A Comparison of Green Chemistry to the Environmental Ethics of the Abrahamic Religions

By Bennett, George D. | Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 2008 | Go to article overview

A Comparison of Green Chemistry to the Environmental Ethics of the Abrahamic Religions


Bennett, George D., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith


Green chemistry, or environmentally benign chemistry, is in its second decade as a recognized area of research. It is unique within chemistry because of its normative character. It rests on a set of principles, and the principles rest on certain ethical propositions. The ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry are substantially consistent with the environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The ethical presuppositions of green chemistry bear the greatest similarity to the ethics of the productivity stewardship model of Christian environmentalism and bear the least similarity to the ethics of preservationist stewardship of Islamic environmentalism.

Summary

The environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions all incorporate an anthropocentric concept of stewardship of an intrinsically valuable creation. Within this framework, use of nature is permissible, but abuse of nature through pollution, waste, and depletion is prohibited. The environmental ethics diverge over what characteristics creation shares with humanity. They also diverge over the quality and extent of the relationship between economic and environmental health. The ethical propositions of the productivity stewardship model of religious environmentalism bear the greatest resemblance to the ethical assumptions of green chemistry. The environmental ethics of all the religious perspectives examined in this article support those ethical assumptions of green chemistry that deal with pollution prevention and improved safety. The only point of direct conflict is between the position of certain Islamic environmentalists that the world economic system is a sham and the assumptions of green chemistry that deal with economic goals. With the exception of this latter sub-set, followers of the Abrahamic religions can practice green chemistry in good conscience.

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Green chemistry, or environmentally benign chemistry, is now in its second decade as a recognized area of research. Its normative character makes it unique within chemistry. It began as a specific form of implementation of a national policy of the United States that focused on source reduction as a pollution prevention strategy. Because green chemistry sprouted from an enacted law, and because laws result from political compromise and agreement among interested parties in order to garner broad support, the ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry reflect ethical beliefs regarding the environment that large portions of the public share. Although not everyone derives environmental ethics from theology, many people in the U.S. who do so derive their ethics from an Abrahamic religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Hence, the ethical tenets that underlie green chemistry are substantially consistent with the environmental ethics of the Abrahamic religions. Such theologically derived environmental ethics invoke the idea of stewardship, but they differ as to what degree that stewardship should aim to preserve natural resources for future generations or to put natural resources to productive use now. The ethical presuppositions of green chemistry bear the greatest similarity to the ethics of the productivity stewardship model of religious environmentalism and bear the least similarity to the ethics of preservationist stewardship of Islamic environmentalism.

This article begins with an overview of green chemistry, including its development, its definition, its codification in principles of best practice, and its ethical premises. Following this account is a discussion about the circumstances that led to the enshrinement of these ethical premises in policy. The discussion of professionally derived environmental ethics is followed by a brief overview of the rise of modern environmentalism and a discussion of theologically derived environmental ethics on the basis of a comparison between the preservationist stewardship and productivity stewardship models of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. …

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