Category: Environmental Stewardship

Last Friday, January 6, marked the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). It commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ by John in the Jordan river, the manifestation of the Trinity to those present, and the sanctification of the waters through their contact with God incarnate.

Every year this last aspect of the feast stands as a reminder of the Christian viewpoint of God’s concern for the world he created. Indeed, according to a hymn from the Great Blessing of the Waters by St. Sophronios of Jerusalem, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified.”

In the Orthodox tradition, there is a sense in which, while all of nature was made for the use and care of humankind, the ultimate purpose of the material world is sacramental. As the Russian Orthodox moral philosopher Vladamir Solovyov wrote, [M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.

This view contrasts with two rival views of ecology. One view, which continually crops up in popular culture, is that humans ultimately are doing more harm than good. Our efforts to master nature and use it for humanity’s benefit will cause its (and our) destruction someday. The second is the view against which the first is reacting. It is the modern view of a limitless use of natural resources with little concern for their preservation.

The vision given to us in Theophany is something else entirely. Through his baptism, Christ sanctifies the waters so that we might be sanctified by the waters of baptism. Water becomes a means by which humanity is perfected and the world as a whole reflects the glory of God to a greater degree.

In the Orthodox Church, this is not only true of the water, either. Bread and wine are used in the Eucharist, oil in Holy Unction and Chrismation (Confirmation), wood and gold and egg tempera paint in the making of holy icons, etc. The list goes on and on. The world is not meant to be left as is, nor is it meant to be carelessly depleted of its resources; it is meant to be spiritualized. It is a means and manifestation of divine grace and beauty.

How does this relate to economics? Economically, natural resources are material capital, and according to Vladimir Solovyov, we err if we seek to divorce them from their spiritual and moral purpose and make them independent, existing in and for themselves. He writes,

Alienation from the higher spiritual interests becomes inevitable as soon as the material side of human life is recognized to have an independent and unconditional value. One cannot serve two masters; and socialism naturally gives predominance to the principle under the banner of which the whole movement had originated, i.e. to the material principle. The domain of economic relations is entirely subordinated to it, and is recognised as the chief, the fundamental, the only real and decisive factor in the life of humanity. At this point the inner opposition between socialism and the bourgeois political economy disappears.

To misunderstand the material world, to fail to view it as the good creation of God with its own spiritual and moral purpose and, instead, to give it absolute value, ultimately leads to its degradation. It is, in fact, the definition of greed to value material things as something to be desired in and of themselves, apart from morality. The bourgeois that Solovyov criticizes are the type of people who act out of greed through manipulation of the market. The socialists, on the other hand, act out of greed through a call for revolution. Both, ultimately, make the same ecological error.

As Solovyov writes,

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

The Feast of Theophany, by contrast, calls Christians to adopt a higher, spiritual view of themselves and the world in which they live. And it is my contention that such a view is a far superior starting point for a Christian understanding of material capital. Anything less tends to degrade the world or ourselves.

For more on Vladimir Solovyov, check out the newest issue of Religion & Liberty.

Additionally, the Journal of Markets & Morality recently issued a Call for Publications on Orthodox Christian economic thought. Scholarly submissions on Vladimir Solovyov or Orthodox views of ecology would be welcome. View the full Call for Publications here.

For more on Orthodox Christianity and environmentalism, check out my post from last summer “Cosmos as Society.”

Abraham KuyperThis week’s Acton Commentary, “Work, the Curse, and Common Grace,” I examine the doctrine of common grace in the context of our relationship with animals. In particular I use some insights from Abraham Kuyper as appear in the forthcoming translation of his work, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art. (Pre-orders for Wisdom & Wonder are shipping out this week, so you can still be among the first to receive a hardcopy. We’ll be launching the book at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting later this week in San Francisco, and you’ll be able to order the book online beginning next week.)

Kuyper posits that now, after the fall into sin, “we can arrive at the knowledge of things only by observation and analysis. But that is not how it was in paradise.” Adam, by contrast, “immediately perceived the nature of each animal, and expressed his insight into the animal’s nature by giving it a name corresponding to its nature.”

It struck me that another “common grace” kind of reminder of this primal state appears in the narrative of Doctor Dolittle. Dolittle, of course, gains insight into the life of animals in a way that is not available to most other people. While he doesn’t have the direct intuition of Adam, his ability to communicate with animals gives him a unique perspective: “After a while, with the parrot’s help, the Doctor got to learn the language of the animals so well that he could talk to them himself and understand everything they said.”

Dolittle’s home even evokes our picture of the Garden of Eden:

The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.

He was very fond of animals and kept many kinds of pets. Besides the gold-fish in the pond at the bottom of his garden, he had rabbits in the pantry, white mice in his piano, a squirrel in the linen closet and a hedgehog in the cellar. He had a cow with a calf too, and an old lame horse twenty-five years of age and chickens, and pigeons, and two lambs, and many other animals.

Doolittle has a special calling, it seems, and so he gives up being a “people” doctor and embraces his role as an “animal” doctor. In his relationship with animals Doolittle is a figure of Adam in the garden, and in his role of healing and renewal he evokes the second Adam, Christ.

Word spreads of Dolittle’s abilities, of course, “And so, in a few years’ time, every living thing for miles and miles got to know about John Dolittle, M.D. And the birds who flew to other countries in the winter told the animals in foreign lands of the wonderful doctor of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, who could understand their talk and help them in their troubles. In this way he became famous among the animals all over the world better known even than he had been among the folks of the West Country. And he was happy and liked his life very much.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In this week’s commentary, I draw on some of the insights contained in the forthcoming translation of a section of Abraham Kuyper’s work on common grace, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, to discuss the relationship between work and the natural world after the fall. (You can pre-order Wisdom & Wonder today and be among the first to get the book when it is released next week.)

I found especially pertinent the insights offered by a Michigan fisherman Ed Patnode, who describes his entrepreneurial turn into the charter fishing business:

He decided to start running a charter boat about six years ago. Back then, he used to go fishing every weekend with a group of friends.

“It got to be expensive each weekend going. And so we were just trying to see ‘Hey, how can we cut our losses.’ It was really, really how do we get out there and get other people to help us pay?” (laughs)

And with a lifetime of experience, maybe even obsession, with catching fish, he certainly knew enough to do it.

The bit I used in this week’s commentary, “Work, the Curse, and Common Grace,” is what Ed says next:

But as much as he knows about fish, there’s still more he wishes he could know.

“You know we’d be rich if we could tap into the mind of a fish, just get that fish to talk and tell us why do you like pink, or can you tell us what days you’re going to bite pink on and what other factors are influencing your decision to bite this pink lure today.”

I bring in Kuyper’s musings about how this kind of insight into the nature of animals was something we lost in the fall. Common grace works to provide us with some way to learn about things in this world, so we are not completely blind or helpless. But even so, things are not the way they were or the way they will be after the Christ’s return and the consummation.

This is a perfect occasion to tell my own “big” fish story. As a boy I would visit my dad and step-mother during the summers here in Michigan, and my step-mom’s family had a cottage on a small lake. Early one morning my dad and I took the small rowboat out to the other side of the lake, where the mist was still coming off the water. As we neared the other shore, I readied my first cast of the day. As soon as it hit the water, BANG! I got a hit.

I was so excited, but I didn’t really know what to do, but I remember working that fish back and forth to the boat. It seemed like it took forever, and my arms sure were tired. But when we hauled that fish in I couldn’t believe it. It was a 4.5 pound largemouth bass, somewhere in the range of 20″, as I recall. I was so happy that I wanted to head right back in and show everyone. Wiser heads prevailed, as it was still very early in the morning and no one else was awake. Even so, as far as I was concerned my fishing day was done after that first cast, and I probably scared all the other fish away with the excited tapping of my legs, waiting for time to pass so we could go back with the fish. To this day that’s the best fish I ever caught.

Acton’s director of research, Samuel Gregg, blogs about Cardinal Pell’s speech on global warming over at The Corner. He summarizes the remarks and then provides their ecclesiastical context, defending both the cardinal and the Pope from the radical left and from charges of submission to intellectual fashion.

[Pells] key points are simply that (1) the scientific debate is not over, (2) the climate movement has always seemed more driven by ideology than evidence, and (3) this isn’t a basis for implementing extremely costly policies.

The context of Cardinal Pell’s remarks is the growing concern among Church leaders about the radical green movement, whose positions are not confined to environmentalism.

It’s no secret that when it comes to those moral questions that are truly non-negotiable for Catholics (e.g., abortion, euthanasia), Greens invariably take the most permissive positions. Their hostility to robust religious-liberty protections is a matter of record. Moreover, anyone who delves into “deep Green” literature soon discovers frankly humanophobic ideas. Such are the concerns of some Catholic bishops that, before elections were held in the Australian state of New South Wales in March this year, Pell and most of the state’s Catholic bishops issued an unprecedented pre-election statement warning their flocks against the more troubling, less publically mentioned parts of the Greens’ party platform.

And what of Cardinal Pell’s friendship with Pope Benedict, who has been called the “green pope?” The mainstream media may try as hard as it likes, but

Benedict himself has wondered on many occasions (including during his recent Bundestag speech) about the disconnect between many peoples’ contemporary angst about the environment and their seeming indifference to what Benedict calls the “human ecology” of the natural law, which provides the only truly rational basis for human freedom, dignity, and civilization.

Leaving aside efforts to establish nonexistent tensions between cardinal and pope, the usual suspects — secular and religious — will surely excoriate Pell for this lecture. But in an age where far too many Christian thinkers are way too submissive to transitory intellectual fashions that make them acceptable at fashionable cocktail parties but also partakers in profound intellectual incoherence, it’s refreshing to know not everyone is so intimidated.

Today, George Cardinal Pell delivered a lecture at the invitation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation titled “Eppur’ si muove, or ‘yet it moves:’ One Christian Perspective on Climate Change.” He insisted that a scientific consensus is a lazy basis for the making of policy, and that before states impose drastic environmental regulations, an analysis of their demonstrable costs and benefits must be undertaken.

Galileo is supposed to have muttered the lecture’s title after recanting his heliocentrism in the face of a “scientific consensus.” Cardinal Pell spent a large portion of his lecture demonstrating the historical existence of a Medieval warm period which in the last ten years the green movement has tried to explain away, since it’s rather inconvenient to find that pre-industrial man lived in a hotter climate when you want to assert that carbon emissions must be causing current global warming. “And yet, it was warm,” the Cardinal is saying.

Cardinal Pell began with the Tower of Babel, and quoted Leon Kass’s description of that project as “the all-too-human, prideful attempt at self-creation.” Before making any sort of climate policy, the Cardinal warned,

we should ask whether our attempts at global climate control are within human capacity, (that is, the projected human imperium); or on the other hand, are likely to be as misdirected and ineffective as the construction of the famous tower in the temple of Marduk, Babylon’s chief god.

Where is the borderline separating us from what is beyond human power? Where does scientific striving become uneconomic, immoral or ineffectual and so lapse into hubris?

Even more dangerous than ineffectual scientific striving is ineffectual unscientific striving, which what we have when policy is made based not on scientific finding, but on scientific consensus. Of this consensus, Cardinal Pell says it “is a category error, scientifically and philosophically. In fact it is also a cop-out, a way of avoiding the basic issues.” He goes on:

What is important and what needs to be examined by lay people as well as scientists is the evidence and argumentation which are adduced to back any consensus. The basic issue is not whether the science is settled but whether the evidence and explanations are adequate in that paradigm.

The complacent appeal to scientific consensus is simply one more appeal to authority, quite inappropriate in science or philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas pointed this out long ago explaining that “the argument from authority based on human reason” is the weakest form of argument, always liable to logical refutation. [Summa I, 1, 8 ad 2]

Then the Cardinal goes into his lengthy defense of the Medieval warm period, which you may read for yourself in the full text of his speech.

After poking a hole in the green lobby’s weather balloon, Cardinal Pell makes his appeal to lawmakers and bureaucrats.

A final point to be noted in this struggle to convince public opinion is that the language used by AGW proponents veers towards that of primitive religious controversy. Believers are contrasted with deniers, doubters and sceptics, although I must confess no one has dubbed me a climate change heretic.

The rewards for proper environmental behaviour are uncertain, unlike the grim scenarios for the future as a result of human irresponsibility which have a dash of the apocalyptic about them, even of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. The immense financial costs true-believers would impose on economies can be compared with the sacrifices offered traditionally in religion, and the sale of carbon credits with the pre-Reformation practice of selling indulgences. Some of those campaigning to save the planet are not merely zealous but zealots. To the religionless and spiritually rootless, mythology — whether comforting or discomforting — can be magnetically, even pathologically, attractive.

For this reason (among others) I support the recommendation of Bjorn Lomborg and Bob Carter [in The Australian] that, rather than spending money on meeting the Kyoto Protocol which would have produced an indiscernible effect on temperature rise, money should be used to raise living standards and reduce vulnerability to catastrophes and climate change (in whatever direction), so helping people to cope better with future challenges.

It is folly, the Cardinal says, to rush into climate regulation efforts of little proveable benefit when their cost will be extreme. The city of Athens spent half its GDP building the Parthenon, and after eleven years of work had a fantastically beautiful temple to show for its expense. Al Gore hasn’t yet called for a 50 percent green tax, but when he does, will a two degree drop in summer temperatures be worth it?

The text of the speech was released at 3:15 ET and will soon be on the Archdiocese of Syndey’s website. We’ll link it here when it’s up.

The Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor project is aimed at “shedding light on the influence of shareholder proposals on corporations.” It provides a thorough analysis of proposals made from 2008 – 2011 by activist investors — and believe it or not, only 35 percent of those proposals were related to corporate governance. Most of the shareholder proposals that these companies deal with are attempts to direct the company in a more green or pacific or fair direction, and they come from small shareholders who do this to dozens of companies.

A new report from Manhattan summarizes the trends — the growing social proposals, and how Dodd-Frank has playing into activists’ activities — and the proxy monitor website allows you to look at any shareholder proposal from the last few years. The proposals are enlightening. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have submitted proposals to the stockholders of Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics stating,

WHEREAS: Space has served as a sanctuary where, over the years, nations cooperate rather than confront one another. Satellites save lives…

RESOLVED: Shareholders request that, within six months of the annual meeting, the Board of Directors provide a comprehensive report on Lockheed Martin’s involvement in the space-based weapons program, at reasonable cost and omitting proprietary and classified information.

The well-meaning Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, in a proposal to McDonald’s shareholders that made the news earlier this year, requested that,

WHEREAS,

The Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, included federal menu-labeling legislation requiring the posting of calories on fast food menu boards….

RESOLVED: Shareholders ask the Board of Directors to issue a report, at reasonable expense and excluding proprietary information, within six months of the 2011 annual meeting, assessing the company’s policy responses to public concerns regarding linkages of fast food to childhood obesity, diet-related diseases and other impacts on children’s health.

Many other equally well-intentioned proposals have been filed, including repeated requests by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth that various pharmaceutical companies restrain their prices to “reasonable levels.” The Unitarian Universalists have requested that Pepsi Co. “create a comprehensive policy articulating our company’s respect for and commitment to the Human Right to Water.”

This is not to mention the numerous environmental proposals made by religious groups, requesting that the Rights of Humanity and of Mother Earth not be violated by carbon emissions and by the use of genetically engineered plants. Take, for instance, this statement from a proposal to Du Pont’s shareholders, concerning genetically engineered crops:

The right to food requires that we place the needs of the most marginalized groups, including in particular smallholders in developing countries, at the centre of our efforts

One might think the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth were unaware that it has been the genetic improvement of crops that has saved millions of the world’s poor from starvation.

We’ll keep you posted on further developments, and the effects these proposals may have on companies’ performance.

John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., wrote a column for the August 19 Bozeman Daily Chronicle about the Circle of Protection and Christians for a Sustainable Economy and how each has formulated a very different faith witness on the federal budget and debt debate. Baden says that the CASE letter to President Obama is “quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts.”

I attended the FREE conference on the environment for religious leaders in July, the event referenced in Baden’s column (appended below). FREE is building a really useful conference/seminar for faith groups with outstanding lecturers and a truly diverse mix of attendees. I would recommend it to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of environmental policy as informed by a religious worldview.

Also see Acton’s “Principles for Budget Reform” and associated resources on the budget and debt debate.

Religions’ reactions to financial realities

By John Baden

Many quite normal people, not just the paranoid, believe America will spiral downward and drown in a sea of debt. The Aug. 5 downgrade of U.S. bonds stoked their fears. Much of the debt problem is based on entitlements, commitments to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Prescription Drug Act.

As Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said on NPR on Aug. 9: “I am not going to tell an 80-year-old woman living on $19,000 a year that she gets no cost-of-living, or that a man who has been doing physical labor all his life and is now at a 67-year-old retirement – which is where Social Security will be soon – that he has to work four or five more years.”

Sojourners is a “progressive” religious organization that supports Frank’s position. (Ironically, billionaire atheist George Soros has generously supported Sojourners.) They have recently drafted a letter to President Obama, “A Circle of Protection: Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor.”

Sojourners acknowledge our unsustainable deficits – but reject reforms reducing entitlements directed to the poor. “Programs focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. … The budget debate has a central moral dimension. Christians are asking how we protect ‘the least of these.’ ‘What would Jesus cut?’ ‘How do we share sacrifice?’”

There is nothing radical or even unusual in their position. Many, probably most mainline denominations, support similar positions. Sojourners’ leader Jim Wallis wants to move the broad religious community into the policy arena. Hence he is mobilizing a diverse nonpartisan movement of Christian leaders to make them “deeply engaged in the budget debate to uphold the principle that low-income people should be protected.”

Few would question Wallis’ goal but his strategy is challenged by a new group, Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). They too sent a letter to President Obama.

While they share identical goals of helping the most unfortunate and poor, their means are diametrically opposed. They question policy outcomes by asking the ecological and economic question “and then what?” What are the logical, practical consequences of policies allegedly designed to help the unfortunate and needy?

Their effort had an unusual origin. It arose from an economic conference involving an ecumenical, indeed disparate, group of religious leaders, mainly Christians and several Jews. They represented a wide philosophical and theological spectrum. Some are allied with the Sojourners, others opposed.

CASE’s letter soliciting signers began, “At one level CASE began with a few of us at a lovely conference in Montana with fresh air, kindred spirits, time to talk and the gift of the idea to join together. … Signatories already include us (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox) … (and) many who work alongside the very poor, and so on.”

I find their letter to the president quite remarkable for it reads like one written by respected economists and policy analysts. “We do not need to ‘protect programs for the poor.’ We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.”

Their text explains, “We believe the poor of this generation and generations to come are best served by policies that promote economic freedom and growth, that encourage productivity and creativity in every able person, and that wisely steward our common resources for generations to come. All Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.”

A decade ago I wrote a column celebrating Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday. Milton was an apostle of responsible prosperity and liberty. While he is gone, his influence lives. CASE’s letter to the president is a sterling example.

John Baden is the chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and Gallatin Writers, Inc., both based in Bozeman.

As citizens await state decisions on new state EPA “fracking” regulations, many are worried radical environmentalist may compromise a promising opportunity in the development of gas reserves.

Natural gas advocates say radical environmentalists have long demonized the oil industry in their fight against free enterprise. Environmental groups claim fracking techniques to extract natural gas threatens the cleanliness of ground water, but their attacks contradict EPA studies that report there are no proven cases where fracking has contaminated water.

Extreme environmental groups have teamed up with some in the media to push their anti-growth agenda. A Heritage Foundation blog reports,

Environmentalists [...] have hijacked media outlets like The New York Times to run biased reports against fracking’s key contributions to America’s current and future energy supplies that would be a tremendous catalyst for the country’s economic recovery.

Though more EPA fracking studies are currently underway, environmentalist accusations contradict solid facts and studies. With almost any human activity, there will be some sort of environmental effect, but the benefits of shale drilling blows the costs out of the water. According to experts, a typical Marcellus Shale well can generate up to $4 million in economic benefits while only creating $14,000 in environmental damage.

If given the chance, the Independent Petroleum Association of America suggests the oil industry has the potential to lift our economy back on its feet again:

Petroleum powers the economy of this nation overall, evidenced by [a] strong correlation between states that have high petroleum use and high output. Petroleum is integral in our daily lives, not just as a fuel, but because it is present in common objects that are crucial to living a high-quality life.

But radical environmental groups often stand in the way. Some of these groups insist on “biological egalitarianism” in which all life forms are considered equal. An Acton publication titled A Biblical Perspective on Environmental Stewardship explains the dangerous connotation of this faulty environmental philosophy:

Instead, this philosophy negates the biblical affirmation of the human person’s unique role as steward and eliminates the very rationale for human care for creation. The quest for the humane treatment of beasts by lowering people to the level of animals leads only to the beastly treatment of humans.

Extreme environmental groups should remember the oil industry is not evil. They fail to see that their radical ideology is hurting the nation’s poor. Increasing oil production can fuel economic growth and provide jobs for the unemployed. To attack the oil industry in such a way is indirectly attacking human development. Cited in Ray Nothstine’s commentary on high gas prices and its impact on the poor are these words from John Paul II,

Besides the earth, man’s principle resource is man himself. His intelligence enables him to discover the earth’s productive potential and the many different ways in which human needs can be satisfied.

Of course, any human action has some effect on the environment; and so we have the responsibility to exercise environmental stewardship rather than prioritizing the fish in the Chesapeake Bay over the welfare of the human person.

In the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1), Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow challenge the economic impact of our definition of society in their article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect.” It occurred to me that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew implicitly challenges our definition of society on a different, though similar, level than Strow and Strow.  Strow and Strow analyze the changing results of economic utility functions based upon one’s definition of human society. In his book Encountering the Mystery (2008), His All-Holiness, however, broadens our definition of society not merely on the basis of relationship, geography, or voluntary associations, but on the basis of ontological groupings. This is not to say that he would equate a human child and a dog (or a dog and a flower, for that matter), but that, for the Patriarch, society includes the entire ontological hierarchy of all creation.

This perspective produces interesting results. For example, one may examine the case in recent years when Canada was still paying the state of Michigan to put Canadian trash in its landfills. Financially, Michigan was benefiting from the deal, but environmentally Canada succeeded in minimizing its trash and retaining unused landfill capacity. Economically, both can be considered capital, but they improve the respective societies in differing ways. The financial benefit of Michigan was purely a human benefit, whereas the environmental benefit of Canada benefited humans, animals, plants, air, and soil alike, even if only on a marginal level. As a country, rather than a state, Canada’s definition of society was not only broader in terms of humanity (whether relationally, geographically, or associatively), but also in terms of all creation.

However, as Strow and Strow’s analysis shows, if one were to expand the definition of society to the whole world, Canada did not succeed in producing any environmental benefit (the quantity of total world trash was not diminished at all, only geographically relocated). However, Michigan’s financial gain may have redistributed wealth in a way that still (again marginally) improved the world as a whole (raising per capita income, perhaps), while globally having an indifferent effect upon the environment.

The challenge of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, I believe, is to define society as broadly as possible, not only in terms of relationship, geography, or association, moving from individual to family to state to country to the world, but also moving from particular (one human) to group (family, state, or country) to species (all humanity) to genus (all animals or even all living things) to most general genus (all creation), to use classical categories. If one seeks to find a final say in the Patriarch’s work with regards to the relationship between economics and ecology, one may have many criticisms. However, if one takes his work as a starting point of discussion toward a Christian synthesis between these two disciplines, I believe one finds fertile ground for cultivating a productive engagement of economics and ecology on a global basis with such a cosmic view of society.


The Patriarch’s book Encountering the Mystery is published by Doubleday Religion and can be purchased at Amazon. The scope of the book is far broader than the subject at hand, but chapter VI, “The Wonder of Creation,” addresses his view of the relationship between economics and ecology from an Orthodox Christian perspective in detail. Additionally, his many talks, letters, and encyclicals related to environmentalism can be found here.

For more on Orthodoxy and Environmentalism, Very Rev. Fr. Michael Butler taught a session at this year’s Acton University, which can be accessed here.

For more on the ecological relationship of humanity to creation as a whole from a Christian perspective, see also Benjamin B. Philips, “A Creature among Creatures or Lord of Creation?” in the Symposium section of the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

You can subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

In this week’s Acton Commentary I briefly survey the prospects for urban gardens and farming in the city of Detroit. As Aaron M. Renn wrote in New Geography a few years ago, Detroit represents one of the places where significant urban innovation is possible. “It may just be that some of the most important urban innovations in 21st century America end up coming not from Portland or New York, but places like Youngstown and, yes, Detroit,” writes Renn.

Detroit’s woes are well-known, and migration trends are working against the city. There’s a declining population coupled with declining property values, which equal significantly fewer resources for the city government. Detroit needs to find a way to embrace innovation and attract and retain its people.

In “Little Plots of Liberty: From Garden to City and Back Again,” I argue that efforts to turn blighted and abandoned areas into arable and productive land is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. I also briefly touch on how these activities reflect the divine mark of creativity and stewardship placed on human beings. Urban agriculture is no panacea, but to become a vibrant city again, Detroit needs to become an urban garden.

There is some really striking visual evidence of the scale of the possible area that we’re talking about here. Visit Renn’s piece at New Geography for a good overview. Freelancer James D. Griffioen also has done some excellent work documenting trends in “the disappearing city.” (See his work here and here, for instance). You can also take the “Green Zone Walking Tour.”

The community garden at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit.


One of the threats to the many benefits of urban farming is government regulation that stifles such innovation. As Renn notes, this has recently not been a great issue in Detroit. He writes, “It’s possible to do things there. In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases. There’s not much chance a strong city government could really turn the place around, but it could stop the grass roots revival in its tracks.”

Unfortunately there’s some evidence at least that this is precisely what might begin happening in the case of urban gardens. In the commentary I highlight the experience of Reit Schumack who is involved with Neighbors Building Brightmoor. New rules passed by the city are stopping some of the programs he’s done to engage students in gardening in open city lots. These rules also “include a ban on bringing in new soil or compost, unless the city grants lot-by-lot permission.” Practically this is disastrous for a burgeoning industry because now a farmer has to deal with the vagaries of an inept, bloated, and corrupt bureaucracy.

New soil is necessary in many cases, though, to fill up the raised beds that must be put up to grow things over vacant lots. As Cornelius Williams says, industrial waste and contamination of the soil can be a major problem, “so we grow with what we call raised beds. We create a four-by-eight box, and we bring soil in and compost, and so we’re not actually growing in the Detroit soil. We’re growing in soil that we create ourselves.”

These new city rules would severely hamper farmers’ ability to create their own soil. Renn is right: “In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out.” He adds that this typically hasn’t been true in Detroit. “In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not.” Let’s hope that the government doesn’t ever get around to shutting down or stunting the growth of this nascent urban farming movement in Detroit. For more background on these broader questions, see volume 6.1 of the Journal of Markets & Morality, which has articles focusing on urban design, the “New Urbanism,” and a Controversy feature on the question, “To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning?”

I also conclude the piece by quoting a classic funk jam from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Here’s that track in full: