It is a rare thing to be well-read in a discipline and to come across a book that is strikingly different. The experience is refreshing, but it happens only exceptionally.
Wipf and Stock released a new translation of a book by J. Douma, a Dutch ethicist, this year. His volume, Environmental Stewardship is sufficiently distinct from other treatments of the topic that it was a pleasure to read and genuinely novel.
Although the book was released in English in 2015, it was originally published in 1988. This means that Douma’s volume is not “current” in the sense that it includes all of the latest literature. It is academically valuable, however, because it introduces a number of German and Dutch sources that are not often considered in English writing on the topic of Environmental Ethics.
Additionally, because Douma was outside of the main discussions of Environmental Ethics in the United States, he provides a strongly alternative perspective that is neither right nor left of others, but different. This makes the reader rethink existing paradigms because he approaches the same old issues from a unique perspective. Still, Douma’s perspective is both well-reasoned and biblically faithful.
The book has five chapters. In Chapter One Douma surveys the issues of Environmental Ethics and begins to consider who could be at fault for the problems in the environment. Douma interacts with Lynn White’s famous thesis, which is that Christianity is to blame for the world’s environmental ills. However, Douma also interacts with the earlier and apparently more strident critique of Claus Jacobi, another Hollander. Douma’s critiques of both men are strong and much more helpful than many others who have interacted with them. In particular, Douma notes that White’s thesis is really that the ecological crisis is the product of a democratic culture. He is the first to make that assertion, but it rings true. Douma also notes that technology is most strongly critiqued only when it has a negative impact on the environment. In contrast, however, often technology is very good for the environment. Douma is shaking his finger at the hypocrisy of many environmentalists.
In Chapter Two Douma explains the biblical case for environmental stewardship. He undermines the dominion concept and offers an authentic stewardship model. There is no doubt Douma sees humans as part of yet unique within the created order. The correct attitude toward nature is neither anthropocentric nor cosmocentric but theocentric. Yet Douma’s theocentricity recognizes the special place humans have as alone being made in the image of God. Douma argues for a critical understanding of the cultural mandate. Humans are to cultivate the garden, but to do so with a long future in view.
The third chapter outlines Douma’s proposed solution to the environmental issues of the day. He calls for a right attitude to be inculcated in people, such that technology is embraced for its beneficial properties and personal restraint is exercised well. He argues for a common sense approach to improving environmental conditions instead of a romantic plea for a return to a previous day. Those days weren’t better for a number of reasons. In this chapter Douma moves quickly through a number of issues from nuclear power to animal rights. Douma is dealing with attitudes, which means the nearly thirty years between his writing and the present do not undermine the value of his proposed solutions.
The final two chapters deal with the particular issue of genetic engineering. Chapter Four discusses it in general, while the final chapter discusses it in relationship to humans. Douma is careful to note the potential consequences of genetic engineering. Many of those consequences will not become apparent until long after the first steps have been taken. In principle, however, Douma is not opposed to genetic engineering, though he insists it should be done for the right reasons, with particular controls, and within limits. He discusses in detail some of the risks and benefits of genetic testing for early diagnosis and potentially creating designer children. Some of what Douma foresaw as potentially adverse conditions from genetic engineering has come to pass. So too have many of the positives. Still, Douma’s perspective is worth reading despite its dated content.
This book is worth reading because it is so far outside of the stream of environmental ethics that it reopens settled questions and has the potential to improve dialog. For the scholar writing on the topic of environmental ethics, Douma’s footnotes and bibliography are a goldmine of sources from well off the beaten path.
This book is part of an answer to a growing concern in my mind of the need of a well-written, deeply considered environmental ethics that is consistent with an evangelical theology. In general, Douma provides that. At worst, Environmental Stewardship should enhance the conversation by reopening “settled” questions by forcing consideration from a new angle.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.