All the world's religions, faith traditions, and spiritualities pay respect to the concept of environmental ethics. While it is a commonly held belief that environmental ethics is a relatively new field, coming to life in the 1970s, the idea is present in Jewish and Christian sacred scriptures.
However, the early 1970s started the first celebration of Earth Day and the acknowledgement of environmental ethics as a separate field of study within philosophy and ethics. The field emerged almost simultaneously in three countries; Australia, the United States, and Norway. In the first two of these countries, direction and inspiration came largely from the earlier 20th century literature of the environment. The Scottish emigrant John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club and the "father of American conservation") and subsequently the forester Aldo Leopold had advocated an appreciation and conservation of things natural, wild, and free. There is now a linking of environmental ethics with the animal rights movement.
Caring for and being attuned to the environment, as promoted and practiced in environmental ethics, have long been key aspects of the religious and spiritual developmental trajectories of individuals and communities. Environmental ethics is taught in a variety of contexts-religious programs, schools, one-on-one interactions, and in personal revelations often gained through experiences in nature.
The book of Genesis in the Jewish sacred texts, which all Christians also accept, is the starting point for ethical environmental treatment. Chapter I verses 26-30 states:
And God said, "let us make a human, in our image, according to our likeness, and let them dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies and the domestic animals and all the earth and all the creeping things that creep on the earth." And God created the human in His image. He created it in the image of God; He created them male and female. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and dominate the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies and every animal that creeps on the earth." And God said, "Here, I have placed all the vegetation that produces seed that is on the face of all the earth for you and every tree, which has in it the fruit of a tree producing seed. It will be for you, and for all the wild animals of the earth and for all the birds of the skies and for all the creeping things on the earth, everything in which there is a living being: every plant of vegetation, for food." And it was so.
The prophets of the Jewish sacred texts teach about faith and justice. The quality of one's personal faith is dependent upon the quality of justice. Where one stands with one's Creator is dependent upon where one stands with those on the fringes of society, i.e., the poor, the widows, the aliens, those with illnesses. The dignity of the human person is always to be upheld, since the human person is created in God's image and likeness. Environmental ethics now links the concept of the dignity of the person to the dignity of creation. Some ethicists claim that one protects human dignity by rights and duties, and rights are a moral claim to a good that is essential to human dignity. Therefore, the environment is also essential to human dignity. To continue this line of thought, since the human person is sacred and social, one needs to be in community. There are many levels of community: family, civil society, region, or nation, but the most basic community is the community of the earth. This connection allows the linking of stewardship with the purpose of humanity.
Modern-day religious scholars and theologians would highlight the concept of stewardship as a critical aspect of environmental ethics and as an important way to live a life faithful to God's word. Each person is meant to be a cocreator with God in art, culture, science and in regards to the earth. Humans are entrusted with the earth. All the earth's goods are for all, all the time. The idea of stewardship now states that creation and nonhuman things are not the property of any one person, but each person is to care for and protect what was loaned to the human family by the Creator. Stewardship means one needs to give an accounting to the Creator of how one used the goods and materials of the earth.
Stewardship of the environment is also taught in schools and religious programs throughout the world. Young people are given the opportunity-through community service projects, classroom responsibilities, etc.-to become engaged in caring for the environment. Whereas some experiences are intentionally linked to a religious lesson, other intentional and nonintentional experiences, without being linked to a religious lesson, nurture and promote healthy spiritual development by engaging young people in activities that require them to transcend themselves. Stewardship of the environment also takes place on a daily basis around the world in one-on-one interactions between parents and children, teachers and students, peers, siblings, etc. Often individuals, just by immersing themselves in nature, are moved to become stewards. When stewards of the environment are thought about in this way, surely it is clear that environmental ethics has always been a part of religious and spiritual development.
Environmental ethics is an ever-expanding field of study. If one takes the stewardship model to heart, then one will treat the environment with respect and dignity at all times, thereby leaving the world a better place for the next generation.