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    Finding My Religion: The New Intersection Of Christianity And Environmentalism
    By Holly Moeller | May 24th 2012 12:30 AM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Holly

    I'm a graduate student in Ecology and Evolution at Stanford University, where I study ecosystem metabolics and function. In particular, I'm interested...

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    CHERRY HILL, NJ -- Standing next to my Dad under the watchful eyes of the sculpted Jesus I remembered well from childhood church services, I resolutely censored a mental curse. I hadn't attended Catholic mass regularly in years, and while I was embarrassed by my stumbling responses to some recently-reworded portions of the service, I was still absolutely certain of profanity's sacrilege during this particular Sunday hour.

    Whenever I'm home for a visit, I'm reminded of religion's formative importance during a childhood that included attending weekly mass and religion classes, singing in the children's choir, and, later, lectoring during services.

    Although my parents are very spiritual people, both are scientists by training and liberals by nature. Their beliefs often diverged from the Church's teachings when reason suggested a more logical alternative. Perhaps because my Dad is Lutheran, I never believed the Pope was infallible. As a family, we agreed that the Church shouldn’t refuse to distribute condoms that could slow the spread of AIDS in Africa. And my mother always bit back the urge to confront the Pro-Life campaigners that periodically fundraised after Sunday services.

    For the most part, though, I identified myself as a Catholic.

    That is, until I became acutely aware of the role of conservative Christianity in politics. Could I, now a young adult, stand with a religion whose conservative social tenets I more often rejected than accepted? 

    Probably not. And after leaving home for college, I found myself drifting farther and farther away from religious practice.

    If anything, though, my spirituality grew stronger. I worked for a summer in the Pacific Northwest, finding new cathedrals atop glaciers and amid towering Sitka Spruce. I frequented New Jersey's cedar swamps and winter coastline when I needed a quiet respite to gain perspective. I realized that, whatever I might believe about the existence of God or the rightness of any one religion, the works of evolution would always inspire my sense of awe, leaving me with a sense of being encompassed, absorbed, by something mysterious, something greater than myself.

    Simultaneously, I learned about the myriad threats human activity poses to the natural world. Some threats, like the production of smog or poisoning of waterways, are obvious -- and have been, to some extent, controlled. Others, though, are longer-term, and therefore harder to detect and address. And it’s these problems -- like climate change, ocean acidification, and nutrient pollution -- that will be left in the hands of our generation.

    Back in the 1960s, a scientist named Lynn White argued that, in part, our penchant for environmental degradation stemmed from a sense of entitlement promoted by the very religions that shaped the Western world -- and shaped my own childhood. Christianity -- and its sister monotheistic religions -- set humankind apart from the rest of Creation, White wrote, authorizing us to exploit any and all of the Earth's resources that could be useful to us.

    In a way, even traditional descriptions of environmental issues -- as negative human impacts on a world that is most “natural” in our absence -- promote this dichotomy. And by seeing ourselves as separate from the natural world, we both lose sight of the very natural biological drivers behind our behavior, and distance ourselves from the idea of living "in tune" with nature.

    Perhaps, though, there may be something to that old Christian separation between man and beast. Biology is full of examples -- E. coli on the Petri dish; lemmings on the tundra – in which organisms over-exploit their resources, leading to catastrophic population crashes. Depending on your reading of the data, humanity is on the brink of, or is already, exceeding sustainable consumption rates, though we have yet to hit our catastrophic breaking point. If being human means circumventing that crash by choosing to scale back before we reach the point of no return, then I'm happy to draw the line between humans and "beasts".

    So, too, are a growing number of Christian environmentalists. Sometimes led by local leaders like pastors and bishops, sometimes organized into national campaigns like the Evangelical Environmental Network, even members of the otherwise ultra-conservative Religious Right are citing biblical passages in which God charges humanity with stewardship over the planet. And the Christian bible is certainly not the only holy text to carry such a call.

    As religious groups increasingly partner with environmental activists to call for action on climate change, biodiversity loss, and other global issues, I can't help but fantasize about a day when all 2.2 billion Christians take up their God-given mantle to protect the Earth. Not only could such a global phenomenon transform our hopes -- and fears -- about the future, but for me, it could also bring a reunion, on new ground, with a family from which I've long been estranged.

    Comments

    Believers are given exousia (dominion/authority) and the Koine Greek word includes the concept of stewardship for those who trust in/ cling to/ adhere to / the leaning of the entire human personality on Christ.

    It is not just mental assent to a concept of belief, it is metanoia (changing of the mind) in the world lines of Christians.

    Stewardship of resources is strongly implied in my opinion.

    The climate change dogma is highly politicized, discernment with sustainability concerns help to mitigate the believers' mandate to be a faithful steward.

    stauros

    Gerhard Adam
    If being human means circumventing that crash by choosing to scale back before we reach the point of no return, then I'm happy to draw the line between humans and "beasts".
    Unfortunately, biology also tells us that this will never happen.  Despite the optimistic claims that many make, it is impossible for a species to control it's own destiny in such a manner, since it would require unanimity.  A simple majority wouldn't work.

    I know there are many that think such a view is simply pessimistic, but this is a fundamental principle in biology.  Those that reproduce the most and the fastest will win.  It's that simple.

    So, if we imagine even a small percentage of people that don't wish to curtail the birth rate [pick any number you like], and they in turn reproduce as long as they can, instilling that same view in their children [if there's a genetic component to it, then even their "view" doesn't matter].  Then at some point [depending on how many and how much time], that view will eventually prevail over those that seek to control the population.  People that don't have children now or that reduce the number of children are slowing down the rate of growth, but they are also ensuring that they will have fewer representatives in the future.

    When this is coupled with our divorce rate, which tends to raise the number of children produced beyond replacement rates, then we can see that it isn't likely that we'll ever achieve the unanimity required to avoid a future "crash".  As a result, the only way humans will ever bring their growth under control is through "logic" or reasoning and people voluntarily suppressing their individual desires in favor of humanity-at-large.

    Good luck with that.

    It's the same thing with concepts like "stewardship".  It literally doesn't matter what we do.  A quick thought experiment.

    Imagine having guests in a mansion and each accepts responsibility for keeping the place in order.  At first this works out fairly well, with a few little problems, but everything is in pretty good shape.  Now keep increasing the number of guests until they reach a thousand, and then a million, etc.  How many guests will it take, before the mansion is trashed, no matter how conscientious they are about taking care of it?  In other words, at what point does the place get trashed, simply because they are there?

    Again, this is a lesson straight from biology.  Why do we have an oxygen atmosphere?  It's because the original microbes "trashed" the place and left oxygen as a waste product.  While this certainly was a boon to other organisms and accelerated their development, it did little for the original inhabitants.  That's the problem.  Just like our existence and cities can be a boon to many organisms, in the end, it doesn't really do us any good.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    That argument about a small percentage of people always having more children has been around for a while, but never justified properly. Everyone I know of has thought of it at some stage but where is the evidence it actually happens?
    If it is genetic, why would such genes/individuals exist that ignore overpopulation? In situations of overcrowding mammals, (birds too I think) have less offspring, not because they are being thoughtful but simply because they would not be able to ensure their survival. Its the choice between being able to feed 2 to maturity vs having 5 starve. Such individuals that always had the maximum number of offspring would not pass on their genes in these situations. Is there any evidence that such genes (those to ignore overpopulation) exist, because I havn't seen any.

    How could it be cultural also? this generation have far less offspring than the last in the most of the world so its not like that view has been instilled in the current generation by the last. I see no reason why that should change. 
    So how big is this percentage you talk about, if it exists it all, it can't be very big or else it would have been noticed by now. Lets put numbers to it then:

    Say the birth rate of the general population is 1.5 per woman which is the case in many countries, the average birth rate in the special population is 3.5, and they take up 2% of the population.

    Here are the numbers you get at each generation:
    Normal population                 Fast breeders          Total 
    0.98 0.02 1
    0.735 0.035 0.77
    0.55125 0.06125 0.6125
    0.413438 0.107188 0.520625
    0.310078 0.187578 0.497656
    0.232559 0.328262 0.56082
    0.174419 0.574458 0.748877
    0.130814 1.005302 1.136116




    (note: Total population will be higher as deaths lag, but it gives the general picture)

     It takes 7 generations before the population is higher than what it started with. This is 175 years at 25 years a generation. Such an effect if it even exists will have no significant impact on the problems faced in the 21st century. Sure it may be a problem later, but worrying about a hypothetical effect in the 2nd half of the 22nd century is the least of our problems. There are many much more likely and worrying things not related to population that will happen before then.

    So what numbers do you use to cause a problem, and where is the evidence to back them up?
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    Say the birth rate of the general population is 1.5 per woman which is the case in many countries, the average birth rate in the special population is 3.5, and they take up 2% of the population.
    Well, you can say it, but it is telling that you picked a number that isn't applicable to either New Zealand (2.07) nor the U.S. (2.06), nor to the world at large (2.47).  In addition, your upper estimate of 3.5 children per woman is currently exceeded by 46 countries.  Since we don't actually have a demographic breakdown, any estimate is likely going to be problematic.  This is especially true when certain populations have 10+ children in any given family structure.  For example among the Amish [a small population - < 1%] the rate is about 6-7 [that would only take 4 generations].
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_and_dependent_territories_by_fertility_rate
    Sure it may be a problem later, but worrying about a hypothetical effect in the 2nd half of the 22nd century is the least of our problems.
    In any case, I didn't put a time frame on the problem.  I merely said that it was something that wasn't going to change by human "will-power".  So your argument isn't that it won't be a problem, just that it won't be an immediate problem, nor one that occurs too quickly.
    If it is genetic, why would such genes/individuals exist that ignore overpopulation? In situations of overcrowding mammals, (birds too I think) have less offspring, not because they are being thoughtful but simply because they would not be able to ensure their survival. Its the choice between being able to feed 2 to maturity vs having 5 starve.
    I didn't say it was genetic, I said that IF there were a genetic component to it.  Your statement makes no sense since animals do not "choose" to have a certain number of offspring simply to ensure that they can be fed.  In fact, the point is precisely that a genetic component can shift the balance regarding competition within any animal population, such that those that reproduce even slightly faster, or produce more offspring will eventually dominate the population.  Certainly the survival of their offspring is of paramount importance, but the advantage granted is that the faster reproducers (or the larger number) can dominate an environment, inducing greater hardship on those that can't "keep up".

    You statement about a choice is only relevant during the nursing phase, after that it is contingent upon the resources in the environment.  Again, those that have more offspring or reproduce faster, will tend to have an advantage in dominating the existing resources to the detriment of those that have a smaller representation in the population.
    How could it be cultural also? this generation have far less offspring than the last in the most of the world so its not like that view has been instilled in the current generation by the last. I see no reason why that should change.
    I find it interesting that you're making such claims about the "current generation" as if these things are static values.  The reality is that no one can make any such predictions about the behavior from one generation to the next, but I think you'd be  hard pressed to find anyone that agrees with you that cultural values aren't significant in determining the size of families and the number of offspring.
    Is there any evidence that such genes (those to ignore overpopulation) exist, because I havn't seen any.
    I don't know what that statement is supposed to mean.  You can't be suggesting that there are genes that are "aware" of overpopulation, are you?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    OK firstly, your initial claim seems to be that even in populations with low birth rate the population will eventually rise because of a small number with a high birth rate. That is what I was talking about, not average birth rates.
    These are two separate issues as far as I am concerned. One effect will give a growing population that will level off at around 9-10 billion according to current trends and estimates, the second will potentially cause population problems in the late 22nd century after a significant period of flat or even dropping population.
    If you agree the effect can't have a significant effect in the 21st century, then you should acknowledge this when discussing sustainability problems etc which many people will expect to be most extreme this century. People are generally talking about solutions for the next 100 years, your hypothetical effect doesn't need to be part of such discussions.

    My argument about it being genetic makes perfect sense. Individuals respond to population pressure to decrease the number of offspring they have. Individuals that don't respond to such pressure because of inheritance will not pass on their inheritance because their offspring will starve. They won't reproduce faster, they will die out. Hence there is unlikely to be a genetic component.

    I am not saying the current generation is static at all, rather that your argument REQUIRES a static culture to be inherited from parents. 

    "The reality is that no one can make any such predictions about the behavior from one generation to the next"


    In order for your effect to exist, you have to do exactly this. You have to claim that the culture of having large numbers of offspring WILL be conserved for multiple generations. If not, then there is no special group to distort the numbers, just the average. Groups like the Amish do this, but I expect it will be ever harder for them to stay part of society and hence support their culture for the next 100 years. 










    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    My argument about it being genetic makes perfect sense. Individuals respond to population pressure to decrease the number of offspring they have. Individuals that don't respond to such pressure because of inheritance will not pass on their inheritance because their offspring will starve. They won't reproduce faster, they will die out. Hence there is unlikely to be a genetic component.
    This makes no sense.  There are only two sets of circumstances that relate to the number of offspring (regarding starvation). 

    (1) Nursing where the offspring are absolutely dependent on the parent for sustenance.  In that case, I agree that the parent cannot have more offspring at one time than they can provide nutrition for.  However, instead of increasing the number of offspring, increased speed of reproduction can make the difference [assuming offspring reach maturity quickly enough].

    (2) The resources available to a particular group of animals.  In this case, the larger number will clearly have an advantage, since they will have access to the same resources that everyone else has.  Therefore a greater representation in the population will tend to favor those that get to the resources first and are able to defend their territories if that's part of their lifestyle.

    Their offspring can only starve if they fail at nursing.  Environmental resources are NOT a factor, since if one set can starve, then so will everyone else, regardless of the number of offspring.  Therefore if the environment is resource constrained, then the larger group actually has a better chance of controlling those resources and thereby ensuring a greater likelihood of survival. 

    I do recognize that you are talking about a very small, select group of animals, since clearly there are many species that are not governed by the number of offspring at all [except to produce huge numbers] precisely because they don't require parental resource investment, and consequently it becomes a matter of probabilities to dictate the likelihood of survival. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    There are some incorrect assumptions there. 
    A typical situation would be say sea birds feeding off fish looking after their own offspring who are completely dependent on them only while they develop. If the bird population is larger than usual, there would be the same amount of fish for fewer birds. Birds would spend the same time foraging, but get less to eat. (2) doesn't follow in this situation. The group has the same amount of resources, spread over more individuals. The food per parent is similar, not the food per offspring. This makes the difference.
     Birds reproduce every year, so they can only vary the number of chicks they have. Having more offspring won't give the birds a greater representation in the population, it will just mean that the now smaller per parent portion will not be sufficient for the chicks to survive. 


    Your argument about environmental resources not being a factor is obviously wrong in this light. Parents with more chicks will have less of them survive. Parents that adapt to overcrowding by having less offspring per breeding season will have more surviving offspring.
    Most/all mammals do require parental resource investment, and are looked after mainly by their parents. In situations where the same foraging time gives less food, having less offspring is the best strategy.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    If you agree the effect can't have a significant effect in the 21st century, then you should acknowledge this when discussing sustainability problems etc which many people will expect to be most extreme this century.
    In terms of sustainability problems that may be correct [although I personally think 9-10 billion will be a bigger problem than we wish to admit].  However, my original point was in response to the idea that humans will curtail their population growth through "reason".

    It was not specifically about sustainability, but as a response to the notion that humans would willingly control their own future.  I don't see that happening.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    No humans won't willingly control their numbers through reason, but they won't need to.
    Thor Russell
    Gerhard Adam
    You have to claim that the culture of having large numbers of offspring WILL be conserved for multiple generations.
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12178307

    http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2928497.pdf

    https://files.nyu.edu/rf2/public/Research/eeapaperfinal.pdf

    ...and yes, I believe those values will be transmitted onto future generations.
    For example, men and women whose origin families were large are significantly more likely to have larger families themselves. This pattern is likely to feed through to the subsequent generation.
    http://ftp.iza.org/dp2437.pdf
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thor Russell
    Well you appear to have changed your position to both deny predictability regarding culture, but then claim it again. 
    The papers claim things like "Thus, the desire for big families is deeply rooted in many cultures." yet such claims do not well explain the observed birthrate decline. It was rooted in every culture in past decades ... until it wasn't anymore. I don't find such arguments at all convincing, they didn't predict the current birthrate drop, yet I am expected to believe they have some skill in predicting future trends. If I had posted such papers you would accuse me of making an argument from authority.

    This is worth watching
    http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_religions_and_babies.html 
    Thor Russell
    vongehr
    Such an effect if it even exists will have no significant impact on the problems faced in the 21st century.
    You certainly make several excellent points in this discussion, but this may be too optimistic. Example: In Brussels and many Dutch cities, the Muslim population will soon become the majority even if one stops all immigration, simply because of the birth rate of that, previously relatively small, sub population. With that (since those countries are majority vote democracies), there come all kinds of nonsense that is very unhelpful when facing 21st century problems, especially inside a first world nation like the Netherlands (sharia law is already effective in a growing number of thus quite lawless neighborhoods).
    [This is not so much to scare about the fascist ideology - religion hybrid that is Islam as it is making the point that culture (memes) make the whole more complicated than population dynamics in spreadsheets. The environmental problem with humans is not just their bare number, but what they do.]
    Thor Russell
    OK sure, by significant I meant in terms of total population, not locally where there definitely are issues. Should have been more specific.Its pretty difficult to predict how birthrates will play out, but the trend seems to be that decreasing birthrates eventually get through all cultural boundaries. Yes its possible that a large and growing segment will continue to ignore such forces for a long enough time to affect total numbers, but I am not prepared to just accept its inevitable. 
    Thor Russell
    vongehr
    Yes its possible that a large and growing segment will continue to ignore such forces for a long enough time to affect total numbers
    But they do not need to affect the total number at all if they just change the culture, that is what makes humans so dangerous, so my point is that your point is somewhat beside the point. Holly's article is about the environment. 50 billion people meditating 24/7 while being genetically engineered to do photosynthesis is fine, a fraction of the current population all wanting to drive SUV's while at home the air conditioner keeps it nice for the cat is a problem.

    Thor Russell
    OK I understand. 
    Perhaps its off topic but I don't agree when people always say "what about population" when you say anything about improving lifestyles/environment/sustainability. The way I see it, we will have 9-10 billion people, with birth control intervention if it doesn't backfire giving at most 1 billion less. Sure we should try for that 1 billion, but not get obsessed with it.Like you I expect I would rather have 10 billion people making sensible decisions than 9 billion making stupid ones. There is much more than 10% stupidity/wastage going, something like 30% of food is wasted one way or another for starters, the inevitable population increase doesn't make addressing theses issues pointless.

    If the world birthrate was still 6, then addressing anything else would be pointless but that's not the world we live in anymore and the implications of this factual change isn't accepted by everyone yet.


    Thor Russell
    MikeCrow
    Its the choice between being able to feed 2 to maturity vs having 5 starve. Such individuals that always had the maximum number of offspring would not pass on their genes in these situations.

    But this is precisely what happens in third world countries, they have large families in the hope that at least a few survive.

    If the world birthrate was still 6, then addressing anything else would be pointless but that's not the world we live in anymore and the implications of this factual change isn't accepted by everyone yet.

    First world citizens are barely maintaining their population, most of the growth in first world countries are either immigration or second/third world immigrants having children.

    IMO the only workable solution is to provide a first world standard of living for everyone, and yes I do realize the many issues with that track, but it does seem that within a few generations, most first world citizen do restrain their breeding, on their own.

    We will need lots of resources to do this, but we have a whole solar system of resources at our disposal. But I also think we have 50-100 years to open the door to those resources, and if we don't the population will crash, and it'll be hundreds of year before we open the door again, if at all.
    Never is a long time.
    Thor Russell
    If you google population density vs birth rate, I think you see a negative correlation, also I expect that birth rates in big cities are lower than in the country, and environment has something to do with this.
    I agree that we need to provide a first world-ish (say mid European level ) standard of living for everyone, because whatever the ethics, we have no choice they will demand it. Not sure that resources outside of earth will help much in the next 50-100 years there is much we can do better on Earth. 3/4 of the world is ocean and all we are really doing at the moment is over-fishing the stuff at the top of the food chain. Continually improving fish farming, seaweed, even perhaps plankton could help if utilized better. Get your kids to like seaweed (Asians have this right) and perhaps you are doing everyone a favor?
    Thor Russell
    I jumping in only to complement you all on having an serious discussion. Usually when people comment on an article like this (which is very well written) you have nothing but blathering trolls. Thanks to you all!

    rholley
    This is a most interesting article.  Leaving aside any personal resonances, I will comment on one public issue, namely the stand of the Roman Catholic Church on contraception.
     
    It seems to me that the Vatican has got itself stuck into a logical jam, somewhat similar to that in which it found itself opposing Galileo some while ago.  This predicament reminds me of this Anglo-Saxon poem (link):
    Beadohild was not as sad in mind
    for the death of her brothers as for her own trouble,
    she had clearly realized
    that she was pregnant;
    she could never think resolutely
    of how that would have to (turn out).
    That was overcome, so may this be.
    However, their predicament is not entirely of their own making.  Some of the founders of modern contraception were associated with the Eugenics movement, which G.K.Chesterton combated because he was opposed to breeding people like animals.  However, in modern times, many of their opponents, especially since HIV came on the scene, are such as no decent-thinking people would listen to.
     
    For example,  Carla Bruni, wife of the recently voted-out President Sarkozy,
    became world ambassador for the protection of mothers and children against HIV in 2008 (Wikipedia)
    Now here is a lady whose life and loves have consistently attracted attention in the popular press (I won’t say more, mainly for decorum, but also because we have iniquitous libel laws in Britain.)  A lady with such a reputation, whether well-founded or not, is hardly ideal as a public figure for this particular venture.
     
    People simply do not understand.  This is an age in which people chose “And I will always love you” for their wedding, overlooking that the song is about permanent separation with added emotional gintrap.


    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    E.O. Wilson recently wrote in his latest book: "The creation of human society is the greatest feat that biology has ever achieved, Wilson argues, but it is also an unmitigated disaster for the planet. Overpopulation, global warming, depletion of resources, pollution and the extinction of other species threaten to end life on Earth as we know it."

    That being the case, religion as we have understood it from tradition, as one of those primary factors which inform our values is as much a part of the problem as any other and is unlikely to be have anything to do with a solution. As a species, we cannot truly describe ourselves as either moral or spiritual so long as we continue in this unsustainable manner. http://www.energon.org.uk

    Fred Phillips
    Anyway, Holly, congratulations on a brave and beautifully written article. You've been admirably open about your attitudes, their roots and their evolution. Most other writers are more guarded about such things, and I wonder what they're afraid of. Well, I guess they're afraid of getting ripped by commenters who have strong views of the science-religion question. I'm glad you seem to realize that's the commenters' problem and not yours.

    It doesn't matter what the Greek word means, as the Old Testament wasn't written in Greek. I've heard environmentalist rabbis argue that the proto-Hebrew word that we see in most English versions of Genesis as 'dominion' somehow has an implication of stewardship. I find that argument unconvincing. It's probably unknowable.

    More notable, in my view, is that cultures that view the earth as their mother (or in some manner their progenitor) do a better job than we do of
    environmental stewardship. This is, of course, consistent with the Good Book's admonition to honor one's father and mother. And the environmental implication of the Bible's statement that we are made from clay got upstaged by that silly Golem story.
    -
    *********************RELIGION IS ORGANIZED CRIME
    -
    Without the constant increase in childbirths and populations "Religions! Would DIE!
    -
    Only mindless 'adiamorphic' pristine-minded innocent children can be convinced
    by enforced indoctrination that a "Ghostly-Apparition" "Created" them, and the UNIVERSE!
    -
    If "Religions" truly wished to "SAVE HUMAN LIVES" 'they' would 'end all wars'!
    -
    ********************RELIGION IS ORGANIZED CRIME!
    -