Earth Day is a fitting time to discuss soil conservationist Walter Lowdermilk’s 11th Commandment. Mr. Lowdermilk assisted with the 1920s with famine prevention program in China and Israel’s land reclamation projects shortly after its creation in the 1940s.
According to his New York Times obituary, “Speaking by radio from Jerusalem, Mr. Lowdermilk ventured the observation that if Moses had foreseen man’s destruction of his surroundings, he might have added an 11th Commandment, which he put in these terms:
Thou shall inherit the holy earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation.
Thou shall safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation and protect thy hills from overgrazing by the herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever.
If any fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground or wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish off the face of the earth.”
There’s a lot to digest, but the main thrust, at least to me, is that the complex relationship between humans and the environment requires regulation. Humanity has to regulate its behavior in regards to nature, especially as its population continues to rise. If we do not, not only do we destroy the natural world’s both living and non-living components but also ourselves. Respecting the environment in all its aspects (animals, plants, water, earth and atmosphere) ultimately ensures we value ourselves and what allowed us to exist.
This 11th Commandment should be broken into several for full impact. Since it is an addition to the original Ten Commandments, we should study those for a moment.
As Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University Rebecca Todd Peters points out in her essay on Mr. Lowdermilk, the first four of the Ten Commandments “relate to ritual and worship” and the last six “speak of the moral obligation that people have to one another, these are the principles that shape human relations.”
Human relations are complicated, requiring considerable elaboration. There are so many situations in which humans need rules and guidance (either divine or secular) on how to behave with one another. These Commandments are succinctly summarized by St. Paul in Romans 13:8–9: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
That’s the ultimate goal, is it not? Treat others as you wish to be treated. Human to human relations should be centered in the Golden Rule. It is intriguing and telling how many religious traditions across the globe, emerging in vastly different cultural, historical and geographic circumstances, have some phrasing of this principle. Loving others as yourself is intellectually simple to comprehend, yet incredibly difficult to live. That’s why we must have the more encompassing general principle of The Golden Rule made explicit through specific commandments, prohibitions and laws such as the Ten Commandments.
But what about human to environment relations?
As Professor Todd Peters explains: “Lowdermilk argues that the presence of an 11th Commandment might have mitigated the human tendency throughout history to exploit, despoil, abuse and destroy the natural world. Indeed, Lowdermilk goes as far to suggest that Christians ought to have a Trinitarian understanding of moral obligations that exist in relation to God, to one another, and to creation.”
You may be asking, why should we treat the environment with the same degree of respect as humanity and its achievements? For myself, the answer is simple. Just as civilization advances thanks to the achievements of those who came before us, life advanced because of what came before it. Humanity arose from a long chain of evolution through different life forms. All life, whether animals, plants, fungi or bacteria, could not have arisen without the specific conditions and resources that our planet provides. Therefore, I feel that as a human I am indebted to this incredible system of both living organisms and non-living structures and materials.
I grant that creatures have to die and resources have to be consumed in order to nourish ourselves and build our homes, roads, buildings, technology and so forth. I also grant that it is nigh impossible to view a rock or tree as equal to your friends or family. We may not be able to completely transfer the Golden Rule to animals, plants and non-living matter, but by starting to think of the principle when interacting with them, we can lessen species extinction and resource depletion, maintaining a more bountiful Earth for all.
A major reason why I have drifted away from Christianity is because I felt it did not sufficiently tackle the relationship between humanity and environment as it did with human-human relations. Think of Jesus’s parables. They are wonderful and have guided me in my treatment of other human beings, but are noticeably vague with respect to the environment.
Professor Mark Muesse has a great observation that might explain this absence of environmental ethics in both Jesus’s preaching and Christianity in general in his course Religions of the Axial Age: An Approach to the World’s Religions. The Axial Age refers to roughly the 8th to 3rd century in which Confucius, Laozi, the Buddha, Mahavira and other prominent ethical, spiritual and religious leaders lived. Prior to this period, religion was often ritualistic, focused on natural phenomenon such as the sun and rain so that crops would grow. However, the aforementioned leaders transitioned to a more personal view of the world and ethics, focusing on human to human relations.
Professor Muesse writes in his course guidebook:
“Though some Axial Age notions of ultimate reality were more sublime than those of earlier ages, something had been lost in the transition to the Axial Age, as the function of religion shifted from cosmic maintenance to personal transformation.
1. The shift was a positive change for humans, who no longer had to appease the gods to ensure that the sun rose and the crops grew.
2. The downside of relieving this burden, however, was that people lost the sense of needing to collaborate in the maintenance of the world.
3. Post-Axial humans generally believe that the world can take care of itself. But problems associated with neglecting the Earth in the last half-century have become increasingly evident.”
Imagine if we had a series of Commandments dealing with environmental ethics. Would Jesus have crafted some parables directed at humanity’s relationship with the environment? I contend that these “Environmental Parables” would be as accessible, powerful and meaningful as his parables illustrating human relations and would have further mitigated some of humanity’s abuses of the natural world.
For myself and others such as Mr. Lowdermilk, adding a strong, explicit environmental component to Christianity would make it a more compelling believe system. We should treat other human beings as we wish to be treated. And we should strive to treat the environment’s living and non-living components in the spirit of the Golden Rule and Ten Commandments.