Category: Environmental Stewardship

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:

My commentary this week focuses on the how the rise in prices at the pump is impacting the poor. Currently, in many areas of the country a gallon of gas is now priced over $4. I also argue that we need a more coherent energy policy coming from leaders in Washington. Part of the argument against drilling in ANWR (Arctic Refuge) over a decade ago was that the oil wouldn’t hit the market for 10 years. That’s a very shortsighted way of thinking about meeting our energy needs. We need leaders in Washington to work for us not against us.

Perhaps now a forgotten event, former Senator Jesse Helms in 1982 waged a dramatic battle against a federal gasoline tax hike of five cents. The tax hike had bipartisan support, including the support of President Ronald Reagan. However, Helms fought virtually alone with only a small cadre of tax opponents. He eventually lost on the measure but as he was traveling back to North Carolina he stopped at a rural Hardees restaurant. Truckers recognized Helms and he was greeted with thunderous applause for his efforts. Helms stood up not just for business interests like the trucking industry, but the rural poor, who are hit hardest by increases in gas prices. The current federal tax on a gallon of unleaded gasoline is 18.4 cents per gallon and the mean state tax on a gallon is 26.6 cents. My commentary is printed below:

High Gas Prices Devastating to Poor

by Ray Nothstine

Religious leaders staging a fast over budget cuts on social spending have not offered to fast over higher gas prices, even though the impact on the poor is devastating. In fact, there is very little focus on the rise in energy costs, with political and religious leaders remaining largely silent. Yet, when they speak on the issue, they often do not have your best interests in mind.

At a recent visit to a wind turbine plant, President Obama responded to one questioner’s concern about rising prices by laughing and saying, “If you’re complaining about the price of gas and you’re only getting 8 miles per gallon, you might want to think about a trade-in.” The president didn’t say which vehicle he was talking about. But a 2003 Hummer H2, rated among the worst for gas mileage, scores 10-14 miles per gallon.

But for most people a truck that is getting 8 miles per gallon is the one that delivers their food. This is true too for charitable food banks as delivery costs cut into the number of people they can feed. Food banks also depend on volunteer drivers to deliver meals to shut-ins.

Many individuals and families are already curtailing discretionary spending to save for gas. In turn, more money and jobs exit the U.S. economy for oil exporting countries.

The national average for a gallon of gas is currently $3.79. Some American cities are well over $4 per gallon. The price, up almost a $1 since last year at this time, has some experts forecasting $5 for Memorial Day.

While oil markets can be complex, free market alternatives offer better relief than heavily subsidized “green energies” propped up by government. A new study in the United Kingdom by Stuart Young Consulting and the John Muir Trust again pointed out what previous studies have found: Wind output is often less than anticipated and is an unreliable source of energy.

Likewise, electric cars are rejected by consumers shopping for fuel economy—even though they are subsidized with tax credits. Rachel Slobodien of the Heritage Foundation points out that people are instead buying more affordable super fuel economy cars with traditional engines that get upwards of 50 miles per gallon.

Some lawmakers from both parties in oil producing states are asking for more domestic drilling, more refineries, and uniform state standards on gasoline mixture requirements. All of these proposals will help lower prices and could add hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

President Obama has responded by saying an increase in domestic drilling “will help some.” He also signaled he may be willing to tap more of the Canadian oil sands, but at the same time, he wants to cut oil imports by one-third.

High prices at the pump can offer a moment to pause too and remember a spiritual truth. The price of gas not only draws attention to the Middle East, but it draws our attention back to the Garden of Eden that tradition places in that oil-rich region.

Oil itself is decayed vegetation and plankton that has seeped into the ground, forming over millions of years. At one time wildlife was abundant and forests were especially lush in the garden. In the creation story we are reminded that after the fall of man, we have to toil for resources (Genesis 3:19).

While we are bound to labor, 17th century Bible commentator and Presbyterian minister Matthew Henry reminds us, “Let not us, by inordinate care and labor, make our punishment heavier than God has made it; but rather study to lighten our burden.”

Similarly, John Paul II declared, “Besides the earth, man’s principal 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.”

This is good advice. The free market helps to sort out those effective alternatives, encouraging us to drill for oil responsibly at home, and protecting us from costly utopian schemes that drive up energy prices. The market is also our best hope for developing renewable energy technologies that are economically feasible.

We know too well that leaders in Washington reflect the fall of man, but they are not working to lighten our burden right now. As the price of gas approaches $5 per gallon, perhaps its rise may help us to refocus on new ways to meet the needs of those who have the most to lose from rising fuel costs.

I’ll admit – it’s been a long time since I’ve posted a Global Warming Consensus Alert because, frankly, any “consensus” that existed was blown apart by the release of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit e-mails, which revealed a whole bunch of underhanded activity on the part of scientists promoting the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. What’s the point anymore? The unshakeable climate “consensus” has been shown to be the fraud that it always was, and the catastrophic climate change scare is receding as a political issue. It seemed like the time was right to retire the Consensus Watch series.

And then the 10:10 Campaign decided to release what has to be the most amazingly awful public relations campaign in the history of public relations campaigns.

To be honest, I’d never heard of the 10:10 campaign before last night, so in that sense, their PR ploy has been successful. It appears to be another one of the seemingly countless organizations that spring up to encourage people to make reductions in their carbon output. Their schtick is that we all need to commit to reducing our carbon output by 10% a year starting this year. (An aside to the businesses that have signed up for this campaign: just what do you anticipate that you’ll be doing in 10 years when you wind your carbon emissions down to zero?) And with October 10 coming up (10.10.10 – clever), they released a promo film on YouTube to, I suppose, raise awareness for their cause.

The video stars Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, features music by Radiohead, and may just be the worst attempt at public relations in history. CONTENT WARNING: if you think you might be the kind of person who gets offended at graphic footage of people being blown up for not adhering to a scientific theory, you might not want to watch.

Fantastic PR idea, isn’t it? It’s nice to know that there are people who are willing to finance a high-quality film production depicting the casual extermination of individuals like me who haven’t bought into the idea that human activity is the sole cause of a coming climate Armageddon. And honestly, I can’t decide what’s creepier: the portrayal of people so casually murdering others for the crime of not buying into a panic based on a scientific orthodoxy that began to unravel a year ago, or the murderers’ completely nonchalant response to the horrified reactions of the children and office workers who had just been doused in the blood and entrails of the exploded global warming skeptics. It would seem to me that if you’re going to create a film where the heroes commit gruesome crimes, it would be best to have any witnesses to said crimes not react with revulsion and horror in order to establish that your heroes are actually good people, and not, you know, brutal, inhuman beasts.

Kill Em' All

Suggested Logo for 10:10 Campaign

Part of me feels guilty for blogging about this because it is a transparent ploy for attention on the part of people who deserve nothing but contempt, but on the other hand, this film is such a compact and powerful demonstration of the contempt for human life that undergirds much of the modern environmental movement that I can’t resist sharing it. After all, the prerequisite for being comfortable with producing a film that depicts the casual, gruesome murder of one’s ideological opponents (for the greater good, of course) is the belief that human life has no inherent value, and that humans, far from being the crown of creation, are in fact not part of creation at all, but instead a destructive parasite that leeches off of and destroys the pristine beauty of Mother Earth. One may protest that the good folks at 10:10 are just “playing around” or “being funny” or “trying to make a point.” Nonsense. The issue at hand is a disagreement within the scientific community over the interpretation of data. The world is not in imminent danger of destruction. The 10:10 Campaign has no business casually dehumanizing people who simply disagree with them.

(I suppose it might be worthwhile to note the irony of climate alarmists creating a fictional world where they are allowed to exterminate their political opponents after spending years demonizing skeptics even to the point of comparing them to Nazi sympathizers who deny the reality of the Holocaust. Oh, and here’s a link to a nice, breezy article about the film at an environmentally themed website. “It would be so much easier to tackle global climate change if these naysayers were blown up like BP’s oil well.” Yeah, killing all the people who disagree with you would make it easier for you to get your longed-for public consensus.)

David Burge, who those of us in the blogosphere know better as Iowahawk, left a comment on the original YouTube video (that has since been made “private,” ideally out of shame but more likely because it had accomplished its intended purpose of creating “buzz”) that provides a good bit of perspective on this film, and nicely sums up my thoughts on the matter:

In order for your “No Pressure” advert to have been made, I am assuming several writers pitched a professionally-prepared storyboard to a committee, detailing shot-by-shot each second of the film. The committee approved it, along with a minimum $250,000 budget to hire actors, director, & crew. Each scene probably took 3-10 takes, and weeks of post production by special effects wizards.

At no time did a single person involved in this cluster**** say, “hey, maybe it isn’t the best PR to air our fantasies about detonating the people who don’t agree with us into a mist of blood meat and bone fragments.”

This has got to be the biggest FAIL in the entire history of the internet. Anyone remotely associated with the production of this film should forever be banished from any public institution in the English speaking world, and immediately referred for psychiatric evaluation.

Amen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get a bunch of plastic, douse it in oil and set it aflame in honor of the 10:10 Campaign.

Here’s OpenMarket:

Plain and simple economics — not the alleged machinations of Big Oil or Congress’s unwillingness to put a price on carbon – explains why America remains dependent on petroleum.

We are still not beyond petroleum. In fact, we’re quite a ways away.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some may recall that before BP’s recent disaster (public relations and otherwise), there was a period of rebranding the company from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’

Beyond Petroleum

I’ve long argued that the opportunities afforded us by the use of fossil fuels are best spent seeking long-term sustainable and reliable sources of energy. These sources must include, and indeed in the nearer term be largely based upon, nuclear energy.

Two recent items underscore this: 1) the question of waste and what to do about it (HT); and 2) what waste actually is and is not. Says Hillsdale College econ prof Gary Wolfram, “95 percent of the used nuclear fuel could be recycled.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, June 3, 2010

I just finished writing a review of Robert H. Nelson’s book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (Penn State University Press, 2010) that will appear later this year in Calvin Theological Journal. It is a good book. It is a timely book. There are flaws, but overall there is much to learn from Nelson’s analysis.

I found a good summary passage that appears as a footnote on p. 171:

The terms ecology and economics have common linguistic origins, both derived from the Greek word oikos for home. Both offer grand theories of the world that reflect a vision of the actual relationship of human beings and nature. The largest “ecology” and the largest “economy” are in each case the whole world, including all its creatures, human and nonhuman. There are then many subecologies and subeconomies that ecological theory both seek to integrate within their respective overall systems of thought. It has proven difficult, however, to apply mathematical and other rigorous scientific methods to understand the workings of the largest economic and ecological systems, thus often encouraging in both cases those who do undertake such efforts to interject their own strongly held values and beliefs in implicit ways—that is, to turn economics and ecology into metaphors of religious thought.

That should give you an idea of what Nelson means when he describes economics and environmentalism as competing secular “religions.” I expect to post a series of reflections on the book in this venue in the coming weeks, as it is a significant work that merits more comment and attention than could be devoted to a short book review.

I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”

I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.

Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.

In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”

Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.

Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.

And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.

Here is an question: Where do a lot of socially liberal, anti-capitalists,left-leaning, organic, environmentalist, vegan, social democrat types who enthusiastically support government regulation and nationalized health care go to find a sense of community?

Answer: Free Markets
To be more precise: Farmer’s Markets.

Spring is in the air and so I headed off to the first official day of the farmer’s market in Grand Rapids on Saturday. As you can imagine farmer’s markets not only have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and meats–but lots of liberal bumper stickers and flocks of “counter cultural” folk who tend to look the same, and love to talk about sustainability, free range chickens, grass finished beef, and the evils of capitalism.

Yes they love to go to farmer’s markets to buy local, drink fair trade coffee, and meet up with their friends and comrades. (To be sure there are a lot regular folks and farmers who also go to the farmer’s markets, less to make a political statement, and more to buy and sell wholesome foods at good prices).

But the irony-or rather tragedy–is that if the left had their way, then agriculture would be even more controlled by the government than it is now, and local growers and farmer’s markets would be regulated out of existence.

Already small local farms face a myriad of rules and regulations that make it difficult to compete with large agricultural corporations. Many people who love to promote the “buy local” movement, too often lack a coherent understanding about how markets and regulation work and while their bumper stickers praise small, local businesses and entrepreneurs, their voting patterns support the exact opposite.

Luckily there are some coherent voices who understand the relationship between local markets, wholesome food, and political and economic liberty. One of them is Joel Salatin, Mr. Salatin runs Polyface Farms in Central Virginia. He has a lot of interesting insights into farming, family businesses and freedom.

Unlike many in the organic movement, Salatin realizes that government and bureaucracy are part of the problem. In an illuminating article, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal in Acres Magazine he documents the struggles small farmers must face to get their food to market. You can also find the book here: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal

Salatin tells how the law requires farmers to have their cattle butchered at a USDA approved site and not on their own farms, however he writes:

When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

People who praise “local-ism” need to realize that for local farmers and businesses to flourish–and for small organic farmers to be able to compete–we need free and competitive markets and not government intrusion that only benefits those companies big enough to send lobbyists to Washington or their state capitols.

I know I am a little late on this post, but…

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, but if we want to understand its origins, one of the best sources is Alexis de Tocqueville’s master work, Democracy in America and his chapter on Democracy and Pantheism. It’s short, but to the point. It’s also Tocqueville so read it carefully.

I found an online version at the University of Virginia’s website. You can read the chapter and the whole book here or get Harvey Mansfield’s translation or the edition translated by George Lawrence and edited by J.P. Mayer.

Tocqueville writes:

It cannot be denied that pantheism has made great progress in our age. The writings of a part of Europe bear visible marks of it:…This appears to me not to proceed only from an accidental, but from a permanent cause.

When the conditions of society are becoming more equal and each individual man becomes more like all the rest, more weak and insignificant, a habit grows up of ceasing to notice the citizens and considering only the people, of overlooking individuals to think only of their kind. At such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once, and it constantly strives to connect a variety of consequences with a single cause. The idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.

If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.

And then at the end the chapter–Tocqueville makes a passionate call against it. He writes

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

There is nothing more to add. Hope you had a happy earth day

PopSci follows up with the question I asked awhile back, “Why Not Just Dispose of Nuclear Waste in the Sun?”

The piece raises doubts about launch reliability: “It’s a bummer when a satellite ends up underwater, but it’s an entirely different story if that rocket is packing a few hundred pounds of uranium. And if the uranium caught fire, it could stay airborne and circulate for months, dusting the globe with radioactive ash. Still seem like a good idea?”

This is precisely why I raise the possibility of a modified space cannon to shoot the material that cannot be recycled into the sun.