Posts tagged with: Green politics

In the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (14.1), Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow challenge the economic impact of our definition of society in their article, “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect.” It occurred to me that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew implicitly challenges our definition of society on a different, though similar, level than Strow and Strow.  Strow and Strow analyze the changing results of economic utility functions based upon one’s definition of human society. In his book Encountering the Mystery (2008), His All-Holiness, however, broadens our definition of society not merely on the basis of relationship, geography, or voluntary associations, but on the basis of ontological groupings. This is not to say that he would equate a human child and a dog (or a dog and a flower, for that matter), but that, for the Patriarch, society includes the entire ontological hierarchy of all creation.

This perspective produces interesting results. For example, one may examine the case in recent years when Canada was still paying the state of Michigan to put Canadian trash in its landfills. Financially, Michigan was benefiting from the deal, but environmentally Canada succeeded in minimizing its trash and retaining unused landfill capacity. Economically, both can be considered capital, but they improve the respective societies in differing ways. The financial benefit of Michigan was purely a human benefit, whereas the environmental benefit of Canada benefited humans, animals, plants, air, and soil alike, even if only on a marginal level. As a country, rather than a state, Canada’s definition of society was not only broader in terms of humanity (whether relationally, geographically, or associatively), but also in terms of all creation.

However, as Strow and Strow’s analysis shows, if one were to expand the definition of society to the whole world, Canada did not succeed in producing any environmental benefit (the quantity of total world trash was not diminished at all, only geographically relocated). However, Michigan’s financial gain may have redistributed wealth in a way that still (again marginally) improved the world as a whole (raising per capita income, perhaps), while globally having an indifferent effect upon the environment.

The challenge of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, I believe, is to define society as broadly as possible, not only in terms of relationship, geography, or association, moving from individual to family to state to country to the world, but also moving from particular (one human) to group (family, state, or country) to species (all humanity) to genus (all animals or even all living things) to most general genus (all creation), to use classical categories. If one seeks to find a final say in the Patriarch’s work with regards to the relationship between economics and ecology, one may have many criticisms. However, if one takes his work as a starting point of discussion toward a Christian synthesis between these two disciplines, I believe one finds fertile ground for cultivating a productive engagement of economics and ecology on a global basis with such a cosmic view of society.


The Patriarch’s book Encountering the Mystery is published by Doubleday Religion and can be purchased at Amazon. The scope of the book is far broader than the subject at hand, but chapter VI, “The Wonder of Creation,” addresses his view of the relationship between economics and ecology from an Orthodox Christian perspective in detail. Additionally, his many talks, letters, and encyclicals related to environmentalism can be found here.

For more on Orthodoxy and Environmentalism, Very Rev. Fr. Michael Butler taught a session at this year’s Acton University, which can be accessed here.

For more on the ecological relationship of humanity to creation as a whole from a Christian perspective, see also Benjamin B. Philips, “A Creature among Creatures or Lord of Creation?” in the Symposium section of the current issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

You can subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality here.

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.