It's the countdown to Earth Day '96 and a bright lecture hall begins to fill.
This is EarthCare '96, the Christian Environmental Stewardship Conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the themes and tenets of secular environmentalism are gleefully recycled with a Christianized twist.
Richard Cartwright Austin-a former Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor who lists himself as an "environmental activist and farmer," author of a four-book series on "environmental theology," and a faculty member of the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center-declared in the conference's opening address: "Today's living community is in crisis. People constitute a 'modern flood.' Just as a 'large meteor' caused the extinction of dinosaurs 67 million years ago, today's crisis of extinction also has a single cause-the impact of the modern human community on the environment."
With a solemn frown, he peered over a college podium. "Our wastes overwhelm the environment," he said, "as does our exploding population."
Mr. Austin couldn't have been talking about the population at the conference. The whole thing took place at Chattanooga State Technical Community College in a couple of classrooms. At most 30 people attended the opening address, and two or three of those looked suspiciously like confused, note-taking freshmen wondering if they were in the right classroom. Among other speakers featured at the conference: Dean Ohlman, a lecturer at Cornerstone College and Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, and Stan LeQuire, who heads the Evangelical Environmental Network.
What makes the tiny Chattanooga conference notable is that it's a model for grassroots activism, according to EEN's Mr. LeQuire, who is looking for bigger things to come. That group hopes to replicate the conference in communities and churches nationwide, he said, and people are responding.
EEN was started in 1993 as a joint effort between World Vision and Evangelicals for Social Action. Members of the group authored the "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation," which has been signed by evangelical leaders such as Robert Andringa, president of the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities; Samuel Logan, president of Westminster Theological Seminary; J.I. Packer of Regent College; and Roger Cross, president of Youth for Christ. EEN has a yearly budget of about $200,000, and officials claim to have sent literature to 50,000 churches. More than 1,200 are now using teaching materials provided by EEN, including the (nondenominational) Church of the Savior in Wayne, Pa., First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, First Baptist Church of Mt. Holly, N.J., and Waipuna Chapel in Kula, Hawaii. Christian academics involved include Jeff Schloss, professor of biology at Westmont College; Joe Sheldon, professor of natural sciences at Messiah College; and Tony Campolo, professor of sociology at Eastern College.
Next door, EarthFair-a complementary event hosted by the EarthCare '96 conference-was the bigger draw, attracting busloads of Chattanooga schoolchildren, who wandered through booths filled with earth-friendly earthworms, looked at recycling bin prototypes, and viewed posters that very nearly chastised them for even being born. "Water pollution," one display groaned at the field-tripping children, "It starts with you!"
In keeping with the spirit of the guilt-inducing water pollution poster, Mr. Austin threw himself under the logical wheels of the environmental bandwagon. This is how the wagon rolls: People are bad; Americans are worse; and Americans with computers (and cars and carpets) are worst of all.
"The number-one problem in the environment," he told conferees, "is the modern technological system. And the number-two problem is population. One American child does more to destroy the world than 160 Bangladeshis."
The conference was supposed to be about Christian stewardship of the environment, not about science; yet conferees absorbed an environmental barrage of pseudoscience as if it were gospel truth. "The majority of scientific evidence confirms creation's infirmity," proclaimed the Evangelical Environmental Network's Let the Earth Be Glad, an environmental "starter kit for Evangelical churches."
But the booklet provides no evidence. Instead it makes broad statements such as, "Through vehicles, factories, power plants and farming practices, people have sent extraordinary amounts of chemicals into the atmosphere, resulting in air pollution and toxic waste, depletion of the ozone layer and threats of global warming."
There's some truth in that statement-no one doubts that air pollution exists-but ozone depletion and global warming are two theories that aren't backed up by time-tested science. The EEN also contends: "Rapid population growth makes the demand for water even greater," helping to cause a "serious problem of water scarcity." But even the World Bank says that's not true; there's plenty of good water, and the world is increasing its access to it at a steady pace. While there are local instances of water pollution, there's no evidence of a worldwide water shortage.
The most nebulous of the scientific claims asserted at the conference is that humanity's ill treatment of the environment has caused "human and cultural degradation," although those evils were not defined and therefore not quantifiable. Yet Covenant College's Cal Beisner notes that life expectancies have risen dramatically, a sign that standards of living and care have risen.
Mr. Austin assured the conference-goers of the connection between "social injustice and environmental degradation," asserting that Americans "will tolerate the poisoning of blacks and Hispanics." He referred to environmental racism, another term that is partially true. In many cities, poor neighborhoods are saddled with waste dumps, incinerators, and gasoline tank farms that would never be tolerated in areas where land is more expensive.
Nevertheless, there's no evidence of a racist plot to poison anyone. But there's clear evidence that evangelicals just can't seem to address the issue of the environment without slipping into leftist politics. "We recognize that human poverty is both a cause and a consequence of environmental degradation," says the EEN's "Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation," written by the conference's sponsor.
Obviously, toxic waste dumps are bad, but agriculture? Yes, EarthCare '96 material asserts, agriculture is responsible for pollution, deforestation, flooding, and lots of dead oysters in Chesapeake Bay. Two-thirds of the water used around the world is used for crop irrigation, which is bad because water is scarce. Cattle are bad, because they consume 70 percent of the grain grown in the United States, and when they overgraze, they cause "desertification." Americans eat too much meat anyway, since the average person here eats 250 pounds per year, EEN claims, compared to the modest 4.4 pounds of meat eaten per year by the average person in India.
Famine, of course, is bad. But what EarthCare '96 and other environmental efforts don't note is that the causes of famine most often are political in nature; famines in recent years have occurred only in totalitarian nations, as documented by researcher Sylvia Nasar in a New York Times article in 1993. They have not been linked to the size of a population or its food supply (supposedly jam-packed India hasn't had a famine since gaining its independence, despite food shortages in 1967, 1973, 1979, and 1987). The droughts in Zimbabwe and Botswana in 1983 and 1984 were just as bad as those of socialist Sudan and Ethiopia, but Zimbabwe and Botswana had no famine because their democratic governments didn't use food as a weapon in factional fighting.
The conference speakers played a no-rules theological pick-up game when it came to combining Christianity and ecology. "Christ is fully God and fully Earth," declared Mr. Austin. "He came to save the world." And saving the Earth is our job too, he added. Said Mr. Austin: "I hear the Bible calling us to redeem from destruction the Creation."
One conference-goer, a carpet industry engineer from Georgia, successfully fused Scripture and self-righteous environmentalism, at least in his mind: "Air pollution led to my salvation," he said during a question-and-answer session. "God is taking me and using me for spiritual warfare over air quality."
Perhaps such environmental religiosity isn't so surprising after all; columnist Alston Chase has long been charging that environmentalism is a religion in itself. "Today, virtually every green thinker oozes syrupy religiosity," Mr. Chase says. And it's often as weak on sound theology as it is on scientific underpinning.
In Chattanooga, conferees congratulated themselves for organizing EarthCare '96 and the adjacent EarthFair. Maybe the conference organizers hope that the American public will be as unquestioningly enthused by their show of eco-wisdom as were some of the children who toured the conference's EarthFair. "These earthworms are cool," one youthful Nike-outfitted conspicuous consumer told another. "I think they eat garbage. You can use 'em in landfills. I'm gonna buy some. Get me that catalog."