Fear Not!

A Different Shade of Green
(originally published in PRISM magazine, Jan/Feb 08)

Fear is a powerful motivator. If you can inspire fear, you can get people to do almost anything. (If you can also inspire loathing, you can get them to do anything.)

Evangelicals and environmentalists have a good deal in common. Fear, accompanied by an apocalyptic vision, is a standard tool in their toolboxes. Anyone watching those computer-animated maps of coastal cities flooding in An Inconvenient Truth knows that Al Gore may have a richer end-times imagination than Tim LaHaye. Enviros long ago mastered the knack of making you fear for your life, your health, and your family–and then giving you just enough information about environmental injustice for the poor to take the edge off your self-interested attitudes.

There’s a problem with depending on fear in environmental issues: Sympathetic fear is not nearly as strong as self-interested fear. Organic food ought to sell itself to a clientele worried about the chemical soup that poor farm workers are forced to touch, inhale, and drink. But I think the main attraction is a vague (but justified) fear of what the tiny residuals of pesticides will do to us. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) currently contain a tiny amount of mercury (one-hundredth of what a thermometer contains), but their incredible energy efficiency prevents many times more mercury from being released into the air and water systems that sustain the lives of all of us. However, the fear of the slight risk to our own bodies can overcome the fear of certain mercury contamination for others.

Climate change is a tough sell to a self-interested, elite, northern crowd. After all, most of the dire impacts will fall on “them” in the global South (sad, but we’ve got air conditioning!). The impending loss of polar bears seems to have more salience to Americans than the loss of life and livelihoods of millions of poor developing-world dwellers. Climate-change activists do their best to inspire fear in the rich world (“look at the economic impacts!”). Yet by itself it’s insufficient to move more than a few folks at a time at the margins of public opinion.

But anti-environmentalists have their fears, too. Chief among them is fear of a government powerful enough to take away their stuff or to compromise their ability to move their capital where it can garner the highest rates of return. Often this is couched in a concern for the public good, for the general interest, but usually one need only check the portfolio of the discussant to find that it falls in the category of self-interested speech.

The apocalyptic vision that haunts anti-environmentalists is regulation of the economy. Even the most modest constraints on economic activity are described as “Soviet-style command-and-control” (Eek!), to be contrasted with the “free market” (which sounds good).

A dose of reality in these fearful conversations: Americans have until recently led the world in recognizing, regulating, and reversing environmental travesties. Our enlightened vision of land conservation led to the creation of national parks and forests that became a model for the rest of the world. Together, we created strong regulations to control smog, acid rain, and ozone-destroying chemicals. We put the Endangered Species Act to work and have brought back the bald eagle and the grizzly bear from the brink of extinction. And we did it far more cheaply than anyone was able to predict.

You might expect anti-environmentalists to cite past environmental successes as evidence that enough action has already been taken. But for them, environmental success stories would be the nose of the camel in the tent, forcing them to concede that government action can make people healthier and happier without destroying the economy.

You might expect environmentalists to cite past environmental successes as evidence that further action is unlikely to harm the economy. Yet they see more opportunity in bashing conservatives on their abysmal recent environmental records.

As Christians engage these issues, we need a better message than fear. God will help us make a difference to the planet and the people that rely on it, as he has in the past. The future of the planet is in God’s hands, but he uses us to accomplish his purposes as he renews all things. Our task is to be found faithful in all things and to remind our environmentalist brothers and sisters that love and hope for justice can be a powerful motivator for change.

Christians have to remind those fearful of regulation that free markets rely on moral people to make them work. We bring the theological awareness that societies can’t run on autopilot, as the free marketers would like us to believe. Natural law teaches us that there are limits to human freedom and consequences to our environmental excesses. Owners of capital are more than able to protect their own interests; Christ-followers must care for the weak and vulnerable. We bring the good news that God is active in the world, restraining evil at every level, that we are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that the task of caring for the least of these is an easy burden, a light yoke. In sharing these messages, God’s people can begin to paint with a new shade of green.

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