A Theology for Ecomodernism

What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?


Ecomodernism is best-known as a positive paradigm of cities and high-technology to lift up the poor and save the environment. But what does ecomodernism have to say about humanity’s relationship to nature? In a new article for Breakthrough Journal, "A Theology for Ecomodernism," philosopher Mark Sagoff argues that ecomodernists should view humans as "guardian spirits" of the natural world. Ecomodernists, like Christians, believe humans have special powers and responsibilities. At the same time, ecomodernists view nature as more than resources to be exploited or "virgin" wilderness. Nature is not just for humans to consume but also for humans to appreciate for spiritual and aesthetic reasons. “The theological hope of ecomodernism," Sagoff writes movingly, "is that we can understand nature to be many, many places, each with its own guardian spirit."

Summer 2015 | Mark Sagoff,

That in every corner of the Earth, human history and natural history combine — that no place remains as a pristine sanctuary apart from human influence — was reported as early as 1864 by George Perkins Marsh in his classic study, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.1 Yet it was 131 years later that the publication of “The Trouble with Wilderness” by William Cronon set off a most difficult era for modern conservation.2 Cronon’s central observation, that wilderness was a cultural construct or invention, prompted scientific and conceptual work that has fundamentally challenged traditional views of nature and wilderness.3 Charles Mann, in his book 1491, published in 2006, marshaled a vast literature documenting how enormous populations of native peoples, before they were exterminated by disease and conquest, occupied and cultivated the pre-Columbian landscapes of the New World.4

If the object of conservation is nature undisturbed, it is no longer to be found. “Drawing a sharp line between the human and natural realms serves no purpose when our imprint is as ancient as it is pervasive,"5 wrote David Western, founding director of the African Conservation Centre in Nairobi. Yet human life is everywhere surrounded by wildlife. The appreciation of the ways that human life and wildlife intersect to build common histories is the subject of what is called “new conservationism.” Viewing wilderness as a cultural construct and as an abstraction that no longer serves a purpose, new conservationists such as Emma Marris and Erle Ellis direct our attention instead to the many natures that live all around us –– in our backyards, median strips, parks, and gardens.6 Novel ecosystems, assemblages of species native and introduced, once deplored as mongrel, are now studied with admiration and respect.7

This turn of events poses a problem not only for traditional conservationism, but also for environ­mentalism generally. Environmentalism has always sought to protect not simply human safety and health, but also the natural world itself. But what is meant by “the natural world”? As Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued in their 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,"8 the concept nature is either profoundly unscientific or a poor synonym for everything.

The recently published ecomodernist manifesto,9 of which I am a coauthor, has much to say about how society will be able to protect the natural environment. The best way to protect nature, on this account, is for us to depend on it less and to rely on technology more to support human needs. “Nature unused,” ecomodernists argue, “is nature spared.” This manifesto is largely silent, however, on the question of what kind of nature we want to spare and why we want to spare it. Ecomodernists, along with the advocates of new conservation, should do more to define the difference — if it is not the absence of human taint — that distinguishes the parts of nature they want to conserve from, well, everything. If all baselines are arbitrary and if all of nature has been profoundly influenced by human activity, then what exactly is the object of conservation?

I believe that what makes it difficult to distinguish the kinds of places conservationists seek to preserve from all other kinds of places is the assumption that nature is “the work of some independent force” and that “nature and humanity are separate things."10 There is a sense in which humanity is part of nature and a sense in which it is not. By examining this difference, I believe, one can clarify the goals of conservationism. The man-nature divide cannot be understood much less defended in scientific terms. If it is to be understood and assessed, it must be in the context of theology. In the following pages, I sketch theological views of the relation between God, nature, and humanity. I then try to explain in this context what the object of conservation is.


Environmentalists don’t usually study theology, but they often have one. It holds that even in a secular age, “Nature is full of genius, full of the divinity."11 It is all we know of God and, perhaps, all we need to know. Many conservationists believe, moreover, that a fundamental antagonism divides us from the rest of nature. Environmentalism would then seem to meet the criteria William James argued were necessary for a belief system to be a religion. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, James wrote that religious belief expresses a conviction “that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in adjusting ourselves thereto.” Religious experience also arises from the human sense “that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand. The solution is that we are saved from that wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.”12

If there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand, human beings can only desecrate, or, more precisely, decreate or take apart or destroy the unseen order of nature. “We are engaged in the swift and systematic decreation of the planet we were born onto. And does God look at our actions and pronounce them good? I doubt it,” environmentalist Bill McKibben has written.13

Many cultural commentators describe environmentalism as a secular religion. According to theologian Willis Jenkins, observers have noticed a “spiritual creep in environmental thought.… The veneration of nature, the feelings of prophetic alienation, the raptures and the epiphanies, the missional project of personal and cultural transformation –– all this makes the environmental movement look religious."14 Historian Thomas Dunlap agrees.

Like an established religious tradition, pointing the path to sainthood, offering comfort to the masses, and holding open the door to the repentant sinner, [the environmental movement] had ways of work for all…. Those yearning for an immediate, complete commitment it sent to defend wilderness, where they might even earn a martyr’s crown, and it told the interested but cautious or conventional to set up recycling programs, buy green products, and put their money in green retirement funds.15

Theology traditionally concerns the relation of human beings to God or, as children of God, human beings to one another. For the conservationist movement, the essential question has been the relation of human beings to nature and in that indirect way to God and to each other. While remaining secu­lar and without endorsing any faith or creed, environmentalists who advocate the conservation of nature often regard the natural as the spiritual; they speak of “caring for Crea­tion” even though they rarely if ever endorse the view that nature exists as a result of divine decree.16

The oneness they attribute to nature has to do with its unifying spirituality, however various its biology. Creatures great and small, in John Muir’s expression, are “conductors of divinity.” Muir described mountains as cathedrals and heard choirs in storms; he used Christian imagery and allegory to support his conservationist cause. “I pressed Yosemite on him like a missionary offering the Gospel,” Muir wrote of one political leader whom he took on a hike.17

In many religions –– especially those that predate Christianity –– there was a diversity of gods, each with a power over a particular aspect of the world. There was a god of the Sun, of the Moon, of the Sea, of the Wind, of the Harvest, and so on. In Greek mythology, trees had dryads; in Buddhist traditions, forests had guardian spirits or nats. As historian Frederick Turner has written, “In fact, before the coming of Christianity all the peoples of the Old World had lived in a numinous landscape... believed to be alive under the pro­tection of... guardian spirits.”18

When God became One, nature became one. The difference monotheism made with respect to the environment was this: nature became singular; it answered to the same divinity or spiritual and creative force; it expressed the same cosmic idea or power; it represented the same unseen system or order; it resulted from the same expressive act. The 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin referred to nature as “this beautiful theater.” In his well-known image, nature is a “sort of mirror in which we contemplate God, who is other­wise invisible."19 That nature expresses one God and is therefore unitary, singular, and at odds with man, who consumes and corrupts it, became a familiar trope of conservationism. As historian Raymond Williams has written, “Even men who were prepared to dispense with the first singular principle –– to dispense with the idea of God ––  usually retained and even empha­sized that other and very comparable principle: the singular and abstracted... Nature."20

As Robert H. Nelson pointed out, “the word ‘God’ today is seldom included as part of the vocabulary of American environmentalism."21 When the word “God” does occur in the environmental literature, it is used most often in the possessive case to modify “Creation.” It is common­place for environmentalists to urge that we be “good stewards” of “God’s Creation,"22 but is there is a theological basis for assuming that nature as we find it bears any relation to Eden as God created it? What is the relation between God and nature given that God does not intervene in nature, in other words, given that there are no miracles? What is it about nature that God now finds good? In the conservationist tradition that runs from John Muir to Bill McKibben, the relation between God and Nature becomes a tacit identity: a singular abstract Nature substitutes for a singular abstract deity. Environmentalism has been described as Calvinism without God.23


The idea that nature is fundamentally all one place expressive of one God became secularized in 19th-century Romanticism and Transcend­ent­alism, the antecedents of conser­va­tion­ism. A Romantic poet such as Wordsworth and a Transcend­entalist essayist such as Emerson did not profess the God of any particular creed. Wordsworth found in nature, “The types and symbols of Eternity,” as he wrote in The Prelude. “Nature is the symbol of spirit,” according to Emerson in his essay “Nature.” These writers dispensed with the articles of any faith, but they retained and emphasized a unitary Nature E pluribus unum. A unified, interconnected, holistic, systematic nature has become for conservation ethics and conservation biology the secular equivalent of monotheism.

The assumption that nature is all one unified system, whole, or place –– singular and timeless –– is the view of conservationists who believe that all the world’s species add up in the concept of biodiversity and that the world's ecosystems join together in Gaia, the overarching community of life. This view has theo­logical precedents. Theologians might immediately think of the way Thomas Aquinas dealt with the distinctions among living things. The multitude of species derives from a single agent, God, who:

brought things into being in order that his goodness might be com­municated to creatures and be represented by them; and because his goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, he produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another.... Hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatsoever.24

If living nature is all one place or systematic whole governed by the same creative or organizing principles, for example, a hidden order, then one may argue that the Garden of Eden survived the Fall at least as an object of human contemplation, appreciation, and study. This view is often traced to Augustine, who in the 5th century argued that God created the world not for our use –– why would God be our servant? –– but to express God’s own glory, power, and splendor.25 In oppo­sition to those who interpreted Genesis to declare nature to be corrupt or cursed, Augustine wrote, “They do not consider how admirable these things are in their own places, how excellent in their own natures, how beautifully adjusted to the rest of creation, and how much grace they contribute to the universe by their own natures, as to a commonwealth."26

Human beings, by converting nature to their own uses, that is, by opposing their own wills to the will of nature itself, on this argument, must decreate or destroy it. On this basis, John Cobb and Herman Daly have proposed an ecological theo­logy that regards human activity as “inherently disruptive” and calls for a “substantial decrease in the human niche."27 According to William Cronon, the singu­larity of nature as Creation “embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural…. The place where we are is the place where nature is not."28


The proposition that man “fell” from Eden, which, in some way, still exists or may be found reflected in the natural world, particularly in protected or neglected places, is not found in the Hebrew Bible. In the Bible it is clear that the Fall, if one uses that more-recent concept, was not exclusively anthropocentric: All nature fell with man. In Genesis 3:17–19 –– where God says to Adam, “cursed is the ground for thy sake” –– implies that nature descended into corruption with man; it suffered as a kind of collateral damage of Adam’s disobedience. Because Adam had dominion over nature, it had to fall into corruption with him.29

On this reading of Genesis, while the Garden of Eden represented a unified and organized perfect commonwealth, nature after the Fall became as dispersed and divided as humanity. As humans became many, nature became many. The idea that nature is all one place, one holistic or unified system found in the remnants of Eden, serves as the underlying theology of the secular religion that has informed Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and the conservation and environmental movements of the 20th century. This reading of Genesis, however, is not consistent with mainstream Christian thought, which sees all of Creation as fallen or cursed as a result of Adam and Eve’s original disobedience rather than because of anything human beings may have done since then.30

In his com­mentary on Genesis, Paul states that after the Fall, Creation has been in “bond­age to decay” and “has been groaning in labor pains.” That humanity lives in a fallen world is the plain meaning of the relevant texts in Genesis as well as the obvious implication of what we observe of nature’s cruelty. The problem of explaining the horrors of nature in theo­logical terms, which is a large part of the challenge of theodicy, has vexed Christian thought since the earliest church fathers. According to a commonplace view among theologians, Paul “powerfully depicts the apocalyptic expec­tation that at the end of history God will reverse the damage from the Fall not only to humanity, but even to nature itself.” Paul expresses the eschatological “hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to cor­rup­tion into the freedom of the glory of the children of God."31

Philosophers have built a huge literature in response to an article Lynn White published in Science in 1967, which argues Christianity “bears a huge burden of guilt” for the “ecologic crisis."32 Whatever the “ecologic crisis” means and however responsible Christianity is for it, it is true, as Laurel Kearns of the Drew Theological School has written, that although “Calvinism had a mixed message with regard to nature, the dominant Reformation understanding saw the material world as fallen and corrupt, needing to be subdued."33 To punish Adam and Eve, God transformed nature from its beatific harmony (what is known to science today as “eco­logical integrity"34) to the thorns and thistles from which Adam was supposed to wrest a living. Martin Luther wrote, “God’s wrath also appears on earth in all creatures.... And what of thorns, thistles, water, fire, caterpillars, flies, fleas, and bedbugs? Collectively and individually, are not all of them messengers who preach to us concerning sin and God’s wrath?"35

Possibly the best-known statement of nature’s estrangement from God is found in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.” How could Christians believe in a God of love, Tennyson asked, “And love Creation’s final law — / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed....”? According to one theologian, “The original harmony between nature, humans, and God is broken, leaving a transcendent God, a sinful humanity, and a degraded earth in a state of mutual alienation."36

There are Christian theologians, such as Calvin DeWitt and Dieter Hessel, who emphasize Genesis 2:15, where after creating Adam, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."37 For most Christian theologians, however, Eden ceased to exist after God cursed the land because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. God’s attention then shifted to human history and away from natural history. Ecological theologian H. Paul Santmire has described “a striking, if not unanimous agreement about the biblical under­standing of nature” among 20th-century theologians. “That near-consensus can be identi­fied this way, in capsule form… the Bible has to do primarily with history, not with nature."38

William French of Loyola University has written, “Across broad streams of modern philosophy and Christian theology, one can see a privileging of the cate­gory of ‘history’ as the dynamic home and constructive product of humanity and a diminishing of the category of ‘nature.’"39 Many Catholic theologians, following Bernard Häring, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan, have suggested that the natural world does not have any significance other than a prudential, instrumental, and economic one. As Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has summarized this view, “Other religions think in terms of cosmos and nature: Christianity rooted in Biblical sources thinks in terms of [human] history."40

Much of Protestant, not just of Catholic, thought advocates a “turning to the subject” and stresses “the sphere of history, not of nature, as the primary field of God’s action and disclosure."41 Among Calvinist theologians, Max Stackhouse has questioned whether, in view of the fallen state of nature, it has intrinsic or redemptive value. According to one comment­ator, “Though creation does embody an original goodness, all of nature, for Stackhouse, has indeed fallen and requires human constraint. Echoing Bacon, he argues that human intelligence and technology must be used to cure nature’s brokenness and bring fallen nature nearer the intent of the Creator.”42

According to Kearns, “the mixed survey literature of the topic (a very hard one to research quantitatively) suggests… that the more biblically oriented one is, the less one is concerned about the environment.”43 This is evident when one compares the score­card of the League of Conservation Voters with that of the Christian Coalition. The first is the reverse mirror image of the second; politicians at the top of one list appear almost without exception on the bottom of the other. The idea that nature represents Creation and is thus sacred plays much better to those whose religious views are secular than to those whose views are grounded in church-based faith or in scripture. The Romantics saw in nature a source of revelation, but this view challenges insti­tutional religion because it suggests that one can get right with God by wandering in the woods rather than by sitting in a pew. Many Christian commentators associate environmental­ism with pantheism and warn against “Worshipping the Creation Rather than the Creator.”

Environmentalists are not Creationists; they do not hold the view that nature exists as a result of divine decree. Indeed, even when they become political allies, for example, in defending the Endangered Species Act, Creationists make Sierra Club folks queasy because of their views on evolution and various social issues. Why, then, does the idea of caring for Creation or of stewardship for Creation exert rhetorical force in the conservationist literature? The allegory of the Fall lends little support for this rhetoric. On the most plausible interpretation of scripture, Eden was wiped out when Adam disobeyed God; the natural world is therefore as fallen from grace as we are –– if not more so. If nature has been decreated, it was God who decreated it.


The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as the depiction of this event by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel fresco is known, has for centuries exerted a powerful grip on the environmental imagination.44 According to this allegory, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were ejected from the Garden of Eden, which represents everything lush, good, and bounteous about the natural world. Eden was or is an unending source of what are now called “ecosystem services.”

That nature as it is found in pristine places today, that is, in places insofar as they are “untrammeled by man,” resembles the Garden and in some metaphorical way connects us with Creation remains the central allegory of conservationism insofar as it tries to explain what is meant by the intrinsic or spiritual value of the natural world. William Cronon has written, “The classic example is the tropical rain forest, which since the 1970s has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, sacred land –– a veritable Garden of Eden –– for many Americans and Europeans.”45 Thomas Dunlap commented, “To the faithful wilderness was not a name we gave to some part of the land but ultimate reality,” whether felt in spiritual or studied in scientific terms.46

The existence of a prelapsarian state of the world that comprises natural ecosys­tems or communities, which are thought to respond to universal principles which scientists theorize and the rest of us decreate, is the foundational assump­tion of a prominent, perhaps dominant, view in ecology, according to which nature and humanity represent oppos­ing “global controllers”47 with conflicting “strategies of develop­ment.”48 Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore identify research that adopts this nature-culture antagonism with what they call the “Edenic sciences”49 –– understood to include, among others, conser­vation biology, restoration ecology, and invasion biology. “These sciences... share a tacit epistemologi­cal commitment to evaluating ecological relationships explicitly with regard to an a priori baseline –– a condition before the Columbian encounter, or a time or place before human contact, or a place of expulsion or return –– one Before the Fall."50

It is not difficult to see how the view that the Fall was exclusively anthropocentric, in other words, that it left nature in a prelapsarian state, has been secularized in ecological sciences that attribute to nature the creative principle or force needed to maintain itself as a unified whole except insofar as human beings disrupt it. According to Dunlap, environmental­ism became a powerful poli­tical movement in the 1970s because it repackaged revelation as reason. “Environ­mentalism grew so rapidly because it spoke with the support of science –– the culture’s authori­tative source of information –– and in the familiar terms of Thoreau and Muir…."51 Theologians cautioned against the dualism or opposition between humanity and nature that they found endorsed by the ecological sciences. Theologian Cabbell King wrote, “We do ourselves a disservice to misconstrue nature as some­thing wholly other, outside the human, always pressing against the human and defining its limits.”52

According to Dunlap, environ­mental­ science after the 1970s secular­ized the Fall by describing humans as “one species among many in the Earth’s com­plex ecosys­tems, and it saw our destruction of the natural world as a crisis that required us to change our ways and work not to conquer nature but to preserve the ecosystems on which we depended.”53 Ecological science by means of optimization models, evolutionarily stable strategies, and complex adaptive systems theory lent its authority to the idea that nature represents a single commonwealth in which humanity has exceeded its own place and is now maladjusted to the rest of Creation. The concept of caring for Creation or of being good stewards of Creation has drawn its rhetorical force not from scripture or theology but from science. The unifying con­cepts or theories of ecology –– as long as these were thought to be meaningful –– allowed environment­al­ists, to quote Raymond Williams again, “to dispense with the idea of God” yet retain and even empha­size “that other and very comparable principle: the singular and abstracted... Nature.”


Peter Kareiva and coauthors have inquired how the conservation movement will conceive of its task once it has given up the analogy between nature and Creation. These authors ask, “If people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conser­vation?”54 I believe that finding an answer depends on distinguishing the senses in which people are and are not actually part of nature.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God they were punished in two ways. First, they became mortal. Second, they had to work for a living. The earth was no longer going to service them the way the Garden did. In Genesis 3:18–19, God announced, “Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread….” Through science, humans learned about the laws and forces of nature and to apply them to satisfy their needs. But they also learned that they were part of nature because exactly the same laws and forces that applied to everything else applied in equal measure to them.

If by “nature” is meant everything in the universe, for example, everything to which laws and forces of nature, such as gravitation, apply, then human beings obviously and trivially are part of nature. John Stuart Mill made this point: “Nature in the abstract is the aggregate of the powers and properties of all things. Nature means the sum of all phenomena, together with the causes which produce them, including not only all that happens, but all that is capable of happen­ing….”55 In this context, human beings are no more capable than any other object or creature of disrupting nature or decreating it in the sense of upsetting its hidden order. Mill drives home the point: “The corn which men raise for food, grows and produces its grain by the same laws of vegetation by which the wild rose and the mountain strawberry bring forth their flowers and fruit.” Every technology is natural on this account. “Art is as much Nature as anything else, and everything which is artificial is natural. Art has no independent powers of its own: Art is but the employment of the powers of Nature for an end.”56

The 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant has explained the sense in which human beings are not part of nature. He wrote, “Two things never fail to fill me with awe, the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”57 The law-like regularities that keep stars in their paths filled Kant with awe; he attributed these powers to the natural world. The moral law, in contrast, is found (as far as we know) only in human beings. Human beings alone are the appropriate subjects of praise and blame; only they make moral (as well as aesthetic) judgments. Kant did not look for scriptural authority for his view, but he could have easily have found it in the story that only Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Know­ledge of Good and Evil. Many theo­logians agree that it was a good thing they did because otherwise human beings, like other species, would lack a moral conscience and thus be part of nature in every sense. Christianity’s First Man was Nietzsche’s Last Man, comfortable, doltish, and bored.

Human beings are separate from nature because, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they are therefore able to make moral and aesthetic judgments. Kant believed two things about moral and aesthetic judgments. First, he believed they were intersubjective. To make such a judgment, in other words, is to expect others to agree with it, or if they disagree, to explain why. Even though there is no way to prove an aesthetic judgment, there are ways we educate each other and convince each other about it. Second, Kant believed that moral and aesthetic judgments are incorrigibly particular; they turn on the specific circumstances and qualities to which they are applied and, indeed, that make them applicable. A person acts morally in response to the specificities of a particular case and in view of general ethical principles; this is a different kind of rationality than that of suiting means to ends. The more one knows about the circumstances and charac­teristics of an action or an object, the more completely one sees it or experiences it, the better one can judge it in moral or in aesthetic terms. These kinds of judgments are driven by the individual circumstances or the conditions that call them forth rather than by any purpose, goal, or end that the agent seeks to achieve.

Insofar as human beings are considered part of nature, our rationality is instrumental; it consists in applying means to ends. Insofar as human beings are considered not to be part of nature, we exercise a different kind of rationality. We judge our surroundings as objects of emotional experience and expression, aesthetic perception, and moral commitment. The places that become the subjects of these kinds of non-instrumental judgments also often become the objects of conservation. Moral judgments and aesthetic judgments, like those of instrumental rationality, are intersubjective, shared, and reason-based. Communities of people who know and experience a place form together their aesthetic and moral judgments; these judgments may then constitute places as candidates for conservation. These places are likely to be natural or semi-natural areas which communities of people, who may then become conservationists, experience in non-instrumental ways; in other words, the kinds of places they fill with meanings because of the aesthetic and ethical properties they perceive them to possess.


I have so far tried to identify within a discussion of theology the kinds of places that the conservation of nature seeks to conserve. These cannot be construed as remnants of Eden or of Creation because all that had been destroyed by God, even if we assume God had brought Eden into existence. The idea that the conservation movement protects parts of Creation that remain relatively untouched by man will not wash in either theological or in historical terms.

Traditional conservationists are correct, however, insofar as they believe human beings are not part of nature in the following sense. Unlike any other creature, as far as we know, human beings both make and act upon moral and aesthetic judgments. Conservationists would be correct to argue that only humans have the kind of rationality that allows them to distinguish better and worse in non-utilitarian terms. Other animals seem to size up their environment pretty well in terms of what satisfies their needs. Utilitarian judgments match means to end; I imagine a lot of animals make them. With non-utilitarian judgments it is different. This is not a matter of adjusting means to ends, for example, allocating resources to maximize welfare. It is a matter of experiencing the moral and aesthetic qualities of objects and events –– the kinds of judgments only human beings make and the kinds of qualities only human beings perceive.

The Creation story, along with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, for all of its rhetorical power, has misled conservationists into thinking that natural places of aesthetic and ethical significance are those like Eden after the Fall that exclude humanity. Or they are those like Eden before the Fall that provide ecosystem services. There is no reason for this. A better argument may be that natural places of aesthetic and ethical significance (unlike Eden) exclude utility at least as their most important property or as the principal reason for conserving them. Kant associated the dignity of an object with its being treated not merely or only as a means but also as an end in itself.

It is troubling, therefore, that some new conservationists, Kareiva among them, have argued that nature might better be preserved for its utilitarian value, not as a commodity and input to material production but rather for the ways in which ecosystems, on the model of Eden, provide useful services to human societies.58 According to these conservationists, wetlands can provide protection from floods and storms. Forests can provide filtration for drinking water in lieu of costly water treatment plants.59 As Kareiva and coauthors have written, “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity's sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor.”60

This view is troubling for three reasons. First, conservationists have no special way of knowing how to manage nature for human benefit. Classical liberal economists, such as Friedrich Hayek, have argued that experts, even if they are conservationists, cannot gather and master all the information needed to tell what environmental changes will benefit the most people or the poorest people. As Hayek wrote, in solving economic problems, “the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”61

Second, the circumstances in which, say, forests provide filtration services in lieu of costly treatment plants are often ephemeral; a change in the regulatory climate, in filtration technology, or in upstream farm waste management can quickly eliminate this advantage. More generally, to quote Hayek again, “If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.”62

Third, the idea that conservationists should protect areas or places primarily for utilitarian purposes is contradictory since these areas are of importance to conservationists for non-utilitarian reasons. If a high-tech waste treatment plant is more efficient in managing sewage than a neighboring dell, for example, why wouldn’t conservationists attach more value to the treatment plant? It is an ecosystem if anything is. Plainly, to identify the objects of conservation in the first place, conservationists must deploy aesthetic and ethical judgments about areas they cherish for reasons relevant to those kinds of judgments. Otherwise, conservationists could not distinguish themselves in principle from World Bank economists eager to improve an ecosystem (a term that incorporates everything) by introducing a dam, a genetically engineered organism, a palm oil plantation, or whatever benefits the most people, especially the poor.

In response to criticism, several new conservationists have dialed back their more extreme statements that “that old ways of prioritizing conservation activities should be largely scrapped.”63 Instead, they would rely on aesthetic and ethical judgments to establish the places, species, and areas they seek to preserve but use instrumental arguments to get public support to preserve them. “Our hypothesis is that the conservation movement will achieve greater success if it can leverage concern for humanity into action for nature.”64 Since this is a purely empirical hypothesis, as a philosopher I can venture no opinion about it.


The ecomodernist manifesto like conservationism generally calls for “explicit efforts to preserve landscapes for their non-utilitarian value….” This is the idea behind the ecomodernist adage, “Nature unused is nature spared.” With utilitarian value, we treat any object as a means to an end. We then see landscapes in terms of the resources and services they provide. The price system that Adam Smith described in terms of competition and exchange is the best institutional arrangement we know for sorting out value of this kind. With non-utilitarian value it is different. This is not a matter of the efficient use of means to achieve ends. It is a matter of experiencing deeply objects of moral and aesthetic worth — the kinds of judgments only human beings make. Kant described objects of intrinsic worth as having a dignity, not a price.65

Utilitarian value is understood in terms of exchange, that is, the relation of one good to others that compete with it in terms of quality and price. In respect to its utilitarian value, the natural world is all one thing. One can reasonably think of the market as singular and abstract and as having emergent properties such as prices. What a good sells for in one place catches up with what it fetches in another. What happens at the Singapore Exchange (SPX) impacts what happens at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). Everything is fungible to the signal of price. Markets are global. Everything connects.

Non-utilitarian value has nothing to do with what can be got in exchange for a good. It has to do with meanings, often historical, and with the expressive qualities we perceive and judge places and species to possess. These judg­ments enlist our feelings. Artist and conservationist Alan Gussow wrote, “There is a great deal of talk these days about saving the environment. We must, for the environment sustains our bodies. But as humans we also require support for our spirits, and this is what certain kinds of places pro­vide. The catalyst that converts any physical location… into a place is the process of experiencing deeply. A place is a piece of the whole environment that has been claimed by feelings.”66

In respect to its non-utilitarian value, in respect to the moral and aesthetic judgments it evokes, the natural world is not all one thing. Wild species and places, insofar as they are perceived in ethical or aesthetic terms, are always particular or local. There is no overall system, like a market, in which they connect. The effort of the Nature Society of Singapore to clean up the Mandai Mudflats, for example, has no effect on that of the Chicago Urban Conser­vation Initiative to restore the Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms. The International Crane Society works with and protects the lovely Sarus crane in Vietnam. Butterflywebsite.com lists scores of societies by state and nation dedicated to the flourishing of specific kinds of butterflies. The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society is one of many state groups organized for the well-being of regional turtles and tortoises. There must be thousands of societies dedicated to the conservation of particular species and places, which the members of those societies invest with meaning and for which they voluntarily take responsibility. Their efforts are inspired and justified by aesthetic and moral judgments driven by the existence, expressive qualities, and histories of very specific pieces of the environment that they have claimed through their feelings.

Conservationists too often assume that the reason that wild species and places possess non-utilitarian value is that they partake in a Neoplatonic way in a singular and abstracted Nature. They too often see a place as valuable as a token of a type –– the tropical rainforest, the northern temperate boreal seminatural woodland, the salt marsh, the desert, and the like. These classificatory invocations are far too indefinite and conceptual to attach our emotions to them. What has non-utilitarian value involves the specificities of species and places. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written, “For all the uprooting, the homelessness, the migrations, forced and voluntary, the dislocations of traditional relationships, the struggles over homelands, borders, and rights of recognition, for all the destructions of familiar landscapes and the manufacturings of new ones, and for all the loss of local stabilities and local originalities, the sense of place, and of the specificities of places, seems, however tense and darkened, barely diminished in the modern world.”67

When Jonathan Edwards as an undergrad­uate at Yale wandered the woods near New Haven to find faint images and shadows of divine things; when Walt Whitman “wended” the shores of Long Island to come to terms with mortality; when William Wordsworth toured the Lake Country to get his impulse from the vernal wood; when Ralph Waldo Emerson hiked Acton Woods to commune with the Oversoul; and when Thoreau traveled widely in Concord to learn what he could do without, they did not, as is commonly thought, experience Nature –– a singular, unitary place between God and Man. They all walked in completely different places. It is the differences among species and places, the ways they change over time, and the expressive significance of our relationship to them that make them individually objects of moral and aesthetic attention and therefore of moral and aesthetic worth.


Ecomodernists, like traditional conservationists, understand the centrality of the aesthetic, historical, cultural, and other intrinsic values that tie people to places. But ecomodernism differs from conventional conser­vation­ism because it does not eject humanity from nature. Instead, ecomodernism recognizes, to quote Geertz again, the “inseparability of the lives the various peoples live and the settings in which they live them."68 Like Kareiva and other new conservationists, ecomodernism also seeks to reconcile capitalism and conservation. But unlike the new conservationists, ecomodernists believe that the best way to protect nature is not to properly value it economically but rather to make it economically useless or worthless. “Nature unused is nature spared,” they argue.

Ecomodernists express the hope that advances in technology along with social and economic reforms will enable society to “decouple” or sever the link between human development and environ­mental impact. The hope of ecomodernism is that because of technological advances and other reforms, prosperity and peace may increase globally but not necessarily at the expense of the non-utilitarian values people find in aspects of the natural world. Technology-driven economic growth, in this view, will pay returns to nature because people will no longer need to exploit it for their material well-being.

In the communist manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels observed that advancing technology in its market setting “has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange” that it has caused “an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production.” Like ecomodernists today, Marx and Engels particularly noted (in 1848) that capitalism “has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.” The communist manifesto argued that capitalism would be transformed “because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsis­tence, too much industry, too much commerce.” The world would be redeemed when the laboring masses, who now “are a commodity, like every other article of commerce,” rise up to seize the means of production and thus to end their alienation from themselves.

Ecomodernism similarly describes the propensity of capitalism to ever-increasing production, urbanization, mechanization, specialization, and so on. It also sees capitalism as a necessary stage in a historical process that at first makes everything into a commodity but eventually leads to the decommodification of what is intrinsically valuable. There is an “eco” in ecomodernism because its advocates are concerned more with the alienation of nature than with the alienation of labor. Marx and Engels argued that the very internal forces that drive capitalism would lead to its transformation to a working-class utopia. According to An Ecomodernist Manifesto, “By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.”

When ecomodernists say that nature unused is nature spared, what do they mean by “nature”? The nature “spared” is not the all-encompassing singular Nature that reflects biodiversity, ecological integrity, Creation, spontaneity, or some other universal Neoplatonic ideal. On the contrary, nature is entirely local, specific, and different in essential, not just accidental ways. Nature comprises innumerable places, each with many stories that combine human and natural activities in ways that add meaning to those places.

Once freed from the price system and from the exigencies of exchange, huge swathes of the natural world can be experienced and cared for in all the ways people invest their surroundings with meaning. Christian theo­logians have charted this possibility. Willis Jenkins, among others, has stressed the importance of “mixed geographies.” According to Jenkins, “While some read [William] Cronon as attacking the last stand of nature’s independent integrity, his criticism seeks to open a more promising, more adequate ethical strategy –– one that can guide our everyday uses of nature and contribute to a culture of gratitude and wonder.”69

This strategy emphasizes the role of the individual –– especially the conservationist –– in building, accommodating, allowing, or making “the world that surrounds us a good one, a beautiful one, one whose structures we can discursively defend.”70 The ecomodernist task of conservation in the Anthropocene, then, is one of redemp­tion –– not of a lost Garden but a story of redemption for both nature and man, place by place, in daily decisions and over the long run. As Catholic theologian Rosemary Ruether has written, our mandate is “to redeem our sister, the earth, from her bondage to destruction, recog­nizing her as our partner in the creation of that new world where all things can be ‘very good.’”71

In pre-Christian thought, every place was different because it had a different god or a different guardian spirit. A great deal was gained when God became one, but something was lost. Nature became one. The theological hope of ecomodernism is that we can understand nature to be many, many places, each with its own guardian spirit. The hope is that human beings will become the guardian spirits of the natural world.72 /


Photo Credit: 'Adam and Eve Driven out of Eden’ by Gustav Dore (Wikipedia Commons)


1. George P. Marsh, Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Scribner, 1864), available at: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/consrvbib:@FIELD(NUMBER(vg07)). See, for example, Richard Gallagher and Betsy Carpenter, eds. “Human-Dominated Ecosystems.” Special issue, Science 277, no. 5325 (1997).

2. William Cronon, “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental History (1996): 7–28.

3. See, for example, Fred Pearce, The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015).

4. Charles C. Mann, 1491 (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2006).

5. David Western, “Human-modified ecosystems and future evolution,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 10 (2001): 5458–5465.

6. Emma Marris, Rambunctious garden: saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2013. Erle C. Ellis and Navin Ramankutty, “Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6, no. 8 (2008): 439–447.    

7. Mark Davis, et al., “Don’t judge species on their origins,” Nature 474, no. 7350 (2011), 153–154.

8. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, “The Death of Environmentalism,” The Breakthrough, 2004, available at: http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/the_death_of_environmentalism.

9. John Asafu Adjaye, et al., An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April 14, 2015, available at: http://www.ecomodernism.org/.

10. Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York: Anchor, 1989), 65.

11. Henry D. Thoreau, “January 5, 1856,” in The Journal: 1837-1861, Volume 20, available at: http://thoreau.library.ucsb.edu/writings_journals.html.

12. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Random House, 1994). First published 1902 by Longmans, Green & Co. Quotations at pp. 61, 552.

13. Bill McKibben, “Climate Change and the Unraveling of Creation,” The Christian Century, December 1999, available at: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-07/climate-change-and-unraveling-creation.

14. Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Quotation at p. 9.

15. Thomas R. Dunlap, “Environmentalism, a Secular Faith,” Environmental Values 15, no. 3 (2006): 321–330. Quotation at p. 325.

16. Max Oelschlaeger, Caring for Creation: An Ecumenical Approach to the Environmental Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

17. John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra, Vol. 2 of The Writings of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916), available at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/32540/32540-h/32540-h.htm.

18. Frederick Turner, Spirit of Place: The Making of an American Landscape (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1989). Quotation at p. 12.

19. John T. McNeill, ed. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.) Book I, Section 5.1. For discussion see Susan E. Schreiner, The theater of his glory: nature and the natural order in the thought of John Calvin (Labyrinth Press, 1991).

20. Raymond Williams, “Ideas of Nature,” in Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays (London: Verso, 2005). Quotation at pp. 69–70.

21. Robert H. Nelson, “Calvinism Without God: American Environmentalism as Implicit Calvinism,” Implicit Religion 17, no. 3 (2014): 249–273. Quotation at p. 250.

22. H. Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

23. Robert H. Nelson. Op. cit.

24. Anton C. Pegis, Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas: Volume 1 (New York: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), p. 459.

25. According to H. Paul Santmire, Augustine holds that “most creatures –– excepting humankind and some angels –– have not fallen. The world of nature, then, can have its own proper history with God as part of the milieu of creation history, without reference to election and the redemption history of the City of God….” H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 71–72.

26. Augustine, The City of God, trans. John Healey (New York: Dutton, 1931), 11.22.

27. John Cobb and Herman Daly, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future (Boston: Beacon, 1989), 384.

28. William Cronon, “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental History (1996): 7–28. Quotation at pp. 15–16.

29. Lampe, Geoffrey William Hugo, “The New Testament Doctrine of Ktisis.” Scottish Journal of Theology 17, no. 04 (1964): 449–462.

30. See discussion of the “consensus view” described by Santmire below.

31. Harry Hahne, The Corruption and Redemption of Creation: Nature in Romans 8.19-22 and Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006).

32. Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155, no. 3767 (1967): 1203–1207.

33. Lauren Kearns, “The Context of Eco-theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, ed. Gareth Jones (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 270.

34. G. A. De Leo and S. Levin, 1997. “The Multifaceted Aspects of Ecosystem Integrity.” Conservation Ecology, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 3. At http://www.consecol.org/vol1/iss1/art3/.

35. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 1 (Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5), ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958), 20.

36. Nicole Roskos, “Christian Theology and the Fall,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Volume I: A-J, ed. Bron Taylor (London: Continuum, 2005), 312.

37. Calvin B. DeWitt, A Sustainable Earth: Religion and Ecology in the Western Hemisphere (Mancelona, MI: Au Sable Institute, 1997); Dieter T. Hessel and Radford Ruether, eds. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

38. H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 175–76. Italics in original.

39. William French, “With radical amazement: ecology and the recovery of creation,” in David Albertson and Cabell King, eds. Without Nature? A New Condition for Theology, 54–79 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009). Quotation at p. 62.

40. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. Canidad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973), 174.

41. William French, “With radical amazement: ecology and the recovery of creation.” Op. cit. Quotation at p. 62.

42. Nicole Roskos, “Christian Theology and the Fall,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Volume I: A-J, ed. Bron Taylor (London: Continuum, 2005), 312.

43. Laurel Kearns, “Noah’s ark goes to Washington: a profile of evangelical environmentalism,” Social Compass 44, no. 3 (1997): 349–366.

44. Richard H. Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

45. William Cronon, op. cit. 15–16.

46. Thomas R. Dunlap, “Environmentalism, a Secular Faith,” Environmental Values 15, no. 3 (2006): 321–330. Quotation at p. 324.

47. According to this view, man and evolution (natural selection) are the two “global controllers” of the living world. Artificial selection is therefore unnatural. “Natural selection is the proto­typical example of the autonomous process… Artificial selection is not; it is not autonomous because it relies on a global controller.” Simon A. Levin, 1998, “Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems.” Ecosystems 1, no. 5: 431–436. Quotation at p. 432.

48. E. P. Odum described “a basic conflict between the strategies of man and of nature.” E. P. Odum, 1969, “The strategy of ecosystem development science.” Science (New Series) 164 (3877) (Apr. 18), 262–270. Quotation at p. 266.

49. Paul Robbins and Sarah A. Moore, “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene,” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 1 (2013), 3–19.

50. Ibid., p. 4.

51. Thomas Dunlap, “Environmentalism: A Secular Faith.” Environmental Values, Vol. 15, No. 3, Perspectives on Environmental Values: The Princeton Workshop (August 2006), 321–330. Quotation at p. 322.

52. Cabell King, “In the World: Henri Lefebvre and the Liturgical Production of Natural Space,” in Without Nature? eds. David Albertson and Cabell King (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 85.

53. Thomas R. Dunlap, “Environmentalism, a Secular Faith,” Environmental Values 15, no. 3 (2006): 321–330. Quotation at p. 322.

54. Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Bob Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” Breakthrough Journal 2 (2011): 26–36.

55. John Stuart Mill, Nature, The Utility of Religion, and Theism (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1874). Mill’s “Essay on Nature” is available at: https://archive.org/details/a592828200milluoft. Quotation at p. 5 of the standard 1874 edition.

56. In the 1874 edition, p. 7.

57. The conclusion to the Critique of Practical Reason (1788).

58. Peter Kareiva, et al., eds. Natural Capital: Theory and Practice of Mapping Ecosystem Services (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

59. For criticisms of the “ecosystem services” approach, see, e.g., Mark Sagoff, “On the Value of Natural Ecosystems: The Catskills Parable,” Politics and the Life Sciences 22, no. 1 (2002), 16–21; Mark Sagoff, “The Quantification and Valuation of Ecosystem Services,” Ecological Economics 70, no. 3 (2011): 497–502.

60. Peter Kareiva, Michelle Marvier, and Bob Lalasz, “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” Breakthrough Journal 2 (2011): 26–36.

61. Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review, XXXV, no. 4 (1945), 519–530.

62. Ibid.

63. Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier, “Conservation for the People,” Scientific American 297, no. 4 (2007), 50–57.

64. Michelle Marvier and Peter Kareiva, “The evidence and values underlying ‘new conservation,’” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 29, no. 3 (2014): 131–132.

65. “That which is related to gen­eral human inclination and needs has a market price… But that which constitutes… an end in itself does not have a mere relative worth, i.e., a price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity.” Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Lewis White Beck, ed. Robert Paul Wolff (Indianapolis: Bobbs‑Merrill, 1959), 53. Emphasis in original.

66. Alan Gussow, A Sense of Place (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1997), 27.

67. Clifford Geertz, “Afterword,” in Senses of Place, eds. Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press,1996), 261.

68. Geertz, 260.

69. Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 49.

70. Steven Vogel, Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996). Quotation at p. 189.

71. Rosemary Radford Reuther, New Woman, New Earth (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 83.

72. Helen MacDonald, in her recent book H is for Hawk (Grove Press 2015), comments that the goshawk, once plentiful in Great Britain, had gone extinct there in the late 19th century owing to hunting pressure and habitat loss. In the 1960s and '70s, a group of falconers successfully reintroduced several pairs from the continent. MacDonald has written (p. 8), "Today their descendents number around four hundred and fifty pairs.... There existence gives the lie to the thought that the wild is always something untouched by human hearts and hands. The wild can be human work."



Mark Sagoff is a professor of philosophy and senior fellow at George Mason University's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. 



by Jesse Ausubel


by Martin W. Lewis



by Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Jenna Mukuno