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Topping today’s Science/Nature section at BBC News, “Population size ‘green priority'”, by Richard Black. The article focuses on the thoughts of Professor Chris Rapley, Director of the British Antarctic Survey, who contends that the “current global population of six billion is unsustainably high.” This is to say nothing of the growth rate and future generations.

Based on a column Rapley wrote for a new BBC feature, The Green Room, the article presents the view that “humankind is consuming the Earth’s resources at an unsustainably fast rate,” based on “a number of studies.”

The basis for Rapley’s concern, as you might expect, is carbon emissions, but he writes, “Although reducing human emissions to the atmosphere is undoubtedly of critical importance, as are any and all measures to reduce the human environmental ‘footprint’, the truth is that the contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero.”

He concludes, “Only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing.”

Rapley laments that there is a paucity of opportunities to discuss population growth, since it is not often discussed at global environmental summits. “Rare indeed are the opportunities for religious leaders, philosophers, moralists, policymakers, politicians and indeed the “global public” to debate the trajectory of the world’s human population in the context of its stress on the Earth system, and to decide what might be done,” he writes.

Rapley does seem to overlook the UN’s World Population Day, which is little more than a campaign for population controls. And the myth of humanity as a plague species has been fodder for London’s “The Human Zoo,” as well as happening to be the view of Agent Smith in the Matrix movies.

As we saw in a recent commentary by Acton research fellow Jay Richards, Rapley is certainly not alone in his concern. A letter to Richards about his book on intelligent design from a prominent scientist read in part: “Still, adding over seventy million new humans to the planet each year, the future looks pretty bleak to me. Surely, the Black Death was one of the best things that ever happened to Europe: elevating the worth of human labor, reducing environmental degradation, and, rather promptly, producing the Renaissance. From where I sit, Planet Earth could use another major human pandemic, and pronto!”

Perhaps some individuals have imbibed such a view, as birth rates in the developed world are not growing. A 2004 UN report showed that “because of its low and declining rate of population growth, the population of developed countries as a whole is expected to remain virtually unchanged between 2005 and 2050.” Most of the countries in the developed world which will account for the decline in birth rates belong to the EU. The US, on the other hand, is one of the eight nations that will “account for half of the world’s projected population increase.”

But part of the reason that Rapley’s concerns aren’t getting much attention beyond pop culture phenomena and some macabre colleagues is that the population explosion myth has been rather thoroughly debunked. The case of carbon emissions is simply the latest hook for population control advocates. For more on population and the environment, check out Acton’s policy section, which links to a number of helpful resources.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
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In the latest issue of Touchstone, Acton senior fellow Jennifer Roback Morse examines the issues of procreation and property in contemporary society, and the seemingly growing opinion anyone can be a parent if they so choose. In “First Comes Marriage” Morse contends, “There is no right to a child, because a child is not an object to which other people have rights.”

She goes on to make a clarification about meanings of “rights” language that are often conflated:

We must distinguish between “the right to have a child” in the sense of possession and the “right to have a child” in the sense of procreation. There is one coherent way to imagine a right to procreate. Two people of the opposite sex can come together to conceive a child, without permission from the state or anyone else. People do it all the time.

To put it another way: Every individual is sterile. No one can have a baby by himself. Each human infant has two parents, one male and one female. Therefore, any right to have a child should be held by a couple, not by an individual who wishes to be a parent.

Read the whole thing and subscribe to Touchstone here.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
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Kishore has helpfully pointed out the discussions going on elsewhere about Rodney Stark’s piece and the related NYT David Brook’s op-ed. He derides some of the commenters for their lack of economic understanding, but I’d like to applaud one commenter’s post. He questions, as I do, the fundamental validity of Stark’s thesis (which essentially ignores such an important strand of Christianity as Eastern Orthodoxy). Among other astute observations, Christopher Sarsfield asks: “Was it the principles of Christianity that put the ‘goddess of reason’ on the altar of Notre Dame? Or rather was it the rejection of Christianity and the embracing of the Enlightenment?”

The historical phenomena of the Enlightenment is one fundamental place of failure in Stark’s piece (I have not read his book, perhaps he deals with it there. For now, I’ll have to restrict the conversation to the thesis as it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article). In broad strokes, let’s say that I agree with Stark that Christianity is perhaps the single greatest influence on the flowering of Western civilization. As Scottish presbyterian theologian John Baillie has said, “The great shadow on the conscience of the modern West is the shadow of the Cross.”

Where we differ is in our estimation of the role of reason in Christian theology, and thus in our view of the contribution that the Christian view of reason made to the broader world. Stark’s claim that the Christian appreciation for reason was the basis for capitalism, and implicitly therefore technological and scientific advance, simply does not account for the complex historical antecedents and contexts of these systems.

With respect to theology, modernity (usually traced to Descartes) and the Enlightenment up through and beyond Immanuel Kant, is aptly (although simplistically) characterized by the triumph of reason over revelation, a truly Copernican revolution. As Sarsfield states, “Christianity is a religion of revelation. Our primary guide is not logic and reason, but faith in God’s revelation, which reached its fullness with the incarnation of Christ.”

The engagement of Enlightenment critical philosophy placed the relationship between faith and reason in an altogether different one than had dominated precritical times. The less-than-amicable reception of modernity by pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism attests to this. (As a side note, a debate over the reception of Immanuel Kant by Christian theology is now freely available in the Journal of Markets & Morality archive, beginning here with a piece by Derek S. Jeffreys, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and continuing with a response by Robert P. Kraynak, professor at Colgate University.)

Instances abound of a rationalistic Christianity, such as Cambridge Platonism (more broadly latitudinarianism) and the religion of reason itself. Indeed, the deistic religions, not Christianity, are those which best meet Stark’s definition of having a “fundamental commitment” to “reason and progress.” The placement of all these developments under the broad rubric of “Christianity” is simply untenable.

Don A. Howard laments that “explicit engagement with the philosophy of science plays almost no role in the training of physicists or in physics research.” The foundations of modern science in rational religion are all too often ignored these days, not only by those in the natural sciences, but also those in the social sciences.

If Stark is right, that Christianity’s most important contribution to the Western world has been a commitment to reason, if this is how “the West was won,” then that is cause for mourning and repentance, not celebration. It means that the church’s vocation has been usurped, our commission has been left unfulfilled.

The historic and theological relationship between faith and reason is a critically important one for study. But it deserves far more careful attention than what it appears to be given by Stark’s thesis. In general, the church has bordered on being far too accomodating of the modern world, and this is evident in its proclamation and apologetics. John Baillie wrote in the first half of the last century:

During the last several generations we who preach the gospel have been far too ready to assume that the modern man had developed an immunity against its appeal. We have approached him apologetically. We have made stammering excuses for our intrusion. For the old direct challenge we have substituted the language of debate. Where our forefathers would have confronted him with God’s commandments, we have parleyed with him over God’s existence and over the authenticity of His claims.

The fundamental commitment to revelation over reason is one that is shared by the great Christian tradition, represented by Augustine, Aquinas, and all the other great Christian theologians that Stark names. It is not a commitment that is shared by proponents of a rationalistic Christianity or reasonable religion, and this difference cannot be overlooked in any account of the rise of Western civilization.

The Acton debate on the relationship has featured blog posts on Rodney Stark and David Brooks’s column on Starks.

Amy Welborn’s site has more in these two posts (here and here), with a somewhat lively debate in the comments sections.

Several of the comments regard Max Weber’s thesis on the Protestant work ethic and capitalism, and reveal a misunderstanding of what makes for economic growth in Ireland and the lack of it in Latin America.

It’s pretty obvious there are few Actonites or economists taking place in the debate over at Amy Welborn’s. If they had been reading the Journal of Markets and Morality, they could have saved themselves a lot of time.

Jordan Ballor’s recent post on “Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism” hit onto something big.

In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist David Brooks weighs in with a piece entitled “The Holy Capitalists”. (Once again, the Times has blocked access to non-subscribers. If you aren’t a subscriber, buy today’s Times just to read this column – it’s worth it.)

Brooks calls the debate over the foundations of success the most important in the social sciences today and praises Rodney Stark’s book “The Victory of Reason” for its unconventional take on Western progress.

“Religion didn’t stifle economic and scientific ideas – it nurtured them. […] Catholic theology had taught [European scientists and economists] that God had created the universe according to universal laws that reason could discover.”

He concludes, “Ideas and culture drive civilizations. The Catholic Church nutured one of the most impressive economic takeoffs in human history. Today, as Catholicism spreads in Africa and China, it’s important to understand the beliefs that encourage people to work hard and grow rich.”

Some of these themes can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent World Day of Peace Message (albeit in less provocative language). And they are also of great interest to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, headed by Prof. Mary Ann Glendon.

Maybe this discussion will be joined on the letters page of the “newpaper of record”. And maybe the Times will even allow non-subscribers to take part.

I wrote previously about the result of the recent world information summit that resulted in ICANN’s continuing governance over Internet domain registration worldwide. Fast Company Now provides us a link to the letter from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez that may have precipitated the détente. Among the salient features of the letter:

  • The contention that “support for the present structures for Internet governance is vital. These structures have proven to be a reliable foundation for the robust growth of the Internet we have seen over the course of the last decade.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • “Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight” (read UN involvement) “is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe.”
  • An emphasis on non-governmental solutions: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

The tone of the letter is rather unyielding (principled, perhaps?) in the face of complaints against ICANN (and implicitly American) dominance over Internet administration. I find the arguments rather compelling, especially given that ICANN seems to be responsive to global concerns.

For example, a new Internet domain for the European Union opened up this past Wednesday. This will allow interested parties to register with the new “.eu” suffix instead of having to choose from country-specific codes, such as “.uk” or “.fr”, or other generic options, “.com” and “.net”.

So ICANN is listening to the EU, even if the push for the new domain isn’t a grassroots campaign. The question is whether Europeans actually desire a “.eu” domain name: “Some business groups are uncertain how popular it will be. Europeans have an EU flag, an EU passport and an EU anthem but many have a lukewarm attitude to European integration —as French and Dutch ‘no’ votes to a new constitution showed this year.” I don’t think a “.na” (North America) domain would be that popular for Canadians and Americans, for instance.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, December 1, 2005
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A section compiled by Matt Donnelly at Science & Theology News calls the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance’s recent formation a continuation of “the recent and laudable trend of faith-based organizations making a serious attempt to grapple with the religious basis for environmental stewardship.”

The section also provides links to their coverage of a number of other aspects of “the intersection of religious belief and environmental protection.”

Blog author: kwoods
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
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Tis the Season!

The Salvation Army Bell Ringers are now audibly calling us to seasonal charitable giving. But the pleas from multiple organizations for our benevolence—from both unprecedented terrorist attacks and natural disasters to the ever-present needs of our less fortunate neighbors—have been virtually ongoing since 9/11.

However, amidst all the research about how much Americans give and who needs what the most, and the gloom and doom rhetoric of so-called donor fatigue, it is appropriate to appreciate another principle as important as charity–freedom. Apart from any “shoulds” and “oughts,” we may first give thanks that whatever resources we have—including time, goods, and financial ones—are ours to give freely. (The IRS variable is ever-present, so it’s not ALL ours to give, but there is some.)

And notwithstanding the [url=http://www.ncrp.org/press_room/index.asp?Article_Id=73]accusatory finger pointing[/url] of [url=http://blog.acton.org/index.html?/archives/140-The-Best-Kind-of-Charity.html]“social philanthropy” advocates[/url] those with little or generous means are on a level decision making playing field: they have the freedom to give to those individuals, causes, and communities, even in countries of their choosing.

In review of unprecedented disasters spanning September 11 to the 2005 hurricane season, a [url=http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/05/AR2005110500276.html]Washington Post headline[/url] blazed “Some disasters compel us to give: Americans reach for their wallets.” And frankly, no where else on the planet do human beings seem so compelled to give and give so generously as Americans. Congressional attention to the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c109:8:./temp/~c109CEgfH5]Katrina Tax Relief Act[/url], the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:s.01780]C.A.R.E. Act [/url] and the recent late night passage of the [url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:s.02020]Budget Reconciliation Bill[/url] all attempt to encourage us to give even more to charity.

Tocqueville is among the legion who have articulated this [url=http://www.acton.org/publicat/m_and_m/new/review.php?id=26]unique, overwhelming American response[/url] to needs of fellow human beings. And now ‘tis the season to not just give thanks for the resources that we have but more importantly the freedom that we have to use those resources.

Only in a free society is the true dignity of each human person underscored. Free to earn and free to give. And even the decision about what is “good charity” vs. “bad charity” is a reflection of a society that gives us freedom to have and then to exercise those values. End-of-year giving should cause us to reflect on July 4th as well.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
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This made me think of this. If the British phone company were really smart, they’d just negotiate a price to use the Book-A-Minute Classics. The versions are a bit different, though. Here’s Dante’s Inferno: “Some woman puts Dante through Hell. THE END.”

These are really quite good. I especially like the War and Piece classic.

HT: Betsy’s Page (It made her think of the connection, too)

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 21, 2005
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This month’s Esquire magazine is the annual “Genius” issue (with Bill Clinton as the coverboy, which might seem strange until you realize that the word “genius” is related to the words “genii” and “jinn,” which in mythology were often negative spiritual beings, “commonly believed to be responsible for diseases and for the manias of some lunatics”).

Speaking about the trouble with working through and for bureaucratic governments in his article “What I Did on My Summer Vacation: I Went to Africa,” (subscription required) Jeffrey Sachs, director of both the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the UN Millennium Project: “Officialdom the world over is pretty slow moving, pretty impractical, and pretty darn frustrating in many ways, so even when the proof of these concepts is clear, actually getting things done is not so easy.”

So when Sachs sees problems all over the world, he’s rightly frustrated by the governmental inability to deal with the issues. Through his hands-on experience, Sachs has learned to appreciate the necessary and decisive role private charity plays. He says with respect to the poverty, suffering, and death in developing countries,

It’s not very satisfactory to see this and not act. And so in the last couple of years I’ve started to talk about these problems with business leaders and philanthropists, and over and over again I’ve heard the same response: Don’t wait for the government. I’ll help you. So what kind of accidentally dawned on us was that we could just go ahead and get these concepts proven on the ground. And that’s what we are doing. And many philanthropists have come forward now and said, We’ll give you some backing; show us what you can do.

This is exactly the element that poverty advocate and U2 frontman Bono called for in a recent interview. “We need the marketing firepower,” he said. “We have the churches, the students, the rock stars, the movie stars, the cowboys. What we need now is corporate America.”

Sachs goes on to describe how the idea for Millennium Villages came about, through the interaction of field experts and donors: “…that’s how the Millennium Villages concept was born. The scientists said, Let’s move. The philanthropists said, Let’s move. A year ago we went and met with the community in Kenya and talked to people there about it. And they said, Let’s move!”

Sachs goes on to lay out the foundation for the UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which emphasize both public and private sector engagement, but at over a 2:1 ratio of public over private. He writes of a meeting to find out what it would take to get developing countries out of poverty, “They said the public sector will do some and the private sector needs to do some, and that it should be about a seventy-thirty split. So that’s where the seventy cents came from. And that was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1970.”

It’s unfortunate that the sensitivity that Sachs has at the beginning of the article to the unresponsiveness and corruption of government doesn’t lead him to primarily emphasize private rather than public aid. It’s appropriate to call governments to task for not living up to their pledges, the United States especially. But that finger-wagging shouldn’t take away from the “Let’s move, don’t wait for government” approach. That’s essentially my complaint with the church infatuation with the MDG’s…they tend to overemphasize the role of government and deemphasize personal and private giving.