All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

The Cross and the Rain Forest: A Critique of Radical Green Spirituality by Robert Whelan, Joseph Kirwan, and Paul Haffner

An Insightful Look at the Philosophical Footings of Environmentalism

Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty & William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company • 1996 • 163 pages • $16.00 paperback

Ken Ewert is the editor of U-TURN, a quarterly Biblical worldview publication.

Strident, apocalyptic environmentalist rhetoric has become a regular feature of American life. Vice President Al Gore intones that, “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.” Other eco-prophets demand a halt to economic growth, an end to market economies and industrial development, and an abandonment of the notion of “progress.” Apparently we must repent of unenlightened desires to improve the quality of human life.

While perhaps not yet accepted by “the man on the street,” these extreme ideas are more than trendy prattle at yuppie (vegetarian) dinner parties. The widespread preaching of environmentalism in public schools—from kindergarten through university—will have its implications. Already, according to one survey, 63 percent of schoolchildren have lobbied their parents to recycle, and the situation has one author suggesting that the traditional classroom three “Rs” are in danger of being replaced by the enviro three “Rs”—reduce, reuse, and recycle.

While numerous free-market rebuttals have been penned against radical environmentalism, for the most part these works have taken aim at the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Radical environmentalism is primarily a religion. And, as The Cross and the Rain Forest: A Critique of Radical Green Spirituality makes clear, it must be examined and critiqued as one. This small book, authored by Robert Whelan, Joseph Kirwan, and Paul Haffner, is a worthy start. Well researched and providing a wealth of quotations, The Cross and the Rain Forest is an insightful look at the philosophical footings of environmentalism.

While the roots go back much further, in 1966, the historian Lynn White gave what proved to be a significant speech entitled The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. In this speech White attributed the “ecologic crisis” to the Christian tradition. Christianity, White wrote, “insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” In what became a famous phrase, White proclaimed that Christianity was “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” He lamented that Christianity made science and technology possible by displacing the pagan animistic belief that everything has its own genus loci, or guardian spirit.

Prophetically, White called for a new religion to replace Christianity. Modern environmentalism is a significant facet of this new religion. A tired and intellectually anemic Christianity is being deposed by a very old “new” religion: neo-paganism. The current battle, then, rages not over scientific facts or economic realities, but over religious presuppositions. The decisive questions are not regarding ozone depletion or species extinction. The questions are religious: Is nature made for man, or is man made for nature? Is man uniquely created in the image of God, or is he merely one (possibly carcinogenic) part of nature? Does sin consist of breaking the laws of a holy God, or does it consist of unapologetically using nature? Is the gospel the good news of God’s saving work, or the command that man conform himself to his “natural environment”?

The Cross and the Rain Forest cogently illuminates the religious nature of the conflict—a conflict not destined to be settled merely by appeal to scientific evidence or economics. The ultimate victor in this battle will be the most powerful gospel.

  • Mr. Ewert is the editor of U-Turn, a quarterly publication addressing theological, political, economic, and social issues from a biblical perspective.