Category: Environmental Stewardship

Well, maybe not you personally. But in his speech to the Texas Academy of Science in March, University of Texas Professor Eric Pianka did announce his hope that a mutated Ebola virus would wipe out ninety percent of the human population–soon.

His motives are, of course, the essence of nobility. We’ve bred like rabbits, you see, and drastic measures are needed to restore the balance.

Amateur scientist Forrest Mims broke the story in his column for The Amateur Scientist. (Full disclosure: Mims is a friend.) Drudge picked up the story over the weekend, so it’s now grown legs. I expect Pianka will soon receive one of those ritual denunciations that certain public university professors receive when their more philosophically consistent conclusions leak out. What is especially troubling, however, is not that some eccentric scientist said something crazy. What is troubling is that he received a standing ovation from hundreds of members of the Texas Academy of Science, who were in attendance.

This is no April Fools’ Joke. In fact, Bianka already has at least one new convert.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 27, 2006

Kofi Akosah in Accra, Ghana, writes in the latest Campaign for Fighting Diseases newsletter about the prospects for the use of DDT in fighting malaria in his home country. He first describes the devastation that the disease wreaks: “More than 17 million of Ghana’s 20 million people are infected by malaria every year, costing the nation a colossal 850 million cedis (US$94 million) for treatment alone.”

He continues, “Those infected by malaria are in and out of hospital and unable to work. Malaria takes an especially heavy toll on farmers. Swarms of mosquitoes make it impossible for farmers and their families to sleep indoors especially, during the rainy seasons when they are forced to sleep outdoors around bonfires.”

Akosah blames in large part the regulations and methods used by the World Health Organization, which he says have “advocated the use of insecticide-treated bednets in vector control, almost to the exclusion of other proven measures.” One such measure that the WHO has decided to reintroduce in limited use, is “Indoor Residual Spraying, which involves spraying the interior walls of dwellings with a small amount of DDT. This acts as an irritant to the mosquitoes, which prevents them from coming in the house in the first place. Those that do make it inside are quickly repelled outside.”

One of the reasons that DDT had been excluded from WHO treatments against malaria was the havoc that the use of the chemical caused nearly fifty years ago. As Chuck Colson writes, the WHO “sprayed the people’s thatch-roofed huts with DDT—and set in motion a life-and-death illustration of the importance of respecting the natural order.”

He says that the unintended consequences of the application of DDT to the huts followed after the mosquitos had been killed: “The pesticide killed the mosquitoes, but it also killed a parasitic wasp that kept thatch-eating caterpillars under control. The result? People’s roofs began caving in.”

“And then things really got bad,” Colson continues. “The local geckos feasted on the toxic mosquitoes—and got sick. Cats gorged on sick geckos—and dropped dead. And then, with no cats, the rats began running wild, threatening the people with deadly bubonic plague.” All this points to the dangers of the unintended consequences of any policy initiative, but especially one that involves the alteration of the natural environment.

The way to deal with the reality Colson describes, however, is not necessarily to abandon the use of DDT altogether, but to learn from the mistakes of the past. This is why current advocates of the use of DDT emphasize that it is indoor spraying that is the legitimate use of the chemical.

The statement of the Kill Malarial Mosquitos NOW! coalition (PDF) states vehemently that it is in favor “only for indoor residual spraying (which results in zero-to-negligible external environmental residue) – and not for aerial or any other form of outdoor application.”

For more on the coalition, see this entry from the PowerBlog, “Add DDT to the Malaria-Fighting Arsenal.”

While there is a general acceptance of the role of private property for social order and economic prosperity, the challenges to private property have not ended. The eminent domain issue is one threat; another comes from environmentalist groups such as the Foundation for Deep Ecology and others who see humans as a drain on the earth and nature. Some environmentalists advocate the consolidation of land to be put under federal control and promote stringent land usage restrictions that would prevent a landowner using his property fruitfully.

Their argument is nothing new: individuals left to themselves will not be as effective as central planners in decided the best way to allocate and protect resources, etc. etc—they are merely variants of the Marxian arguments used by economic central planners.

Despite the rhetoric, common ownership of land and resources has not been an effective means of addressing problems. It failed under applied socialism, and has not led to environmental protection and stewardship as environmentalists hope. Private property ownership creates incentives for people to use land wisely and in a sustainable manner. John Stossel gives an excellent illustrations of the importance of incentives and the private ownwership including privatizing elephant ownership in Africa.

St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of property and human incentives in the 13th century. He argued it is lawful to own property for three reasons:

First, because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.

Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone has to look after one thing indeterminately.

Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to observed that quarrels arise more frequently where ther is no division of the things possessed.

Notice the humanist vision—the appreciation for the individual, an understanding of human nature, a respect for the capabilities of individuals to make decisions and control their own sphere. Also notice point number three. Compare this to the unspeakable violence perpetrated by socialist government leaders on their own citizens because they were not “content” with operating in their own sphere.

It is unfortunate Marx and the socialists were not steeped in the thought of St. Thomas early on. Who knows, it could have avoided some of the pain and suffering imposed by socialist governments on their own people. But the reality of Marxism has become clear. As Pope Benedict put it in his new encyclical Deus Caritas Est

Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.

The leftwing environmentalists are part of a long line of central planners. They want to the control of property in the hand of government bureaucrats and planners, i.e., themselves. But planners are always less effective than those closer to the problem, because no matter how much they know, or think they know, they’ll never has as much knowledge as those individuals on the ground close to the situation. This is the principle of subsidiarity—rooted in Aquinas’ defense of private property. Wisdom of the past as applicable today as it was then.

The CrunchyCon blog at NRO is currently discussing the issue of factory farming, which is apparently covered and described in some detail in Dreher’s book (my copy currently is on order, having not been privy to the “crunchy con”versation previously).

A reader accuses Dreher of being in favor of big-government, because “he thinks we ought to ‘ban or at least seriously reform’ factory farming.” Caleb Stegall responds that he, at least, is not a big-government crunchy con, and that this was made clear “early on.” He issues a somewhat strange rejoinder a bit later.

But I think there’s something to the claim. It is one thing to argue that factory farming of the type Dreher describes is immoral, which as Frederica Mathews-Green relates involves “endless rows of pigs in cages too small for them either to stand or lie down; limbs protruding into adjoining cages get wounded and broken. But this damage is ignored, because it won’t affect the production of meat. The pig only has to cling to life long enough to be worth slaughtering.”

It’s quite another to argue that government should take a primary or definitive role in banning such immoral activity. As Aquinas notes, this calls for wisdom.

The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

As I summarize, “In cases where the law would cause greater evil to be done, it is not prudent to criminalize the behavior.” Once the moral permissibility or impermissibility of an act has been settled upon, it does not settle the question of government’s responsibility.

It may well be that factory farming is disgusting and morally repulsive, but it also may be that the way to deal with it is not through government prohibition but through market mechanisms, i.e. morally-informed consumer choice. There is an underlying current that I sometimes detect in the depiction of crunchy conservatism that seems to confuse consumerism and materialism with capitalism, and accordingly ignores non-governmental market-based solutions to moral issues.

. . . Or so claims Robert Newman in this article in The Guardian from February 2. It makes a great subject for a game of “Find-the-Fallacy.” Newman’s breezy inferences are reminiscent of The Communist Manifesto, edited to conform to trendy deep ecology. Here’s my favorite line: “Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet.” Well, I guess somebody has to shoot fish in a barrel: He’s obviously ignoring the very possibility that wealth is created, and apparently forgetting that the Earth isn’t an isolated planet in the void of space.

It might be tempting to dismiss articles like this. But Marxism mixed with deep ecology, unfortunately, leads to some strange and ominous claims, like this one: “To get from here to there we must talk about climate chaos in terms of what needs to be done for the survival of the species rather than where the debate is at now or what people are likely to countenance tomorrow morning.” What needs to be done for the survival of the species regardless of what people are willing to accept? This looks to me like a thinly veiled justification for all sorts of atrocities. Let’s hope Mr. Newman never finds himself in the position to impose his misanthropic vision on the rest of us.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 3, 2006

In the latest issue of Science & Spirit magazine, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg is interviewed about the ethical aspects of the genetic engineering of food. In “God and the New Foodstuffs,” author Trey Popp writes about the opposition to such endeavors:

Some scientists and environmentalists fear GM crops may have unforeseen consequences. Many organic and small-scale farmers see the new crops as an economic threat; there have been cases in which GM corn has contaminated nearby fields, ruining the market value of neighboring crops. Some social justice activists assert that a precious few wealthy companies reap the benefits of GM crops at the expense of farmers and consumers.

But Gregg offers a counter to the opposition from a variety of perspectives. “There’s an imperative in Christianity in particular, but also in Judaism and Islam, of helping the poor and dealing with questions about poverty and hunger. Hunger is something that afflicts the developing world in particular. Genetically modified food has the potential to radically transform that situation,” says Gregg.

I have written a theological/biblical exposition of the case for genetically modifying plant life with respect to crop yields, nutrition supplementation, and other aspects of improvement in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” My basic point is that the primary created purpose for plantlife was that of providing sustenance for beings with the breath of life. Having a primarily instrumental created purpose, therefore, I’m in agreement with Gregg that the use and “alteration” of plants on a genetic level can be a proper fulfillment of stewardship mandate.

What isn’t always made quite so clear in the article is the biblical distinction between plants on the one hand and beings with the “breath of life” (animals and humans) on the other. So, for example, Calvin DeWitt, president of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, opposes GM foods on the basis of his interpretation of the flood narrative. “There is not much concern for individuals when Noah is asked to put animals on the ark two by two. The emphasis is on lineage. And although, at the time that was written, there wasn’t the terminology to say that these are genetic lineages, they in fact are, of course. These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are…gifts to the whole of creation,” he says.

But the relevance of his observation is not immediately apparent. The parts of the flood narrative that DeWitt is talking about concern animal life, not plant life (see my post here about ways in which the Noahic covenant is misinterpreted and applied to environmental issues).

I think there it is much tougher to make a theological case for the genetic modification of animals than it is for GM crops. For more on the genetic modification of animals, especially with regard to the creation of human-animal chimeras, see my forthcoming article in the premier issue of Salvo magazine.

In yesterday’s Acton Commentary, I argued that the biblical foundation for the concepts of stewardship and economics should lead us to see them as united. In this sense I wrote, “Economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.” I also defined economics as “the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end” and said that the discipline “helps us rightly order our stewardship.”

Within the context of environmental stewardship in particular, I concluded that economics should play a key role in defining public policy. This is becoming a more pressing issue as a number of evangelical and religious leaders around the world are endorsing specific policy initiatives to combat global warming.

Following the formation of the Evangelical Climate Initiative by a number of prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, general secretary of the World Council of Churches Rev. Samuel Kobia said yesterday, “Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger” He said this while emphasizing that all religious people should “speak with one voice” about climate change.

My brief commentary outlined some reasons why Christians may have differing opinions on this point. And Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint feature, “Evangelical Activism,” details some of the other aspects of the debate.

“Now, we all have a stewardship responsibility for God’s creation, but we also have responsibility for God’s creatures. Balancing those interests requires prudence,” he writes. On issues of prudential wisdom, Christians on both sides of a debate may well have good reasons to disagree. Check out his commentary for links to a number of pertinent resources.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, February 14, 2006

George H. Taylor, the State Climatologist for Oregon, writes at TCS Daily, “A Consensus About Consensus.” The article is worth reading. It shows that scientific consensus is often overrated, both in terms of its existence and in terms of its relevance.

With resepct to global warming, Taylor looks at some of the claims for scientific consensus, and states, “But even if there actually were a consensus on this issue, it may very well be wrong.” This simply means that the majority can often be terribly wrong.

It is noteworthy that what holds true for consensus in the hard sciences also holds true for efforts in other fields. So, while Christians should take seriously the work of the Copenhagen Consensus, for example, there should not simply be an uncritical move from consensus to specific policy action. Christians are called to critically engage the efforts of science and economics, and the failure to do this on either count is an abdication of responsibility.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, February 10, 2006

There’s something like a question of theodicy implicitly wrapped up in the debate about global warming among Christians. It goes something like this:

Why did God create oil?

One answer is that the burning of fossil fuels is simply a divine trap for unwitting and greedy human beings, who would stop at nothing to rape the earth. Another answer is that there is some legitimate created purpose for fossil fuels.

I’m inclined to think the latter, for a number of reasons. The first answer strikes me akin to the claim that God created the earth to look old…it just doesn’t seem like something God would do. It would cast doubt on the veracity of God, in whom there is nothing false. After all, I don’t recall the covenant with Adam having anything to do with burning fossil fuels.

One possible argument in favor of the first view is that God has created the world in such a way that wrong actions tend to bear negative consequences. The wisdom literature of the Bible attests to this natural order, in which evil bears its own fruit of destruction. But this would mean that fossil fuels were created only with the fallen state of human beings in view, as a check or consequence on human sinfulness (see the corollary at the end).

It seems much more tenable to me to assert that oil was created by God as a natural resource for human beings to use wisely and to steward well in the culturing of the world. It would be much more difficult to “fill the earth and subdue it” if we didn’t have cars and planes and ships to carry us about.

If this is the case, then oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products exist to be used by human beings, but just like any other thing, are to be used responsibly. For example, we can use or misuse food: we can gorge ourselves on it (gluttony), we can waste it, we can hoard it, or we can eat and grow and share food appropriately. Oil might well be a tool like any other, that can be used for good or ill.

Supposing that one of the inevitable effects of the human consumption of oil (speaking here only about engine combustion and not other uses of fossil fuels, e.g. to make plastics) is carbon dioxide emission which inevitably raises global temperatures and adversely effects global climate, what then is our answer to the question? Is there any legitimate use for oil left if this is true? Is oil the forbidden fruit of the twentieth century?

Or perhaps petroleum products are here as a transitional stage in human development, much like societies based on wood-burning sources of energy progressed into the usage of fossil fuels. In this case, petroleum products would have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy, which would raise the standard of living and economic situation of the societies to the point where technological research would find even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.

I don’t think anyone is claiming that oil is going to be the primary source of fuel forever. It’s just the best we have right now. And most of the world, China, for example, is heading into the stage of development where use of fossil fuels is necessary and are not at the point of progressing beyond it.

A corollary: the issue of the creation of fossil fuels through animal death may or may not have an impact here. It’s an open question to me whether animal death existed before the Fall. Certainly some kind of death (plant) undoubtedly occurred, and some form of animal death (bacteria) probably existed as well. If oil is only the consequence of animal death which is itself the product of the Fall, perhaps the well is tainted, so to speak. You might be able to argue conversely, however, that this is an example of God bringing good from evil, so the origin of fossil fuels from animal fossils doesn’t seem to be definitive.

A few others have addressed this issue in previous posts, but I wanted to jump in with my two cents.

Yesterday’s New York Times notes that a group of evangelical leaders have entered the debate over climate change:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

“For most of us, until recently this has not been treated as a pressing issue or major priority,” the statement said. “Indeed, many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians. But now we have seen and heard enough.”

Later in the article, Rev. Ted Haggard – speaking for himself and not in his capacity as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, which is not participating in this effort – states that “there is no doubt about it in my mind that climate change is happening, and there is no doubt about it that it would be wise for us to stop doing the foolish things we’re doing that could potentially be causing this. In my mind there is no downside to being cautious.” Well, no downside except nearly destroying the global economy in an effort to reverse a process that may or may not be caused by man in the first place. (Jay Richards sums up the downside nicely in this post.)

One wonders whether Rev. Haggard and the others behind this declaration have been informed of the recent discovery that plants release vast amounts of greenhouse gasses. Or that one of the most famous pieces of supporting evidence for the global warming hypothesis – the “hockey stick” graph that purports to show a sudden rise in global temperatures at the beginning of the 20th century after centuries of relative stability – has been found to be riddled with serious errors. Or that global warming is not just restricted to Earth, but also seems to be occurring on other planets in the Solar System, which may cause one to think that global warming on Earth might just have something to do with… the Sun.

Since the dawn of time, man has longed to destroy the sun…

The group will be taking their message into the media via a television campaign:

The television spot links images of drought, starvation and Hurricane Katrina to global warming. In it, the Rev. Joel Hunter, pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, Fla., says: “As Christians, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to love our neighbors and to be stewards of God’s creation. The good news is that with God’s help, we can stop global warming, for our kids, our world and for the Lord.”

That would all be well and good if we knew for sure that humans were the cause of global warming. But it’s clear that we don’t know that for sure. (And if warming is indeed caused by the Sun, we’re completely dependent on God for a solution unless we embark on a Monty Burns style quest to block the Sun’s energy from reaching Earth.) In their editorial on the “hockey stick,” the Wall Street Journal sounded a note of caution that we would all do well to heed:

But the important point is this: The world is being lobbied to place a huge economic bet–as much as $150 billion a year–on the notion that man-made global warming is real. Businesses are gearing up, at considerable cost, to deal with a new regulatory environment; complex carbon-trading schemes are in the making. Shouldn’t everyone look very carefully, and honestly, at the science before we jump off this particular cliff?