By Paul Lorenzini
In his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There, New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the term bobos to describe the current cultural norm that embraces a duality of bohemian and bourgeois values.1 Not only is it an apt term for describing much of modern secular America, it’s also a helpful one for Christians facing the challenges of living in today’s America. Many of those challenges are obvious (e.g., the new spiritual pluralism and moral relativism), but others can be sneaky and subtle, sounding innocent while raising important spiritual issues.
Christian Stewardship v. Secular Environmentalism
An example is the Christian obligation to care for the environment. Scripture leaves little doubt that humans are to respect God’s created universe and care for nature. Stewardship is the very essence of God’s command that humans exercise “dominion over nature” (Genesis 1:28). Pope Francis’s second encyclical, Laudato Si’, stressed this obligation when he explained that he took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, known for his express humility toward nature.2
Yet, concerned Christians wonder if an unqualified reverence toward nature risks compromising the Christian commitment to humans. This issue reaches back to an essay published in 1967 by late UCLA history professor Lynn White Jr, where White blamed our ecological crisis on the command in Genesis 1:26 that humans are to “rule over” nature.3 White argued that Western civilizations, influenced by Christianity, felt they had a free pass to exploit nature for selfish human purposes. Clearly that is not what God intended, though it is arguable that some professed Christians read the Scripture that way. Of particular importance, White’s interpretation overlooked the Old Testament teaching that humans are to manage Earth’s resources not just for the benefit of humans but equally for the benefit of all life on Earth (Genesis 1:26-28; Numbers 35:33-34; Proverbs 12:10).
White believed environmentalism was spiritual. He urged humans to see themselves as part of nature and equal in value, not superior to it. Discerning Christians saw this as an implicit challenge to the notion that humans are special creations of God. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus illustrates vividly the biblical view of humanity: even as God values the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus concludes, “Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26–31). Unlike any other species in creation, humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1: 26).
White may not have gotten Scripture right, but he won the day. The rhetoric of equality with nature would find itself expressed in the manifestos of mainstream environmental groups, even being identified as a fundamental tenet of a “New Environmental Paradigm” where Christian “anthropocentrism” is regarded as hostile to nature.4 By the 1990s, surveys showed that 69% of Americans had accepted the idea that humans are equal to nature.5
While there is a romantic appeal to elevating nature in this way, the subtle risk is that it can divert attention away from human tragedies while exaggerating environmental problems to draw attention to them. The popular metaphor of “spaceship earth” captures the modern human condition best, where one-third of the inhabitants live in first class while two-thirds live in the hold of the ship. There, people suffer from inadequate health care, sanitation, clean water, nutrition, and shelter. If nature is elevated with a blind eye to these human needs it becomes a religion of its own, with a natural tendency to exaggerate environmental problems while robbing headlines and resources and imposing barriers to the economic growth and advances in industrialism required to serve those in the hold of spaceship earth.
In his newly released book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All (2020), Michael Shellenberger, who was named a “Hero of the Environment” in 2005 by TIME, identifies case after case in which claims of pending environmental catastrophe, including climate change, have been exaggerated, often to the detriment of serving human needs.6 His is not a plea to ignore the environment, but to seek balance. One does not find here a hard-headed assault on environmentalism. You can’t read Shellenberger (not just his words but his life story), or spend time with him as I have, without feeling at a deep level his heart for nature and people. He seeks an answer that a romanticized environmentalism has somehow missed. He finds it in humanism.
Shellenberger calls for an alternate ethic. Specifically, he proposes a “new faith” in “environmental humanism”—which he defines as a commitment to the “transcendent moral purpose of universal human flourishing and environmental progress.”7 While placing a value on human welfare is virtually a universal ethic today, his framing poses the question of moral sources; namely, one cannot claim a “transcendental moral purpose” in a humanist worldview that denies transcendence.
Shellenberger seems to be relying on a common humanist claim that the value of human flourishing is an acquired taste.8 As evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has argued, modern ethical principles are rooted in instincts which have been “subject to judgment according to their consequences” based on their survival value.9 Thus, patterns of conduct emerge which have become engrained in our human DNA through naturalistic evolution. As Charles Taylor has pointed out, when one runs this notion to ground, it basically says human flourishing is important not because humans have inherent worth, but only because it enhances survival. Societies that value human flourishing live longer.10
Finding a Transcendent Moral Source
But is it only a matter of survival? We know there is more. The notion of human flourishing appeals to us because in our hearts we know other human lives matter and there is something that is inherently right about caring for other people. What, then, is the source of that inner sense of value?
Shellenberger seeks a transcendent moral purpose of human flourishing because intuitively he understands it is part of our universal human nature to seek such a higher purpose. In doing so he is implicitly acknowledging a universal quality of being human that was implanted at creation by an eternal creator God who made humans in his image. It is who we are, whether we are willing to acknowledge him as the source or not.
Environmentalism is like many issues we face in this “age of bobos,” a shared concern framed in the values of our modern secular age. While such a framing can often pose subtle challenges for Christians, it can also provide opportunities to reaffirm the relevance of Christian answers. In this case, the Christian answer highlights a proper balance between nature and the unique value of humans, while pointing to the need for God as a transcendent moral source.