Speak Up for the Trees


by Crina Gschwandtner


Melted glaciers. Bleached coral reefs. Slashed forests. Drained wetlands. Burning oil fields. Smog. – Environmental destruction all around us.

Why ought Orthodox Christians advocate for flora and fauna? Why should we care when environmental protections are dismantled, polluting industries reinvigorated, ecological dangers ignored or denied? Why must we speak up for all of creation—two-legged, four-legged, finned, winged, and rooted?

The patristic literature on creation and the genesis of the universe stresses its beauty, harmony, and order. St. Basil contends that the creation is knitted together by the divine craftsman as a work of art that displays the greatness and majesty of its maker. We are to admire it with wonder and praise: “How manifold are your works, o Lord, in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 103:24).

Our lives and our worship are inextricably linked to the whole cosmos. St. Maximus the Confessor argues that liturgy is patterned on a cosmic paradigm, that the church is a miniature universe. In the liturgy, heaven and earth touch each other.

Many of the ancients believed that the whole creation was an image or instantiation of an eternal pattern or paradigm in the divine mind. The beauty of creation speaks of the goodness and care of the Creator. All matter is holy, so St. John of Damascus tells us, because Christ became matter for our sake.

Yet our actions are doing everything to sever any harmony between humans and the rest of creation. We do not hallow the material but exploit it. We do not act for the life of the world but for its death.

We are destroying animal and plant habitats at an alarming rate and making the earth uninhabitable for countless species. We are upsetting the balance of the atmosphere on an unprecedented scale, leading to violent changes in weather patterns and the overall climate, affecting the possibilities of survival for many living creatures—including ourselves.

We ignore—or, worse, malign—the work of scientists, even when it is carefully researched and based on repeated measurements and solid data. That the icecaps are melting at an alarming rate—even faster and more extensively than predicted—that desertification is spreading, that the temperatures are rising and storms becoming more extreme: all these are not issues of “belief.” These facts can be observed and measured and they confirm projections that were made decades ago.

Moreover, many of the consequences of pollution, exploitation of resources, and the changing climate affect marginal or fragile communities and areas disproportionately. Most toxic dumping, strip-mining, pollution of water sources, and deforestation hits in places where poverty is already widespread and people can barely eke out a living.

Increased flooding, rising oceans, spreading of deserts, violent storms, and extreme temperatures most impact the poorest areas of the world and sometimes lead to further destruction as a means to survival. Poor populations cannot confront these challenges without help.

Poverty is a much more common topic in early Christian sources than sexual mores, ceremonial niceties, or other issues. Patristic literature is adamantly opposed to any sort of “prosperity-gospel.” St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa repeatedly excoriate the wealthy and their lavish lifestyles in the strongest terms. On several occasions they suggest that environmental disasters—drought or excessive flooding—are direct results of such lifestyles and lack of care for the poor.

St. John Chrysostom similarly condemns luxury and wealth constantly in his homilies. Indeed, it was probably his outspoken condemnation of the conspicuous consumption around him that got him banned from Constantinople. Even from exile he wrote countless letters requesting donations for various charitable works for the poor and tirelessly advocating for hospitality and generosity to the poor.

While many fathers did think that creation was made for human use, they never condoned abuse or actions that actively destroy the harmony and balance of the whole. At the time, humans were a very small part of the larger creation and actual impact of the population on the environment was local and limited.

We are clearly no longer in the same situation and thus must be much more prudent and cautious in our “use” of nature. Some scientists predict that over half of all current plant and animal species will be extinct by the end of the century.

Current rates of extinction are about one thousand times higher than the expected rate would be without human activity. Roughly 60% of vertebrate animals and more than 80% of fresh water populations have disappeared in the past 50 years. These changes are irreversible.

We cannot glibly hope that some new technology will save us, but must change our way of living drastically. If we truly believe that life is sacred, we must act for the protection of all living things. We only flourish within an ecological web in which we are all connected and depend on each other.

Why does this place an obligation on Orthodox Christians to speak up?

The conciliar structure of the Orthodox churches mirrors the interdependent web of life. Its emphasis on oikonomia encourages us to work together to help those who are suffering and to respond productively to new circumstances. We are only saved together—ecologically and theologically speaking.

The Orthodox tradition also has a clear precedent for a more cautious dwelling on the earth in its long and vibrant ascetic legacy. The ascetic elements of the liturgical year encourage us to repent for our destructive actions and to adopt new forms of behavior.

The ascetic tradition as a whole provides a model for a more sustainable lifestyle. Evagrius and others in the desert tradition recognize the addictive nature of greed. The ascetics lived in a way that had minimal impact on their environments. Even today some monasteries work actively to protect the trees and lands surrounding them against logging and other forms of exploitation.

In the popular children’s story, the Lorax speaks for the trees—not because the trees have no voice or because their destruction is not evident to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, but because their voices are being deliberately ignored by those who only care about their own enrichment.

Some contemporary Orthodox thinkers—including His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew—also suggest that we have a liturgical imperative to speak on behalf of creation. In the liturgy, all creatures come together to worship their Creator.

In the liturgies of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, creation cries out because the human voice is silent. If the heavens and the earth speak on our behalf, can we take up their song? Will we sit down by polluted waters and weep a dirge of lament when it has become too late, when there are no trees for our harps?

We must speak on behalf of pine trees and polar bears and monarch butterflies—not because God cares only about us and will only listen to us—but because our actions are destroying them and their habitats. What will we say to our children and grandchildren when they reap the consequences of our actions in an immensely impoverished world?

What will we have to say for ourselves if we do not speak for the trees?

Crina Gschwandtner is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.