Celebrating and Caring for the Earth
By Jonathan Merritt
April 20, 2012
In 1969, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin had a novel idea that would change the world. In response to the Santa Barbara oil spill, Gaylord Nelson proposed a holiday for the environment. Environmental concerns existed at the street level in that time, but they had never formally made it to Washington. If the grassroots energy surrounding these issues could be harnessed, Senator Nelson believed they might get a hearing. On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans celebrated Earth Day for the first time.
“It was a gamble,” Nelson later reflected. “But it worked.”
Up until then, gas stations were selling leaded gas, air purity was largely unregulated and agricultural pesticides were sprayed with little oversight. In the 1960s, a factory could dump toxic sludge into a river and there was almost nothing anyone could do to stop them.
Earth Day was a sign that everything was about to change.
The next decade became known as the “Environmental Decade.” Republicans and Democrats banded together to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Congress passed the most sweeping laws since Roosevelt’s New Deal. Among new legislation were the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalism was not as divisive as it is today, so these laws gained bipartisan support. Conservation was as conservative as it was liberal, which is to say, it was American. But, bipartisanship would not last.
As political tides changed, corporations became king and environmentalism lost its stylishness in the public consciousness. Popular support waned, and political parties began using the environment as a weapon to beat each other up. Clean air and water became greater problems, and land was clear-cut to make way for cookie-cutter neighborhoods.
Throughout the years of change, however, one thing remained constant: people have always observed Earth Day. The eco-holiday’s popularity grew despite the challenges. In 1990, Earth Day hit the world stage as 141 countries joined in and promoted recycling. In 2000, 1.8 million gathered in Central Park’s Great Lawn to commemorate and 184 countries took part.
Forty years later, April 22 continues to unite those who believe in caring for our world and the people who depend on it. Approximately 200 countries and around 1 billion students, activists, soccer moms and working folks will celebrate this year.
With some exceptions, the American Christian community will be mostly absent from celebrations. Many Christians are skeptical of any environmental problems—a trend best viewed through the lens of history.
In response to the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, religious Americans also began choosing sides. The Right claimed God, the Left claimed green and many Christians found themselves estranged from the environmental movement. Many people of faith ceded the moral high ground in exclusive pursuit of other issues. Soon, environmental policy fell on the courts and was inherited by politicians, leaving its grassroots behind and conservative Christians on the margins. Just as theologically conservative Christians mostly sat out of the civil rights revolution, we also sat out the environmental revolution.
“Environmentalist” is still a dirty word among some Christians. Like “Trekkie,” the word may be used in private, but you don’t want it on a personalized license plate. For some, the label is synonymous with secularism, Gaia worship, New Ageism and politically liberal special interest groups. Although some Christ-followers find it increasingly difficult to ignore the environmental impact of their lifestyles and are beginning to feel a holy stirring as they wake up to crazy weather patterns, smoggy skylines and disappearing forests, others are uncomfortable with “environmentalists” and even less comfortable with their “agenda.”
The problem is that Christians can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines. Millions die annually from preventable, water-related diseases. Most are children. Extinction rates continue to exceed natural rates by more than 100 times. Our energy consumption funds mountaintop removal coal mining while our oil addiction fouls the air and laces the pockets of oppressive dictatorships.
Our faith provides an inspiring narrative to face these crises—we serve the One who created everything, called it “good” and asked humans to care for and protect it—but most Christians haven’t tapped into the story line.
What’s the solution?
I believe we must depolarize and depoliticize environmentalism. Caring for creation should not be framed in a right-left dichotomy. Stewardship isn’t primarily a political, social or economic issue; it is a moral issue the people of God have been called to address. If we desire to remain true to God’s Word, Christians must redeem the cause and make it our own. We need to rediscover the scriptural basis for creation care, engage our planet’s daunting problems and propose solutions most Christians are comfortable with. To abandon these issues to secular environmentalists shirks our God-given responsibility to care for His planet.
Addressing an Earth Day crowd in 1990, Nelson said, “I don’t want to have to come limping back here 20 years from now on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day ... and have the embarrassing responsibility of telling your sons and daughters that you didn’t do your duty—that you didn’t become the conservation generation that we hoped for.” Nelson passed away in 2005, but in 2012 the Christian movement can begin to do our duty—not to Nelson, not even to America, but to the Creator-God.
Jonathan Merritt is the author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet.