HAD BARELY SETTLED INTO MY SEAT ON THE OVERNIGHT QANTAS flight from Bangkok to London when the card fell out of the airline magazine.
For a mere $23 (Australian), the card informed me, I could erase my “carbon footprint” on this flight by contributing to a fund to plant eucalyptus trees in the Australian outback.
Contrarian that I sometimes am, I found myself challenging the airline’s “green” assumptions. Did my “footprint” in fact require erasing? Did Qantas itself bear no moral responsibility for flying a half-empty superliner halfway round the world? And how did they arrive at $23 (Australian) anyway? If that sum was based on an average passenger weight of, say, 160 pounds, it would take several more Australian dollars—even before the recent currency fluctuations—to purge my presence on the overnight flight.
I looked at the sleeping college student slumped in the window seat. Could I erase her carbon footprint by giving on her behalf, even if she didn’t wish it? Could I atone for flights that I might someday take by one large contribution now? Was the moral culpability of my ecological sin transferable to another, or would only monetary atonement do?
There can be little doubt that we are witnessing the emergence of the first moral system in the Western world to be based on a color—“green.” In a post-Christian and postmodern world some system of morality will ultimately hold sway, and environmentalism at times seems poised to outshine systems built on Moses, Marx, Mohammed, or Jesus.
The evidences of this shift are all about us. Hummer and SUV owners report their shame for driving gas-guzzling vehicles that only five years ago were celebrated cultural icons.
Suburbanites grow more anxious about the thought of diapers in our landfills than of the fact that thousands of undiapered and unfed children will die before the morrow. Industries trade or barter conservation credits, in some places auctioning their surpluses for good “green” behavior to competitors more ecologically guilty than themselves. Politicians and celebrities find it necessary to announce that the lavish energy consumption required to power the places they live and play is atoned for by green investments made half a world away.
Beneath all such trendy moral reckoning is a galloping legalism that, 500 years after Luther, still asserts human ability to access a treasury of merit. If I may purchase my way into moral favor with Mother Earth—or public opinion—by cancelling my carbon footprint, picking up ever more roadside trash, or driving a tiny hybrid, then I have found yet another system for saving myself, even while I speak loftily of “saving the planet.”
The foundation of Christian and Adventist environmental concern is not and cannot be a trendy rush to match the fad morality of a new “green” agenda. Guilty of too long ignoring our God-given responsibility to care for the earth, we make up no moral ground by rushing to embrace every environmental option urged on our schools and churches by those who may not share a biblical worldview. The cost of new solar panels on the fellowship hall must be weighed alongside the need to design reclaiming efforts to reach those who no longer fellowship with this people. The biodegradable paper plates at the potluck may be a worthy investment, but so are the increasingly empty shelves at the community food pantry.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the psalmist boldly declared; “the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1). Being good stewards of the Lord’s creation requires that we place our priority where heaven placed it. In the name of the Savior who gave Himself for lost human beings and urges us to do the same, our “going green” must take a respectful second place to the crimson story of His cross.
Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review.