Entrepreneurs and Environmentalists

© 2015 Robert Osburn

In the next few weeks I will introduce professors, pastors, and other leaders in the northeast Indian state of Manipur to the story of Christianity’s contribution to the development of nations.  One topic I will address is finding the proper balance between entrepreneurship and environmentalism, a balance that, in the gloomy twilight of the early 21st century, clearly tips Green in the post-Christian West.  Finding the right balance not only concerns development, but has everything to do with what it means to be human.

American history, I suggest to my international student friends, is, until the 1960s, a narrative of entrepreneurial vibrancy.  Even before the Industrial Revolution caught fire in the States, 19th century French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville declared, “America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement.”   Charles Murray, in his 2012 book Coming Apart, says that America had four founding virtues, of which two had everything to do with explosive business growth: industriousness and honesty.  The former provided the hustle and bustle, the latter guaranteed that debts would be honored.  Beyond this, the Puritans, whose way of life has left perhaps the single deepest cultural imprint on Americans, followed four principles (detailed by Kenneth and William Hopper in their 2009 book The Puritan Gift) that sharpened and brightened business prospects in America:

A conviction that the purpose of life…was to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth; an aptitude for the exercise of mechanical skills; a moral outlook that subordinated the interest of the individual to the group; and an ability to assemble, galvanize and marshal financial,  material and human resources to a single purpose. (p. 3)

I also want my students to know that, biblically and theologically, American entrepreneurialism must be framed by the cultural mandate: God’s commission to His image bearers to wisely produce what results in human and creational flourishing.  Mined out of Genesis 1:26-28, this concept means that humans must care for creation and create culture simultaneously.  Thus, the entrepreneur produces and markets goods and services that enhance creational flourishing: lawn mowers, tractors, textbooks, computers, music, pumps, buildings, windmills, clothing, and millions of other products that boost human achievement and glorify God.  As I have suggested elsewhere, business-oriented income generation is replacing aid in the vast world of international development, and none too soon.

But, there are two major reasons why we cannot simply declare entrepreneurs our planet’s saviors.  First, the same Genesis passage indicates that humans are to also protect creation so that it shines for His glory.  “Ruling” and “dominion” forbid destroying, completely consuming, or otherwise disfiguring what was meant to both glorify God and provide the raw materials for the production aspect of the cultural mandate.  Environmental protection, wise stewardship of the plant and animal kingdoms, is mandated in creation.

Human sin is the second reason that entrepreneurialism alone is insufficient.  Thus, the reign of sin (Genesis 3) suddenly and permanently tainted entrepreneurial activity with evil inclinations, distortions, destruction, and disobedience.  Thus, miners left scars on earth’s crust, farmers recklessly sacrificed not just weeds, but also mighty oaks in quest of profits, and oil companies recklessly polluted waterways once filled with fish.  Careful management of earth’s resources with a view to exhibiting God’s beauty and wisdom was sacrificed to entrepreneurial greed and idolatry. 

Thus was born, both because of the cultural mandate and the devastating effects of sin, the movement for environmental care.  This narrative of creational stewardship finds no home in other religious or philosophical systems, except where the task of creation care completely contradicts the assumptions of the system.  Buddhist appeals to environmentalism completely contradict Buddhism’s assumption that physical reality is pure illusion and emptiness. The scientific naturalist, likewise, has no basis to care for the environment: How can pure matter generate human consciousness, let alone a morality of environmental stewardship?  So, whenever you hear the incessant 21st century drumbeat for protecting the environment, cheer that the Christian account of reality has had such powerfully positive effect.

With one gigantic caution, please: Because of sin, humans have now made of environmental care an idolatrous movement called environmentalism.  Mother Earth demands our obedience, and thus we are losing the proportional balance between the claims of the environment and the call to be creative entrepreneurs.  Without in any way minimizing the massive pollution in cities like New Delhi, Beijing, and around the world (all of which desperately needs to be reined in for reasons of our cultural mandate), in Western countries the balance tips more and more away from the entrepreneur and toward the environmentalist.   Environmental permits now take years, if ever, for regulatory approval, and the result is the slow grinding that strips the wind out of entrepreneurial sails.  I have personally witnessed, for example, how environmental protection agencies destroy entrepreneurial efforts that promote creational sustainability.   That’s called “perverse logic.”

The theologian’s task, as it relates to public policy, is to call attention to foundational texts and themes that should guide, not dictate to, the policymaker. In this case, while policymakers in many developing countries have an urgent need to strengthen environmental protections because of increasing entrepreneurial activity, in developed countries like the US the opposite is needed.  Environmentalists call more shots while entrepreneurs are told to wait on the sidelines.  That isn’t good for Western economies that are nearing a tipping point where their economic futures begin to shrivel.

The Bible calls us to balance entrepreneurial activity with creation care.  It is our human responsibility, because we are made in His image.  When we shirk that responsibility, we either rape the environment for a buck or we shackle the entrepreneur with regulations that stunt the economy.  

God, give our policymakers wisdom!