The howls of wolves were unmistakable. The moon was full, and the pack was on the prowl. Inside a sparsely furnished cabin, a small group of researchers huddled anxiously in a corner. Strangely, they weren’t at all concerned about the hunt outside. Instead, they were focused on a computer screen displaying results from years of painstaking research. The story told by the graphs and statistics was as riveting as the howls that pierced the night air.
These researchers were studying the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem in the U.S. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to the park after being killed off in the millions nearly 70 years prior. Remarkably, the findings suggested that the presence or absence of just one species—the wolf—could affect an entire ecosystem.
Shortly after the wolf was restored, the elk that the wolves hunted moved away from their favourite grazing areas. The aspen forests and streamside vegetation began to grow again because the elk no longer consumed the saplings. Next, amphibians, reptiles, beavers, and songbirds returned as vegetation increased. Tree roots stabilized the stream banks and reduced erosion. Beaver activities raised the water table. Thus, the wolf’s presence in Yellowstone appeared not only to improve the ecology and richness of the ecosystem dramatically but to indirectly change its physical geography as well!
So what have we learned from Yellowstone’s wolves? Complex relationships exist among
plants, animals, and their abiotic environment. By altering just one component, we often change
that environment in unforeseen ways; and every component—even the hated wolf--matters. The lesson is clear: we should reflect carefully on how we treat creation.
We live on a rapidly deteriorating planet. The impact of humanity has been devastating
and undeniable. Almost a quarter of the earth’s land has been converted for human use.
Pollution of our air, land, and water has become pervasive. Because of our overexploitation and
neglect, plants and animals are disappearing at unprecedented rates, with thousands of species
becoming extinct annually.
However, numerous published surveys reveal that Christians and those of other faith groups are measurably less concerned about environmental issues than the public at large. While many Christians take offence at the view that creation came about by natural processes over billions of years, some of these same Christians express indifference or even anti-environmental sentiments. They believe most environmental concerns are grossly distorted. Further, they insist that pro-environmental scientists and politicians—and Christians who agree with them—are crying wolf.
Why We Should Care
Here are four reasons why Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians should embrace environmental stewardship.
1. Our Creator expects us to care
The “dominion” given humans to “rule” over all living things and “subdue” the earth (Gen. 1:26, 28) refers to God’s expectations for us to take care of the land (Ex. 23:10, 11), provide animals sufficient food and rest, and protect them from harm (Deut. 25:4; Matt. 12:11). God even authorized the first “environmental protection act” (Gen. 2:15) and the first “endangered species act” (Gen. 6:19). The world and everything in it belongs to God, not us (Ps. 24:1); we are thus called to exercise benevolent, selfless environmental stewardship (Ps. 72:8-14).
2. Caring brings us into communion with the Creator
Christians who seek to preserve creation recognize the clear relationship between our understandings of nature and God. “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you….” (Job 12:7). Studying nature provides insight into God’s character, His infinite love and power. So let’s study nature and preserve it for future generations to do the same!
3. We should care for economic reasons
God has given us extraordinary natural resources, but they are finite and subject to overexploitation. We depend upon these natural resources, or ecosystem services, for our very existence. They include the provision of food and water; pollination of native and agricultural plants; cycling of nutrients; moderation of extreme weather, including flood and drought mitigation; erosion protection; regulation of plant pest and human disease organisms; decomposition and detoxification of wastes; purification of air and water; and maintenance of biodiversity. These free services have been valued globally at $125 trillion per year. Without these services, our quality of life would be fundamentally diminished.
4. We should care for health and social justice reasons
We need healthy environments that provide natural resources and processes that sustain human life. Unhealthy environments provide reduced ecosystem services and promote disease, tension, conflict, and inequality. Some individuals and corporations conduct business in ways that exploit the environment and diminish its capacity to sustain local people. Moreover, lax environmental regulations or disregard of them threaten the health and livelihoods of millions. Roughly one in seven human deaths—9 million—in 2012 resulted from exposure to soil, water, and/or air pollution, and 93 percent of these preventable deaths were in developing countries. As Christians, we should have the loudest voices in defending the victims of environmental injustice—humans and other life forms.
A Need for Critical Thinking
As followers of Jesus, we must care for creation and alleviate human suffering whenever we can. When it comes to environmental issues, we should seek to become informed by the most reliable sources. We should recognize the language of propaganda that we encounter daily in the media and blogosphere. We also need to be open to the possibility of holding wrong views, apply critical thinking to the best of our abilities, and treat with respect the opinions that others hold, even if we believe they are wrong.
As it turns out, further study has questioned the primary role of wolves in restoring Yellowstone’s ecosystem. Although the wolves certainly contribute by preying on the elk, the picture seems more complicated than initially believed, as it also involves interactions among bison, beavers, human hunting, rainfall patterns, and temperature changes. Science has its imperfections, but when used correctly to test alternative hypotheses, it is eventually self-correcting and provides needed insight.
Witnessing through Environmental Stewardship
The Adventist Church has embraced environmental stewardship with several official statements. With these statements, the denomination acknowledges that “the ecological crisis is rooted in humankind’s greed and refusal to practice good and faithful stewardship within the divine boundaries of creation." However, despite these statements of support, the church’s institutions currently allocate negligible resources toward creation care. For the most part, Adventists and other Christians have stood idle while others have taken the lead in creation care. Imagine our opportunities to witness if we would work together!
Creation Fully Restored
Although sin has marred God’s original creation, we can still see His handiwork. We have been
tasked to ensure that His creation remains for all to see and benefit from it. It is a gift from God; we show our gratitude by appreciating it. We can also contrast the present creation with that of the original, which will one day be restored. We have been given a glimpse of how different things will become for the iconic Yellowstone predator: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). That’s an ecosystem we should all long to experience, and one that I’ll want to study someday!
1. For a useful review, see A. P. Dobson, “Yellowstone Wolves and the Forces That Structure Natural Systems,” PLOS Biology 12, no. 12 (2014): e1002025, http://tinyurl.com/qamzfaw.
2. R. Costanza et al., “Changes in Global Value of Ecosystem Services,” Global Environmental Change 26 (2014): 152-158, http://tinyurl.com/jt7bqw9.
3. Pure Earth (www.pureearth.org/) provides sobering details in their annual reports at www.worstpolluted.org/.
Author: William K. Hayes
William K. Hayes, Ph.D., M.S., is a professor of biology and director of the Center for
Biodiversity and Conservation Studies at Loma Linda University.
This article was originally published in The Adventist Review. For the full article and references, see www.adventistreview.org, Jan. 11, 2016.