“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” humanity’s troubled relationship with the environment began in earnest. (Genesis 1:1)
2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls flocked to the university this week to participate in a town hall-style climate forum. The event serves as a timely reminder that many young progressives cite climate change as a top priority in the upcoming elections — yet some conservative voters and politicians deny that climate change is taking place at all.
Most environmentalists rightfully turn to scientific evidence to advocate for climate action, but skeptics’ tendency to dismiss such evidence as bad science or even propaganda limits the effectiveness of this approach. Progressives should cite the biblical mandate for environmentalism as an additional call to action in the climate change conversation, particularly when addressing conservative Christians who reject science-based arguments.
At first glance, the Bible’s first creation story looks unpromising from an environmentalist standpoint, since God grants humanity “dominion” over the earth and its other inhabitants. However, God’s labeling of other parts of creation as “good” hints at a theme made more explicit in the second creation story: the human obligation of environmental caretaking.
In Genesis 2, God establishes an intimate symbiotic relationship between humanity and the environment by creating the first man from the ground, instructing him to “till and keep” the Garden of Eden. From the outset, humanity and nature are codependent allies. God also puts intentional care into the creation of both entities by breathing life directly into the nostrils of the first man and then personally planting the garden. Far from establishing a relationship in which humanity dominates nature, this series of events places them on equal footing.
Contrary to the stance occasionally adopted by conservative Christians that the Bible grants humans unlimited authority to exploit the earth, the biblical God demands stewardship and imposes limitations on humanity’s contact with the environment. Adam, the first human, receives two primary directives from God: to till and keep the garden and to avoid eating the fruit of one particular tree.
When Adam and his wife Eve eat this fruit anyway, they breach the divinely drawn line between humanity and nature by infringing upon a part of the environment that was not intended for their use — much like humanity continues to exploit nature today. Adam and Eve are consequently expelled from Eden, and while the stated reason for this expulsion is God’s concern that humans might now acquire immortality, the event is also unavoidably connected to their unsanctioned environmental transgression.
These elements of the creation stories point bluntly to humanity’s obligation to the environment. Even traditionally conservative evangelical Christians often recognize that their religion mandates environmental stewardship, according to a study by Yale University and George Mason University.
Meanwhile, in a shameless violation of these values, the President Donald Trump administration has taken steps to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and to repeal the Clean Power Plan. With intergovernmental organizations warning that limiting global warming to manageable levels will require immediate and drastic action, people concerned about climate change should not overlook unconventional arguments, like this very accessible one in the biblical text, that could help persuade others of the issue’s importance. Conservative Christians who are reluctant to accept scientific arguments may be more sympathetic to a reminder of the Bible’s clear environmentalist mandate. Convincing this segment of the population that that we should act as caretakers of nature regardless of whether climate change is real would be a critical step in reducing future exploitation of the environment.
If we can successfully frame our duty to nature as permanent and essential rather than as something that only arises in the face of environmental disaster, then our ability to take responsible action on climate change will not rely on convincing everyone that it exists. Progressives should point to God’s instructions in the creation stories to amplify humanity’s inherent obligation to act as environmental caretakers, which may mean adjusting the arguments they use in addressing the religious right. When scientific arguments that favor climate action fall short, we should try turning to biblical ones.
We are running out of both options and time when it comes to climate action. Progressives should lean into biblical analysis if it can contribute even marginally to ensuring that the United States does its part to combat climate change. The Bible’s creation stories can serve here as an ally not just for political progressives, but for the longevity of the environment itself.
Haley Talati is a senior in the College. Between the Lines appears online every other Thursday.