Review: An Introduction to Christian Environmentalism: Ecology, Virtue, and Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2014)

[1] This book is at heart a textbook, and as such it is a wonderful contribution to the field of Christian environmental ethics. Blanchard and O’Brien set up a series of chapters pairing seven Christian virtues with seven environmental issues. This book is well crafted, accessible, and even occasionally humorous. Undergraduates will enjoy it, as will Sunday school groups and book discussion groups. Blanchard and O’Brien clearly have a very broad audience in mind, and they work to make this book – and the discussions it will spark – widely accessible.

[2] Anyone teaching a Christian ethics class could use this book to create an ecological theme for the class. It is simple (accessible to undergraduates), well-researched (helping non-expert teachers feel comfortable with the issues), and thought-provoking (to spark deep and wide-ranging classroom discussion). Anyone teaching an environmental ethics class would also welcome this book – its virtue approach and emphasis on Christianity offer a unique contribution to the field.

[3] This book is also well suited to use in more conservative contexts. Any congregation or college in which discussion of environmental issues is difficult because of the politically partisan baggage it may entail would find this book to be sympathetic but challenging. For some potential readers who agree with the Cornwall Alliance’s criticisms of secular environmentalism as anti-Christian (17), the title might be a deterrent. But Blanchard and O’Brien simply define environmentalism as “having a particular kind of orientation toward the earth – one concerned with taking good care of the planet that sustains us,” (18) which is something that even the most conservative of Christians can support.

[4] Readers who are skeptical of government intervention, who trust markets more than politics, and who prefer talk of individual freedom than to talk of the common good, will find voices with whom they resonate in this book. For example, oil magnate T. Boone Pickens and “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg are both given a fair hearing – and a fair critique – in these pages. The authors also offer the more progressive side as well: there are plenty of voices that criticize capitalism and call for revolution. The authors are casting a wide net, drawing everyone into the conversation. Their hermeneutic of respect counsels readers to “take all positions seriously and to approach every voice in this book with compassionate listening and careful attention” (9).

[5] This book’s biggest strength is its openness. Apart from its use as a textbook, Blanchard and O’Brien have made a valuable contribution to Christian environmental ethics, insofar as they demonstrate the importance of casting a wide net and including voices, such as Free Market Environmentalism (30) and enviropreneurship (155), not to mention the aforementioned Pickens and Lomborg. Voices such as these are typically excluded from academic treatments of environmental issues. Most academics lean left politically: it is clear that Blanchard and O’Brien are seeking to move beyond this tendency.

[6] They are explicitly avoiding any “one right answer,” describing their virtue approach as antithetical to “fundamentalisms” of various stripes (9). “It seems high time,” they write, “for a holistic conversation about commonly held goods in the middle ground,” (18). This wide net may frustrate some, since some readers may wish Blanchard and O’Brien would take a stand on an issue, would weigh in on one side or the other. But again, this is a textbook. While some professors of ethics take a strong stance in class, most sidestep their own agendas in order to allow students to understand all sides of an issue and make up their own minds. Like conscientious teachers, Blanchard and O’Brien do the same.

[10] The book’s structure is also a strength. They have paired virtues with issues: prudence with species conservation, courage with fossil fuels, temperance with food, justice with environmental justice, faith with climate change, hope with population, and love with activism. Within each chapter there is a helpfully predictable structure: an explication of the virtue, an explication of the issue, two or three major voices that disagree about it, a clear Christianizing of those voices if needed, and a final case study. Blanchard and O’Brien offer helpful and insightful discussion questions at the end of each chapter, which would be useful as pre-class reflection assignments or in-class conversation starters. Each chapter contains multiple Bible references, in addition to the voices of scholars and activists (some Christian, some not) who engage with these issues. The structure shows clear attention to pedagogical needs and to a wide variety of readers, which will benefit anyone seeking to teach, or learn from, this book.

[11] At times the structure is a bit strained. A given chapter’s central virtue seems sometimes to stand in for “all virtue,” as for example when they state, “temperance means taking responsibility for our [food] choices and their short- and long-term impacts” (81) – arguably, this describes prudence or justice more than temperance. However, Blanchard and O’Brien’s “big tent” approach to virtue ethics underscores the unity of all the virtues. In some ways it is not a problem to emphasize faith in climate change and hope in population, when from another perspective those virtues should be swapped. The virtues are all interconnected, as the authors emphasize, and in fact “the same can be said about environmental problems” (169).

[12] Bursting with case studies, quotable insights, memorable voices, and compassionate openness, this book lives up to its aspiration as a “tool kit” (169). Blanchard and O’Brien have rendered an important service to the field and to the earth: they have helped those who would be less comfortable – instructors not trained in environmental issues, politically conservative Christians – to join the important conversations about the most pressing environmental issues of our time.

Laura Hartman

Laura Hartman, Ph.D. teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.