Have we filled the Earth?

Posted on March 1, 2013 at 11:11 am,

This is the next in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics according to the Bible. Today we’re looking at the second part of the chapter on the Environment, where Grudem does a stock-take of the planet’s resources. Before we look at this section, it’s worth noting that Grudem’s take on the economy (which was the previous chapter) depends on the conclusions he reaches here. Presumably he chose to put the issue he considers more important first, rather than putting the two chapters in their logical order.

The Theology

Grudem only spends a couple of paragraphs looking at the principles of this question. He believes that the command to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to fill the Earth and subdue it suggests that the Earth has abundant resources that can be developed and that the Earth would benefit from this development, rather than being destroyed by it.

I have two problems with this analysis. Firstly, the command to “fill the Earth” implicitly suggests that it is possible for humanity to do so. And when that happens the planet’s resources could be close to breaking point. Secondly, there’s the impact of sin. Back in chapter four, Grudem pointed out that Christianity rests on the belief that human beings are sinners. If sinful people attempt to use the Earth and its resources, then at least some of their efforts will, inevitably, be destructive. Human sin is key to Grudem’s politics in other areas, yet he discards the possibility of it doing damage to the environment here.

Flawed Data?

Grudem’s figures in this 25-page section come mostly from a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. The book has been somewhat controversial. Grudem acknowledges the controversy, but just says that he is personally persuaded that Lomborg got the better of his critics. Since the accusations are very serious, I will list them here:

  • Fabrication of data
  • Selective citation (deliberately discarding data that doesn’t fit)
  • Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods
  • Deliberate misinterpretation of others’ results
  • Presenting data in a fraudulent way

Given the seriousness of the accusations, it’s probably wise to take the book’s numbers and conclusions with a pinch of salt. If Lomborg’s numbers are correct, then surely Grudem could simply have gone back to the original source and avoided the controversy. If they aren’t, then things are a lot less rosy than Grudem paints them.

Grudem is keen on using long-term worldwide trends, rather than short-term stories of disasters. He paints an overall picture that is incredibly positive. He believes that humanity will be able to live on the Earth enjoying ever-increasing prosperity, and never exhausting its resources even with a much bigger population than we have today.

He looks at statistics for world population, agricultural land, clean air, waste disposal, global forests, species loss, herbicides and pesticides, and life expectancy (I’ll deal with what he says about energy and fossil fuels in the next post in this series). I won’t be going into detail on each of these, but will highlight some of the issues arising from Grudem’s treatment.

Some problems are local

One thing Grudem gets right is to point out that some problems are localised. Even without desalination plants, there is unlikely to ever be a global shortage of fresh water. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be water shortages in some places. Water is expensive to transport long distances, and there are lots of places where people use more water than is available in their part of the world.

Quality of Resources

One thing he misses is that some resources are not equal. For example, when talking about growing food, he says that about 24% of the world’s non-ice surface is arable land, and that we only use about a third of it for growing crops. He claims that we could easily use the rest of it for doing just that. He doesn’t mention is that the land that is not being used is less fertile than the land that is, or that modern agricultural methods often do long-term damage to soil quality (which is why they need large amounts of fertiliser) and biodiversity. He also seems to place little or no value on other uses for arable land.

The Elephant in the Room

The biggest problem with this section, though, is that Grudem never talks about is consumption. There’s an oft-quoted statistic that if everybody lived a Western lifestyle we would need three planet Earths to support ourselves. Regardless of how accurate this is, it demonstrates that how much of the planet’s resources we use up depends at least as much on our lifestyle choices as it does on how many of us there are, or what technology can do. Discussing how many people the planet can support without talking about consumption is to completely miss the elephant in the room.

Conclusion

Grudem paints an incredibly rosy, but somewhat simplistic, view of the planet’s ability to support an ever-increasing and increasingly prosperous human population. This picture is pretty much a best-case scenario, and there are serious questions about the statistics it’s based on and some of the assumptions made. I don’t agree the Earth can support as many people, with as much consumption, as Grudem thinks. And I place more value on some of the things we would lose by doing so than Grudem does.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Killingworth
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    First, I would be careful of quoting from scripture in a blog: it is necessary to quote a translation which means preferring one such over all others. You may of course have prayed (and even fasted) over this, and I would hope that you have taken advice from those with expertise in making your choice. In particular, you need to be able to give an account of how much weight you have given to accuracy as opposed to traditional understanding, and why you consider the balance you have struck to be right. I am personally happy enough with “gobbets” lifted from obviously spiritual passages (e.g. the first chapter of John’s Gospel) – far less so with those lifted from mythical narrative, such as the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. Be careful, too, of claiming a denominational imperative as a Christian one. (Unless of course you are happy to denounce others as heretics – I assume this is not your style.

    Genesis 1:28 could, for example, be a poetic way of saying that human beings have consciousness and the rest of creation doesn’t.

    As to the “three Earths” notion, this implies that a third of the Earth’s population could live to Western standards. I suppose this might be doable with low birth rates, but the notion strikes me as a gross oversimplification. In truth, no one – of any religion or none – knows how many people Earth can sustain at any given standard of living, a somewhat slipper concept in itself.

  2. Stephen Gray
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike,

    I’m not convinced that quoting the Bible in translation on a blog is any worse than doing so in a sermon, book, or conversation. Yes, a translation loses some of the nuances, but a decent one will preserve at least the primary meaning, and major secondary ones.

    When it comes to denominational and traditional understanding, I treat them with respect – they were often arrived at by people who were smarter than me, and whose walk with God was closer than mine. But I am not going to treat them as holy writ.

    On the issue of heresy, I will only accuse somebody of heresy if their beliefs are at odds with a Christian view on first order issues (i.e. the ones that pretty much define Christianity). And as I tend to deal with second order (or lower) issues when I am blogging about theology, it won’t come up very often.

    On the specific issue of Genesis 1:28 (which, to be pedantic, is not part of the Garden of Eden story), I have to say that your comment is the first time I have come across that interpretation of this verse. And that it fits the preceding verse (“let us make man in our own image”) better than it does this one. There appears to be a break in what God says between the two statements, which suggests that they are not intended to communicate the same thing. And the statement in this verse carries on into the next to talk about God giving us plants for food.

    In any case, I brought it up because I wanted to point out that there is a Biblical case to be made that we are capable of at least getting close to the planet’s ability to support us. This verse is the one that appears to speak most directly to that issue, which is why it is the one I used.

    As for the “three Earths” notion, I think I first came across this in the late 90s, so it may have been true then but not now. As I say in the post, I brought it up to illustrate the principle that levels of consumption make a difference to this issue, rather than because it is necessarily accurate. I expect it was calculated partly by comparing resource use at Western levels of consumption with the available stocks of that resource (and how renewable they are), and partly by looking at the waste, pollution, and other environmental damage that Western lifestyles cause, and comparing that with what we know about the planet’s resilience. That kind of calculation can give you at least a ballpark figure about how sustainable a given level of consumption is.

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