MOST news about the environment seems to involve conflict. Jobs vs. endangered species. Neighborhoods vs. toxic polluters. Developers vs. preservationists. Impoverished countries vs. over-consuming nations. All would appear to be zero-sum situations in which special interests compete for finite resources.
But such issues go beyond the physical environment to questions of values, ethics, morals, and, indeed, spirituality. Seen in this light, the environment as a public and personal issue presents both challenge and opportunity.
The challenge is to confront those evidences of conflict over resources and pollution, evidences that can seem overwhelming: More than 68 million tons of topsoil lost daily to erosion. Forty-two million acres of tropical forests cut down each year.
Nor is the issue only one of the environmental legacy we leave to future generations, as important as that is. Also at issue is the toll environmental degradation takes on the next generation today. More than 10 million children are dying each year, their deaths attributed to such simple things as a lack of clean water. Surely these are moral and ethical issues, particularly when the failure to confront them leads to loss of human life.
World leaders came together 18 months ago in Brazil to tackle such problems. The Earth Summit was a watershed event: For the first time poverty, environment, and population were dealt with as a whole. Organizer Maurice Strong got to the core of the issue when he said, ``The real key to survival of the human species is a revival of the moral and spiritual values which are the undergirding of our civilization.''
More recently, religious leaders in the United States have joined to express the same important idea. Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Protestant officials representing more than 100 million Americans announced in October a three-year, $4.5 million program to provide information on the environment to 53,000 congregations.
``This is not for us just another issue, but an inescapable challenge to what it means now to be religious,'' said the Reverend James Morton.
What it means to be religious - to express spirituality - relates to how one views and treats his or her environment. Too often, expressing the Biblical notion of dominion has been confused with the perceived need to dominate nature. This misses the point, which is not that material resources are either infinite or that they need to be fought over, but that true resources, spiritual resources, are infinite. Larry EchoHawk, attorney general of Idaho, expresses thoughtfully a Native American perspective. ``For Native Americans, the earth is sacred,'' he told participants in a recent river symposium. ``The Pawnee account of creation is of an ancient people emerging from darkness into a lighted world, a holy place. It is less an explanation of the earth's beginning than an expression of the constant creative outpouring of the Great Spirit.''
``Creation is not what happened thousands or millions of years ago,'' he said. ``It's what's happening right here and now in this holy place.''
To see where we live, the realm in which we exist, as a holy place is to understand true environmentalism, true stewardship. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, saw the spiritual essence of nature long before environmentalism became a social and political force. ``In one sense God is identical with nature, but this nature is spiritual and is not expressed in matter,'' she wrote. And elsewhere: ``All nature teaches God's love to man, but man cannot love God supremely and set his whole affections on spiritual things, while loving the material or trusting in it more than in the spiritual.''
There are practical steps to be taken. For people in the developed world, one step may be to recognize, as Alan Durning of the Worldwatch Institute has written, the danger of being ``hoodwinked by a culture of consumption ... fruitlessly attempting to satisfy with material things what are essentially social, psychological, and spiritual needs.''
Another step: improving the lot of women in developing countries through better education, economic empowerment, and access to family-planning services to reduce the reliance on large families for survival.
Governments also must rethink the way economic well-being is gauged to more fully take into account the impact of resource depletion and the government subsidies that can cause such depletion. Failure to do so, Vice President Al Gore Jr. has said, amounts to ``future abuse.''
Bishop James Malone, another organizer of the environmental project, recently announced by religious leaders, calls caring for the earth ``an ethical imperative.''
This imperative - to see environmental issues as ethical, moral, and spiritual ones that need to be forwarded in human thought - is as much opportunity as challenge.