Category: Environmental Stewardship

Blog author: jcarter
Thursday, January 31, 2013
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In the 1880s America’s most flighty fad was fowl-bedecked fashion.

bird-hat“Trendy bonnets were piled high with feathers, birds, fruit, flowers, furs, even mice and small reptiles,” writes Jennifer Price, “Birds were by far the most popular accessory: Women sported egret plumes, owl heads, sparrow wings, and whole hummingbirds; a single hat could feature all that, plus four or five warblers.” The result was the killing of millions of birds, including many exotic and rare species. Reporting on the winter hat season in 1897, Harper’s Bazaar declared, “That there should be an owl or ostrich left with a single feather apiece hardly seems possible.”

Americans outraged by this senseless destruction of wildlife launched, as Price says, “the first first truly modern conservation campaign” in the 1890s—decades before John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and others made conservation efforts popular. Over the next two decades a flock of legislation began to be passed to protect birds, including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA).

Appearing 55 years before the Endangered Species Act, the statute made it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell specific migratory birds, including bald eagles, barn owls, and mourning doves. The federal law became an important conservation tool, a means of preventing the wanton slaughter of wildlife for trivial commercial reasons.

But tools can often be used as weapons, and the Obama administration has used the MBTA as a bludgeon against the oil and gas industry. Last year the executive branch argued that the MBTA should be broadly interpreted to impose criminal liability for actions that indirectly result in a protected bird’s death, and used that reasoning to file criminal charges against three energy companies.
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Earlier this month I attended the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” in Amsterdam.

One of the papers presented was from Jan Jorrit Hasselaar, who discussed the inclusion of non-human entities into democratic deliberation in his talk, “Sustainable Development as a Social Question.” I got the impression (this is my analogy, not Hasselaar’s) that there was some need for a kind of tribune (for plants instead of plebeians), who would speak up for the interests of those who could not speak for themselves.

The framing of the issue of the dignity of animals, plants, and the natural environment more broadly connected the integration of these interests into our public discourse as analogous to the civil rights revolutions concerning race and sex in the West over the previous century. The following video makes an argument in similar terms:

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promised_land_posterEnvironmental issues have increasingly become polarized. No sooner has a new technology been announced than some outspoken individual climbs athwart it to cry, “Stop!” in the name of Mother Earth.

To some extent, this is desirable – wise stewardship of our shared environment and the resources it provides not only benefits the planet but its inhabitants large and small. When prejudices overwhelm wisdom, however, well-intentioned but wrongheaded projects such as Promised Land result.

The latest cinematic effort by screenwriters-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (from a story by David Eggers) and director Gus Van Sant, Promised Land earnestly attempts to pull back the veil of corporate duplicity to expose the evil underbelly of hydraulic fracturing, which is more commonly known as “fracking.”

The fracking technique has been employed successfully by oil and natural gas industries since the late 1940s. Briefly, fracking involves high-pressure injection of chemically lubricated water to break up rock formations in order to drive trapped fossil fuel deposits toward wellbores.

Combined with horizontal drilling and new advances in information technology, the fracking process has reinvigorated our nation’s natural gas industry and opened up new energy resources previously considered out of reach or economically unfeasible. It has also reinvigorated debate over whether the practice is environmentally sound.

Of primary concern to opponents is its impact on groundwater, an issue Promised Land does nothing to dispel despite fracking’s impressive track record over the past 60 years and numerous government reports confirming its overall benign environmental impacts. (more…)

Conservation Trust THConnellI found this profile of Mark Tercek, the former Goldman Sachs managing director who was tapped to head the Nature Conservancy, raises some profound issues concerning the relationship between economics and the environment:

Tercek, 55, didn’t come to the Conservancy to fight financial brush fires. With the help of his board and the input of the Conservancy’s 600 scientists, he wants to remake the face of the American and global environmental movements. He has no quarrel with the current model—largely built on the strategies of confront, litigate, regulate. But by itself, that approach has proven inadequate. “All the things we care about—forests, coral reefs, fish stocks, biodiversity—we have less of instead of more of, despite everyone’s best efforts,” Tercek says.

Environmentalism, he fears, has become too elitist, too white, too partisan, too full of doomsayers, too concerned with saving nature from people instead of for them. He’d like to expand environmentalism to include the world’s largest polluters so that ecologists and corporations can work jointly to preserve nature because it’s the smart economic choice.

That last point is critical. Sustainable and responsible economic growth is based on properly valuing the natural environment. All too often environmental damage and degradation is due to improperly valuing and inadequately appreciating natural resources. In many cases it is because of a lack of well-defined property rights and responsibilities.

To use the language of Acemoglu and Robinson, unsustainable economic activity is extractive rather than inclusive. Consider how Tercek is actively and positively engaging Dow Chemical for an inclusive approach:

Tercek’s biggest bet yet is the Conservancy’s five-year partnership with Dow Chemical (DOW), announced a little more than a year ago. During the project, 20 Conservancy scientists are getting unprecedented access to Dow’s facilities, starting at Dow’s sprawling Freeport (Tex.) plant. The idea is to help the chemical giant do an inventory of its global land and water assets as a way of allowing Dow to put a value on its “natural capital” and to determine how to best protect and enhance it.

“I know there’s a lot of skepticism about these corporate initiatives, but for Dow to agree with us philosophically that it relies on nature for business reasons and to begin to put a business value on its natural assets, that’s huge,” says Tercek.

Review of Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson. Edited by Roger Meiners, Pierre Desrochers, and Andrew Morriss (Cato, 2012)

During the 50 years following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, much has been written to discredit the science of her landmark book. Little, however, has been written on the environmentalist cult it helped spawn.

Until Silent Spring at 50, that is.

Subtitled “The False Crises of Rachel Carson,” Silent Spring at 50 is a collection of essays specially commissioned by the Cato Institute and edited by Roger Meiners, Pierre Desrochers and Andrew Morriss. Much like Roger Scruton’s recent How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism, the essays present a unified indictment not necessarily of Carson per se but of the disastrous results wrought by the policies she inspired.

In “The Lady Who Started All This,” environmentalist William Kaufman presents an admiring portrait of Carson as a scientist who unfortunately took a left-turn from her previous works — based on objective, empirical research — when she endeavored to write Silent Spring shortly after her cancer diagnosis. For this ill-conceived approach, Kaufman blames Wallace Shawn, the New Yorker editor who prompted Carson to abandon her “disinterested scientist” voice in favor of a more “adversarial” tone. Since the famous editor signed Carson’s check, the author readily complied. (more…)

Blog author: dpahman
Friday, September 14, 2012
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Working Paper: “Top Ten Myths of Medicare”
Richard L. Kaplan (University of Illinois College of Law), Illinois Program in Law, Behavior and Social Science Paper No. LBSS13-02; Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 11-28; SSRN, Working Paper Series (PDF)

In the context of changing demographics, the increasing cost of health care services, and continuing federal budgetary pressures, Medicare has become one of the most controversial federal programs. To facilitate an informed debate about the future of this important public initiative, this article examines and debunks the following ten myths surrounding Medicare: (1) there is one Medicare program, (2) Medicare is going bankrupt, (3) Medicare is government health care, (4) Medicare covers all medical cost for its beneficiaries, (5) Medicare pays for long-term care expenses, (6) the program is immune to budgetary reduction, (7) it wastes much of its money on futile care, (8) Medicare is less efficient than private health insurance, (9) Medicare is not means-tested, and (10) increased longevity will sink Medicare.

Conference: “How to Feed Nine Billion People from the Ground Up”
Quivira Coalition, November 14-16th, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Global human population is projected to reach nine billion by 2050, which means food production will need to expand by 70% to keep up. Fulfilling this demand will place unprecedented pressure on ecosystems, including the planet’s grasslands, especially as competition grows for scarce natural resources. How to meet this daunting challenge while ensuring the health of land, water, wildlife and people will be one of the great tasks of the 21st century. In this conference, we will explore a variety of innovative practices that are already successfully intensifying food production while preserving, maintaining, and restoring the natural world. Speakers will share their hands-on experience and ideas for feeding all life – from the ground up.

Working Paper: “The Economics of Religious Altruism: The Role of Religious Experience”
Timothy T. Brown (University of California, Berkeley), ARDA/ASREC Working Papers Series (PDF)

Altruism has many motivations, including religious motivations. Perceived religious experience plays a strong role in the life of many religious individuals in the U.S. and can be a strong motivator of altruistic behavior. Religious altruistic behavior can be described by an economic theory of religious/spiritual health. Empirical tests using a theoretically and statistically valid set of instrumental variables show a strong causal link between perceived religious experience and the frequency of altruistic acts. An additional weekly event during which an individual perceives feelings of love that they believe come directly from God results in individuals increasing their altruistic acts by an average of 4.7% over a one-year period.

Call for Papers: “Ethics, Society, and Cultural Analysis”
Southwest Commission on Religious Studies, AAR session

Proposals for papers and panels are invited on the following topics in Ethics, Society, and Cultural Analysis: Pedagogy and Ethics, History and Ethics, Christian Social Ethics, and Moral Theology. Also of interest are reflections about comparative theological and ethical discourse featuring reflections on Jewish Ethics, Islamic Ethical Perspectives, Indigenous Religious Moral Perspectives, Buddhist ethics and Christian ethics. Constructive treatments of ethical issues including immigration, transnationalism, bioethics, global economics and poverty, health care, food and hunger, environmental ethics, ecofeminism, ecowomanism, medical ethics, theological ethics, sexual ethics, and the use of Scripture or tradition in ethics are also invited. Proposals may also discuss Womanist ethics, Mujerista theological ethics, Latina/o ethics, Native and Indigenous religious ethical perspectives, LGBTIQ ethics, and Feminist ethics.

I belong to the Christian Reformed Church, and our synod this year decided to formally adopt a report and statements related to creation care and specifically to climate change. I noted this at the time, and that one of the delegates admitted, “I’m a skeptic on much of this.”

He continued to wonder, “But how will doing this hurt? What if we find out in 30 years that numbers (on climate change) don’t pan out? We will have lost nothing, and we’ll have a cleaner place to live. But if they are right, we could lose everything.”

Over at Think Christian today, I reflect on the delegate’s question and try to begin to answer it in “Climate change and the church.” I do so primarily by attempting to inject the idea of opportunity cost into the discussion about climate change and specifically ecclesial responses.

This recognition of opportunity cost is closely identified with a central insight of economics, and it is informative to see how natural scientists and social scientists, like economists, approach the question of climate change. It’s also intriguing to see whether and how these two different groups are given platforms to speak to (and sometimes for) the church. Robert Murphy has a lengthy and worthy entrance into this broader discussion, which includes this critical observation about the insights of economists on the climate question:

The general public has no idea that the “consensus” (if we wish to use such terminology) of economic studies shows net benefits from anthropogenic climate change for decades.

Are the conclusions of such economic studies relevant to the question of how churches, groups of Christians, and individuals address the question of climate change? I submit that they are. And I also submit that Murphy’s general conclusion should chasten the confidence with which non-experts (which includes nearly everyone involved in church leadership) engage these issues:

The scientific modeling of climate change, and its possible impacts on human welfare, are very technical areas requiring years of study to master. When experts try to summarize the fields for the layperson, they sometimes present matters in misleading ways, however inadvertent.

The Acton Institute’s staff is heavily featured in the July/August issue of Legatus Magazine. First, there is a brief review of the Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book, ‘Defending the Free Market':

He shows why free-market capitalism is not only the best way to ensure individual success and national prosperity, but is also the surest route to a well-ordered society. Capitalism doesn’t only provide opportunity for material success, it ensures a more ethical and moral society as well.

Next is Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research. His Ethics column for Legatus focuses on the vocation of the Christian business person, as outlined in the document ‘The Vocation of the Christian Business Leader’ (VCBL), from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:

This means that business leaders confront, often on a daily basis, enormous ethical and economic difficulties. The subsequent choices they need to make are not simple. While VCBL suggests that the state has a role in addressing many of these issues, it wisely refrains from entering into detailed policy recommendations about how governments should act in these areas. Instead, it indicates that in many instances the primary responsibility for addressing many such challenges lies with business leaders themselves.

Finally, Gregg is extensively quoted in the feature “Benedict: The ‘Green Pope’, which notes not only Benedict’s strong commitment to the preservation of natural resources, but the misguidance of the Green Movement:

“The Greens’ view of humanity is that we are just another aspect of the natural environment,” said Gregg. “Most are grounded in pantheistic ideology. Within the Greens’ ideology, human beings are bad and it’s better if there are fewer of us. This is why they are so adamant about mandatory contraception for developing countries and why they are so pro-abortion.”

The Catholic Church teaches that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God — and that they are intrinsically good and capable of innovation.

“What’s distinctive about Pope Benedict is that he asks the Greens why there is this degree of disrespect for the human person, which comes out in Green policies,” Gregg said. “They have a false conception on anthropology. Within deep Green writings on the environment, you see a certain ‘humanophobia’ at work, which is materialistic and paganistic.”

Read the July/August issue of Legatus Magazine here.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, June 28, 2012
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Renaissance Center (GM building)

Renaissance Center (GM building). Creative Commons: paul (dex) bica via Compfight

Some time back I argued that urban farming and the entrepreneurial spirit in Detroit was something that should be embraced rather than dismissed. Detroit mayor Dave Bing has given verbal support for urban and community farms in the past, but in many cases some regulatory hurdles remained and he was somewhat skeptical at times about the importance of large scale urban agriculture projects.

But that ambivalence seems to be history, as yesterday Michigan State University and the city of Detroit announced an agreement under which MSU “will invest $1.5 million over the next three years to help turn the city into a world hub for food system innovation.”

“We want to demonstrate that innovation based on metropolitan food production can create new businesses and jobs, return idle land to productivity and grow a more environmentally sustainable and economically vital city,” said Bing.

One concern about the MSU partnership is whether this might encourage government to over-regulate gardens, and therefore stifle innovation. As I have observed in the past, the city’s own incompetence and incapacity has actually in some limited cases provided an environment that allows entrepreneurship and revival. But there’s always legitimate worry over whether a government embrace of an industry might become crushing.

As might be expected, the question of “scientific consensus” and its presumptive role in shaping our public and ecclesial policy was raised in the context of a decision by the Christian Reformed Church to make a formal public statement regarding climate change.

Jason E. Summers notes in an insightful piece addressing the complexities of scientific authority in our modern world that “scientific claims have substantial bearing on many public issues. But unless the nature of these claims and the basis for their authority are better understood, they cannot be meaningfully incorporated within the political process.”

One of the ways of better understanding the public role of science is to understand precisely what consensus does and does not mean. As Summers writes in the context of delineating “scientific consensus,”

science develops confidence in its findings on the basis of evidence accumulated under the methodological norms of the field, but it does not conclude in a final sense. Thus, a product of scientific inquiry may be highly robust—having well explained all available data and made accurate predictions—but it is not a final and absolute truth claim because it is predicated on evidence that continues to accumulate with time.

A related point is that consensus, no matter what kind, whether popular or expert, is an imperfect indicator of truth and not determinative of it. That is, truth is not created by consensus but rather by correspondence with reality.

Abraham Kuyper makes this point in his reflections on common grace in science and art. He observes,

Modern science is dominated by distrust when it comes to our own deepest sense of life, and that distrust is nothing but unbelief. What people lose thereby they attempt to recover by locating their fulcrum in the consciousness of the prevailing majority. Whatever is generally regarded as true in scientific circles people will dare to accept for themselves.

What people generally agree upon in this manner is called the truth, the truth that people profess to honor. Pressed a bit further, they sense that such a general agreement constitutes no proof at all, so they suppose that only what I can make so clear to all persons of sound mind and sufficient education such that they finally understand and agree with it belongs to what is scientifically established.

The role of scientific consensus is absolutely central to determining what ought (or ought not) be done by various institutions (governmental or otherwise) with respect to climate change. As Andy Crouch’s original piece illustrates, the scientific “near-consensus” on climate change is the latest in a long line of scientific determinations (such as evolution) to which the public is bound to accommodate itself.

But if we confuse consensus with absolute truth, and conflate scientific conclusions with ethical imperatives, we are unduly influenced by the “priestly voice” of science and invite the tyranny of scientific consensus.