Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Conserving the Environment

James W. Skillen


December 17, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(This is a continuation of our series using edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for the Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

This is God's world

The Guideline for Government and Citizenship on the Environment begins: "This world is God's creation. Human creatures—made in God's image—bear a unique responsibility … for it …" God has called humans to develop the earth, which involves careful stewardship of God's creation on God's terms. Human dominion in God's world must have the quality of caretaking, must be a listening-to-God kind of development.

The guideline takes this theme a step further. "The creation's vast diversity holds together as interdependent unity. That which is not human has its own identity and purpose by God's design and does not exist merely as a means for human-chosen ends ..." Human stewardship is a priestly calling to lift up the creation in praise to God and includes the criterion of respect for the needs of other creatures. Keeping the Sabbath day holy includes giving animals a day off. The Sabbath-year includes giving the fields a year of rest.

Even for our own well-being, actions that poison the soil or pollute the waters are suicidal rather than expressions of dominion. "Human well-being itself depends on a clean environment. Accordingly, love of our neighbors, including future generations, forbids pollution and other degradations that may do real human harm."

Many Kinds of Stewardship

“Each family, school, church, business enterprise, and nonprofit organization must exercise its own responsibility to be careful in its use of resources and in the way it goes about forming the habits, habitats, and practices of those who are part of it. … Yet all of this is not enough."

Government's Responsibility

"Much of what constitutes the natural environment has the character of a commons—that which is shared by all. Responsibility for the commons rests primarily with political communities of citizens through their governments … Not only should governments be environmentally responsible in their own actions; they should establish and uphold laws binding on everyone to ensure ecologically sound development for generations to come."

The commons requires public-legal governance and protection. Government bears the broadest and most important responsibility to entice or compel behavior that will contribute to ecological soundness, but government's actions must encourage other institutions and organizations to fulfill their own responsibilities.  The guideline continues as follows:

"Government's responsibility is to assure that justice is done to the environment as a condition of all types of economic, technological, and scientific development. Governments must not wait until negative consequences of environmental degradation begin to create severe problems before responding to try to restrain the degradation. Local, state, and national governments all bear responsibility to uphold just laws to protect the environment."

Limiting our deliberations to a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis is inadequate if we are trying to ask how humans ought to be living responsibly as stewards in God's creation. Asking the ought question should lead us to reevaluate our lifestyles, our expectations about energy use and the market place, and our assumptions about government's responsibility.

The Global Commons

Yet even more needs to be done. "Many growing threats to environmental sustainability are transnational in scope ... Therefore, governments throughout the world … bear responsibility, cooperatively, to establish and enforce rules to protect the commons so that just and ecologically sound development will be possible throughout the world."

The statements that comprise the Center's Guideline on the environment are not yet specific policy recommendations, but a framework for approaching policy design. We hope that those who are interested in the health of the environment will find this Guideline helpful and will offer to help work out its implications in the public policy world.

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”