Man has been given the dominion mandate for rule and stewardly preservation of ecosystems, consistent with a conservation ethic for wise use of natural resources. The major environmental issues confronting society today involve the tension between long-term environmental degradation requiring constraints on human behavior, and the legitimate extent of intrusion by civil government in private actions involving true liberty with respect to the inalienable right of private property. The concern of significance is that looming global environmental problems are generating political pressure for abandonment of the American heritage of a federal, republican form of sovereign national government which protects the property right and acts in cooperative international relationships, in favor of centralized global autocracy which would threaten society with tyranny.
Analysis of environmental issues should involve examination of four topics: limits of the environment to absorb human impact without deleterious change; need for change in human behavior to reduce or avoid adverse environmental impact; limits on the authority and jurisdiction of civil government; and need for civil governmental action toward environmental preservation.
Both our environmental heritage and our political heritage (rightly understood) must be preserved. The political heritage is Biblical and built on protection of inalienable rights accorded to individual man by his Creator; man's duties include earth dominion and good stewardship. Some stewardship components of necessity involve collective actions by society. Our environmental heritage is of a land blessed with natural resource abundance, a fruited landscape conveyed to our generation from forebears who dedicated the land to Christ.
Principles for action are as follows: The civil government is to protect inalienable rights against human destruction of a life-sustaining environment, and protection of property-impairments from actions of others. When actions of individuals in the aggregate threaten ecosystems and property use in general, then the threshold has been crossed where "private" actions are no longer private. Not only that, but the inalienable rights include commons rights, particularly a right of access to unimpaired commons, in conjunction with responsibilities toward the comons, as well as private property rights. In the Christian context, even the latter -- the right to private property as carefully unentangled from the commons rights -- includes unavoidable responsibilities toward society.
In strict terms, the civil government is not authorized to restrain misuse of the environment, absent inalienable rights infringement. However, this statement should not be construed to afford blanket freedom for individuals to do what they want with natural property within their jurisdiction. The fact is that with increasing environmental pressures owing to environmental degradations, increasing resource use, and population pressures, the individual exercising the historic free use of private property is increasingly liable to take actions which do affect other property owners, and do affect the commons, and do cause significant impairments of ecosystems. As relevant situations progress over time, it becomes clearer and clearer that the inalienable right to private property always had limitations, even if private actions in the past did not rise in the aggregate to a level that triggered the need for society-wide protective measures. The general point is that inalienable rights, while inalienable, are not absolute, and involve qualifications.
Society has been finding out in the past century what are those qualifications. In scientific terms, they involve discovery of the thresholds that signal a change from impacts that the environment can absorb and from which it can recover in short time, to impacts which involve accelerating degradation and which require long-term recoveries. Civil government is authorized to take protective action in the latter case. Furthermore, a nation may by public consent protect its natural commonwealth for present and future generations.
The way ahead is generally clear -- environmental protection is an ongoing enterprise of both scientific and political/governmental activity. Civil libertarians will see and complain of infringement of the private property right. Their voice should always remind us of the issues involved, and provoke careful justification of any political actions that restrict individual uses of natural property. However, it is clear that restrictions may be justified even on a foundation of inalienable rights.
The evangelical positions on environmental protection range from strong endorsement for broad governmental action, to strong advocacy of private property rights and near-libertarian limits on governmental action. The view presented here finds the center by focusing on inalienable rights protection, where the rights have both commons and private property components, along with obligations toward God and toward society.
© 2005 John C. Munday Jr.