Christians seeking to be good stewards of God’s creation sometimes find themselves torn. The environmentalist movement tells them that the most destructive force ever unleashed upon Mother Nature is rapacious “neoliberal” capitalism, which they also know has has been the greatest producer of wealth in history. If this teaching, which is increasingly common among church leaders, is true, how should a person of faith view free markets?
Thankfully, many of the environmental concerns about free trade are misguided, according to a new essay by a distinguished British professor of finance in Religion & Liberty Transatlantic. Philip Booth – a professor of finance, public policy, and ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham (the UK’s largest Catholic university), as well as a senior academic fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs – writes specifically about whether Brexit, and post-Brexit free trade policies, will harm the environment. He notes that, while most Green Party members support the European Union, EU policies have manifestly hurt the environment:
It is often suggested that the Common Agricultural Policy, an important protectionist measure that supports EU farmers, encourages farming practices that damage the environment, though its explicit objectives are designed to promote sustainability. And although there have been improvements in recent years, the first 20 years of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was a disaster for fish stocks. An indication of the degree of waste is given by the fact that, in 2011, in some EU fisheries, as much as 70 per cent of caught fish were discarded because of the perverse incentives of the quota system.
Brexit will allow the UK to drop the CAP’s heavy, 18 percent tariffs on imported food – which can help reduce carbon emissions. A 2008 study found that the production phase of food “contributes 83% of the average American household’s yearly footprint for food consumption.” Transporting food from overseas “represents only 11% of life-cycle Greenhouse gas emissions, and final delivery from producer to retail contributes only 4%.”
Ending the economically inefficient policy of raising crops in less-than-hospitable areas – as EU agricultural policy encourages, even subsidizes – greatly reduces our carbon footprint, Booth writes:
The environmental resources that are necessary to grow crops and raise animals in parts of the world which do not have intrinsically suitable conditions can be enormous. Furthermore, shipping raw materials and then processing in another country can be much more expensive than processing in the country where the raw material is grown – just think of the air miles involved when somebody imports 30 oranges to make his own fruit juice at home, as compared with importing a compact and conveniently cube-shaped carton of processed juice.
The scholarship that Booth brings to this essay will be familiar to many Acton readers and supporters. Booth spoke at the Acton Institute’s “Crisis of Liberty in the West” conference in London last December. More recently, he taught about free trade, globalization, and government economic interventionism at Acton University. His peerless mind and insightful writing are known throughout Europe.
In his Religion & Liberty Transatlantic essay, he argues persuasively that, far from harming the earth, a regimen of free markets, limited government, and personal responsibility is the greatest tool people of faith can employ to responsibly care for God’s handiwork:
We cannot say for sure that Brexit followed by freer trade will lead to better stewardship of the environment. However, we can say that many of the fears that are raised are simply myths. And, certainly, the surest way to encourage people to be good stewards of creation is to have a free economy combined with good institutional mechanisms for ensuring that people take responsibility for the environmental resources they consume. Free trade and private property are the linchpins of such a system.
You can read his full essay here.
(Photo credit: DeiselDemon. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)
A fair and honest debate about religious responses to environmental issues should always distinguish theological principles from prudential judgments.nt.