How Environmentalism Harms the Poor

The book of Genesis was written in part to counteract a theory later known as Manicheanism. It held that a god of good created spirit and a god of evil created matter. In this view, the more spiritual we are, the less we are connected to matter. This position suggests that by withdrawing from matter, we will become more spiritual. Logically, this would make the fallen angels, who are pure spirit, models of spirituality. Genesis, for its part, tells us that God looked on each level of creation to see that it was good. Evil was not to be identified with matter since it was a good created by God.

Evil was not located in God but in the free choices of good human beings who could redirect the natural purposes of matter as He did or did not intend. The good things of creation could be used for purposes that were not proper to their being or to the being that used them. One side of Genesis, then, was to affirm the basic goodness of matter over against the notion that it was itself the essence of evil. Matter could “occasion” a use that was distorted, but that distortion did not arise from the nature of matter as such. It follows from this position that the wonder and delight in nature, its beauty, is itself a good that deserves our attention, wonder, and care.

The other side of Genesis is the admonition that man was to increase, multiply, and subdue the earth. The implication was that precisely by providing for man’s needs and purposes, the earth would be a better place. The purposes of both matter and man were directly connected. It would be a misuse of matter if it no longer could serve man’s ends. The earth was not simply given for it to sit there unused and uncultivated. It was rather to be a garden, the work of human hands. It was intended to support the purpose for which man existed. It was not itself the purpose of creation.

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The notion that somehow man was not to use the earth but sort of forage off it was a cover for laziness, mindful of the parable of the talents in the New Testament. It indicated a failure to understand that man is himself a being who also naturally belongs to creation. He exists initially within the cosmos both for his own transcendent end and for completing creation, which cannot reach its true purpose by itself without his improving it. We can, say, imagine the beauty of the Amalfi Coast without any sign of human habitation along it. But it clearly is more beautiful with the towns, ports, trees, and gardens that men have added to it over the centuries.

The so-called “natural resources,” while being what they are, themselves have an order or intelligence about them that is open to human knowing and using. We have every reason to think that this knowing relation of human mind to natural resources has to do with human purposes and the end of man as such. It is quite possible to think that the sufficient natural resources were put on the earth to last as long as God intended man to last. No need for anything further.

A significant error of environmentalists is the assumption that the purpose of man on this earth is to keep it in the same condition that it was when man first appeared. Behind this theory is a subtle denial of the whole issue of the resurrection of the body. Man’s ultimate end is not this earth but God. The earth and its development by man are themselves the arena in which the drama of each person’s relation to God could be and is worked out. It is also true that this “working out” concerns one’s neighbor and man’s relation to fellow man.

This brings us back to the question of the use of the earth for man’s sake. Often this issue is cast in terms of helping the poor or the so-called “preferential option for the poor.” There is much ideology behind such phrases. In one sense, modern atheism finds its moral justification in the claim to aid the poor. But do these systems help the poor or subject them to state control? In the beginning, everyone was poor. Why is everyone not still poor? Is it not the real purpose of society to lift everyone out of poverty? And should not this escape from poverty result primarily from each person’s own intelligence and labor co-operating with others?

If we think that the preferred status of society is that everyone be poor, that situation is easily accomplished by doing nothing. It would be immoral to help the poor if being poor is the best status for everyone. But if we think that the poor should not be poor, we best be sure that the system we choose to help the poor really works. Not all do. The justification for being concerned with the poor is either that we know how to help them to be not poor or that we want them to be poor. Religious concern for the poor was never intended to have as its purpose making everyone poor.

The two views of Genesis, then, can serve as a general framework to place our thinking about the purpose of creation and its relation to the end of man in order. Poverty is always a relative thing. And scripture makes clear that the poor will always be with us. This reminder would seem to mean that we will never completely “solve” the poverty problem in this world. But if we do not solved it, but do the best we can, it does not mean that the poor cannot reach the transcendent end for which they were created. Rather it means that everyone, rich, poor, and everyone in between still must and can work out his salvation in whatever society he lives in during the time in which he is alive.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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