You’ve heard the warnings: the earth is overpopulated, and soon we’ll run out of food, farmland, and fuel. If we don’t make changes now, we’ll destroy the earth.
Fears about running out of resources are as old as the human race. In the 1800’s, demographer Thomas Malthus predicted that a swelling human population would quickly overtake food production and lead to widespread famine. It didn’t happen.
Similar predictions about the drying up of resources and the fate of the human race still abound. Our economic growth is seen as unsustainable. These warnings are rooted in the eighth and final myth of our series on the eight most common myths about wealth, poverty, and free enterprise: the Freeze-frame Myth.
Myth #8: The Freeze-frame Myth – believing that things will always stay the same – for example, assuming that population trends will continue indefinitely, or treating a current natural resource as if it will always be needed.
Unpacking this myth requires exploring how we define resources and the origin and meaning of man. Since we’re talking about resources, though, it will be helpful to establish a biblical framework for thinking about the stewardship of resources.
Debates about resources, economics, and the environment can be testy. To ease the tension, let’s review some truths Christians can agree on.
1. This is God’s world, not ours. Psalm 24:1 reads, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” Although we may own legal property, God holds the ultimate title on everything. Hugh Whelchel makes this argument in a recent post.
2. The Bible describes humanity’s role in this world as benevolent stewards who represent a good God to the rest of his creation. Many critics confuse the Cultural Mandate‘s use of dominion to mean domination. As human beings made in God’s image, the command of Genesis 1:27-28 is to responsibly steward creation, not irresponsibly dominate it.
3. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for his good purposes. Genesis 2:15 tells us Adam and Eve were put in the Garden before the fall to tend and watch over it. Working and transforming the earth is part of God’s blessing.
4. The world is good, but it is now fallen. Paul writes in Romans 8:20,22 that “The creation was subjected to futility…the whole creation has been groaning.” As fallen creatures in a fallen world, we mess things up. We can and do pollute. We can and do act irresponsibly, ignoring the unintended but bad consequences of our actions.
5. We can’t build God’s kingdom on our own, but our actions can make a difference for the good. As Christ foreshadows the kingdom to come, so, too, does the work of the church. Caring for God’s creation is one of our responsibilities.
Let’s work out these five basic principles in relation to how we view humanity and its use of resources.
What Is Man?
The idea that we’re destroying the planet and using up all our resources usually keeps company with another idea: that the earth is overpopulated with people. This idea views humanity as a virus, existing solely to consume and deplete.
This misanthropic line of thinking misses an important point: most humans grow up to be fruitful and multiply, rather than merely consume. If we instead think of ourselves as image-bearers of God, we realize, as Art Lindsley points out, that we are creators, and not just consumers.
The late economist Julian Simon called human creativity the “ultimate resource.” Pope John Paul II echoed this in his 1991 encyclical, stating,
Indeed, besides the earth, man’s principle resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many ways in which human needs can be satisfied.
If we see human ingenuity as a resource, too, and humans as creators, we’ll look at resources in a different light.
What Are Resources?
When we think of resources, the zero-sum and materialist myths make their encores. We fear we’re running out of resources because we’re thinking of them merely as some finite amount of physical stuff. This is true, to an extent. It seems like common sense.
But resources are more than physical stuff already in existence. We create resources. It sounds unintuitive, but it shouldn’t be if we truly believe what the Cultural Mandate tells us about humanity: that we are creators and cultivators.
Consider oil. For centuries, oil was viewed mainly as an irritating pollutant, until we figured out ways to refine it and use it more efficiently. Now oil is considered a resources, because we created beneficial uses for it.
Most resources are resources only because human beings are involved in some way. Over time the matter in a material resource matters less than how human beings creatively transform it for some use.
It takes hope to recognize that human creativity can responsibly, efficiently cultivate and create resources. But this hope is based on reason and experience, and on the revealed truth that we are creators made in the image of the Creator.
This post is adapted from the book Money, Greed, and God.
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