Though I’ve gone on record as a skeptic of global warming and of the catastrophic man-made climate change that is so much in the news today, this certainly does not indicate that I care nothing for the environment. If anything, the reading I’ve done on the subject of global warming, while failing to convince me that CO2 emissions are wrecking the world, has reinforced in my mind the importance of caring for the planet God has given us. I have become interested in a Christian response to environmental issues and decided to read a couple of books on the subject. One that was recommended to me is Serve God, Save the Planet by J. Matthew Sleeth.
Not too long ago, Sleeth was rising through the ranks as chief of the medical staff at a prominent hospital on the East coast. He began to see more and more of his patients suffering from cancer, asthma and other chronic diseases. He began to suspect that there were environmental issues involved. Somehow the earth and those who live on it are in trouble of their own making, he concluded. Sleeth eventually quit his hospital job to focus on writing and speaking about environmental issues, seeking to do so from a distinctly Christian point-of-view. He sold his large home and moved his family into a much smaller one; he evaluated his family’s lifestyle and found ways of drastically reducing their environmental impact. And then he wrote this book.
“Serve God, Save the Planet asks the following questions: How can I live a more godly, equitable, and meaningful life? How can I help people today and in the future? How can I be less materialistic? How can I live a more charitable life? What would happen if I led a slower-paced existence? What is the spiritual prescription for depression, anxiety, and anger? How can I become a better steward of nature?” It is a book meant to guide Christians as they first think through the issues and then begin to take action. He feels that Christians, with their understanding of the origins of the world and with their knowledge of its Creator, are uniquely able to lead the task of creation care.
Through the book’s sixteen chapters, Sleeth deals topically with areas related to creation care. He looks at our society’s fixation with “stuff,” at the food we eat (and its origins) and at the homes we live in. He is occasionally overstated (“Nothing is worse for the environment than a broken family”) but usually measured and deliberate. He shows how many of our society’s fixations (materialism, television, entertainment) are linked together and how together they have a serious environmental impact.
The book is not without its weaknesses. One weakness is that Sleeth is better at suggesting easy solutions than working through the implications of the tough ones. For example, he states that the world’s population is growing too quickly to be sustainable (and provides a clear and understandable metaphor for this). But when it comes to a solution for this issue, all he can suggest is this: “Ethically designed and distributed birth control is an essential remedy if humanity is to survive its own success.” That is easy to say, but the ramifications are massive. Do we allow wealthy Westerns to continue to procreate while forcing birth control upon impoverished Africans? How do we convince so many billions of people to go along with this plan? What if one massive people group (Muslims, for example) refuse to play along? It’s an easy solution to propose but one that is nearly impossible to successfully implement. A second weakness, is that Sleeth seems to have “drunk the Kool-Aid.” He accepts man-made global warming as a given and blindly accepts the usual solutions. For example, he stresses the need to recycle, but does not wrestle with the fact that recycling is often as big a polluter, or even a more of a polluter, as simply throwing items in the trash. Consider, for example, that recycled paper needs to be heavily bleached to remove inks and that this bleach is fed into lakes and rivers. And consider that the material to be recycled has to be trucked to recycling centers and hauled to a factory and so on. All of these actions create, rather than prevent, pollution. Recycling is not the “golden key” he makes it out to be. Such difficult issues make no appearance in this volume.
Those complaints aside, the book is good and helpful in many ways. Sleeth offers some good thoughts on environmental issues and does so in a readable, compelling way. His anecdotes, drawn mainly from a long career in medicine, add human interest to what has the potential to be a rather dry topic. Though not a big-picture, philosophical look at the issues, Sleeth’s volume is worth the read for its practical value. The book’s appendices are valuable guides to reducing energy consumption and reducing waste. He gave me a lot to think about in terms of lifestyle and the waste a Western lifestyle can produce, both in time and in materials.
Having said all of this, I do intend to keep looking for a more satisfying book and one that can more fully ground creation care in the Word of God. To this end, I am turning to Pollution and the Death of Man by Francis Schaeffer. I suspect he will fill in some of the gaps missing from Serve God, Save the Planet (while doubtlessly missing out on some of the practical value of Sleeth’s volume).