Posts tagged with: environment

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 28, 2009
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As we enjoy the final days of 2009, notable for among other things the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, take the time to enjoy this video creation from James C. Schaap, professor of English at Dordt College, featuring quotes about creation from the writings of John Calvin, music by the Dordt College Concert Choir, and photography by Schaap.


As Calvin writes, “Nothing is so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, that it can’t display some marks of the power and wisdom of God.” This is of course a sentiment held not only by Calvin, but also by other Reformed predecessors, contemporaries, and followers, as well as by those within the specifically Augustinian and broader Christian traditions. Peter Martyr Vermigli said that “nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.”

The best book related to these themes in Calvin’s work that I can recommend is by Susan Schreiner, Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Baker Academic, 2001).

Cross-posted to Mere Comments.

In a new column in The Detroit News, I set authentic environmental stewardship against the goings-on at the recently concluded UN Copenhagen conference. A slightly longer version of this commentary will be published tomorrow in the weekly Acton News & Commentary. Merry Christmas to all!

The not-so-subtle politicizing of science revealed by the Climategate affair, along with the alarmist and at times downright silly antics of some proponents of environmentalism (a word that has acquired numerous shades of creedal commitment), ought not drive reasonable people to abandon a sense of moral and civil obligation for the care and well-being of the planet.

The world that surrounds us and all the creatures upon it have human beings as their protectors. The human family has a primordial calling to “care and tend the garden.”

The point of conjecture now, however, is often over whether this world is indeed a garden — to be cultivated and tended, with care, reason and even love — or whether, as some of those gathered at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen demonstrated last week, the world is best seen as a jungle, to be left wild, untouched by human hands and thereby preserved unsullied and uncontaminated.

In the vocabulary of too many environmentalists, humans appear as the greatest threat to creation, at times leaving the impression that the human family is the most unnatural thing in nature.

The world and the people who inhabit it are at the center of the concern and love celebrated at Christmas. The controlling anthropology of the Nativity says that the human person, created in the image of the Creator, and the environment humans live in, is of such importance to their Creator that He chose to insinuate Himself into this world so as to rectify the effects of the disorder of creation brought about by human rebellion against the natural order and their origin.

This anthropology and cosmology presupposes that the creation has a purpose and was designed by a rational mind that imbued it with meaning. Ask yourself, which provides more protection for the environment: this view of the natural world that contends the order of the universe reflects the intentionality of a Creator who, in turn entrusts beings created in His image to care for and bring forth from creation its flourishing through a kind of environmental stewardship; or, the belief that the world is a chance collision of inanimate material forces that somehow produced being with no intrinsic dignity much less an august vocation to tend and perfect creation?

If you can grasp the disparate approaches to life of these two ideas, then you can understand why the rejection of a secularism hostile to the transcendent is so critical, not merely for some kind of abstract “spiritual” reason, but for the concrete care of our world and for the construction of a civilization based not on some assemblage of facts, but on the meaning behind and underneath the facts.

Christmas is precisely that. In the narratives we will hear and read in our homes and in our churches, we will be reminded of a world of infinite value to God, created with love and care, and entrusted to the human family to be tended and brought to its proper fruition. This is the message of God’s entrance into human history in the form of a vulnerable baby, born at a particular time and in a particular place, through the agency of a particular woman. It is the story of the Word who created the world, and who was rejected by that world.

The incarnation of Christ in human form offers hope to all “who dwell in darkness and the power of death.” It is this belief that protects, sustains and gives meaning — to our environment, and to much, much more.

How sad that message did not seem to be heard in Copenhagen.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 21, 2009
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I saw the latest blockbuster Avatar last night, and the early plaudits are true: this is a visually stunning masterpiece of “hybrid” cinematography, a “full live-action shoot in combination with computer-generated characters and live environments.”

But there are other, less compelling ways, in which Avatar is a hybrid of sorts. There are literal hybrids in the Avatars themselves, the genetically-altered bodies combining both elements of Na’vi and human genes to act as bodies for the Avatar “sleep walkers.” Other commentators have noted the lack of originality in the plot. Indeed, Avatar’s narrative seems to be a combination of other films and stories, and Avatar‘s only original contribution is the setting on the planet Pandora. In one sense, you could think of Avatar as The Mission set on an alien planet and with scientists instead of Jesuits.

Another film worthy of comparison to Avatar is last year’s CGI masterpiece, WALL-E, as both tread some of the same territory, so to speak. In both films humans have laid waste to the Earth, which is no longer capable of supporting a viable ecosystem. WALL-E spends a great deal of time set on the damaged planet, but Avatar only makes vague references to the “dead” planet where there is no green, and that the humans, the sky people, have killed their mother (Mother Earth).

It’s here that Avatar‘s message stumbles the most. Whereas in WALL-E responsible stewardship of the world was set within a compelling criticism of consumerism and waste, it is emotionally powerful without being sentimental, preachy, or clichéd. Avatar misses this kind of nuance. It plays on the worst stereotypes Westerners have about native and indigenous peoples to present a naive portrayal of the Na’vi, the alien inhabitants of Pandora.

In WALL-E, when humans use up the Earth, they essentially gorge and pleasure themselves in space, passively waiting to return to home one day. In Avatar, humans maraud other innocent worlds, looking for other ecosystems to kill. Now as Bill Easterly points out, this alone shouldn’t be enough to raise the ire of conservative critics against Avatar.

There is much that rings true in the film’s depiction of human greed and disregard for those considered to be “other.” As Easterly writes in another context, “those of us of Euro-American heritage would be a lot more convincing on Individual Rights by acknowledging that we have had as much trouble applying them as anybody else. We were pioneers in applying them to our own ethnic group, but we kept handing out free passes to kill other people’s rights.” This is one of the core messages of Avatar that is right on, and pundits and commentators on all sides of the political debate should be able to see this.

So it isn’t in its critique of genodice or murder that Avatar fails, but rather in its tone, its caricature rather than prophetic depiction of the human condition (war-mongering Marines come off especially flat and unconvincing). As an indictment of a kind of space colonialism, Avatar functions well, sometimes reaching a meaningful level of authentic rebuke. As a screed against the favorite peeves of the radical environmentalists and a paean to the neo-pagan deity, however, Avatar falls flat.

Saleem H. Ali, a ‘pro-consumption environmentalist’ at the University of Vermont “argues that sometimes a nation has to extract a nonrenewable resource like oil, or tricky-to-recycle metals and gems, in order to leapfrog from dire poverty to a more diversified economy.”

“Money from oil wealth can be used to invest in other sectors. And that in turn can yield sustainable development,” Ali says.

Awhile back I sketched very briefly a view of the theological purpose of fossil fuels. On this view, “fossil fuels would thus have the created purpose of providing relatively cheap and pervasive sources of energy. These limited and finite resources help raise the standard of living and economic situation of societies to the point where technological research is capable of finding even cheaper, more efficient, renewable, and cleaner sources of energy.”

This meshes nicely with the Cornwall Declaration’s statement that “A clean environment is a costly good; consequently, growing affluence, technological innovation, and the application of human and material capital are integral to environmental improvement. The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.”

In his commentary, Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, explains how labeling Pope Benedict XVI as the “greenest pope in history” is actually misleading.  Instead, Benedict’s attention to the environment is grounded in an orthodox Christian theological analysis.  Gregg articulates this assertion by citing Benedict’s most recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate:

Also telling is Benedict’s insistence upon a holistic understanding of what we mean by the word ecology. “The book of nature”, Benedict insists, “is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations” (CV 51). In other writings, Benedict highlights the incongruity of people being outraged about wanton environmental destruction, while ignoring or even promoting the deep damage done by ethical relativism to society’s moral ecology.

Incidentally, the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” appear nowhere in Caritas in Veritate. Again, this is not surprising. Benedict has been careful not to prejudge the science of this complex subject. In his 2008 World Day of Peace message, Benedict observed that in thinking through environmental problems, “It is important for assessments to be carried out prudently, in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions.”

Gregg reminds us that Benedict’s stance on environmental concerns is based upon a orthodox Christian theological reflection on man’s relationship with the natural world, and that the pope is careful to not romanticize nature.

For those among us who do not follow the particularities of United Nations programs and declarations, apart from birthdays and anniversaries June 5 might pass every year without much special notice. But every year since 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme has set aside June 5 to observe World Environment Day (WED), designed to be “one of the principal vehicles through which the United Nations stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action.”

On this WED, we pause to look at another vehicle for promotion of the environmental worldview, the recent remake of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). In last year’s iteration of the 1951 sci-fi classic, Keanu Reeves stars as Klaatu, an alien visitor who takes on the body of a human being in order to determine the best way to engage the situation on planet Earth. [Spoilers after the jump…]


(more…)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, February 2, 2009
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This guy fails the ‘anthropological Rorshach’ test:

Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says curbing population growth through contraception and abortion must be at the heart of policies to fight global warming. He says political leaders and green campaigners should stop dodging the issue of environmental harm caused by an expanding population.

The 2 child limit that Porritt encourages is not just an attempt to limit population growth, but is instead a policy that would put the UK well below replacement levels. Even assuming everyone maxed out their 2 child ‘limit,’ that wouldn’t meet the replacement level of 2.2 children per couple.

The misanthropy of much of the radical environmental movement is becoming increasingly blatant. No longer must the “P” word be spoken in hushed tones in darkened alleys. Folks like Porritt are making sure of that.

“I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,” Porritt said.

Couching such rhetoric in terms of “responsibility” and even “stewardship” is a powerful tool of deception. After all, who wants advocate being irresponsible?

Read more about environmental misanthropy on this side of the pond in the joint Acton Institute-IRD paper, “From Climate Control to Population Control: Troubling Background on the ‘Evangelical Climate Initiative’.”

Oh, and the “P” word? Porritt means “population,” but a better “P” word is “person.” Population is an abstraction. Personhood is a reality that can’t be so easily dispensed with. To quote a wise creature, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”

It is a commonplace in discussions of environmental economics to consider so-called “negative externalities,” a technical term for the bad or damaging consequences of an activity that affects those outside the realm of economic decision-making.

For instance, I can make the choice to plant a tree in my yard on my own (presuming there are no regulatory hurdles to jump). A negative externality for my neighbor might be that my tree dumps a lot of leaves into his or her yard and they need to be cleaned up. Typically this level of external consequence is not given a concrete cost…we simply rake up whatever leaves happen to land in our yard, whether they are from trees we do or do not own (I got to thinking about this lately because I had to rake up a bunch of leaves this weekend. Thankfully I caught a relatively warm day after the rain had mostly dried up and the snow had not yet fallen). But if a branch or limb falls from my tree onto my neighbor’s property and causes damage, there may be a level of liability there that would allow for some sort of claim for economic compensation.

It is also a common part of this discussion for environmental economists to observe that we almost never place any concrete costs on positive externalities. I have no ability to charge my neighbor for the pleasure he or she receives from looking at my beautiful tree. I might be able to restrict this positive externality by building a fence and obstructing the view of my tree, but the beauty of the tree is a natural benefit that cannot be commodified in any usual sense.

Oftentimes these two observations, regarding the costs associated with negative externalities and the inability to commodify many positive externalities, are made with a somewhat grudging attitude. After all, thinks the economist, it seems unfair that a person be liable only for the bad things that happen because of their economic decisions but don’t stand to benefit because of the good things that happen. So from the economist’s perspective, there’s a bit of inconsistency there.

Common sense intuition runs the other way, however. We ought to pay for the harm that our actions cause, but it’s also appropriate that I can’t charge my neighbor for all the good my actions may do for him or her. In brief here’s a theological reason why the typical view is correct and is right to dominate both people’s thinking on these topics in general as well as the shape of public policy: Good is more fundamental and basic than evil.

This is a view typically associated with Augustine of Hippo, and in summary it simply means that evil is a departure from the good. The world order as created was “good,” for God made it and declared it such. Thus, the good of positive externalities is in some sense more basic than the evil of negative externalities. The harm caused by negative externalties is an evil resulting from the fact that things in a fallen world are simply not the way they are supposed to be.

Our conception that positive externalities are more basic than negative harms is an indirect witness to the priority of the good creation over the corruption of sin and evil. We can abuse the blessings of God’s goodness when we take these gifts for granted, too. But our sense that some norm of justice has been violated when there are negative externalities (and that the gracious order of natural blessings is more basic) is a moral intuition that the world was created good and in some radical way has departed from that original state.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
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There’s a lingering issue that continues to bother me about the so-called “global warming” Supreme Court case from 2007, Massachusetts v. EPA (05-1120), and that is a nagging concern about federalism and environmental standards.

As it stands currently, individual states are often prevented from enacting tougher legislation or regulation regarding some forms of pollution than the federal EPA standards. In order for a state EPA to partner with the federal EPA, be “authorized,” and thus receive funds, “a state must have enforcement programs and statutes that are essentially as stringent as the federal programs.”

One basic argument that the court found cogent in the Mass. v. EPA case was that individual states were prevented from creating standards that were more stringent regarding CO2 emissions than the EPA, and that since the EPA had not enacted any serious level of restriction, the states were unable to protect their environment.

This bothers me in part because one of my basic political impulses is a federalist one, an emphasis on the rights and sovereignty of individual states. The relationship between the federal and state environmental agencies seems to me to be fundamentally tyrannical, in that it overrides the ability of states to regulate themselves on these matters.

If you coopt the sovereignty of someone and then let your responsibilities lapse, then you have committed a pretty serious injustice. In 2007, the state of California sued to get the EPA to allow it to enact cleaner air standards, a right supposedly granted under the Clean Air Act. The EPA needed to agree to the tougher standards by granting a waiver, which it declined to do.

So there’s that political concern. But there’s also an economic concern, and this cuts both ways. Most often the federal government invokes the commerce clause to argue that it is within its rights and responsibilities to promote economic trade and stability by enacting nationwide standards. But in the case of environmental standards, that economic argument might not always be salient.

In a recent New York Times column, Tom Friedman calls for “a national renewable energy standard that would require every utility in the country to produce 20 percent of its power from clean, non-CO2-emitting, energy sources — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass — by 2025.” Friedman repeats the typical argument justifying national standards: “About half the states already have these in place, but they are all different. It would create a huge domestic pull for renewable energy if we had a uniform national mandate.”

John Whitehead, blogging at Environmental Economics, gives expression to the basic economic and political concern I had about the Massachusetts v. EPA decision as well as proposals for national mandates on environmental standards:

Most every environmental economics textbooks explain why uniform national standards are inefficient. Since benefits and costs are regionally different, it makes sense to adopt non-uniform standards — if standard adopting is a must.

Why not give federalism free reign on environmental issues, let states compete against each other, and see how things play out? If California wants to experiment with enacting tougher restrictions while attempting to remain economically competitive, why not see if the state is able to pull it off?