Planet Earth faces environmental issues of unprecedented severity: Acid rain is falling down, and garbage dumps are filling up. The ozone layer is thinning, and pollution is thickening. The rain forest is shrinking, and the human population is expanding. Oil spills are oozing everywhere, and toxic waste is headed anywhere that will accept it.
Does religion have anything to do with these environmental issues? For some, the answer is no: Religion has nothing to do with ecology, for religion is concerned about heaven as a destination and not concerned about the destiny of the earth. Religion focuses on the spiritual, not on the physical.
However, for others there has developed an awareness that religion not only has something to do with ecology but also that it must be involved: First, there is the religious mandate that human beings are to act as responsible stewards of the world that God has created. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is proclaimed that God made everything that is and that all of this is intrinsically good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 25, 31). Being created in God's image (Gen. 1:26-27), human beings are to care for and serve the creation (Gen. 2:15): Therefore, Noah is bidden to save the birds and beasts and reptiles no less than humans (Gen. 6:19-20). The covenant is subsequently made not only with Noah and his descendants, but also with all the creatures in nature (Gen. 9:10). Jonah is sent to Nineveh because of God's concern for the cattle as well as for the human beings there (Jonah 4:11). The Psalms declare God's concern for the welfare of animals such as wild donkeys, storks, cattle, wild goats, lions, and the creatures of the sea. Since they are important to God, they should also be important to humans (Psalm 104). Job gasps in amazement at the hippopotamus and the crocodile, which are of no conceivable utility to him, thus indicating that God did not create nature solely for human use (Job 40:15-24; 41:7-34).
Further, humans are to give themselves and nature "rest," symbolized by the weekly occurrence of the Sabbath day and in every seventh year, the sabbatical year, when the fields are to lie fallow (Leviticus 25:1-5). The land is a gift to be appreciated and protected, since everything on earth ultimately belongs to God (Psalm 24:1).
In the Christian Bible, it is proclaimed that God loves the world so much that God became incarnate in order to save a world that needed healing and restoration (John 3:16). God considers the lilies as more valuable than even the splendor of King Solomon (Matthew 6:28-29). The Apostle Paul views the whole of creation and nature groaning as a woman giving birth, but they will take part in redemption and fulfillment (Romans 8:19-23; cf. Isaiah 65:17f). Humans are to participate in this as their responsibility and special function, and not to do so is to be like the tenants in the vineyard who are punished for being irresponsible and wicked (Matthew 21:33-46).
Religion has something to do with ecology because this is a requirement for persons who take religion seriously. Stewardship is a responsibility for religious people.
Second, the ecological problems which beset planet earth are at their root, spiritual issues. Especially in Western culture, growth is valued as the means for establishing more markets for more products which will yield greater economic prosperity. However, growth without limits is not sustainable from a natural resources' point-of-view. If trees are cut down faster than they can be replaced in order to facilitate growth, then this action cannot be maintained forever. If pollutants are emitted into the atmosphere in a greater quantity and for a longer period of time than they can be naturally broken down, then the air humans breathe is unhealthy, acid rain falls down, and holes in the ozone layer of the stratosphere develop.
Western culture also advocates consumption as a personal lifestyle that promises happiness and meaning. The message which society sends is that the more persons have, the happier they will be, and that "enough" is always a little more than anyone has ever had. The drain which results on natural resources and the waste that is generated as a byproduct of this usage mean that nature is running out of resources and filling up with garbage. Short-term benefits are also valued in Western culture over long-term repercussions. Gasoline is kept at an artificially, low price compared to the world market, and this encourages people to use it unreservedly in the short run, even though most scientists calculate that we have but 80 years of oil reserves left worldwide. Conservation of this resource and research and development of alternative energy sources are forgotten factors, even though these must be considered in the long run. A final example, but perhaps most important of all, is that nature is regarded as a supply of resources to be exploited, rather than as a web of life of which the human species is a part. Nature is therefore seen as a commodity to be possessed rather than as a community with which to relate.
Environmentalists and ecologists insist that growth must be tempered by restraint; that consumption must give way to simpler living; that long-term consequences must have priority over short-term benefits; that nature must be viewed as a "subject" with which humans must relate positively rather than an "object" to be used and degraded.
This situation therefore involves a values dilemma and is a spiritual issue. Religion has its set of positive values, deep traditions, and scriptural wisdom to bring to bear on this values dilemma. As a result, religion (as well as science and technology) is crucial for responding to, and resolving, current ecological problems.