Christianity Today’s email update from today has a link for this piece, “A Climate of Change,” which reviews the current situation among evangelicals regarding environmental stewardship. And here’s a useful link to the CT Library archive of articles on the environment.
You may have seen an op-ed in the NYT last week by Tom Friedman, who noted that when oil and gas prices go up, bad things happen in oil producing nations abroad. The tendency is for the oppressive regimes in oil producing nations to consolidate their power and be less responsive to the demands of their citizens when they have the added buffer of huge profits from the sale of oil.
And domestically many have made the claim that rising oil and gas prices are a bad thing. Many people’s pocketbooks have been hit hard, when they stop to fill up at the pump and over the course of the long winter. So many people are against high gas prices that politicians at almost every level have felt the need to respond and make some sort of gesture, token or substantive, to address the issue.
There’s no doubt that the poor, as in most cases, are disproportionately affected by high energy prices. People on fixed incomes often have trouble paying their utility bills when prices spike. Others who must commute to their jobs have trouble filling up the gas tank. Attention needs to be fixed on the people in these sorts of situations, and help should be there when they need it. It must be noted, too, that increased taxes have the same drawback as increased prices from market-pressures: they are regressive.
But for the vast majority of Americans, if addressed honestly, the rising cost of oil is more of an inconvenience than anything else. If people can afford to buy expensive new SUVs and large trucks, they can afford the pinch on their disposable income that higher gas prices mean.
Even so, the inconvenience does have the ability to change people’s behavior, and this is why I’m making the argument that high gas prices have the potential to be a good, albeit a costly one (so to speak). People might drive less, carpool more, walk to the corner store instead of driving, and so on.
But an even bigger point is this: as gas prices rise the cost relative to other forms of energy is bound to decrease. This is why so many environmental advocates have long been arguing in favor of some sort of hefty additional petroleum products tax, which would make other sources of energy more competitive.
But what so many fail to see is that the market can accomplish by itself what such artificial and authoritarian measures are intended to do. Clearly the price we pay at the gas pump includes a huge amount by way of taxes to the various levels of government. But when gas prices rise without an increase in the amount of government taxation, the market itself is making other cleaner and renewable sources of energy more competitive.
As the Cornwall Declaration observes, “A clean environment is a costly good.” This has never been more true than in the case of rising gas prices. The wealth created by market economies allows the creation of new, better, and more efficient technologies. And the market itself gives strong economic incentive to the pursuit of such endeavors, especially when oil prices are on the rise.
It’s high time that environmentalists stopped being so wishy-washy about the market. As Paul Jacobs points out, they like the market when the prices are high but hate it when they are low. On this inconsistency, Jacobs is right. But where he’s wrong, I think, is that arguing for the positive effects of the market in this case automatically means that you must otherwise be for increased taxation to accomplish the same goals.
“Bodies for Barrels,” The McLaughlin Group, May 5, 2006 (archived text of issue available here; search for ” Issue Two: Bodies for Barrels.”) Key quote from Tony Blankley: “I’m in favor of free markets. The people will go to smaller cars if they want them. And trying to force people to buy cars they don’t want is foolish. And anybody who wants to protect their family, particularly if you have children, you want them in a lot of steel around them. And that to me is the better call to protect your children – driving around in Suburbans and large vehicles.”
Tom Daschle and Vinod Khosla, “Miles Per Cob,” The New York Times, May 8, 2006. Another installment of the “governments create markets” fallacy.
Jordan J. Ballor, “Humanity’s creativity helps environment,” Detroit News, April 22, 2006.
Jordan J. Ballor, “Cashing in on Carbon Credits,” Acton Commentary, April 19, 2006.
Remember when I said that I thought there is a dangerous incentive in climate change research to make things seem worse than they are? (If not, that’s OK. I actually called it an “analogous phenomenon” to the possibility that AIDS statistics are exaggerated.)
Well, TCS Daily reports that a letter to Canadian PM Stephen Harper signed by over 60 scientists asks a similar question. Richard Lindzen, Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), wonders, “How can a barely discernible, one-degree increase in the recorded global mean temperature since the late 19th century possibly gain public acceptance as the source of weather catastrophes? And how can it translate into claims about future catastrophes? The answer has much to do with misunderstanding the science of climate, plus a willingness to debase climate science into a triangle of alarmism.”
Peter C. Glover, author of the article, “Climate Change’s Gravy Train,” continues, noting that “Lindzen goes on to identify how the doom-mongers in both the science research community and media have a ‘vested interest’ in ‘hyping’ the political stakes for policymakers who provide more funds for more science research to feed more alarm. ‘After all’, Lindzen wonders, ‘who puts money into science — whether for AIDS, or space, or climate — where there is nothing really alarming’?”
Read the whole thing. Lindzen raises a number of good points, including the discrimination faced by scientists who haven’t drunk from the GW Kool-Aid. As he says, “Scientists who dissent from alarmism have seen their funds disappear, their work derided, and libelled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse.”
Andy Crouch, a columnist for Christianity Today, who wrote in support of policy action on global warming, would do well to listen. As I said in response to his column, “It’s ironic that Crouch finds the source of evangelical distrust of scientific global warming dogma in the contemporary creation/evolution debates. If there’s any group that should know about the difficulty of breaking through the groupthink of mainstream science, it ought to be the proponents of Intelligent Design.” IDers really ought to be able to identify with the plight of scientists who question the predictions of the global warming alarmists.
And not only does the alarmism assure that there money for climate research funding, it means there’s commercial money available too. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) grossed $186,740,799 domestically (as might be expected, it was a bit more popular abroad, grossing $542,771,772 worldwide).
Jordan Ballor, “A Love/Hate Relationship with Science,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (February 8, 2006).
Andy Crouch, Response #1 (September 10, 2005).
Jordan Ballor, “Comet-Busting Lasers: A Response to Andy Crouch,” Acton Institute PowerBlog (September 12, 2005).
Andy Crouch, Response #2 (September 12, 2005).
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, “What Stewardship Means,” BreakPoint WorldView (September 2004).
Roy Spencer, “Global Warming Hysteria Has Arrived,” TCS Daily (April 4, 2006).
Hans Von Storch and Nico Stehr, “A Climate of Staged Angst,” Der Spiegel (January 4, 2005).
Check out my Detroit News column today, “Humanity’s creativity helps environment,” in which I give a brief overview of the conflicting evangelical views of environmental stewardship.
Here’s an article in the Washington Post recently that I want to pass along, “Tithing Rewards Both Spiritual and Financial,” by Avis Thomas-Lester.
Among the highlights are the Rev. Jonathan Weaver of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church, who says, “Some people have a sense that pastors are heavy-handed . . . in the use of the Scripture to insist that people tithe. But we are not encouraging people to give 10 percent. We want them to be effective managers of the other 90 percent. God wants us to be effective managers of what He has entrusted us with.”
The story also points out the critical function that churches serve in the relief of the poor: “Long before government programs were put in place to help the poor and the needy, black churches were responsible for assisting their congregations with everything from food and shelter during Reconstruction to legal help during the civil rights movement. Money dropped into the offering plate wasn’t just for the building fund. Black churches paid to help poor and disenfranchised citizens at a time when no other help was available, experts said.”
The article goes on to observe some of the potential pitfalls of tithing, namely giving only “under the belief that the members will prosper financially in return.” This is part of a larger “prosperity gospel” movement, and as this piece illustrates, is not restricted to churches in the US.
For more about how the principle of the tithe can function in helping the poor and those who need it the most, see my “The North American Church and Global Stewardship,” and “Building on the Tithe.”
Amy Ridenour of the National Center for Public Policy passes along a report from Peyton Knight about a briefing in Washington sponsored by the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance, the Acton Institute, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
According to Knight, at the luncheon “top theologians and policy experts articulated a vision of Biblical stewardship based upon the Cornwall Declaration.” You can read the text of the Cornwall Declaration here.
Dr. E. Calvin Beisner, an Acton adjunct scholar and professor at Knox Theological Seminary, said, “While we recognize that some environmental problems are well-founded and serious, we are concerned that some are ill founded or greatly exaggerated. We are interested in priorities placed on well-founded concerns, especially those that put large numbers of people, usually the poor, at risk.”
On a related note, for an overview of the vision of stewardship as articulated in two different documents, check out this commentary in which I compare the Cornwall Declaration to the Evangelical Environmental Network’s “Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation.”
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship,” I note that blessed with extraordinary material riches, Christians in North America are increasingly viewing their stewardship responsibilities in a global context. I look at one school in British Columbia and how their local building project also raised funds for a school in Sierra Leone.
Dennis DeGroot, principal of Fraser Valley Christian High School, writes and informs me, “The money keeps coming in for the school project. The students have far exceeded their goal. The total now at $36,000 and money still coming in.” He also says, “My long term vision for this is that all Christian schools would find partnerships like ours in the developing world; true partnerships where we learn from each other where real wealth lies.”
For some background, you can read my brief column in The Banner, “Building on the Tithe.”
While there is a general acceptance of the role of private property for social order and economic prosperity, the challenges to private property have not ended. The eminent domain issue is one threat; another comes from environmentalist groups such as the Foundation for Deep Ecology and others who see humans as a drain on the earth and nature. Some environmentalists advocate the consolidation of land to be put under federal control and promote stringent land usage restrictions that would prevent a landowner using his property fruitfully.
Their argument is nothing new: individuals left to themselves will not be as effective as central planners in decided the best way to allocate and protect resources, etc. etc—they are merely variants of the Marxian arguments used by economic central planners.
Despite the rhetoric, common ownership of land and resources has not been an effective means of addressing problems. It failed under applied socialism, and has not led to environmental protection and stewardship as environmentalists hope. Private property ownership creates incentives for people to use land wisely and in a sustainable manner. John Stossel gives an excellent illustrations of the importance of incentives and the private ownwership including privatizing elephant ownership in Africa.
St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the question of property and human incentives in the 13th century. He argued it is lawful to own property for three reasons:
First, because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.
Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone has to look after one thing indeterminately.
Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to observed that quarrels arise more frequently where ther is no division of the things possessed.
Notice the humanist vision—the appreciation for the individual, an understanding of human nature, a respect for the capabilities of individuals to make decisions and control their own sphere. Also notice point number three. Compare this to the unspeakable violence perpetrated by socialist government leaders on their own citizens because they were not “content” with operating in their own sphere.
It is unfortunate Marx and the socialists were not steeped in the thought of St. Thomas early on. Who knows, it could have avoided some of the pain and suffering imposed by socialist governments on their own people. But the reality of Marxism has become clear. As Pope Benedict put it in his new encyclical Deus Caritas Est
Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.
The leftwing environmentalists are part of a long line of central planners. They want to the control of property in the hand of government bureaucrats and planners, i.e., themselves. But planners are always less effective than those closer to the problem, because no matter how much they know, or think they know, they’ll never has as much knowledge as those individuals on the ground close to the situation. This is the principle of subsidiarity—rooted in Aquinas’ defense of private property. Wisdom of the past as applicable today as it was then.
In the latest issue of Science & Spirit magazine, Acton director of research Samuel Gregg is interviewed about the ethical aspects of the genetic engineering of food. In “God and the New Foodstuffs,” author Trey Popp writes about the opposition to such endeavors:
Some scientists and environmentalists fear GM crops may have unforeseen consequences. Many organic and small-scale farmers see the new crops as an economic threat; there have been cases in which GM corn has contaminated nearby fields, ruining the market value of neighboring crops. Some social justice activists assert that a precious few wealthy companies reap the benefits of GM crops at the expense of farmers and consumers.
But Gregg offers a counter to the opposition from a variety of perspectives. “There’s an imperative in Christianity in particular, but also in Judaism and Islam, of helping the poor and dealing with questions about poverty and hunger. Hunger is something that afflicts the developing world in particular. Genetically modified food has the potential to radically transform that situation,” says Gregg.
I have written a theological/biblical exposition of the case for genetically modifying plant life with respect to crop yields, nutrition supplementation, and other aspects of improvement in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” My basic point is that the primary created purpose for plantlife was that of providing sustenance for beings with the breath of life. Having a primarily instrumental created purpose, therefore, I’m in agreement with Gregg that the use and “alteration” of plants on a genetic level can be a proper fulfillment of stewardship mandate.
What isn’t always made quite so clear in the article is the biblical distinction between plants on the one hand and beings with the “breath of life” (animals and humans) on the other. So, for example, Calvin DeWitt, president of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, opposes GM foods on the basis of his interpretation of the flood narrative. “There is not much concern for individuals when Noah is asked to put animals on the ark two by two. The emphasis is on lineage. And although, at the time that was written, there wasn’t the terminology to say that these are genetic lineages, they in fact are, of course. These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are…gifts to the whole of creation,” he says.
But the relevance of his observation is not immediately apparent. The parts of the flood narrative that DeWitt is talking about concern animal life, not plant life (see my post here about ways in which the Noahic covenant is misinterpreted and applied to environmental issues).
I think there it is much tougher to make a theological case for the genetic modification of animals than it is for GM crops. For more on the genetic modification of animals, especially with regard to the creation of human-animal chimeras, see my forthcoming article in the premier issue of Salvo magazine.
In yesterday’s Acton Commentary, I argued that the biblical foundation for the concepts of stewardship and economics should lead us to see them as united. In this sense I wrote, “Economics can be understood as the theoretical side of stewardship, and stewardship can be understood as the practical side of economics.” I also defined economics as “the thoughtful ordering of the material resources of a household or social unit toward the self-identified good end” and said that the discipline “helps us rightly order our stewardship.”
Within the context of environmental stewardship in particular, I concluded that economics should play a key role in defining public policy. This is becoming a more pressing issue as a number of evangelical and religious leaders around the world are endorsing specific policy initiatives to combat global warming.
Following the formation of the Evangelical Climate Initiative by a number of prominent evangelical leaders in the United States, general secretary of the World Council of Churches Rev. Samuel Kobia said yesterday, “Just as atomic weapons changed the very way we thought about life, so too the potential of major climatic changes put life as we know it in danger” He said this while emphasizing that all religious people should “speak with one voice” about climate change.
My brief commentary outlined some reasons why Christians may have differing opinions on this point. And Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint feature, “Evangelical Activism,” details some of the other aspects of the debate.
“Now, we all have a stewardship responsibility for God’s creation, but we also have responsibility for God’s creatures. Balancing those interests requires prudence,” he writes. On issues of prudential wisdom, Christians on both sides of a debate may well have good reasons to disagree. Check out his commentary for links to a number of pertinent resources.