Better than being 'less bad'

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, May 11, 2011, at 3:46 pm

What do future generations need of us today with respect to the environment? Do we need to reduce the amount of toxic waste we release? Do we need to consume less? To date, our dialogue about environmental stewardship has fallen short because it seems that the best we can do is be "less bad." What if there was a way to manufacture and consume that actually replenished the earth? What if the waste from our production processes actually provided nutrients for ecosystems instead of toxins? God knew what He was doing. Why don't we simply mimic His processes?

In 2002, architect William McDonough and former Greenpeace chemist Michael Braungart published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which introduced a revolutionary way of thinking about environmental stewardship that remains relatively unknown among Christian ethicists today. The authors explained the basic premise of the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) approach this way: "When designers employ the intelligence of natural systems-the effectiveness of nutrient cycling, the abundance of the sun's energy-they can create products, industrial systems, buildings, even regional plans that allow nature and commerce to fruitfully co-exist." In other words, the problem isn't that we don't "reduce, reuse, and recycle" enough. The real problem is that our entire industrial complex does not mimic nature. After all, in the natural world all waste is food.

McDonough and Braungart believe that looking to nature for our design and manufacturing processes is the only way to be good stewards of the earth in the long run. The authors even suggest looking at ants as a model (Proverbs 6:6), gleaning principles not only about work ethic but also how to use natural resources.

Our entire infrastructure is simply too linear, according to McDonough and Braungart: "It is focused on making a product and getting it to a customer quickly and cheaply without considering much else." But would recycling help? Not exactly. Recycling is just another example of being "less bad." People don't think about the fact that recycling is a manufacturing process that uses fossil fuels and produces toxic waste. As such, the net gain for the environment is negligible because the recycling process is no less harmful to the environment than a production process from raw materials.

Much of the Christian rhetoric about the environment seeks to make a persuasive case that we should care. OK, we get it. We should care. Now it's time to move on and think about how to do this in practice. Thankfully, the answers are not far from us if we would only apply what God has already programmed in nature. Who would have imagined that sound environmental stewardship might literally begin with ants?

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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