Posts tagged with: environmentalism

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.

“Environmentalism, Marxism, Utopianism,” Part 2 of a recent Acton roundtable discussion, is now available. Michael Miller leads a discussion with Samuel Gregg, Jordan Ballor and Anielka Munkel about environmentalism, Marxism, liberation, theology, Christian syncretism, Utopianism and one of Michael’s favorite topics, Alexis de Tocqueville. Check out Acton’s YouTube page here.

Spy

Can you explain why you are not recycling, tovarich?

In “Recycling Bins Go Big Brother on Cleveland Residents,” FastCompany.com writer Ariel Schwartz reported that the city is introducing a $2.5 million “Big Brother-like system next year to make sure residents are recycling.”

Chips embedded in recycling carts will keep track of how often residents take the carts to the curb for recycling. If a bin hasn’t been taken to the curb in a long time, city workers will go rummaging through the trash to find recyclables. And if workers find that over 10% of the trash is made up of recyclable materials, residents could face a $100 fine.

The system isn’t entirely new. Cleveland began a pilot program with the carts in 2007, according to Cleveland.com … Alexandria, Virginia has a similar system, and cities in England have been using high-tech trash systems for years. But if the chip system works in a city as big as Cleveland, other small to medium sized cities will probably take note.

The program makes sense as long as cities don’t go too far. San Francisco, for example, has threatened to fine residents who don’t compost their waste. A chip system installed in San Francisco compost bins could probably make the city a lot of cash–and cost residents dearly.

Well, yes, there is a certain bureaucratic logic to it. It’s just the off-hand concern about going “too far” that leaves me a little uneasy.

Mark Steyn took it to the next logical step. He’s skeptical, as you can discern from the title of his blog post, “Gullible eager-beaver planet savers”:

In 2006, to comply with the “European Landfill Directive,” various municipal councils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced “smart” trash cans—“wheelie bins” with a penny-sized electronic chip embedded within that helpfully monitors and records your garbage as it’s tossed into the truck. Once upon a time, you had to be a double-0 agent with Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be able to install that level of high-tech spy gadgetry. But now any old low-level apparatchik from the municipal council can do it, all in the cause of a sustainable planet. So where’s the harm?

And once Big Brother’s in your trash can, why stop there? Our wheelie-bin sensors are detecting an awful lot of junk-food packaging in your garbage. Maybe you should be eating healthier. In Tokyo, Matsushita engineers have created a “smart toilet”: you sit down, and the seat sends a mild electric charge through your bottom that calculates your body/fat ratio, and then transmits the information to your doctors. Japan has a fast-aging population imposing unsustainable costs on its health system, so the state has an interest in tracking your looming health problems, and nipping them in the butt. In England, meanwhile, Twyford’s, whose founder invented the modern ceramic toilet in the 19th century, has developed an advanced model—the VIP (Versatile Interactive Pan)—that examines your urine and stools for medical problems and dietary content: if you’re not getting enough roughage, it automatically sends a signal to the nearest supermarket requesting a delivery of beans. All you have to do is sit there as your VIP toilet orders à la carte and prescribes your medication.

In “The New Despotism of Bureaucracy” on NRO, the Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding wrote:

The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.

And not just just at the federal level, of course. Now, the distant disembodied “administrative state” may be more and more personified in your neighbor in town and township. And when he strolls up your driveway to talk to you, it won’t be about your interest in coaching Little League or to borrow a weed whacker but to ask: Why did you put those old newspapers in the trash?

On his recently launched Ambiguorum Blogis site, Fr. Michael Butler is reviewing Elizabeth Theokritoff’s Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). Fr. Michael, who joined us for Acton University 2010, examines the author’s exhausted earth meme, beginning with this quote from the book:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (Theokritoff, p. 21).

Fr. Michael comments:

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (Theokritoff, p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

Fr. Michael has been a priest in the Orthodox Church in America for more than 15 years in Michigan and Ohio. See his bio and scholarly interests here. And put him on your blog roll and newsreader today.

Some Earth Day thoughts, beginning with some reflections on the month of April by two great poets, over at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Prior to the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, we witnessed environmental catastrophes of nearly Biblical or World War proportions. Rivers caught on fire, whole species were on the brink of extinction and smog enveloped our cities. One could say a new breed of Man evolved from this morass, emboldened with the conservative spirit of preservation of our environment. It didn’t matter that many environmentalists considered themselves anything but conservative, because what was most important was their dedication to conserving and nurturing those aspects of life that bring immediate aesthetic, spiritual and corporeal value to our lives – namely clean water and air flowing through and over landscapes uncluttered by signifiers of human immoderation. Chaucer’s recognition of “aprill” as immediately realized rather than Eliot’s hope of April as a harbinger of rebirth.

Read “Earth Day 2010: Michigan’s Environment as Eden or Waste Land?” on the Mackinac Center site.

While you’re at it, you might be interested in “Windmills Power Controversy on Great Lakes,” Tom Gantert’s piece in Michigan Capitol Confidential.

A recent Fox News piece on President Obama’s “science czar,” John Holdren, makes for spooky reading, dramatizing where well-intended intellectuals can end up when they take a zero-sum view of our planet’s resources.

In a 1977 course book that Holdren co-authored with environmental activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the three make an extended case for aggressive global population control. As the Fox News article explains:

Holdren and the Ehrlichs offer ideas for “coercive,” “involuntary fertility control,” including “a program of sterilizing women after their second or third child,” which doctors would be expected to do right after a woman gives birth.

“Unfortunately,” they write, “such a program therefore is not practical for most less developed countries,” where doctors are not often present when a woman is in labor.

The Most Dangerous Game

The article provides a pdf of the relevant pages of the 1977 course book (go here). Reading these several pages makes it difficult to take seriously a statement by Holdren’s office that Dr. Holdren “does not now support and has never supported compulsory abortions, compulsory sterilization, or other coercive approaches to limiting population growth.” At best, a passage at the end of 788 and the beginning of 789 suggests that the three authors would happily opt for less coercive measures, provided those measures work to their satisfaction.

Holdren and the Ehrlichs are not alone. There’s a long history, dating back at least to the 1700s, of doomsters insisting that population growth coupled with a scarcity of natural resources will very soon ruin civilization.

What’s behind this pessimism, a pessimism apparently immune to contrary historical evidence? In Acton’s new Effective Stewardship DVD curriculum, soon to be released by Zondervan (go here), Acton president Rev. Robert Sirico puts the matter in philosophical and theological context. There he argues that the problem is rooted in a false anthropology, one in which the doctrine of the imago dei is eclipsed, and with it the powerful role of human creativity:

There are many people, including religious leaders, who say that the essential problem is a problem of resource, and that if it’s a problem of resource then it’s a problem of population. This is what I call humaniphobia.

The image in the humaniphobe’s mind is that the human person is one big mouth that is constantly ingesting, and then polluting.

On such a view, humans are the problem rather than the solution. The takeaway question is this: Do we really want to hand our health care over to the U.S. government when a science adviser like Holdren has the president’s ear?

There are two basic errors that entrap discussants on issues related to environmental stewardship. The first error is that of the uncritical activist, who is always ready to embrace whatever faddish innovation or practice the green intelligentsia casts as the latest solution. The problem with this approach is that in it often results in negative unintended consequences. Call this the error of the “early adopter.”

On the other extreme is that of the reactive critic, who is only too willing to cast scorn upon anything new in the realm of environmental concern (in part due to the over-exuberance of the early adopters). Comfortable in civilized affluence, the conservative anti-conservationist distrusts any claim of stewardship or responsibility that might upset complacency. Call this the error of the “never adopter.”

A characteristic common to both of these extremes is a sort of knee-jerk reaction, either for or against, that is basically un-reflective. Rational argumentation comes in later, if it comes at all, after a side or position has already been chosen. A sounder approach, I believe, is a more thoughtful and reflective environmentalism, a middle way between two extremes, if you will.

This is an approach that appreciates the possibilities for new technologies and innovations, for alternative sources of energy, without prejudice towards any particular project or every prospect in general. It’s an approach to questions of particular policies that values data over nostalgia, effect over sentiment, consequence over intent, even technique over piety. So let’s not uncritically embrace or unthinkingly deride new developments and concerns in the realm of environmental stewardship.

This article at the WSJ reviews a book that purports to be about progressive environmentalism. Doomsday is out. Nobody cares. People need material well-being before they are interested in environmentalism at all.

Messrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger want "an explicitly pro-growth agenda," on the theory that investment, innovation and imagination may ultimately do more to improve the environment than punitive regulation and finger-wagging rhetoric. To stabilize atmospheric carbon levels will take more–much more–than regulation; it will require "unleashing human power, creating a new economy."

Not perfect, but alot better than what passes for environmentalism most of the time.

In an Earth Day column last week that was skeptical about the gospel of global warming consensus, Glenn Shaw, a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, expressed hoped that the climate change debate might spark a more comprehensive conversation about humankind’s complex environmental responsibilities.

In fact the opposite seems to be happening: the activist buzz over global warming is reducing the broader concept of environmental stewardship to a litmus-test on climate change. That’s why I wrote a piece that appeared in today’s Detroit News, “U.S. must move beyond Earth Day slogans.”

In this op-ed I examine three aspects of environmental care that show the comprehensive nature of stewardship, complex realities that belie the free and easy slogans of bumper sticker environmentalism: planting trees, compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), and plug-in cars.

For more information about the sources used in this story, see these related items:

Over at the Huffington Post blog, David Roberts, a staff writer for Grist.org, describes the relationship between activist causes, like women’s reproductive rights and “sustainable development,” and population control.

Roberts says he doesn’t directly address the problem of over-population because talking about it as such isn’t very effective. Apparently, telling people that they and their kids very existence is the “ultimate problem of all problems” doesn’t resonate very well. It “alienates a large swathe of the general public,” you know, the ones who still have some residual moral sensibilities.

So, instead, Roberts pursues items that he think will ultimately result in lowered populations…a subordination of these causes as means to the greater end. He writes, “Each of these — empowering women and spreading prosperity — is worth pursuing in its own right. Each is a powerful political rallying cry. Each produces a range of ancillary benefits.”

But of course the greatest benefit of them both is that they help in “scaling human population back.”

And as Roberts notes, the connection between radical environmentalism and population control has been devastating for the cause, leading him to conclude that overt population control rhetoric “is political poison.”

His concluding advice? “If you’re worried about population, work toward sustainable development and female empowerment.”

And, I might add, if you are able to similarly disguise a radical environmentalist agenda and separate out the perception of pursuing population control, why not work toward that too?