The fundamental problems of global environmental governance are scarcity (a relative lack of resources with which to satisfy our relatively abundant goals), tragedy (the necessity of choosing between competing goods or rights, a corollary of scarcity), and risk (a measure of the likelihood of a tragic outcome). This article by Noah Toly examines the origins and implications of these problems and, drawing upon the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on responsible action, frames a response grounded in Christian theology and ethics. Mr. Toly is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations and Director of Urban Studies at Wheaton College.

The past three centuries have witnessed the accumulation of unprecedented levels of wealth and the production of unprecedented risk. As German sociologist Ulrich Beck notes, these two phenomena are related:

In advanced modernity the social production of wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks. Accordingly, the problems and conflicts relating to distribution in a society of scarcity overlap with the problems and conflicts that arise from the production, definition, and distribution of techno-scientifically produced risks.1

These risks include the declining integrity and stability of many of the world’s environments, along with attendant social impacts. Urban environments, water resources, biological diversity, and the atmospheric commons face dramatic and possibly irreversible change as the environmental burdens of late modern lifestyles increasingly shift to fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities.

Globalization has increased the scope and scale of these risks, as well as the pace of their emergence. It has also made possible global environmental governance, multi-scalar and multi-centric attempts to manage risk by unprecedented numbers and types of effectively—even if not formally—authoritative agents, including state and non-state actors at the local, national, regional, and global levels. For example, small groups of people in the UK enter into binding agreements with each other to reduce their burden upon the global environment and other human beings. Far-flung municipalities agree to reduce emissions of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases. Delegates to international meetings now routinely gather to determine the chemistry of the atmosphere, to control global temperatures, and effectively to decide upon the fate of distant communities. Such actions, which would have been preposterous not long ago, are acknowledgements of the increased capacity of human communities, however small, to shape future global outcomes and of an increased sense of responsibility even for environments, populations, and generations that are far off.

This peculiarly modern burden of power and responsibility demands that we weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope. We now commonly measure gains for this generation against safeguards for future generations, luxuries for one community against the livelihoods of another, freedoms for some populations against the most basic needs of others. Discriminating between competing claims to the right requires the identification of what Charles Taylor calls “hypergoods”: “goods which not only are incomparably more important than others but provide the standpoint from which [others] must be weighed, judged, decided about.”2 Undertaking this work collectively requires the articulation of social imaginaries—constellations of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a social group. According to Cornelius Castoriadis, social imaginaries are “the laces which tie a society together and which define what, for a given society is real,” shaping a collective approach to “living, seeing, and making [a society’s] existence.”3 Taylor observes that these social imaginaries provide “common understanding, which makes possible common practices, and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.”4 These reflexive moral challenges, more than any technical problem, are at the core of global environmental governance, which is an arena for the assertion of competing visions of justice and the good world. These competing visions include increasingly religious or religiously inflected claims about what constitutes justified and responsible action in the face of scarcity, tragedy, and risk. It is imperative that we develop a Christian account of justified or responsible action in the context of these perennial challenges of global environmental governance. This article moves toward such an account—one that comprehends the origins and implications of scarcity, tragedy, and risk while articulating appropriate ethical responses to them—by drawing upon theological articulations of responsibility, justification, and participation in a public sphere marked by a plurality of religious discourses.

Global Environmental Governance and the Rise of the Religious Imaginary

In the context of global environmental governance, rival claims of justice have typically emerged from various secular rationalities. Neo-classical economic thought has provided the resources for the predominant mode of discriminating between competing claims to the right: an appeal to economic efficiency that grounds common understanding, common practices, and a shared sense of legitimacy. Its primacy in this regard emerged in part because modern economic thought is essentially a response to the sorts of scarcity that characterize many environmental challenges. This has made market-based mechanisms attractive solutions to problems of global environmental governance.

However, the sense of legitimacy surrounding neo-classical economic thought has eroded over the past few decades. Cost-benefit analysis and “discounting,”5 the cornerstone practices of economic evaluation of environmental interventions, have come under fire.6 Problems with the inequitable distribution of environmental harm—and not only with the production of environmental ills—have played an increasingly important role in deliberations about global environmental gover-nance. These ascendant concerns for environmental justice have tested the limits of an economic paradigm systematically unable to differentiate between luxury and livelihood, opening the door to challengers from the field of ecological democracy, among others.7

Along with these largely secular social imaginaries, global environmental governance has for many reasons also witnessed the ascendance of religious rea-son. Diverse religious imaginaries supply hypergoods necessary for confronting moral dilemmas, as well as cosmic moral visions necessary for discovering and exercising responsibility on the global stage. The ascendance of religious reason in global affairs has not been limited to global environmental governance. In his book, The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror, Manfred Steger convincingly argues that globalism has opened the door to the resurgence of religious discourse in the formation of social imaginaries.He emphasizes the religious dimensions of “global jihadism” while taking care not to imply any necessary link between Islam and terror; he argues that “global imperialism,” Steger’s shorthand for the global ambition of neoliberal political economy, incorporates “religious and moralistic features that mirror jihadism” in some respects; and he notes that even the “global justice movement” has “absorbed heavy doses of spiritual and religious thought.”8 While national concerns had the potential to suppress religious reason, drawing boundaries that do not correspond to the cosmically scaled visions of religion, the global imaginary opens up the door to the religious by bounding the community in a way that does correspond to such visions. In this respect, Steger undermines the notion that the social imaginaries most relevant to contemporary globalism are secular alterna-tives to religious belief systems and thus reveals the global underpinnings of a resurgence of public religion in the global public square. This trend is increasingly evident in the governance of environmental issues in particular.

This rise of religious imaginaries in global environmental governance may prove to be a source of conflict and a barrier to sustainability and justice. Alternatively, religious imaginaries may prove a powerful force for a flourishing future, not only sustaining the spiritual vitality of global communities of faith, but also contributing to the common good even as they are shaped by global dynamics. In any case, the erosion of a widespread sense of shared legitimacy belonging to hitherto predominant ways of thinking about environmental challenges, the increasing concern for environmental justice and not only for sustainability, and the ascendance of religious reason in a global public square make imperative theological and ethical reflection upon the key problems of global environmental governance in a world of many religions. Nourishing the community of faith and contributing to the common good in our global “risk society” demands a construc-tive approach to the tragic choices that mark global environmental governance—an approach that comprehends the origins and implications of the “wicked problems” of “risk society” and grounds ethical responses in Christian theological insight.

The Problems of Global Environmental Governance: Scarcity, Tragedy, and Risk

The fundamental problems of global environmental governance are three: scarcity, the relative lack of means to satisfy our relatively abundant ends; tragedy, the inability to have or do all good things at once, which is a corollary to scarcity; and risk, a measure of tragedy that reflects the existence of a dilemma or tragedy and the likelihood of sacrifice. Here we consider the ways in which the Christian faith speaks to the origins and implications of all three.

Scarcity—the mismatch of seemingly unlimited needs and wants in a world of limited resources—is the basic problem to which both economic and envi-ronmental thought have addressed themselves since the dawn of the industrial revolution when the two fields were intimately connected through the work of classical political economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Thomas Malthus. In 1798, the latter published a treatise on political economy, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that food production increases in a linear fashion, while population increases exponentially.9 If correct, population would eventually exceed the number of people we have the capacity to feed, resulting in suffering and antagonism. This relationship between population and food reflects the basic contours of scarcity in stark terms, but it is representative of the type of problem that is foundational to modern environmental thought: If we use this much fuel now, will we have enough later? If we put this food source to one use, will it be available for other uses that are important to us? These are all questions of scarcity.

But what of the origins of scarcity from a Christian theological perspective? French theologian and social theorist Jacques Ellul argues that scarcity originates with the fall and the curse.10 In his essay, “Technique in the Opening Chapters of Genesis,” Ellul argues that in a pre-lapsarian world, Adam and Eve had sufficient means to meet all their ends. After the curse, they no longer had sufficient means to achieve their ends. Ellul does not specify precisely whether it was human ends and goals or the means to achieve them that changed with the curse.11 However, the biblical account seems to suggest a shift in both.

The first sin represents a perversion of human ends. Instead of signifying the presence of God in creation, one purpose of the image of God, the first sin expressed an ambition to be more like God in his knowledge and capacity for transcendent judgment (Gen. 3:4-6). With this self-assertion, the first humans shifted from the noble but humble goals for which they were created to lofty and unattainable goals for which they were not suited. This perversion of human ends continued in the curse, in which God reveals to Adam and Eve that their new ambitions have social dimensions. The relationships between people would be marked by antagonism. While the meaning of Genesis 3:16, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” is disputed, many commentators make a convincing case that this is the beginning of the social problem of “unruly desire.”12 After the curse, social relations became “a fierce dispute, with each party trying to rule over the other. The two who once reigned as one attempt to rule each other.”13 Walter Brueggemann describes this as a perverted inclination, disordered desire, or abnormal propensity toward exploitation.14 These increased and perverted desires, goals, ends, and ambitions are on display throughout the following chapters of Genesis in the stories of Cain and Lamech.

In addition to a shift in human desires and goals, the fall and curse also changed the relationship between human beings and the means by which their desires could be satisfied. All human activity requires energy in one form or an-other, and energy from food is among the most basic needs of human life. After the curse, energy from food does not come freely and easily. Rather, it comes only with great difficulty (Gen. 3:17-19). Gathering and harvesting come only with fatigue and risk of injury, making it difficult to gather or harvest enough food to satisfy needs and desires. With the fall and the curse, we see the origins of scarcity, of a mismatch between human desires and the means by which they can be satisfied.


The first sin reflected a perversion of human desire, and in the curse God reveals social dimensions of this increased and disordered ambition. At the same time, it is revealed that the ground will no longer bear fruit without toil, hardship, and hurt. This account also suggests the beginning of tragedy. If human desires are increased and perverted while the means to satisfy desires are available less freely, then it follows that humans have to choose which desires to satisfy and which to leave unsatisfied. Instead of humble ends and abundant means, we are faced with the problem of ambitious ends and scarce means. Achieving some goals requires leaving others unattended or under-resourced, even if all of the goals are righteous.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that this fundamental inaccessibility of all good things or impossibility of all right actions at once has its origins in the fall and curse.15 In Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that the prelapsarian state was characterized by the situation of “the limit at the center,” a condition in which all things are equally distant from the center, equally available to the one who respects that limit: “Limit and life, these are the untouchable, inaccessible middle of paradise around which Adam’s life revolves.”16 As Kenneth Matthews writes,

D. Bonhoeffer rightly observed that symbolically the middle of Adam’s world was not himself, but life, the very presence of God; the tree of knowledge as a prohibition signifies that man’s limitation as a creature is in the “middle of his existence, not on the edge.”17

Martin Ruter and Ilse Todt liken Bonhoeffer’s image of the limit at the center to Gottfried William von Leibniz’s idea that God is “as center everywhere, but his circumference is nowhere, since everything is immediately present to him without any distance from this center.”18 Under such conditions, all material goods were equally available. Orienting oneself toward the center ensured the possibility of meeting all needs and desires—partly because orienting oneself to the center would re-orient other desires—with the resources at hand and ensured the possibility of fulfilling all rightly ordered aspirations at once.

However, in their act of self-assertion, humans expressed their desire to place themselves at the center. This failed grasping at what did not belong to them resulted in the fact that all good things are not equally accessible. Human needs and desires now outstrip access to the resources with which we might fulfill them. Placing ourselves in the center, where God belongs, disoriented us. Where the world before the fall was one in which all good things could be had at once, all rightly ordered desires could be fulfilled, and all right things could be done, because God was at the center, the world after the fall is a world of competing goods and competing rights. Human impulses toward self-assertion and self-realization, impulses to put oneself at the center of all things, resulted in the impossibility of meeting all of our goals at once, having every good thing at one time.

Self-assertion resulted in scarcity of several sorts. Even good things, such as survival, were not freely accessible. In the curse, God reveals that the ground is cursed and that pain, thorns and thistles, sweat, and eventually death will mark the work of human beings to meet their desires with the fruit of the earth (Gen. 3:17-19). After the curse, one had to choose between the perils of cultivating the soil and the perils of starvation. This sort of dilemma continues and is now evi-dent in choices such as that between reducing the impact of particulate matter (an air-polluting emittent associated with the combustion of all sorts of fossil fuels) on public health—especially pulmonary illnesses—and producing cheap electricity so that communities can invest in education. In such cases there is of-ten no self-justifying option. Bonhoeffer suggests that this inability to reconcile competing good ends is the essence of tragedy, which destroys human beings through “the clash of incompatible [demands],” and that this is part of “life’s intrinsic structure.”19

Post-lapsarian scarcity and tragedy entail risk, which can be described as the likelihood of tragedy—the likelihood that one good thing might be given up in pursuit of another. If, for example, working the ground after the fall entailed the possibility of pain, toil, and even death, then working the ground would require a sort of calculus that measured the necessity of eating against the possibility of pain and death. Among other meanings of the curse was this: life at risk. Risk has two dimensions or forms: 1) the likelihood of an event and 2) the damage done if the event should occur. So it is important to note that there are risks of many sorts. Some events are relatively likely but would typically inflict little damage. Some events are relatively unlikely, but would probably inflict extensive and even irreparable damage to human communities and the environment. A nuclear reactor is unlikely to melt down; if it does, it is likely to cause great harm. The most advanced supertankers carry more oil in bigger, safer ships that are in fact less likely to spill; but if they do spill, the consequences are greater.

Techniques for mitigating risk have been a blessing and a curse. Technological advances have sheltered us from certain risks while creating others. The generation of large amounts of electrical power, for example, is a boon to human life and livelihood, allowing for the refrigeration of foods and medicines and the alleviation of scarcity. Tragically, the production of large amounts of electricity is made possible through the use of fossil and nuclear fuels, both of which entail risks to fragile ecosystems and vulnerable communities. The mining of materials required for alternative generation options, such as solar photovoltaic electricity, is also fraught with tragic choices. Our continued attempts to moderate the effects of the fall and curse often serve to highlight the intractability of the problem.

Responsibility, “the Integrity of Life,” and Justification

Acting in a world of scarcity, tragedy, and risk requires the collective articula-tion and legitimization of ends by which we can discriminate between compet-ing goods. Martha Nussbaum describes this collective articulation as a process of justification that may not be entirely benign if it functions in such a way as to numb us to tragedy and risk.20 Practices such as cost-benefit analysis entail implied hypergoods (such as economic efficiency) that seem to justify our action through appeal to this transcendent good by which we intend to discriminate between alternatives. In fact, such solutions sometimes organize collective irresponsibility. True responsibility is three-dimensional, 1) encouraging action while 2) making us accountable for the downsides of the choices we make in the context of post-lapsarian scarcity, tragedy, and risk, and 3) seeking justification that comes from outside of the tragic situation itself.

Bonhoeffer describes the context for responsible action as precisely one in which there is no possibility of self-justification. When there is no possibility of self-justification, one comes face to face with the impossibility of accommodating every ethical demand at the same time. Yet one must act:

Responsible action must not simply decide between right and wrong, good and evil, but between right and right, wrong and wrong. “Right collides with right,” as Aeschylus stated. This very act defines responsible action as a free venture, not justified by any law.21

But what kind of action is required? Here the work of theologians David E. Klemm and William Schweiker is helpful. They argue that the essence of responsibility is “to respect and enhance the integrity of life before God,” by integrating basic, natural, social, reflective, and spiritual goods.22 Klemm and Schweiker argue that respect entails acknowledging the worth and dignity of others, rooted in an appreciation of God’s good creation and the love-command of Jesus Christ.23 Respecting and enhancing the integrity of life means promoting the coherence and wholeness of these goods—seeking to integratethem—in the face of intractable incoherence and fragmentation that result from the fall and the curse. To do so before God is to acknowledge that God is “supremely important and real”—God is the only true hypergood by which we can discriminate between competing goods tragically pitted against each other, the only possible source of justification.

This account of responsibility offered by Klemm and Schweiker squares with Bonhoeffer’s account of responsibility as Stellvertretung24 and his emphasis on the centrality of Jesus Christ as justifier. Stellvertretung, or vicarious representative ac-tion, is a core concept of responsible action as it is worked out across Bonhoeffer’s corpus. Importantly, Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. writes that Stellvertretung is “the heart of the structure of responsible life” in Bonhoeffer.25 Clifford Green indicates that Stellvertretung means “responsible action on behalf of others, particularly action which takes responsibility for the communities to which we belong.”26 While the theme of the responsible life is most evident in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, Green notes that the concept of responsible action is most poignantly presented and easily grasped where Bonhoeffer reflects upon his participation in the resistance to the Nazis.27 In Letters and Papers from Prison, in “An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” Bonhoeffer writes,

Neither he onlookers’ critique and self-justification, that is, the refusal to enter into the arena of facts, nor opportunism, that is, disavowal and capitulation in the face of success, does justice to the task at hand…. Case by case and in each moment, as victors or vanquished, we desire to be those who are corresponsible for the shaping of history. The one who al-lows nothing that happens to deprive him of his corresponsibility for the course of history, knowing that it is God who placed it upon him, will find a fruitful relation to the events of history, beyond fruitless criticism and equally fruitless opportunism. Talk of going down heroically in the face of unavoidable defeat is basically quite nonheroic because it does not dare look into the future. The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but [how] a coming generation is to go on living. Only from such a historically responsible question will fruitful solutions arise, however humiliating they may be for the moment. In short, it is much easier to see a situation through on the basis of principle than in concrete responsibility. The younger generation will always have the surest sense whether an action is done merely in terms of principle or from living responsibly, for it is their future that is at stake.28

Also in Letters and Paper from Prison, we find the following poem, titled Action:

Not always doing and daring what’s random, but seeking the right thing, Hover not over the possible, but boldly reach for the real.
Not in escaping to thought, in action alone is found freedom.
Dare to quit anxious faltering and enter the storm of events,
Carried alone by your faith and by God’s good commandments,
Then true freedom will come and embrace your spirit, rejoicing.29

The freedom to act without the possibility of self-justification is available to those who through their union with Christ can be more like Christ—they can vicariously act on behalf of the other, to incur guilt and burden for others. Justification by the work of Jesus Christ, alone, frees us from the demands of self-justification and frees us for vicarious representative action on behalf of others. As Clifford Green writes: “At the deepest theological level, the paradigm of [our] vicarious representative action for others is the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Christ, in whom God acts in freedom and love for the sake of all humanity.”30 This suggests the shape of responsible action in the face of environmental challenge. Responsible action will bear the burdens of others. Faced with dilemmas that so often characterize environmental challenges, those who are in Christ are free to choose to bear the costs of reconciling incompatible goods so that others need not bear the costs of choosing between them (or the costs of inaction).

Christians enjoy the freedom to respect and enhance the integrity of life before God through vicarious representative action because they are justified by Christ’s vicarious representative action and need not vainly seek the self-justifying option among many alternatives for action. In other words, it is the work of Jesus Christ that establishes a genuine alternative to moral dilemmas. Here the reality of Je-sus Christ comes into transformative contact with the post-lapsarian realties of scarcity, tragedy, and risk. As Bonhoeffer points out, the ultimate reality of Jesus Christ overcomes the “tragic aspect of life”

Western thought, especially since the Renaissance, is so decisively shaped by this deepest insight of antiquity that only very rarely has it been noticed that the Christian message has actually overcome this insight.In its claim to depict ultimate realities, there is certainly no doubt that Protestant ethics is still firmly under the spell of antiquity without being aware of that fact. It is not Luther but Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes who have given human life this tragic aspect. Luther’s seriousness is completely different from the seriousness of those classical tragedians. What must ultimately be taken seriously in the view of the Bible and in Luther’s view is not the conflict between the Gods as expressed in their laws, but the unity of God and the reconciliation of the world with God in Jesus Christ… not fate, but the ultimate reality of life.31

With this qualification, Bonhoeffer does not diminish the force of tragedy as a concept in his work. Rather, he links the concepts of tragedy and justification by establishing the “ultimate reality” of Jesus Christ as the alternative to tragic reality.

For Bonhoeffer the work of Jesus Christ is the justifying work. Jesus Christ was himself caught between two incompatible laws; in bearing the burden of this tragic reality, Jesus Christ became guilty, justified, and renewed on behalf of others. In his work, he was for humanity, for God, and for creation. Unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus Christ was for everyone and everything but himself. By his work, he re-establishes God at the center of creation, reconciling all things to himself and making all good things equally accessible in an act of renewal. Because of Jesus’ work on our behalf—because of his vicarious representative action—we have access to all good things. In his work, Jesus restores the pre-lapsarian condition in which God the limit is at the center. Bonhoeffer closes Creation and Fallwith this image:

But Christ lives. The trunk of the cross becomes the wood of life, and now in the midst of the world on the accursed ground itself, life is raised up anew. In the center of the world, from the wood of the cross, the fountain of life springs up…. The tree of life, the cross of Christ, the center of God’s world that is fallen but upheld and preserved—that is what the end of the story about paradise is for us32

Jesus’ work restores the center and makes all good things equally accessible again.33 This reality is the controlling reality of Christian life, even in the face of genuine dilemma and tragic circumstance. We are called to trust—in the face of temptation toward self-justification—that the work of Jesus Christ alone justifies. Faith requires us to “relinquish any effectual self-justification,” “relinquish an ultimately dependable knowledge of good and evil,” and surrender our impulse toward justified action to God.34 Such an approach frees us for engagement with environmental challenges. Rather than a vain search for self-justifying action, we are free to engage with the tragic reality of the world, abandoning the self-assurance of our own work and placing our faith in the surety of Jesus Christ—his vicarious representation of us in the event of our default—and our hope in the ultimate reality that will one day be fully restored. Rather than making “right” choices, we should make choices that absorb the suffering of others, knowing that we incur guilt that is borne vicariously by Jesus Christ, who alone justifies.35

“A Voice of Our Own:” Nourishing the Community of Faith and Promoting the Common Good as “Libation Bearers”

An ethic of responsibility promoting the respect and enhancement of the integrity of life and oriented toward Jesus Christ is an essential aspect of the response to the intractable challenges of scarcity, tragedy, and risk that are inherent in the post-lapsarian condition and magnified by industrial and post-industrial attempts to mitigate risk. But the challenges of global environmental governance are not only scarcity, tragedy, and risk. Among the challenges of global environmental governance is pluralism. How should we conceive of Christian involvement in a global public square marked by a plurality of objectives and reasons, both secular and religious? How can Christians promote the common good and nourish the community of faith while participating in public discourse on questions of global environmental governance? This conclusion will only begin to explore these matters.

First of all, Christians should critically evaluate instruments meant to justify tragic choices, whether cost-benefit analysis originating with neo-classical economic thought or practices of ecological democracy emerging from concerns for environmental justice. Such mechanisms may be helpful for making practical decisions in the context of pluralism, but they should not be regarded as “justifying” our choices or “getting us off the hook.” Christians should not allow themselves to become numb to scarcity, tragedy, and risk by employing such crutches. Rather, a faithful Christian engagement should admit to the problems of scarcity, tragedy, and risk as they are experienced in the world and revealed by God. Refusing to ground justification in any such instrument or norm constellation would relativize all such competing attempts to reconcile our inordinate ends with our scarce means. To relativize such positions is to deauthorize them even while authorizing their use and endorsing their limited usefulness for other purposes. In other words, a Christian may endorse the limited usefulness of a given mechanism for deciding upon a wise course of action in the face of scarcity, tragedy, and risk, but must not give the impression that the mechanism justifies a given course of action in the face of scarcity, tragedy, and risk.

Second, Christians should act on behalf of others, seeking to bear their bur-dens. For example, if environmental integrity is a costly action but lifts the burdens of others, Christians should be willing to undertake such action.

Third, Christians should make clear the reason that they are free to act without the vain pursuit of self-justification. In his 2007 essay, “A Voice of One’s Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World,” Miroslav Volf argues that to speak in one’s own voice means to speak about and from the “center of one’s faith.”36 In the case of environmental governance, this means to speak of the relevance of the work of Jesus Christ to issues of scarcity, tragedy, and risk. This would allow Christians to engage in discussions about global environmental governance in a distinctly Christian voice.

The voice of Christians in this sphere should be like the voice of the chorus in The Libation Bearers, the second book of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, cited by Bonhoeffer in his Ethics. The trilogy tells the story of Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, King of Argos. In Agamemnon, the first book of the trilogy, Clytemnestra awaits the return of her victorious, pedicidal, and adulterous husband, plotting his murder in order to avenge his human sacrifice of their daughter and to pursue unhindered her adulterous relationship with Agamemnon’s cousin. Upon Agamemnon’s return, Clytemnestra kills him.The second book, The Libation Bearers, recounts Orestes’ struggle to do right by both his mother and his father. Orestes finds himself equally unable to justify either killing his mother or leaving his father’s murder unpunished. Under threat of retribution by Zeus if he does not avenge his father and under threat by his mother’s Erinyes37 —supernatural personifications of the anger of the dead—if he does, Orestes faces the burden of both discernment and action in a context in which right collides with right. As Robert Fagles and W. B. Stanford note,

The gods and the furies clash …, surrounding Orestes with excruciating pressure … Justice is matricide … The peak of personal commitment is the peak of guilt, as well. … [Orestes] is both the avenger and the son, justice and the curse. … He is murderous and moral. … [Orestes] must choose between doing something and doing nothing … To avenge his father, he must kill his mother.38

The chorus—consisting of elderly women taking libations to the grave of the deceased Agamemnon—appeals to the moirai, the goddesses of fate and daughters of Ananke, goddess of necessity, who ensure the relationship between cause and effect, debt and repayment, guilt and atonement, to press Orestes into vengeful matricide. Understanding that Orestes has passed the limits of self-justification, the chorus suggests that only a god may intervene in order to work the tension between right and right into a “song of joy.” Pressed to action by the chorus and braced by its arguments, Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother and her lover, but without a sense of self-justification. The third book, The Eumen-ides, tells the story of Orestes’ flight to Athens, submission to a tribunal led by Athena, and acquittal. Having avenged his father’s murder, Orestes is pursued to Athens by the Erinyes, who, according to Walter Burkert, embody “the act of self-cursing.”40 At the same time, by testifying to the work of Jesus Christ and its relevance to the most basic and intractable needs and problems of society, the church can be “for society” in the way that Christ is for the church.41 By acting to “respect and enhance the integrity of life before God,” by imitating Jesus Christ through vicarious representative action—being for God and for others—in our involvements with environmental governance, and by turning to Jesus Christ alone for justification in the face of scarcity, tragedy, and risk, we can promote the common good.42

Cite this article
Noah J. Toly, “Risk and Responsibility in Global Environmental Governance”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 261-275


  1. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 1992), 19.
  2. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1989), 63.
  3. Cornelius Castoriadis, cited in John B. Thompson, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 23-24
  4. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007). Taylor’s articulation of the social imaginary is similar to Jurgen Habermas’ articulation of the “lifeworld,” an intersubjectively shared context that provides consensus and legitimacy. Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).
  5. In economic analysis of environmental impacts and interventions, discounting is the mechanism by which the costs and benefits of future environmental conditions are assigned a “present value.” The present value of an environmental benefit that will be fully realized in twenty years is considerably lower than the projected future value. The present value is then used for comparison with other possible resource allocation options.
  6. For an interesting challenge to cost-benefit analysis, see Martha Nussbaum, “The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis,” The Journal of Legal Studies 29:2 (June, 2000): 1005-1036. See also Guido Calabresi and Philip Bobbitt, Tragic Choices (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978); Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  7. See, for example, Andrew Dobson, Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). See also Doreen Massey’s World City (Malden, MA: Polity, 2007) for an extension of this logic of responsibility to the world-shaping power of global cities.

  8. Manfred Steger, The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 241-243. See also Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011); Patrick James, ed., Religion, Identity, and Global Governance: Ideas, Evidence, and Practice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).
  9. Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (New York: Penguin, 1983). Malthus preferred to use the term “arithmetic” to represent the style of linear growth applied to food production, and to use the term “geometric” to represent the style of exponential growth applied to population. Malthus’ model of inquiry has proven influential in the two centuries since his original argument. It was Malthus’ work that earned economics the pejorative nickname, “the dismal science.”
  10. Jacques Ellul, “Technique in the Opening Chapters of Genesis,” in Carl Mitcham and Jim Grote, eds., Theology and Technology: Essays in Christian Analysis and Exegesis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984).
  11. While Ellul gives some attention to a change in the means to achieve goals, his inquiry is framed as one concerned with the relationship between ends and means, which he characterizes as shifting from a relationship of freedom to a relationship of necessity.
  12. Kenneth Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1996), 250-251. See also S. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” WTJ 37 (1975): 376-383.

  13. Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 201-202. See also Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Nashville, TN: Word, 1987), 81-82.
  14. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 58.

  15. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 3) (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004).
  16. Ibid.,60.
  17. Kenneth Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1996); italics in original.
  18. Cited in Martin Ruder and Ilse Todt, “Afterword,” in Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 165.
  19. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics(Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6) (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 264-265. Note that Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the essence of Greek tragedy differs from that of Alfred North Whitehead’s—“the solemnity of the remorseless working of things” (Science and the Modern World [New York: Free Press, 1997], 372). For another account of tragic choices and moral dilemmas as an intrinsic feature of human life, see Nussbaum, “The Costs of Tragedy.”

  20. Nussbaum, “The Costs of Tragedy.”
  21. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 284. A more thorough exploration of the implications of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with Aeschylus will be presented below, in the concluding section of the paper. According to Larry Rasmussen, Ethics begins Bonhoeffer’s critical work on “responsibility,” “responsible action,” “responsibility toward history,” and “responsible people” as the “locus for thinking beyond present failures.” If, in Ethics, Bonhoeffer turns to Greek tragedy in an effort to describe the definitive context for responsible action, this is a significant move. See Larry Rasmussen, “The Ethics of Responsible Action,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 207. In the case of the citation from The Libation Bearers, Bonhoeffer and contemporary English translators use the word “right” to translate the Greek word dikē. Notably, Thomas Rosenmeyer argues that “Aeschylus’ Dikē… designates the state of normalcy, and the spirit or the institutions required to maintain or restore that normalcy. Dikē is a social metaphor for the whole, and for the health of that whole.” See Thomas Rosenmeyer, The Art of Aeschylus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 293. Rosenmeyer also argues that the verb sumballo, one with a semantic range similar to the English word “encounter,” should be understood in a cooperative way—“right comes together to cooperate with right” or “right joins with right”—rather than a hostile way—“right clashes with right” or “right collides with right.” Robert Fagles, however, chooses to translate sumballo as “clash.” See Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides (New York: Penguin, 1979). This is consistent with the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon translation, which refers to Aeschylus’ use when noting the meaning “come to blows” under a heading of hostile encounters. See*%29/arei&d=Perseus:text:1999.01.0007:card=461&i=1#lexicon. A lengthy excursus on these lines in The Libation Bearers can be found in Robert Fagles and W. B. Stanford’s “A Reading of the Oresteia,” which serves as an introduction to Aeschylus, The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Liba-tion Bearers; The Eumenides (New York: Penguin Books, 1979). Understanding Bonhoeffer’s citation of Aeschylus illuminates other aspects of Bonhoeffer’s argument and, in this case, aids in understanding concepts of justification and responsible action while suggesting an approach to witness or testimony (this will be explored at length in the conclusion).

  22. David E. Klemm and William Schweiker, Religion and the Human Future: An Essay on Theological Humanism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 82. See also William Schweiker, Re-sponsibility and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Schweiker, Dust that Breathes: Christian Faith and the New Humanisms (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004).
  23. Klemm and Schweiker, Religion and the Human Future, 82-83.
  24. While the relationship between Stellvertretung and responsible action is most clearly worked out in Ethics, it has its origins in Bonhoeffer’s earliest work, Sanctorum Communio
  25. Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr., “Bonhoeffer’s Literary Legacy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  26. Clifford Green, “Human Sociality and Christian Community,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 113-32.
  27. Green, “Human Sociality and Christian Community,” 128.
  28. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 8)(Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), 42.
  29. Ibid., 513.
  30. Green, “Human Sociality and Christian Community.”
  31. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 264-265; italics in original.
  32. Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, 146.
  33. This same image of Christ at the center is the controlling image of Bonhoeffer’s lectures on Christology. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932-1933 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 12), (Minneapolis, MN: 2009), 299-360.
  34. Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 264.
  35. In this way, Bonhoeffer is true to his Lutheran roots. As Luther wrote: “If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”
  36. Miroslav Volf, “A Voice of One’s Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World,” in Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism, ed. Thomas Banchoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 277-279. See also Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011).
  37. In Roman literature, the Erinyes are called “Furies” or “Dirae.”
  38. Robert Fagles and W. B. Stanford, “A Reading of the Oresteia.”
  39. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 198.[/efn-note] Despite doing right by his father and Zeus, Orestes incurred a curse and its consequences for the murder of his mother. Upon arriving in Athens and appealing to Athena, Orestes submits to a twelve-member tribunal—populated by the goddess and eleven Athenians—which splits its vote evenly in judging his case, thus acquitting him without a declaration of innocence. In a twist, it is not Orestes who is declared good, but the Erinyes, themselves, who agree to desist in their pursuit of Orestes, whose names are changed to the Eumenides—the gracious ones or well-doing ones—and to whom the Athenians agree to give praise.

    In Aeschylus’ play, the libation bearers that form the chorus both urge re-sponsible action and witness to the fact that Orestes will find no opportunity for self-justification, but that only a god can justify. It is the role of the libation bear-ers, the chorus, that we are called to play. While our imitation of Christ consists of vicarious responsible action in a tragic world, our faith in Christ consists in complete dependence upon his responsible action and the news of what God has done, is doing, and will do through that work. God has re-established the center in the person and through the work of Jesus Christ. He promises a future in which the whole of creation is once and for all reoriented toward that center. Because he has, we can hope for a time when right does not collide with right and good with good. In the face of scarcity, tragedy, and risk, when we are reminded of Orestes’ cry, “Now force clash with force—right with right!” we can serve as the chorus, urging the world to “respect and enhance the integrity of life before God,” despite the apparent tragedy of life’s intractable disintegration, and reminding all that “still some god, if he desires, may work our strains into a song of joy.” We can testify that this work of new life for a creation subject to scarcity, tragedy, and risk is accomplished through Jesus’ vicarious representative action, and that it is not through our own vain pursuit of self-justification that we shall inherit the earth.

    Orienting ourselves toward God and others can, as Kristine Culp notes, turn the vulnerability of creation toward glory.39
    Kristine Culp, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

  40. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsibility of the Church for Society and Other Essays, ed. Kristine Culp (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
  41. The author would like to thank Daniel Treier and Jeffrey Barbeau for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript.

Noah J. Toly

Wheaton College
Dr. Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics and International Relations, Director of the Center of Urban Relations, and Director of the Aequitas Program at Wheaton College.