Category: Environmental Stewardship

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
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
By

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.

Flavius Josephus

With the prevalance of moral relativism in the western world, science tends to forge ahead, regardless of opposition from traditional ethics, into whatever realms it deems neccessary for the “advancement” of mankind. To counter-balance the extremity of the scientific community, especially in regard to the genetic engineering of hybrid species, I would like to offer up the thoughts of an historian from 2000 years ago regarding the mixing of species. His ideas come from the long oral and written traditions passed down through the Jews from Moses:

…The seeds are also to be pure, and without mixture, and not to be compounded of two or three sorts, since Nature does not rejoice in the union of things that are not in their own nature alike; nor are you to premit beasts of different kinds to gender together, for there is reason to fear that this unnatural abuse may extend from beasts of different kinds to men, though it takes its first rise from evil practices about such smaller things. Nor is anything to be allowed, by imitation whereof any degree of subversion may creep into the constitution; nor do the laws neglect small matters but provide that even those may be managed after an unblamable manner. (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.20)

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662)

In this week’s Acton Commentary titled “Pascal’s Blunder: Miscalculating the Threat of Global Warming”, Jordan Ballor writes on the growing voice of evangelical Christians speaking out about global warming. Ballor responds to a recent article in Christanity Today by Andy Crouch, who compares the current debate about global warming to Pascal’s wager, stating that we gain nothing if global warming turns out to be completely natural and beyond human control, but that we gain everything if we can control it. Ballor points out the error with this line of thinking:

The problem with this analogy is that Pascal’s wager is only valid when placed within the context of the eternal and the ultimate. When it is applied to everyday issues, it quickly loses its persuasive power. Crouch’s contention that “we have little to lose” if we exaggerate the threat of global warming displays no recognition of the reality of the future impact of unduly restrictive political policies and environmental regulations.

Ballor goes on to cite Vernon L. Smith and Thomas C. Schelling, two distinguished professors at George Mason University and the University of Maryland, respectively, who argue that there are much more pressing issues affecting the world to which our attention should be turned toward. The money we spend researching global warming could much more effectively be providing solutions to problems such as AIDS/HIV, malnutrition, and hunger.

Read the full text here.

The Americans brought this on themselves.

That’s one reaction coming from around the world as it surveys the devastation following Hurricane Katrina. In what can only be described as callously political maneuvering, Germany’s environmental minister Jürgen Trittin said today, “The increasing frequency of these natural events can only be explained through global warming which is caused by people.”

Instead of offering condolences, well-wishes, or prayers, minister Tritten delivered the judgment of secular environmentalists. The Americans’ crime? “A U.S. citizen causes about two and a half times as much greenhouse gas as the average European,” said Trittin.

This mirrors the reaction of religious global warming advocates following the Indian Ocean tsunami late last year. The global warming boogeyman, blamed for seemingly everything under the sun, is the knee-jerk explanation for any natural disaster these days.

As one paper puts it, “Because hurricanes form over warm ocean water, it is easy to assume that the recent rise in their number and ferocity is because of global warming.”

Why deal in facts when hysteria and rhetorical excess can do the trick instead? “The severity of hurricane seasons changes with cycles of temperatures of several decades in the Atlantic Ocean. The recent onslaught ‘is very much natural,’ said William Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who issues forecasts for the hurricane season.”

Those scientists who do see a link between global warming and increases in the number and intensity of hurricanes are opposed by those who realize “worldwide weather records are far too inadequate for a thorough examination of such trends.”

As for the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina, the prudence of building a huge coastal city under sea level should be questioned long before any issues related to global warming arise.




Global warming serves as a convenient scapegoat in place of the recognition of the God of heaven and earth (see Job 38-41). As God says to Job, “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me” (Job 41:11 NIV). Hurricane Katrina should serve as a reminder to all of us of the fleeting days of life and the priority of the eternal over the temporal, a modern-day object lesson to heed the words of Jesus.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27 NIV).

Update: More on Trittin’s comments at Davids Medienkritik

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 26, 2005
By

It’s been determined that the view of the human person at work behind “The Human Zoo” exhibit is best exemplified by Agent Smith’s monologue from the original installment of “The Matrix.”

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

While Morpheus is held captive, Agent Smith tells him the following:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure.

He continues:

I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I’ve somehow been infected by it.

This comes, of course, from a piece of software representing the machines who view humans as essentially batteries and feed the liquidated dead to the living. It is perhaps not the best anthropological foundation to adopt.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 26, 2005
By

Just in case you were thinking that the rabid anti-human elements of environmental movements had dissipated, take a look at the newest exhibit at the London Zoo.

Titled “The Human Zoo,” the exhibit features 8 people living in “natural” conditions over the course of three days, and is “intended to show the basic nature of human beings,” that is, our inherent animalism.

The world’s first ever human zoo exhibit is unveiled. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty

In the words of a London Zoo spokesman, “We have set up this exhibit to highlight the spread of man as a plague species and to communicate the importance of man’s place in the planet’s ecosystem.” One commentator notes, “We may be watching evolution in action.”

There are a number of important issues here. The first is the linkage of the view of humans as a “plague species” with the myth of unsustainability of the population explosion. This anti-human perspective is manifested in any number of policies and programs around the world, including PETA and things like the UN’s World Population Day. Now the London Zoo is joining the fray. For a literary movement embodying this position, go here.

Of course, another questions you have to wonder about is why an “ethic” based on a Darwinian philosophy of natural selection should be concerned about a “plague species.” Isn’t it just survival of the fittest?

This soft sentimentality and romanticism of the environmental movement isn’t based on philosophical rationality, of course. If we really are no different than animals, why should our behavior be held to a higher standard? The position is fundamentally self-defeating.

The only perspective that accounts for all of the complex realities of human existence and the rest of creation is one normed by the Bible. The creation accounts, along with the dominion and stewardship mandates, of Genesis 1 and 2 describe both the continuities and discontinuities between humans and the rest of the animal world and our resulting responsibilities.

The fall into sin gives us a basis for understanding how and why humans do negatively impact the world and fracture the created relationships. But the history of redemption gives us hope for a consummated new heaven and new earth…a hope that cannot be approached from a merely naturalistic worldview. It also gives us a reason to be concerned about stewardship of the world (rightly construed).

This feature from yesterday’s Marketplace looks at the “endless variations of designer hybrid dogs.” These new breeds crossing more traditional lines of dogs can command a large pricetag.

The “cute name” attraction, the possibilities of allergen free dogs, and the idea of getting the best of both breeds have put these designer dogs in high demand. My wife and I are currently considering getting a Cockapoo, a Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix.

A labradoodle.

I’m bringing up these new breeds, though, as an illustration of what morally permissible creation of “genetic” chimeras might look like. I’ve blogged about chimeras on the PowerBlog previously, but very often there is great difficulty in determining what is legitimate and what is not.

I’m proposing that chimeras that can be created without direct genetic manipulation should generally be considered acceptable. So the case of mixed dog breeds that can mate and procreate naturally meets and exemplifies this criteria.

Update: We’ve decided to get the dog.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 19, 2005
By

“Zero-energy homes” are a new trend in what might be called environmental charity, giving energy back to the grid, at retail prices. Details here in this Marketplace report.