Posts tagged with: environment

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.

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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
posted by on Monday, December 28, 2009

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
posted by on Monday, December 21, 2009

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
posted by on Monday, February 2, 2009

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.”