Biblical Principles for Environmental Stewardship: Weighing Costs and Benefits
Last week we examined the sixth principle in biblical environmental stewardship: that God created the environment to be simultaneously resilient and dynamic. Today we look at the seventh and final principle.
Principle 7: Although cost-benefit analysis is an important tool to determine the wise use of resources, cost-benefit analysis cannot be completely comprehensive.
Many attempts to preserve or exploit the environment stem from an incomplete assessment of the value of the environment. Carefully weighing the costs and benefits is required in effective environmental stewardship.[i] Of course, the challenge is to account for all the relevant costs and benefits (e.g. monetary, health, and environmental costs and benefits across wide swaths of the human population) as much as is reasonably possible.
These costs and benefits cannot be properly estimated by experts in any single field. Although ecologists, biologists, chemists, and atmospheric and environmental scientists may lead the evaluation of the effect on the environment, experts in other fields – economics, political science, law, ethics, sociology, and psychology – must also contribute to developing the best human response.
However, much debate exists about how to value the benefits that the environment provides and the cost of disturbing the environment. Some secular environmentalists, immersed in their study of nature, assign almost infinite value to the natural environment. Other professionals and laypersons, ignorant of the existence of many goods and services that the environment provides, assign virtually no value to the environment. Although this report cannot provide a detailed methodology of how to valuate the environment, Principle 2 outlined three ways that the environment is valuable. All three must be considered when estimating costs and benefits.
First, creation holds valuable resources (e.g. iron, wood, and water) to fuel humanity’s development. Second, nature provides many services (e.g. plants transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, rainfall irrigates crops, and vegetation reduces soil erosion) that are essential to humanity’s survival. Lest environmental policy be boiled down to sheer utilitarianism, Christians must remember that the environment has a third source of value: intrinsic value in the sight of God. God values His creation because it is His creation and because all of creation praises Him. It is impossible to precisely appraise this value that God places on His creation and plug it into a cost-benefit equation. Instead, Christians should marvel at the handiwork of God, remembering that humanity is a steward of His creation. Even if a forest did not help convert carbon dioxide into oxygen or its trees provide useful timber for construction, it still reflects God’s creativity and praises Him; it should not be destroyed without ample cause, even if humanity cannot assign monetary costs and benefits to it. Thus, although empirical cost-benefit analysis is critically important, the moral component of environmental stewardship must be considered as well.
[i] Cornwall Alliance, “The Biblical Perspective of Environmental Stewardship: Subduing and Ruling the Earth to the Glory of God and the Benefit of Our Neighbors”; Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, 58; see also Luke 14:28