On the day that I am writing this the New York Times reported that the US Department of the Interior is trying to make changes to the Endangered Species Act with the result that protections for endangered and threatened species in the United States would be greatly reduced. Although I generally try to avoid being political in these posts, this is precisely the sort of issue on which science and the Christian faith can come together to consider what might be the right way forward.
Years of scientific research into ecosystems has revealed just how interconnected these systems are. The loss of any one species within an ecosystem impacts on the whole system. We also know that we are currently in the midst of a global mass extinction event that is largely, if not completely, human driven. While it is true that extinctions, including at times mass extinctions, happen naturally and are part of the development of life on our world, this is something different. What we are seeing now is a large-scale extinction event driven by human expansion, overuse of natural resources and damage to habitats. We don’t yet know what the long-term consequences of all of this will be for the species that remain. Does God care about endangered species? As a Christian, I think the answer to that has to be ‘yes’. Throughout the Bible we see evidence of God’s love and care for his creation, starting from Genesis 1, where God looks at all that he has made – the fullness of creation working together and flourishing – and declares it to be very good. Jesus himself comments on God’s care for every creature, noting that not even an individual sparrow is beyond God’s notice (Matthew 10.29; Luke 12.6).
But what about when protections for endangered and threatened species interfere with human activities? This is precisely the situation that the Department of the Interior is worried about – that protection for non-human species and their habitats limits human activities such as mining and logging. Didn’t Jesus say to his disciples that they were of more value than sparrows? Yes, he did (Matthew 10.31; Luke 12.7). But what he didn’t say was that all human activities, pursuits and desires are more important than God’s other creatures.
It is all too easy for human beings to think that we have the right to do what we wish with the environment. Christians, however, know that this isn’t the case. “The earth is the Lord,” Psalm 24 reminds us, “and everything in it.” This is not our world to do with as we please. This world belongs to God. Psalm 148 describes a world in which God receives praise and worship not just from human beings, but from the whole creation, and this is also found in the description of the heavenly worship in Revelation 5.13. When a species is driven to extinction by human activity, we become responsible for diminishing the worship offered to God. That is a situation that any Christian should deplore.
Of course we humans need to have places to live, and work that allows us to earn a living. But must that come at the expense of other vulnerable creatures who have already been driven to the brink? One of the advantages of environmental and other regulations is that they force us to stop and think about what we’re doing; they push us to find better ways of doing things so that we can flourish not at the expense of but alongside our fellow creatures.
Science can help us identify species that are threatened or endangered and help us manage habitats to support them. For Christians, faith can provide the motivation to work to protect threatened and endangered species, remembering that they too offer voices of praise to God and are precious in his sight.