, those accused of serious crimes may be released back onto the streets). For evangelical Christians, a utopia where all people are voluntarily good stewards of environmental resources and no personal cost is associated with living in a healthy and safe community can only exist in Heaven.
Though humans have dominion over the earth, the Christian Bible is clear that stewardship demands that people take care of the Earth and its resources, as if our lives depend upon them—because they most certainly do. Of course, one can go too far in the other direction. Worshipping the earth and treating resources, like trees, as outside the bounds of use is an extreme that groups like the Cornwall Alliance warn against. But groups espousing those views are quite fringe. Most modern debates on biodiversity (“biological diversity”) surround the degree of protection awarded to nature. The problem is that as environmental protection is increasingly framed by the right as a liberal issue, conservation drift causes the right to lose site of how central biodiversity protection is to both a conservative political mindset and to the theological underpinnings of the Bible. Perspectives like those of the Cornwall Alliance become less fringe and more mainstream. There is also a growing sentiment on the right that anything that slows economic growth or impacts personal wealth is antithetical to a conservative worldview. Biodiversity protection is seen as one such threat, since protecting biodiversity often requires prohibitions on the development of land, or “greenfields.” In fact, to truly address the habitat fragmentation that leads to species becoming “endangered” to begin with, society must shift far more rapidly to land use planning that results in more efficient land use patterns and redevelopment of “brownfields” or other previously developed parcels rather than expansion outwards into greenfields. I have written at length about how local regulations of this sort are actually quite in line with conservative values when compared to federal statutes like the Endangered Species Act.
In the end, Christians, conservatives, and the politicians they support should not lose sight of just how much we rely on natural systems for our own well being and just how in need they are of protection. Both the stewardship described in scripture and the utility of these resources for humankind demand that the modern day, far right tactic of bashing anything environmental is both inappropriate and inconsistent with values that the right should hold dear.
While the trend on the right may be to snicker at slogans like “save the whales,” protecting whales and studying their fins has spurred the development of more efficient wind turbines, which leads to cleaner air for our children to breathe and economic savings for our households as we harness an abundant energy source provided by nature. And conserving finances and protecting our children sound like core values conservatives and Christians espouse in so many other contexts. We have a great deal to learn from nature, and—from a Christian’s perspective—the complexity of creation and the creatures that God gave us. But we cannot learn from something that no longer exists because of our own ravenous economic appetites, which is why statutes like the Endangered Species Act are so important—to preserve every cog and wheel of biodiversity that we have been given dominion over and for which we are to be good stewards.
– Blake Hudson