Category: Environmental Stewardship

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Jay Richards looks at the ingrained tendency of many environmentalists to view man’s place in nature as fundamentally destructive. For people of faith, this is simply bad theology. Jay examines this anthropological error, and highlights the work of the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, a new coalition that is working to deepen religious reflection on environmental questions.

Environmental policies founded on faulty fundamentals can lead to disastrous consequences, as Jay points out.

Every environmental policy implemented by government authority, for instance, stems from someone’s views about the nature of man and man’s place in nature. If those views are anti-human, the policy probably will be anti-human as well. Consider the ban on DDT in the 1970s. The ban, which in hindsight we know was misguided, has resulted in the deaths of more than a million people a year. The vast majority of these deaths have been among the poor in developing countries.

Read the full text of “God and Man in the Environmental Debate” here.

The ISA has also published a new paper on environmental stewardship that includes the perspectives of science, ethics and theology. This paper should be required reading for people of faith who are concerned about the environment.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 9, 2005

A long oral and written tradition about the mixing of species has been noted on this blog before, specifically with regard to Josephus. I just ran across this tidbit in Luther that I though I would share, which points to a continuation of a tradition of this sort running down through the Reformation.

Luther is commenting on the Old Testament character of Anah, and debating whether we might consdier Anah to have committed incest. He writes:

We could say that Anah also slept with his mother and that from this incest Oholibamah was born and many similar things. But nothing is to be imagined in Holy Scripture without clear testimonies of the Word. Below (v. 24) we shall hear that Anah was a notorious rascal and the author of an abominable act of copulation, namely, of asses with horses. But if he had no respect for the order and sight of God and nature but dared to mingle animals of a different genus, which is contrary to nature and the ordinance of God in the creation and concerning which Holy Scripture says in Gen. 1:25: “God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind,” it could also come to pass that he slept with his mother.

Here we can see Luther’s logic: if Anah were the type of person to so flagrantly violate the creation order and engage in that “which is contrary to nature” and “an abominable act,” the mixing of animals across genus, he is clearly the type of person who would commit incest iwth his own mother. I would say that’s a rather striking indictment of such primitive genetic engineering.

Luther actually thinks that we should not attribute the crime of incest to Anah, but engages in this thought experiment to show us one way of arguing that Anah could have. The basis for this commentary is a genealogical passage, specifically Genesis 36:18, which could lead one to believe that Anah’s daughter was conceived by his own mother. Luther rejects this interpretation, attributing it to Jewish rabbinical tradition, but interestingly enough at the same time affirms an interpretive tradition regarding Genesis 1:25 and the ordering of the animal species.

Acton Senior Fellow Marvin Olasky in a column today on TownHall.com looks at the “important new coalition” called Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now that is working to bring the banned pesticide DDT back into battle against malaria. The disease, he writes, kills an estimated 1 million people annually — 90 percent of them Africans.

The United States has been contributing about $200 million per year to Africa’s war on malaria. Four months ago, President Bush promised an additional $1.2 billion over five years in U.S. anti-malaria funding. But last week, a coalition of 100 doctors, scientists and activists said that anti-malaria funds up to now have been misspent.

The KMMN coalition — which includes eminent malaria experts and public health specialists, the former U.S. Navy surgeon general, the national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, a co-founder of Greenpeace, the president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons — says most of the annual $200 million goes to advising African governments on how to combat malaria, not on actual combat.

The KMMN coalition says that none of that money goes for the most effective weapon: the insecticide DDT, which eradicated malaria in Europe and the United States more than half a century ago, but was banned in the United States in 1972 because of its supposed environmental effects. Soon, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Agency for International Development cut out DDT from its programs.

Read the “Kill Malarial Mosquitoes Now!” declaration and add your name to the growing list of endorsers by emailing “info [at] acton [dot] org” with your name, degrees, and organizational affiliation. Acton will forward your name to the Africa Fighting Malaria advocacy group.

Steven Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, argues that “there is no economical substitute for DDT when it comes to malaria in poorer regions of the world.”

When DDT is available, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Indoor spraying with DDT, for example, reduced malaria cases and deaths by nearly 75 percent in Zambia over a two-year period and by 80 percent in South Africa in just one year. DDT works like nothing else – there’s simply no doubt about it.

For these reasons, we ought to support a bill in Congress (currently it’s known as the Senate version of H.R. 3057) that would reform the U.S. Agency for International Development so that insecticides like DDT could be added to the arsenal for fighting malaria. President Bush announced in July that U.S. taxpayers would spend $1.2 billion for world malaria control over the next five years.

Rather than wasting that money on ineffective bed nets and anti-malaria drugs – and then repeating such futility in another five years – let’s spend it on DDT and get the job done now.

Spurred on by the specter of miraculous cures to horrible diseases, Irving Weissman, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, is working on experiments combining human brains and mice. The Stanford Daily reports that Dr. Weissman “has worked with the transfer of human neurons to the brains of mice for several years now. He has already bred mice whose brains are composed of 1 percent human neurons, finding that transplanted human brain cells could successfully connect to a mouse brain.” Such experiements yield what are known as “chimeras,” the creation of organisms composed of material from multiple species.

But what a mere 1% can’t tell you, Dr. Weissman bets the other 99% will. Dr. Weissman “wants to initiate a new experiment by transplanting human brain-stem cells to an inbred strain of mice whose natural brain cells die before the mice’s birth. Human brain cells would then replace the mice’s own, creating a breed of mice whose brains are composed entirely of human neurons.”

This kind of transplantation seems to be a rather different from other kinds of brain transplantation that has been discussed before, since the brain-stem cells would develop once they had been implanted in the mice. With respect to the possibility of the transplant of a completely developed brain, Dr. Ben Carson, who has been director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions for over 20 years and is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, says, “As a brain surgeon, let me say we don’t have to worry about transplanting human brains into other animals because we’re already dealing with billions and billions of neurons and hundreds of billions of interconnections, and it’s not going to happen.”

But even this supposedly less complex kind of transplant proposed by Dr. Weissman has been acknowledged by him that it “may not even work at all.” For the time being, Dr. Weissman’s proposals are on hold until a clear scientific consensus is reached on the ethical dimensions of the research.

Recent testimony given by members of the President’s Council on Bioethics attests to the diversity of opinion on these issues. Dr. William Hurlbut, himself a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University and who was not quoted in the Stanford Daily article, says:

It is possible using certain technologies to transplant whole modules of developing portions of the embryo from one species to another. This has been done by Le Dourian and Balabon, where they actually transplanted a portion of the developing brain, early neurologic system at that stage, and got the crowing capacities of a quail put into a chick.

And so he actually transplanted a unit of behavior. Just to draw that a little farther, I think we should also be careful to not do that with elements of human form. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of cognition that we’re concerned about. The categories of our world, the conceptual categories that organize our world provide an intelligible world to us. These are not to be taken lightly.

The way we understand our world is by the separations within the world. For very serious purposes we might mix those, but I think we should be careful not just to see that as a matter of inner psychological or cognitive functions, but we need to preserve the human form, the dignity of the human form.

Diana J. Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland, discusses a study on the subject and argues that “transplanting human neural stem cells into a mouse no more transforms the mouse than transplanting a pig heart valve into a person transforms the person. All of the rules that the authors recommend seems to me sensible, and although they don’t acknowledge it, those rules are based on preserving species integrity. Transfer the smallest number of cells necessary; use dissociated human stem cells rather than larger tissue transplants; and select host animals carefully, preferring distant relations over our nearer primate cousins.”

When Dr. Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, professor of metaphysics and moral philosophy at Georgetown University, discusses the possibility, he says:

Let me start with the most extreme and highly unlikely case. Suppose human neurological stem cells are transplanted into a primate so that the animal acquired some key human features. It seems to me that this would be morally troublesome in spite of the often heard argument that there’s nothing wrong with enhancing the capabilities of an animal.

In my opinion, this procedure should be viewed the other way around. It is not that an animal is thereby enhanced, but rather that what is essentially human is really debased. It is closer to the production of a human being in the wrong body.

And I often imagine what it would be like to wake up one day only to realize that I have the body of a chimpanzee. Luckily, we’re told that this is virtually impossible because the human body as we know it seems to be absolutely necessary for the development of the human mind, and I’m thinking about size of the brain, the cranial space, et cetera.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

I can’t vouch for the validity of any of the claims made in this new book from Laissez-faire Books, but I confess its publicity material piqued my interest. It argues that inordinate fear of radiation leads to unnecessary and even counterproductive energy policy. As one none-too-keen on radiation in general (stand away from that microwave!), I’m nontheless intrigued by this book’s argument.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Friday, October 14, 2005

An article appeared in Wired News today on the unintended consequences of wind farms. One of these consequences — among many others, I’m sure — is “an astronomical level of bird kills.”

Thousands of aging turbines stud the brown rolling hills of the Altamont Pass on I-580 east of San Francisco Bay, a testament to one of the nation’s oldest and best-known experiments in green energy.

Next month, hundreds of those blades will spin to a stop, in what appears to be a wind-energy first: Facing legal threats from environmentalists, the operators of the Altamont wind farm have agreed to shut down half of their windmills for two months starting Nov. 1; in January, they will be restarted and the other half will be shut down for two months.

Though the Altamont Pass is known for its strong winds, it also lies on an important bird-migration route, and its grass-covered hills provide food for several types of raptors. “It’s the worst possible place to put a wind farm,” said Jeff Miller, a wildlife advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s responsible for an astronomical level of bird kills.”

In July, Anthony Bradley wrote a piece for Acton News and Commentary titled “The Answer is (not) Blowing in the Wind,” which touched on this point. While wind farms can provide a somewhat less polluting energy source, environmentalists now desire that they be placed in areas with the least biological and ecological impact. Good luck. Nature is all around us and it will never be possible to generate energy without impacting the environment. This has been true since cavemen discovered fire. And while the levels of impact vary (I think we can all agree that destroying the ecosystem of a river by dumping heated water from a powerplant is worse than some dead birds), there will always be an impact.

All of this (various examples from the Wired article included environmental impacts on sheep, bats, birds, marine animals, …) begs the question: If we’re going to have to shut down wind farms every other month to protect the environment, is it wasteful stewardship? While wind power may provide some (and by some, I mean very little) alternative energy, if it’s not a consistent source, shouldn’t we be investing in more efficient means of energy production rather than wasting time and space on wind power?

As a side note – another article in Wired suggests that nuclear power (cleaner and more cost effective than coal) can pave the way to efficient and economically driven power generation for the United States.

The current situation in New Orleans can be seen in part as a result of the circumstances and context of the city’s founding in 1718. According to one report, the French settled on the site for New Orleans in response to “the need to control the Mississippi River and its tributaries.” But in order for this to happen, the French “would need to control the mouth of the river in the delta at the Gulf of Mexico. The problem with this site was the lack of high ground. The area of the delta was, and is, primarily swamps, marshes, and water. The site chosen for the city of New Orleans was far from ideal but was strategically necessary.”

The problem wasn’t so much with the city as it was originally settled, but rather with the expansion to its modern-day size: “New Orleans is situated on the northern bank of a great curve in the Mississippi River, with natural levees averaging ten to fifteen feet above sea level and only one to two miles in depth. The levees gradually drop off into the swamplands behind. While the oldest parts of the city rest on these levees, the greater part of the modern city rests at or below sea level and is subject to flooding. At this time, the city was the size of what is now known as the Vieux Carré, or French Quarter.”

So after the French colonization of New Orleans, the city grew and populated areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Today the Dutch, a former colonial power in their own right, have some ideas about amphibious houses that might serve those who resettle in New Orleans well. These amphibious houses have a “hollow foundation” that “works in the same way as the hull of a ship, buoying the structure up above water. To prevent the swimming houses from floating away, they slide up two broad steel posts – and as the water level sinks, so they sink back down again.”

The Dutch have primarily built these houses in response to fears about rising water levels due to global warming. Dick van Gooswilligen from the Dura Vermeer construction company said during a journalistic tour of the homes: “As global warming causes the sea level to rise, this is the solution. Housing of this type is the future for the delta regions of the world, the ones which face the greatest danger.”

Of course a city under sea level doesn’t need increased water levels to face great danger. That’s why “hordes of hydraulic engineers from Louisiana or Texas are making the pilgrimage to the North Sea coastline to look at the fortifications. The inland river dykes are also considered exemplary models.”

It seems to me that the founding of New Orleans and the contemporary effects of building on a site that is “far from ideal” would be an interesting topic for a paper at the “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and the Environment” conference scheduled for next year at at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. After all, “Today, no-one would dispute that colonialism has made a profound impact on the environment in former colonial areas, an impact which lives on in the post-colonial era, and affects the lives of millions of people.”

The BBC reports today a great illustration of human creativity and the intersection of technology and subsidiarity. MIT has set up what they called Fab Labs (Fabrication Labs) in what many might consider the least likely places for technological invention. These Labs consist of basic tools and software than enable people in sometimes remote and rural locations to invent and fabricate the technology they need in their daily work. MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld:

In a world of Fab Labs, you can think about the other five and a half billion brains on the planet not just as potential consumers, but as creators, as inventors. Creation itself can become much more distributed, and you can bring not information technology, but IT development to the masses. You can close what you might think of as a fabrication divide.

Can you hear me now? Gooood.

These Fabs Labs are being used in small communites around the world to create a myriad of practical tools such as a Fu-Fu pounder in Ghana (fu-fu is a dish in Ghana…read the article), a tester for bad milk in India, and a sheep tracker north of the Arctic circle. MIT set up one of these Fab Labs in the barn of sheep farmer Haakon Karlsen. He used the parts and software in the Lab to create a custom GPS sheep tracking device out of cell phones. The trackers help him find his sheep in the dark, track their movement, and even tells him the temperature wherever the sheep happen to be.

Local governments are scrambling to get their hands on these labs, hoping that they will engender a spirit of local inventiveness and will “enable…entrepreneurs and engineers alike to test their ideas, and ‘fast track the process of growth and development.’”

Gershenfeld speculates about the reason for the success of these labs and

thinks that, more fundamentally, the idea of personal or small-group fabrication has tapped into the primal need that some people have to create things, to modify the world in which they live.

I don’t know that I approve of the word ‘primal’, as this word suggests ‘chronological snobbery’. However, replace ‘primal’ with ‘essentially human’ and I think he’s got something here. Consider these words from John Paul II:

…the earth does not yield its fruits without a particular human response to God’s gift, that is to say, without work. It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home.

Of course these Fab Labs are thriving. Creativity, problem-solving, inventiveness: these are some of the qualities that define us as humans. We are essentially entrepreneurial beings.
This is not a new idea. Thank God some are rediscovering it.

Blog author: jspalink
posted by on Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Jennifer Roback Morse, senior fellow in economics at the Acton Institute, examines the response to Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of Alexis de Tocqueville. Americans, de Tocqueville observed, tend not to wait around for the government to give them guidance on how to run their lives and communities. Says Roback Morse: “Meanwhile, our French friends, I mean our Louisiana politicians, are still standing there with their arms folded, tapping their feet and waiting for federal funds to rebuild the city.”

Read the full commentary here.

Andy Crouch was kind enough to respond to my article on climate change (which itself was penned in reply to Crouch’s original piece), and I’ve included a response of my own. His words are in the large blocks of italics below:

While I’m disappointed that you don’t even try to engage the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by far the most extensive and diligent effort I’m aware of to evaluate the science of global warming,

In my defense, I did refer to Sir John Houghton, co-chair of the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As an experienced writer, I’m sure you know of the necessary limits of a 700-word commentary piece. I chose to limit the scope of my piece to engage your original article.

If you would like to see me engage your claim that “there is in fact no serious disagreement among scientists that human beings are playing a major role in global warming,” I refer you to one of my responses on an earlier thread, wherein I cite the following statement from Hans von Storch, who heads the Coastal Research Institute of the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany: “A considerable number of climatologists are still by no means convinced that the fundamental questions have been adequately dealt with. Thus, in the last year a survey among climate researchers throughout the world found that a quarter of the respondents still harbor doubts about the human origin of the most recent climatic changes.”

There’s a lot more that could be said on the science of course. Suffice it to say that consensus (or even unanimity) of opinion among scientists does not rise to the level of establishing ontological truth. The majority can be, and often is, terribly wrong.

And since your piece really is more about the economic benefits of political action on climate change than the science (which you rather take for granted), I’m disappointed that you didn’t engage the work of the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004, whose “basic idea was to improve prioritization of the numerous problems the world faces, by gathering some of the world’s greatest economists to a meeting where some of the biggest challenges in the world would be assessed.”

what really disappoints me, coming from the Acton Institute, is your failure of economic imagination. Why should the action to mitigate global warming be a drain on economic resources? That has not been true of past major technological initiatives. I have every expectation that the world economy will *grow* as a result of the efforts to develop and transfer new technologies.

You may call it a “failure of economic imagination” to see the possible technological advances and innovations, but I question your optimism regarding the economic benefits of pursuing potential cures for a perceived problem that may or may not be caused by human activity. I would liken your argument to a sort of “broken window fallacy” writ large.

If you are disappointed by my lack of economic imagination, I in turn am disappointed by your lack of some basic economic understanding (e.g. opportunity cost). Your whole concept of an “environmental wager” is predicated on the concept that it doesn’t matter if Sir John and the IPCC are wrong about global warming, we’ll still be better off acting as if they were right even if they aren’t. The following thought experiment is intended to show why this just isn’t true. The science does matter…and so do economic costs.

“Back in the 60′s, I developed a weather changing machine which was in essence a sophisticated heat beam which we called a ‘laser.’”

To illustrate this with a bit of pop culture, we might think one day that a killer comet is hurtling toward earth. Let’s say we’ve only got twenty years before impact. Naturally after the initial panic passes, we come up with a plan. We have some time, so we get all our pointy-headed intellectuals together and invent some really cool comet-busting technology. I mean real nice sci-fi stuff. We send out our mission and get all our lasers (or whatever else) ready, and let’s say we do all this in just ten years. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re set to go, but when it’s time to “ready, aim, fire,” we only get to “ready.” As we try to aim, we realize we were wrong. There is no comet (or there is a comet but it’s not heading towards us).

What’s the result? Yeah, we’ve got some really cool comet-busting lasers. It might even be helpful to us if we want to build a Death Star. We employed a lot of pointy-headed intellectuals during those 10 years, so that’s good. Unemployment was down because everyone was working on the comet-busting laser. It’s all good right?

Take that, global warming!

I don’t think so. Maybe we stumble across some useful technological advances during the five years and in the course of spending billions if not trillions of dollars. But I don’t think we’ll accidentally stumble across the cure for AIDS, or the answer to malaria epidemics, or the means to clean water access, or the solution to political corruption in developing nations.

The point is our time, money, and resources can better be spent, right now, elsewhere. Maybe in twenty or fifty or a hundred years man-made global warming really will be a challenge…if we’re faithful with our resources and fight the problems we really have today, those later generations will be a lot better prepared to fight the problems of their day. If we squander our efforts on things that may or may not ever be real threats, then we can be sure that real people today will pay the price.

Furthermore, there is little need for command-and-control government policies — the creation of markets in carbon emissions should do much of the work very efficiently. I recently reviewed a study — I’ll try to track down the reference, but I’m traveling and don’t have it with me — suggesting that the Environmental Protection Act, which opponents at the time saw as a major threat to economic growth and jobs, actually *created* jobs and contributed to economic growth. And there is every reason to expect that policies to mitigate carbon emissions will be better designed to harness the energies of markets than the EPA.

I can agree with you that government policies that at least attempt to deal with the realities of the marketplace should be better than the EPA, again I’m not as optimistic that government-imposed carbon emission markets would “do much of the work very efficiently.” You can try to package the deal in market-friendly terminology, but the limits of emissions would still have to be set by governments. The Kyoto Protocol allows for “emissions trading,” but as this article title succinctly demonstrates, “CO2 market needs federal push to blossom.” For more on the future of cap and trade systems, see this article.

Really, if the science were so unsettled and the potential economic consequences so calamitous, why would corporations like BP, GE, and Shell (Shell!) be endorsing action on climate change? I believe they see tremendous economic opportunities in this area.

I can think of any number of reasons. For starters, such multi-nationals might think they perceive the handwriting on the wall, and that the kinds of regulatory standards that are coming out of the EU and efforts like Kyoto will inevitably be enacted globally, and the US will eventually capitulate. They already have to meet standards in many other countries…so why not make those standards consistent across their own operations?

If they are right, it’s of course more valuable from a public relations standpoint to be at the forefront of the shift. Thus, “earth-friendly” companies like BP and GE make a point of running commercials, wherein cute dancing baby elephants tell us about their “eco-magination.”

If BP, GE, and Shell want to take action on climate change, they should do so, and consumers who support their positions should make it a point to patronize their places of business. But these companies are not only advocating for action on their own part, they are advocating for imposed action on everyone. That’s whole different ballgame.

If these companies are right about climate change, then they’ll be richly rewarded for their business-savvy and their economic and technological imagination. If they’re wrong, then they’ll have wasted a lot of money and resources on not-immediately-useful technology. In either case, the market should be sufficient to reward or punish them. I don’t think we need “command-and-control government policies” on top of it.