Can We Be Good Stewards of the Economy and the Environment?

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Living simply usually does not entail spending less money, but instead spending money on different things.

Scriptures and tradition clearly teach us that our neighbors’ well-being should be a primary concern and also that we have an obligation to care for the non-human world. Sometimes, though, it seems like these priorities are in conflict. Efforts to live more simply by consuming less and re-using things are certainly good for the environment in the long run. On the other hand, some argue, such “simple living” results in less consumer spending and hurts the economy.

So what are we supposed to do? Do we care for our human or our non-human neighbors? Do we focus on those who are suffering now or on future generations?

Fortunately, we need not be paralyzed by this apparent conflict. While immediate economic concerns do warrant our attention, developing faithful habits of consumption can lead to a healthier ecosystem and help spur the economy in a good direction. Honoring God in the economy requires two things: first, that we understand which economic concerns are real and which are illusory, and second, that we direct the economy toward true flourishing and peace.

Changing the Way We Live

When the economy affords few opportunities and our neighbors are losing their jobs, we are told that the neighborly thing to do is to keep spending money. Consumer confidence, goes the theory, drives the economy and creates jobs. And it is true that in the near term, if everyone stopped spending money altogether, much suffering would result.

This does not mean, however, that trying to live more simply is bad for the economy. To the contrary, living simply usually does not entail spending less money, but instead spending money on different things, and perhaps giving more to the church. Moreover, saving money—and carefully investing in enterprises and ministries that are God-honoring—is good for the economy over the long term. By thoughtfully directing our spending, we not only can sustain economic life; we also can help steer the economy toward a more ecologically sustainable model.

Consider three lifestyle choices that affect our spending decisions: transportation, diet, and home. These are the three areas where our choices have the most significant environmental impact. Every dollar we spend is a vote in favor of a particular kind of economy, and, in turn, a particular ecology.

So, for example, choosing to use public transportation or commute by bicycle, when practical, will usually result in less pollution and will often save money. A choice like this, however, is not bad for the economy because that money can be put to other good uses if spent wisely. Similarly, choosing to eat less meat dramatically reduces the amount of water, land, and fossil fuels needed to support your diet, but it will not hurt the economy. Eating more fruits and vegetables simply encourages more development of plant-based foods over meat production. Finally, choosing to live in a smaller home that is closer to work and church will not hurt the economy if the money saved is used to support other good enterprises.

We can choose to buy things that do not fill up landfills or rely on excessive fossil fuels while still supporting the good, productive activity of our neighbors. Moreover, our spending habits dictate the types of economic opportunities available to our neighbors. In a strongly interconnected economy, we must be conscious of the ways in which our own actions limit or enable businesspeople to do good and to fulfill their own calling. We cannot justifiably demand that firms be environmentally responsible and consider long-term ecological effects if we are not willing to purchase goods from companies with good environmental records and avoid those that harm the environment.

It’s true that if everyone in North America were to change their transportation and eating habits overnight, the transition to a different economy would be painful. Many gasoline sellers, automobile workers, farmers, and food processors would be out of work, even as jobs are created in other areas. A rapid transition, however, is unlikely to occur. So the fear of hurting the economy should not prevent people from thoughtfully supporting the types of economic activity that are more ecologically sustainable. In fact, a gradual consumer-driven transition to a sustainable economy is likely the least painful way to bring about real environmental and economic progress.

Our theological tradition and church community can provide us with great guidance on these issues. We who are in communion with our brothers and sisters in the developing world are better equipped to distinguish between real human needs and manufactured desires. Because we know what real flourishing looks like, we can resist the temptation to spend our resources on trivial goods or unhealthy habits. We know how to live in community and can act in concert, building habits together instead of relying solely on individual willpower and conscience.

Changing Public Policy

When it comes to public policy, the conflict between our economic and ecological priorities can be more serious. There is little doubt, for instance, that imposing a tax on gasoline would induce people to choose cleaner forms of transportation and buy goods with a smaller carbon footprint. Goods that require more gasoline for production and transportation would end up costing more than comparable goods that use less gasoline. Similarly, using public transportation and living closer to work would become more attractive if gas prices were higher.

However, a large gasoline tax, if imposed quickly, could also have a negative impact on the economy. If the goal of such a policy is to encourage people to change their behavior, it makes sense to impose the policy gradually, at a time when the economy is strong, to avoid causing undue hardship. Moreover, it is possible to shape these environmental policies to minimize the human cost. For example, if revenues from a gasoline tax were used to fund reductions in income taxes, the higher transportation costs could be offset while still encouraging people to change their behavior.

Our end goal should always be to live in an economy that supports life-affirming activities and allows all God’s creatures to flourish. Our current system falls far short in many ways, and it is clear that part of the ecological problem we face is connected to our lifestyle.

If economy-wide lifestyle changes are necessary, however, then individual changes in our habits of consumption are important, but ultimately insufficient. For this reason, we cannot escape the hard policy choices that sometimes pit short-term economic interests against long-term concerns. Some significant tax on fossil fuels or a carbon-trading system may be necessary to prevent the worst possible effects of climate change. International cooperation and regulation will be necessary to sustain ocean ecosystems. Government regulatory action will probably be necessary to create a food system that limits animal exploitation.

In all these areas, Christians should be the first to willingly sacrifice for long-term gain, and also the first to demand that we shape the economy as humanely and carefully as possible.

Achieving More, Arguing Less

Within the church, it’s easy to find disagreements about economic and environmental issues. But there should also be some areas of broad agreement. For instance, we should be able to agree to help each other avoid the excesses of our culture and limit our waste of resources. In the midst of fallenness, we should testify to the intrinsic goodness of all of God’s creation. And we should all be willing to make pragmatic compromises with each other to pursue common goals. If we take seriously these common starting points and grant each other a charitable hearing, we will better be able to faithfully discern together how to respond to some of the difficult economic and environmental challenges facing us today.

Recommended Reading

Matthew Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation, The Humane Society of the United States,

Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Three Rivers Press, 1999.

About the Author

Steven McMullen is an assistant professor of economics at Calvin College, where he specializes in education policy and ethics in economics. He is a member at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (13)


About seven years ago I started to notice that the litergical readings in our CRC worship service started to change. We began to confess, and were shamed that we were bad stewarts of the earth, and were some how responsible for the poverty and woes of the planet. Sad... but thankfully after 23 years we are no longer a part of that congregation.

I find the above article very disturbing, among others in the Banner. This article is promoting the new world social, economic, and religious order that is based on an agenda to control every human being on the planet. Agenda 21, Sustainable Development, and the Millennium Development Goals, as they are sometimes called, is the vehicle designed by the United Nations to bring every community and person to conformity, compliance, and control of a centralized world government. When private land ownership is taken away in the name of the environment, so is your rights, wealth, resources, freedom, and Christian beliefs. In the past this was called Marxism. Communism/socialism has never has been friendly to the Bible believing Christian. Nearly every ecuminical movement our church is involved with promotes "Gaia"- the worship of mother earth as the giver of life.

The above UN agendas call for the population to be reduced by 85%, in order to sustain all life.- So abortion, OK. There is a project under way called the Biodiversity Treaty with plans to rewild 50% of all land in every U.S State. Over 25% of all land is already locked up. The govenment wants to lasso and then stack and pack people in communities and use only land for farming approved by the government, so the earth can be saved. This is what "World Renew" and their Sustainable Develpoment project, funded by the Canadian government in various countries is all about. 

When we look at all this, can't we see prophecy being fulfilled. The green gospel replaceing the true gospel of heaven and hell, repentance and faith. It's been said the Devil never shows up with a pitch fork, but a smooth tongue and gentle persuasion. 

No, the sky is not falling, and no I don't need to repent for being on the earth and leaving a "carbon foot print". And the living God is still the sustainer of all life. Not mother earth. 




The author makes many assumptions as to what constitutes "good stewards" - a high gas tax, cap & trade, international environmental regulation (as if I'm going to trust the UN to regulate my property!), and on and on.

In other words, a statist, left-wing, top-down program run by "experts" is what is defined as good stewardship.  We just don't want to go there too quickly because radical change in a short time frame will disrupt the economy.  Professor McMullen should consider Friedman and Hayek more favorably - particularly their thoughts regarding the limits of expert knowledge.

Then we might ask, what if oil is one of those resources God gave us to be stewards of - that is, to use it. The author simply assumes that industrialization and the oil-based economy we've had for over 100 years now is somehow bad and that getting rid of it will be good.  It is, however, a vast improvement over prior forms of power (that includes water and wind, coal, animal, whale oil, and burning trees) as well as all currently available power sources - which is why we use it.  A city the size of New York would not be possible without oil based energy and by-products.  Nuclear power is, perhaps, more efficient, but the risks surrounding it are significantly higher, and they haven't figured out a way to power anything smaller than a small warship with it anyway.  Besides, who would want a car accident to have the potential to turn into armageddon?

So, yes, we can be good stewards and grow the economy.  But the assumptions made in this article about what grows the economy and what constitutes good stewardship are not necessarily valid.

I'm keeping my cars and I won't feel the least bit guilty about it.

PNR: in my opinion you set up a "straw man" in order to knock him down with an argument from "absurdium."  My wife and I have practiced in some way what the author suggests and we still own two cars.  We simply did not join "white flight" to the suburbs to spend and extra hour per day and thousands of gallons of gasoline to commute to work.  You will not see my 105 lb. wife (as one pundit observed) encased in enough metal to produce a small tank, driving 300 horses, an inordinate distance to get a loaf of bread. (how's that for argument ad absurdium?)  I thought I read the article fairly carefully and did not see anywhere that oil production should be banned.  

However, for the record, Enbridge Pipeline had an oil pipeline rupture in West Michigan and even their challenged/conservative estimate had 800,000 gallons (or was it barrels) of Athabasca oil sands crude spill into the Kalamazoo River.  I've been told "oil sands" oil has a natural abrasive quality when transported through pipelines and that may be some of the cause of the rupture.  So, the more gasoline we consume the more such pipelines we require increasing our chances for another "Enbridge."


Re-read his section under the heading "Changing Public Policy".  I no problem with the choices you've made.  But a gasoline tax of the sort described is, in essence, to decide that everyone should make the same choices without regard to any other circumstances or priorities they might have.  It's also going to raise the cost of everything you buy no matter how far you have to go to get it.  Implicit in that is a moral judgment on those who do not make the choices you have made - a judgment based on an inevitable ignorance of the factors impinging upon them that led to those choices.  I reject that judgment.

Take the bit about being closer to work.  The reason people flee to the suburbs is not because they want to get away from other racial groups.  It's because land and housing there is less expensive (on the whole) when compared to the costs closer in.  Sometimes those costs are increased in risk to life and property, sometimes it is because property downtown is more valuable when used for things other than housing (cf, the infamous Kelo decision by our Supreme Court).  By increasing the cost of transportation between work and home, you force at least some people into a no-win choice.  They must either pay more for transportation, or pay more for housing (if it's even available - in many cities where there is rent control, it isn't) or, more likely, both.  It may, in fact, be stewardly to have my wife (or go myself) drive a few miles to the grocery store when you consider all the other things in play.  In any event, it is better for the individuals to make those choices than for some bureaucrat or legislator 8,000 miles away who has no knowledge of me, my family, or my situation.

Using oil does have risks.  So does not using it.  The Enbridge case (which occurred about the time of the BP mess in the Gulf) does indicate the need for the safety measures that were apparently ignored by the company managing the pipeline.  But a gas tax isn't going to change the selfishness or venality of human nature or eliminate the potential for environmental disasters.  It will only change what people do to give expression to their sinfulness and might - might - alter the sort of environmental disasters that occur (by imposing additional costs on suppliers, it may move them to lower costs in ways that increase risks rather than decrease them).  But what are the alternatives?  Are those really an improvement?  What would be the costs - in human life and health - if we were to severely curtail oil production and use?

McMullen simply assumes that his proposals will lead to a comparative advantage over the present but provides no basis for that assumption.  He assumes that his goals are inherently good without regards for alternatives or consequences.

I think a lot of the previous commenters should re-read the article.  Dr. McMullen never mentions the UN (or Black helicopters, the Trilateral Commission nor the Illuminati) so I don't think we need to bundle him in with all the sources of evil in the world.

As for being a communist.  I know that Dr. McMullen has family who grew up in communist eastern Europe.  I think they would be somewhere between ammused and offended that anyone would accuse him of having such leanings.

Nowhere in the artcle does Dr. McMullen propose a higher gas tax.  What he was talking about was the adverse results of such a tax being quickly implemented.  I think this was a more a warning to those people who would demand such a tax yesterday if not sooner than it was a proposal for such action.

Please re-read the artcle for what it is, a neutral exploration of how we might be able to do things better, unless improvemnt is not part of your vocabulary. 

"There is little doubt, for instance, that imposing a tax on gasoline would induce people to choose cleaner forms of transportation and buy goods with a smaller carbon footprint. Goods that require more gasoline for production and transportation would end up costing more than comparable goods that use less gasoline. Similarly, using public transportation and living closer to work would become more attractive if gas prices were higher."

That sure does look like an endorsement of a higher gas tax to me.  The next paragraph qualifies it by saying imposing it too quickly would be disruptive.

I have - and had - no notion of whether or not McMullen is a communist.  I said he proposes fairly standard statist solutions.  Perhaps I should have said he displays a preference for a command economy.  He just seems to prefer using tax policy to issue those commands rather than other methods.

He also obviously favors a cap & trade program of carbon credits (another vehicle for vastly increasing the cost of energy), and for some kind of international protocol to regulate businesses and individuals - a protocol which would inevitably require the ceding of at least some sovereignty to an international body (such as the UN). ("...we cannot escape the hard policy choices that sometimes pit short-term economic interests against long-term concerns. Some significant tax on fossil fuels or a carbon-trading system may be necessary to prevent the worst possible effects of climate change. International cooperation and regulation will be necessary to sustain ocean ecosystems. Government regulatory action will probably be necessary to create a food system that limits animal exploitation.")

It is not neutral and I stand by what I've written.

All in all, I thought this was a pretty good article.  Certainly, its reasoning is much more well developed that when the Banner editorial starts pontificating on economics.  An observation I particularly appreciated was that dollars (money) are really just votes about what the economy should produce.  

Having said that, I notice a few "veiled" suggestions for increased government control of society that would cause me to part company with the authors.  One comment not so veiled was this one: "Government regulatory action will probably be necessary to create a food system that limits animal exploitation."

Huh?  Before we go down road with the latest animals right political faction (which this statement points to), I'd like to hear from the authors exactly what they are intending to propose.  Agreat number of "animal cruelty" laws are in place, so I assume the authors aren't referring to needing more of those (they say "will be necessary" and these animal cruelty laws already exist).  So what then?  Is this advocacy for laws prohibiting the enslavement of dairy cows kept by exploitative humans in order to extract their milk?  Or laws prohibiting the confinement and killing of all sorts of animals by exploitative humans in order to eat and otherwise utilize their body materials?  I could go on a long time with the examples.  I don't know how to read the authors' statement without understanding their advocacy for these sorts of government prohibitions.  Anyone?

As well, the authors are, in my view, less than fully aware of (or willing to discuss) some food production nuances.  The article declares that well worn but simplistic assertion (usually made by animal rights folk) that eating meat is a less efficient a way to provide food than eating vegetative material.  Well, that may seem true by superficial analysis, but then what are we going to do with the millions of acres of grasslands, out west especially, when we remove the cattle and sheep (so as to avoid cruelty and abuse).  Do we feed that grass to apple trees?  As any farmer knows, raising animals can be the most efficient (not to mention natural) way to turn vegetative material that people can't eat into protein that people can eat (cows have more stomachs than we do).  And then too we could talk about the human need for protein.  For those who embrace as legitimate the inquiry into human biological development as tracing from more than 10,000 years ago, our teeth and other components do suggest both our natural inclination to, even need to, eat protein rich meat, not?  And didn't Peter have a vision about a whole bunch of animals, accompanied by the command "kill and eat," mirroring the sheer slaughter of animals for both consumption and ceremonial purposes, by the OT people of God.  So exactly what is it that compels these authors to say, "Government regulatory action will probably be necessary to create a food system that limits animal exploitation."?

I can say "amen" to much of what this article says about "private policy" but not so much about what it says about public policy.  I don't buy the idea that stewardship (biblically defined) equals government enforced vegetarianism (which this article kind or/sort of calls for whether the authors admit it or not).  I'm not sure the tens of thousands of CRC farmers and dairymen will either.  Or plain CRC city folk for that matter.

PNR:  I don't know where you live so I cannot speak to why people there might leave the city for the suburbs but I can speak from my experience of living in the same southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids since 1966.  Even in 1979 when we purchased our home the street was 100% European-American.  Now, I am the only white guy my age on the street.  I think that I have a fairly good idea why at least some of the whites moved in the last 40 years and it certainly was not for cheaper homes in the burbs. (and that doesn't count their increased costs of transportation)  For the price of an empty lot in the suburbs one can almost purchase a decent home on my street.    There is much more I can add about the results of disposable income freed up by not joining the "madding crowd"and the incredible benefits to my children.  There was a serious article written not too many years ago by an Urban Planning prof at the University of Michigan in which he stated that the future of the Mcmansions in the suburbs was really to be divided into tenement housing so that their sustainability could be enhanced.  I don't know if I agree with that extreme analysis but he has a lot more money as a major developer and credentials than I do so...

I am a farmer from Iowa.  My main source of income is pork production.  Obviously I don't appreciate the author urging readers to put me out of business because I produce a safe, nutricious, delicious food product.

There are many disturbing issues facing Christians in the United States. Examples include radical Islam, decaying society as evidenced by abortion, support of the gay lifestyle, acts of violence and cruelty for no reason whatsoever, etc., government interference in more and more areas of our private lives, and a national debt that will most likely end very badly.

There are some who think there is a crisis of man made global warming-others say its nonsense. Personally I believe that the earth goes through natural warming and cooling periods as it has since God created it and yes, I believe that it was created as recorded in Genesis.  At the end of the day, man made global warming is a THEORY not fact.  If the author wants to limit his diet to fruits and vegetables I say good for him.  I do however have a real problem with him telling everyone else that we too must buy into this theory because he believes it.  Worse, the author is no doubt pushing his theory on his students.  

Amazing that with all the problems in the world I am told that it is my work of raising food that is the problem we need to focus on.

precherkid - I've lived in about 12 or 13 different states, in towns ranging from major cities (upwards of 1-2 million in the metro area) to villages (20 people).  Perhaps I didn't make it clear.  If all we're talking is the dollar value on the real estate, there is no question that, at least in Grand Rapids (and in most cities in the "transition belt" between down town and the outer shopping/residential areas), housing land costs less money than in the suburbs.  That is not the only cost taken into consideration when deciding whether to stay or go.  Costs include perceived risk (I don't deny that this perception may be colored by racial prejudice), nearness of relatives/extended family, noise, congestion, quality of schools, opportunities for recreation, and so on.

This is not to disparage the choice you made with and for your family.  Nor is it necessarily to affirm the choice made by others.  It is to point out that "costs" and "value" are relative to the individual and his or her circumstances, abilities, and tolerance for risk (and there are risks connected with all the options).  I think it is appropriate to let those individuals freely make that judgment for themselves and not use government to force or otherwise coerce them into choices that I think are better based on a high degree of ignorance regarding their personal situations.

As to the fate of the Mcmansions, I am willing to leave that to the same process.  In doing so, I am well aware that there will be costs to the individuals and society, but I believe liberty is worth it.

PNR:  just to be clear, being a "precherkid" I moved around a lot in two different countries and that has informed my perceptions as well.  As to "costs" it was interesting for me to note in the Grand Rapids Press only a few years ago that Kent County had experienced 22 homocides the previous year, 11 Caucasians murdered and 11 African-Americans.  Every one of the murdered white guys lived in either the suburbs, exurbs, or rural areas, none within the city limits where only black guys were killed.  So, I figured being a white guy  I was far safer living in the city. The same year I noted that teenager after teenager, all white, had died in automobile accidents on the suburban, exurban and rural roads of the county. None that I recall within the city limits. The most graphic example being two autos of young people who raced different routes to beat each other back to their rural/exurban high school only to kill each other in an auto accident at the school entrance--a tragedy.

My conclusion from both news reports: I and my kids were far staying where we were and we could better use the savings.  In addition if I recall correctly there was a study out of UCLA that kids growing up in diverse, city (and I am not a kneejerk advocate of diversity) environments had I.Q.'s about ten points higher on average, when other factors were controlled such as family income etc. etc. Another "cost" factor to consider. 

so "costs" can be a funny thing. By the way appreciate the response's respectful tone.

Thank you, Steve McMullen, for addressing such an important issue. I'm deeply saddened by the readers' comments, but I'm grateful to you for stressing our duty to be stewards of God's creation. Keep up the good kingdom-building work.

It seems to me that the question posed that led to this and other similar articles is based on a false assumption: that global warming (or global climate change) is a fact.  (No, this is not an invitation to begin another debate on the veracity of that theory).  Take away that false assumption and the free market answers the question with a resounding, YES!