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Environmental Ethics: Tending the Garden for Our Health

By Christina M.H. Powell


Zoonar/Thinkstock

Summer brings opportunity to grow fruits and vegetables for my family through a small garden plot. Gardening improves my health through exercise and my state of mind through the tranquility found in the great outdoors. While not everyone cultivates food in his or her backyard, we all tend a shared garden — the earth. Our choices, both individually and collectively, affect the environment. For example, one careless act by an individual can cause a forest fire. The choice as a society to develop land near the edge of a forest can alter forest-management practices, leading to rampant fires during droughts. Destroying tropical rainforests can result in eliminating species of plants containing potential cures for diseases. The loss of beautiful natural spaces increases the stress in modern life, diminishing health.

Pastors will encounter people who feel that Christianity contributes to environmental problems when it emphasizes the dominion of human beings over the rest of creation. This perception can hinder a person’s receptiveness to the gospel. Other people will downplay the role of the environment in human health and miss opportunities to apply biblical principles of stewardship. By teaching a biblical framework for addressing environmental issues, pastors can equip their congregations to make wise decisions on matters that impact everyone’s health and remove any stumbling blocks to receiving spiritual truth.

Finding a Biblical Framework

In Genesis 2:15, the Lord established gardening as mankind’s first profession: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” By tending the Garden, mankind would fulfill the admonition in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” The dominion given in Genesis 1 came alongside the responsibility for good stewardship.

The New Testament sheds light on the concept of biblical stewardship. In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus taught that good stewardship means taking action (Matthew 25:14–30). Simply preserving the resources given to you falls short of good stewardship. The servant who hid the one talent he received to preserve it and avoid the risks associated with investment failed his master. The faithful servants not only preserved the resources their master gave them, but they used those resources for the benefit of their master. Thus, our challenge in tending our earth is to bring benefits from the resources God has given us without losing those resources in the process.

Solving Health Issues

Our health directly depends on the health of our environment. Clean air and water prevent both infectious diseases and illnesses such as cancer. Many environmental toxins started out as helpful substances that people did not realize posed a danger to health. For example, ancient Romans widely used lead for plumbing and for sweetening beverages. Lead acetate (known as sugar of lead) produces lead poisoning in individuals who regularly consume it. Ancient Romans created this compound by boiling grape juice in lead pots to make sweet syrup. In time, people discovered the correlation between the artificial sweetener and lead poisoning and abandoned its use. However, some companies still use the toxic compound in lipsticks and hair dyes in certain countries.

The ethical challenge occurs when scientists determine that a useful substance has harmful properties. In modern times, paint manufacturers used lead as a paint additive to make paint more durable. However, the sweetness of lead made consuming peeling paint tempting to children. In 1904, doctors linked lead poisoning in children to lead-based paints. Baby crib manufacturers often painted cribs with bright lead-based paints, and infants would chew on the rails, ingesting the paint. In 1922, the League of Nations banned the use of lead-based paint, but the United States opted not to adopt this rule. Finally, in 1971, the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act phased out lead-based house paint in the United States.

Preserving Medical Resources

Sometimes our health depends on resources we discover in the natural environment. For example, in 1961, the National Cancer Institute commissioned USDA botanists to collect samples from plants in a search for natural compounds with anticancer activity. In 1962, botanist Arthur S. Barclay collected bark from a single Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia, in a forest north of Packwood, Washington. This sample began the research that led to the isolation of taxol, a compound (eventually renamed paclitaxel) used to treat patients with lung, ovarian, breast, and head and neck cancer.

In the tropical rainforests of Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, the rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) grows. The plant with pretty pink flowers provides two very important cancer-fighting medicines: vinblastine and vincristine. Vinblastine has contributed to increasing the chance of surviving childhood leukemia from 10 percent to 95 percent. Doctors use vincristine to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that can arise in young adults.

Seventy percent of the 3,000 plants identified by the National Cancer Institute as having anticancer activities come from tropical rainforests. However, researchers have only examined one percent of the known plant and animal species in the tropical rainforests for their medicinal properties. Covering only six percent of the earth’s surface, tropical rainforests contain at least half of all known species. Yet, agricultural development and the logging industry are destroying tropical rainforest ecosystems at an alarming rate. Because rainforest trees have very large canopies, the loss of a few trees can lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem in the surrounding area.

Land once occupied by rainforests seldom makes suitable land for farming in the long term. Once the soil can no long support crop growth, farmers must clear further stretches of the rainforest to create more agricultural land. Yet, we must meet the economic needs of people who turn to the rainforest to find farming land. The answer may be sustainable development that finds ways to meet present needs without destroying the gift of biodiversity within the rainforests that promises to bring health to future generations.

Setting a Good Example

Jesus called Christians to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14), setting a good example for others. While the primary focus of churches must remain saving people, congregations can learn to be kind to the environment. A common misperception is good environmental practices are expensive. However, many environmentally friendly ideas reduce costs. Recycling, reducing unnecessary use of paper, and using native plants when landscaping are simple steps every church can take that will save money as well as help the environment.

Within most congregations, pastors can find parishioners with awareness of good environmental practices willing to lead the way. By extending teaching on good stewardship to include care of our environmental resources, pastors can influence people to make wiser choices for their own health and the health of future generations. In caring for creation, we honor the Creator.

Christina M.H. Powell

CHRISTINA M. H. POWELL, an ordained minister, author, medical writer, research scientist trained at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University, and the author of "Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard Ph.D. Explores Challenges to Faith" (InterVarsity Press, 2014).She speaks in churches and conferences nationwide and addresses faith and science issues at www.questioningyourdoubts.com.

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