Posts tagged with: Environmental Stewardship

Air-ConditioningI know why Victorian women fainted so much. They were too hot – literally. Wearing layers and layers of clothes, corseted to the point of not being able to breath, attempting to make merry in rooms draped and swathed and festooned with velvet furniture and bric-a-brac. If you think about London in the summer … you’d faint too. I will happily keep my modern clothing and my air conditioning, thank you.

Not so fast, says Pope Francis. His encyclical, Laudato Si’, suggests that air conditioning is one of those modern features that is giving us environmental woes.

Some countries are gradually making significant progress, developing more effective controls and working to combat corruption. People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive. (55)


Peter Johnson, external relations officer for the Acton Institute, discusses the muddled economic message in the recent encyclical for The Federalist:

While I don’t doubt for a moment that Pope Francis sincerely wants to help the poor, I think it would be difficult for even the most erudite Catholic scholars to find a coherent message in a passage like this.

For example, he praises business as a “noble vocation” while summarily disparaging “economies of scale.” While he recognizes that poor people need to be connected to the larger economy to rise out of poverty, he also encourages “civil authorities” to constrain those in the larger economy who actually have the capital to invest in new enterprises.

This vacillation between upholding the merits of enterprise and disparaging profits runs throughout the encyclical. If I could sum up his view on commerce in one sentence it would be this: Business is okay, as long as you don’t make too much money.

Read the entire post “Pope Francis’ Incoherent Economics” here at The Federalist.

dolphin-rescueOne of the primary duties for Christians is to recognize the dignity of all of God’s creatures and to exercise our dominion over them in ways that are humane, responsible, and God-honoring. It is literally the first set of instructions given to humanity (Gen. 1:28). Yet when think of our roles as stewards of creation, we often focus exclusively on our collective responsibilities at the macro level rather than on what we can do at the micro level of individual effort. In our focus on fixing global problems we tend to forgot our responsibility to “tend the garden” in our personal interactions with nature.

Such small-scale cultivation of nature is not as exciting as proposing legislation for an environmental agenda or as attention-getting as raising money to save an entire species. But the very simplicity of the actions can help us clearly see the beauty in exercising dominion – a term that has developed ugly connotations – and lead us to a more worshipful posture toward our Creator.

An wonderful example is an interaction between scuba instructor and underwater videographer Keller Laros and a bottlenose dolphin in need of the type of help only a human can provide. After noticing a fishing hook and line stuck in the dolphin’s fin, Laros, an experienced rescuer of dolphins, works to free the animal.

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

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

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

Religions’ reactions to financial realities

By John Baden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The green movement has had a dramatic, long lasting impact on public policy, individuals, and even religion. But many people of faith have criticized supporters of the green movement, equating  its strong followers with those who practice a pagan religion in support of Mother Nature.

As Christians we are called to be environmental stewards and to care for God’s creation. However, putting aside the perceptual paganism of a too dedicated support of the green movement, one must ask, is the green movement really accomplishing its mission and gaining support or is it actually turning people away from protecting the environment?

Reflecting upon my time spent at college I remember many of my Christian and conservative friends would throw a plastic water bottle in the trash when a recycling bin was right next to it, smirking and saying that’ll show all the environmental hippies. They admitted they were turned off by the aggressiveness and rhetoric of the green movement while also saying it fails to take into account that human beings also reside on the planet. Instead, they felt the green movement communicated that plants and animals were more important than people.

Many green movement policies seem counterintuitive to protecting the environment. From wind mills killing birds, which according to the Wall Street Journal, it is estimated  75,000 to 275,000 birds are killed by wind mills in the U.S. per year including the golden eagle in California which taxpayers spent a large sum of money on to protect. Now there are plans in the works for killing feral camels in Australia. Why? They damage vegetation and produce a methane equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide a year.

Green movement policies have many unintended consequences. However we must decide whether the consequences are worth enacting the policy. Are killing feral camels going to save the planet, and is that even responsible? Are we to decide what part of God’s creation is a “productive” contributor to the earth, and if it isn’t do we really have the right to decide what part of God’s creation is to live and die?

Many Christians are now seeking a more positive expression of being an environmental steward and also a follower of the green movement. Marvin Olasky states in an article published by World Magazine that in the call to environmental stewardship, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.”

While they are full of good intentions, green policies may alienate the centerpiece of  God’s creation: the human person. Failing to take into account the person, green policies put a burden on people in order to protect the environment and the creatures of this planet; the green movement needs to recognize that people are just as much a part of this planet as the trees, flowers, bugs, polar beers, and every other creature and planet we are blessed with. Environmentalist Peter Harris explains in Christianity Today that the green movement often fails to take into account the human relationship with creation:

There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet. That’s not the biblical view at all. A Rocha in the United Kingdom actually works in the most polluted, urban borough of the country, because creation isn’t absent just because people are there. The Challenge is how to restore a right way of life, rather than escaping to some wilderness paradise. Fifty percent of the planet now lives in cities. That is where we live out our relationship with creation.

Yes we need to care for creation. The environment is a gift and we are responsible to care for and preserve God’s creation. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are a part of God’s creation and we are called to more than just environmental stewardship. We are called to be financial stewards and many forms of alternative energy are not cost efficient or financially responsible. We are also called to care of the poor, understanding that stringent environmental standards may make it harder for the poor to rise out of poverty. And finally, we are called to live as images in the likeness of God.

Marvin Olasky states that, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.” Such an obligation to environmental stewardship can be as simple as being responsible, from not littering to recycling old cell phone batteries. We know the negative consequences that littering and cell phone batteries have on the environment, even though they may strike some as small things. When we are knowledgeable of such negative consequences we are responsible to act in the correct manner to preserve the environment. Not only are we taking care of God’s creation, but we are also showing our love for our neighbors by taking care of the same planet that they too call home.

The blame game in Washington is heating up on skyrocketing gas prices. Republicans are criticized as being in the back pocket of the oil industry and partaking in crony capitalism. The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee is even cashing in by hosting a fundraiser that is based on what has been the House Republicans “decade long relationship of protecting Big Oil taxpayer giveaways, speculations and price gouging…” However blame is also placed on Democrats, with accusations of placing barriers to prohibit domestic drilling. The debate has also centered around how we can be better environmental stewards. We may find ourselves asking questions such as whether green energy promotes environmental stewardship, and if oil drilling results in a dramatic harm to the environment?

An article published by the Washington Examiner contains disturbing numbers that will not be received very positively. Oil production in the Gulf was lower than predicated by the Energy Information Administration (EIA); however, imports were up:

While oil production in the Gulf is down more than 10% from April 2010 estimates, net crude oil imports are up 5%. At $83 dollars a barrel (the approximate average price of oil in the fourth quarter of 2010) that means Obama’s oil drilling permatorium increased American dependence on foreign oil by about $1.8 billion dollars in the fourth quarter of last year alone. The numbers only get worse as Obama’s permitorium further cuts into production. A Wood Mackenzie study predicts that for all of 2011 the permitorium will result in the loss this year of about 375,000 barrels of oil a day.

More imported oil also means higher prices at the pumps. The EIA explains: “Retail gasoline prices tend to be higher the farther it is sold from the source of supply.” It costs more money to transport oil to your gas station from the Persian Gulf than from the Gulf of Mexico.

On April 26th, President Obama wrote a letter to Congress calling for “immediate action to eliminate unwarranted tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, and to use those dollars to invest in clean energy to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” The tax breaks President Obama is asking to be removed are worth $4 billion per year. This isn’t the president’s first call to action. His 2012 budget proposal also calls for the removal of the “subsidies.” But some have pointed out that the oil industry does not receive direct subsidy payments in the way that some farmers do. The president’s proposal specifically states:

Eliminates Inefficient Fossil Fuel Sub­sidies. Consistent with the Administration’s Government-wide effort to identify areas for sav­ings, the Budget eliminates inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that impede investment in clean energy sources and undermine efforts to address the threat of climate change. Approximately $4 bil­lion per year in tax subsidies to oil, gas, and other fossil fuel producers are proposed for repeal.

Here at the Acton Institute we have spoken in opposition to true subsidies, such as subsidized farming (articles can be found here, here, and here) and health care policy (a related article can be found here). In the past we have articulate the problems with subsidization. The language in President Obama’s budget proposal appears to be vague and does not specify where the oil industry will no longer be, in his words, subsidized. Is it in drilling? Does it affect gas prices? Ray Nothstine notes in his commentary, “High Gas Prices are Devastating to Poor” our moral obligation to the vulnerable and how the high gas prices are affecting them. With gas prices continuing to climb precautions should be taken to prevent even higher prices.

Brian Johnson, the American Petroleum Institute’s senior tax policy advisor, provides insight on the proposal in the president’s 2012 budget. Johnson explains that the president is proposing to remove the intangible drilling cost provision, which is the oil industry’s ability to deduct drilling “costs associated with labor, architecture, design and engineering; basically the building of an oil rig, a platform or any structure that allows the industry to get into the ground and find oil or natural gas.” Johnson claims this process helps in planning for the next stage of development and construction. Furthermore, Johnson claims the oil industry is already paying its fair share in taxes with an income tax rate at 48 percent. Whereas other S&P Industrials average a 24 percent effective tax rate. Stephen Comstock, also from API, responded to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, articulating problems with the president’s call to end subsidies for the oil industry.

While the call to end the oil subsidies is being criticized by some, others are supporting such an action. Bill Becker, a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism and an energy and climate specialist at Natural Capitalism Solutions, argues the subsidies place the United States at a competitive disadvantage to China and India in the competition to champion alternative energy:

If we are looking for ways to chip away at the budget deficit, to keep America competitive and to use market-based mechanisms to build a competitive clean energy economy, then subsidy reform should be near the top of the list.

Think of it this way: Imagine an Olympic marathon in which the U.S. team has to run on a steep and continuous uphill slope, while the teams from China and India run on a level track. That’s what “winning the future” will be like for the United States if we keep our perverse energy policies.  Direct and indirect taxpayer support for fossil energy, which far exceeds government support for emerging green energy technologies, almost certainly makes winning the future a futile race.

Becker also cites a report by the Government Accountability Office that claims “taxpayers are losing tens of billions of dollars in royalty payments in part because the Department of Interior doesn’t have sufficient capacity to monitor oil and gas production on public lands.”

In his letter address to Congress, the president calls to reinvest the $4 billion per year that the oil companies receive in subsidies into clean energy. The problem with current alternative energies is they are inefficient, not cost effective, and cause many unintended consequences (related articles on the inefficiency and unintended consequences of various alternative energies can be found here, here, here, and here).

Yes, we will need to develop good alternatives to oil over the long haul, but spending money on energy sources that are not effective is not a wise investment or a sign of being good financial stewards. If the tax provision and subsidies for the oil companies are to be cut, and taking into account the budget crisis the United States is currently facing, it may better serve the country to not reinvest the money and cut it out of the budget completely.

Today in Acton News & Commentary we brought you guest columnist Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild,” based on his new American Enterprise Institute monograph, Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI, looks at how the “connection between rising material standards and environmental improvement seems a paradox, because for a long time many considered material prosperity and population growth the irreversible engines of environmental destruction.” Not so. Hayward:

The central insight of environmentalism is that humanity’s great leap in material progress has come at a high cost to nature: we tear down entire mountains for their minerals; divert rivers and streams and drain swamps to provide water for modern agriculture and urban use; clear large amounts of forests for other uses, often disrupting crucial habitat for rare animal species; and too often dump our waste byproducts thoughtlessly into the air, water, and land.

But this insight contains a paradox. Environmentalism arose precisely because we have mitigated the material harshness of human life through the Industrial Revolution; as Aldo Leopold, author of the classic environmental book A Sand County Almanac, put it: “These wild things had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”

I want to thank John Baden of the the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Bozeman, Mont., for bringing this to our attention. Baden’s introduction to Hayward’s commentary is worth reprinting here in full; it’s an excellent thumbnail summary of environmental economics.

Steve Hayward’s column … makes one wonder how noted environmental professionals, and even scientists, can be so, how can I say it gently, remarkably ignorant and intellectually arrogant as this: “Economics is a form of brain damage.” Economics isn’t an ideology or a mental affliction. Rather, it’s the systematic study of allocating scarce resources among contending ends.

When applied to environmental and natural resource problems, its practitioners make a few nearly universally valid assumptions. Here are a few.

When things are free, they are counted as such and hence often over used. Common pools of fish exemplify this.

As scarcity increases, people conserve and innovate. Consider barbed wires introduction to open range, the development of particleboard, laminated beams, and plywood. Entrepreneurs developed these solutions to the increased scarcity of grass and old growth timber.

Property rights and markets peacefully coordinate development and use among people who don’t know one another and generate incentives to act as though they care about unknown others. That’s one under-appreciated function of markets.

Bureaucratic-political management replaces market prices with political favor seeking. Corn ethanol is a classic example that causes untold human misery and great environmental damage.

Wealthier is greener; poverty is the worst polluter.

And this; things that are best and most easily measured are not those that matter most.

Economics isn’t about money, it’s about confronting and helping to resolve the many problems of scarcity in a clear and logical manner. Soft hearts need not imply a mushy brain.

Read Steven F. Hayward’s “Economists in the Wild” on the Acton site. Sign up for Acton News & Commentary here.