Care of the Environment vs. Profit

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This is the place to mention another area where our pursuit of profit may lead us to ignore God’s intentions. The conflict sprang into focus during the final decades of the twentieth century when damage to the environment became an issue. Suddenly western cultures were faced as never before with the pollution they had let loose. Looking at the rape of our environment, some blamed the Bible for fostering a mindset of exploitation. The wording that aroused this criticism is to be found in Genesis 1:28.

And God said unto them [the newly created humans], Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing…

The wording is that of the King James Version – the translation that was universally used during the centuries when western technology was on the rise. Critics focussed on the words “subdue” and “have dominion over”. The charge made against the Bible was that this was an excuse for pillaging the earth and its resources.

There may be an element of truth in this, but it is also a caricature. The words have constantly been quoted out of context. You’ll notice God’s instruction to “replenish the earth”, which rarely gets a mention from critics. In this regard, James Beattie and John Stenhouse have recently completed a study of the attitudes of nineteenth century Christian colonists in Otago (in southern New Zealand). They show that not only did the faith of these pioneers provide incentive for their cultivation of the soil as they burned off bush and tilled land for farming, planting crops and pasture grasses, but they were also involved in a number of significant conservation efforts. These were clearly an expression of concern for the earth, encouraged by their understanding of a wide range of biblical injunctions.[1]

In the story of the Garden related in Genesis chapter 2, the man is invited to both cultivate and care for the garden (verse 15). Management of the land and its resources is an important element in any Christian environmental ethic: preserving what has been given at the same time as adding value to it. (This emphasis appears in numerous specific commands that are given in the Levitical law.) We humans are given “dominion” with a strong sense that it is the delegation of responsibility under God; eventually we will answer to God for how this responsibility has been exercised.

Historically this has most often been called Christian stewardship. Nowadays stewardship is more often related to church campaigns to raise money. Perhaps trusteeship is a more helpful word. We have been given responsibility to cultivate and care for our physical environment as trustees under God.

One example of exercising such “earthkeeping” is the Businesses for Social Responsibility movement which has promoted the idea of Triple Bottom Line Reporting. They encourage companies in their annual reporting to not only analyse and report on their financial performance, but also to audit social consequences and their environmental impact. They invite companies to develop some key performance indicators in each of these areas and to regularly measure and report on their full financial, social and environmental performance. Some people think that businesses only exist to maximize profits. Others, such as BSR, suggest that businesses also have a responsibility to help create a better world. Profit is not the sole goal.


1. Are there any tangible markers that might help us determine whether we are “pursuing profit” or “enslaved to the pursuit of profit”?

2. Read through the case study again about Barbara, the real estate agent. Discuss what might be appropriate if you were in Barbara’s situation. (You may like to use the questions listed in the case study as a starting point.)

3. Is an appropriate profit margin solely determined by what the market will bear? Or are there other ways to settle on a fair price? What other ways?

4. Early in the chapter we referred to this quotation from the book Built to Last, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras: “Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself for many of the visionary companies. Profit is like oxygen, food, water, and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.” To what extent do you agree/disagree? In what ways is this true or untrue for the enterprises you work with?

5. Are there any “industry-accepted” practices in your field of business that you think might be questionable? What might they be and why? (If there are others in your group who are involved in different industries, ask them what they see that needs to be questioned in yours.)

6. How important is it to have friends who will ask the hard questions? Do you talk over ethical dilemmas with friends? If so, what do you appreciate from them? For example, do you expect answers from them, or just help to clarify the issues? How important is it for you to know that they will not judge you for your response? What other ways can they help?

7. Discuss the questions we listed at the end of the stories about Enron. They are:

  • How can Christians think and act like this?

  • Is it possible to think we’re serving one master, when we’re actually serving a different one?

  • How can Christians sincerely believe they are acting ethically when all the evidence points to deep deception and greed?

  • Are we all in danger of this kind of hypocrisy?

  • If so, what can we do to avoid falling into the same trap?

8. If Amos were alive today, what specific attitudes and practices in your business culture do you think he would comment about, regarding the lifestyles of Christians?

9. We have noted above that the Businesses for Social Responsibility movement is trying to encourage companies in their annual reporting to “not only analyse and report on their financial performance but also to audit their social impact and environmental impact … Some people think that businesses only exist to maximize profits. Others suggest that businesses also have a responsibility to help create a better world.” A counter case is put that a business should limit itself to what it is designed to do – that is, conduct business. It should not set itself up to undertake environmental or social programmes. That, say proponents of this view, is the function of government, and of public or charitable organizations who are skilled and experienced in the demands of such intervention.

  1. Do you think that businesses only exist to maximize profits, or do they also have a responsibility to help create a better world?

  2. What do you think about Triple Bottom Line Reporting?

  3. How might a company or organization that you know well go about this?

  4. What might be some key performance indicators to measure social and environmental performance?

  5. Al Gore (in An Inconvenient Truth) and others think that significant climate change has been caused by human activity, and is rapidly leading towards an environmental crisis. They argue that drastic and urgent action is necessary. How concerned do you think we need to be? What are some of the practical points at which this affects you? For example, your use of a car? Aeroplane travel? Heating your home and office…?