Dignity and the Environment

By Jonathan Boston

The concept of dignity is often thought to be restricted to humanity. Only human beings, some believe, possess true or genuine dignity. Theologically, this is because human beings are distinctive, indeed unique, within the created order. Only human beings bear the special mark of their Maker; only they are bearers of God's image or likeness (Gen 1:27). Hence, amongst all God's creatures, only human beings enjoy a deep, transcendent and intrinsic worth: they alone are sacred; they alone possess inherent and inalienable rights; they alone are ends in themselves rather than means; and they alone share an abiding dignity in equal measure. All other species, it is argued, are different. They lack any God-given dignity. So, too, does the non-living or physical environment – whether here on Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

But is this argument theologically and morally justified? Is not the whole creation, in all its extraordinary diversity, richness, vastness and beauty, endowed with dignity by God?

There are, of course, robust theological reasons for claiming that human beings enjoy a unique, particular or special dignity – indeed, an 'infinite dignity'.1 As bearers of God's image, humanity can claim a distinctive and elevated moral status in relation to the rest of creation. A person is more precious than other creatures. Accordingly, we need stronger justifications for harming a human being than we do for harming non-human species.

But an equally strong theological case can be made that every part of creation – every aspect of the entire universe, no matter how little or large – possesses a certain God-given dignity; it thus has some inherent or intrinsic value. That is to say, all non-human species and physical objects are of value in themselves and for their own sake; they are not merely of instrumental or extrinsic value. To quote Saint John Paul II:

Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person also extends to the rest of creation which is called to join man in praising God (Ps 148:96).2

Likewise, Pope Francis in Laudato Si, speaks of the 'intrinsic dignity of the world',3 and appeals to every person to respect and care for all God's creatures and humanity's 'common home'.

The theological basis for the proposition that the non-human world enjoys an inherent dignity lies, fundamentally, in the claim that God is ultimately the creator of everything that exists and that God values, and rejoices in, every aspect of the creation. Every part of it has worth; every part deserves respect. For everything that God has made, according to Genesis, is 'good'.

That does not mean, of course, that everything is of equal value, let alone infinitely precious. Nor does it imply that any form of human interference with the natural or physical environment is unjustified. But it strongly suggests the need for wise, responsible and sustainable management of the environment.

When people degrade and defile what God has made or cause irreversible damage, they violate their distinctive calling to exercise stewardship and guardianship. Moreover, in bringing destruction, rather than healing, they threaten their own dignity. In part, this simply reflects the fact that everything is interconnected and interdependent. Despoiling the environment destroys the ecosystem services and resources on which humanity depends. It thus reduces the capacity of human beings to meet their needs and ultimately robs them of their dignity. Human flourishing in a devastated wasteland is a contradiction in terms, as is living well in an ecological desert.

Taking the intrinsic dignity of the environment seriously requires urgent and systematic reform. Currently, human greed, poor planning, inadequate regulation and irresponsible economic policies are contributing to enormous ecological damage. Globally, we are exceeding critical planetary boundaries and time is running out to rectify the problem.4 We are already in the early stages of a mass extinction event, one in which a substantial proportion of all this planet's species will be destroyed. We are also rapidly warming the Earth through the unregulated burning of fossil fuels and massive deforestation. Not only will this bring dramatic changes to the planet's climate, but it will also contribute to severe, widespread and, in many cases, irreversible damage to critical biophysical systems.

Nationally, our water quality is deteriorating, our carbon footprint is growing, our land-use management and marine governance are weak, and many native species face extinction. Since human settlement about 800 years ago, we have lost 85% of our indigenous forests, over 90% of our wetlands, and more than 50 bird species. We have significantly polluted more than half of our rivers and many of our lakes, and we are losing soil at about 10 times the average global rate. Hence, claims that New Zealand is 'clean and green' lack substance.

In summary, humanity is currently suffering a chronic 'nature deficit disorder'. Our ecological footprints are far too large. We are borrowing from the future and leaving our children and grandchildren a dreadful legacy – a huge, unsustainable ecological debt and colossal, irreparable damage. As Pope Francis puts it:

We have come to see ourselves as ... [nature's] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she "groans in travail" (Rom 8:22).5

God calls us to show kindness to His good creation, to treasure its diversity, to care tenderly for its creatures, to tread gently upon the land, and to be good stewards of its resources. Indeed, we are summoned to love what God has made, just as God loves and cares for it. In so doing we both protect its intrinsic dignity and honour our calling as creatures who bear God's image.

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.


1. Pope John Paul II, Angelus in Osnabrück (Germany) with the disabled, 16 November 1980: Insegnamenti 3/2 (1980), 1232.
2. Pope John Paul II, 'Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation', For the celebration of the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1990.
3. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si' – On Care For Our Common Home, Rome, 2015, p.86.
4. See, for instance, Johan Rockström, et al., "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity', Nature, 461, 24 September 2009, 472-475; John Rockström, et al., "Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity", Ecology and Society, 14, 2.
5. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si' – On Care For Our Common Home, Rome, 2015, p.3.