There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such thing as a free trip to Montana to attend a FREE conference. That is, a conference sponsored and reimbursed by FREE – the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment.
Last week’s conference on “Environmental Economics of Creation Stewardship” – for “religious media leaders” – was a fascinating attempt to start a conversation on how people of faith should approach the natural world.
Pairing economics with the environment is an apt juxtaposition. We often hear calls for environmental sustainability coupled with calls for economic sustainability. Many times, as illustrated by the ubiquitous sustainability Venn diagram, there’s also a social or spiritual aspect. Supposedly that’s where “religious media leaders” come in.
So we had the complete trifecta represented there in Bozeman last week. I was curious as to how “sustainability” would be treated by an organization seemingly more favorable to markets than regulation. My husband came as well, looking to learn what it means to take a Christian perspective on the environment.
The twenty-two participants represented intellectual diversity in person. Among us were the president of ProgressiveChristianity.org; a WORLD magazine journalist; a retired university president; a pro-life activist; a U.S. Department of the Interior natural resources attorney; a Greek Orthodox priest; several professors, and several representatives of organizations such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy and the Acton Institute.
Some attendees believed that working to mitigate the effects of global warming should be a top priority; others were delighted at the prospect of warmer weather. Some thought population control is an insidious effort to undermine human life; others defended Paul Ehrlich’s ideas. Some favored reparations to those displaced by American colonialism; others wanted to move on from the past.
In the opening session, George Mason University Professor of Law Steve Eagle laid out the various motives for environmentalism: anthropocentric (for the benefit of human health and well-being), ecocentric (for nature as an inherent good, assuming that humans are not privileged over the rest of nature), and theocentric (to honor God). I discussed these motives, as well as the thrift-o-centric one (go green to save money on the utilities bill) in my 2010 article “For Goodness Sake: Sustainability Ponders Ethics.” At the time I published it, a Patagonia commercial was running, voiced-over by the company’s founder saying, “We’re part of nature and as we destroy nature we destroy ourselves. It’s a selfish thing to want to protect nature.” Quick, which –centric is that?
Professor Eagle went on to define stewardship and dominion, gave a caveat that the environment is not self-regulating, and warned against the temptation to believe that signing something is the same as doing something. He offered a catchphrase: “cool heads, warm hearts.”
His question, “How can we establish a framework to protect both individual free will and good stewardship of Creation?” was meant to shape our week in Bozeman. From there we examined “the tragedy of the commons,” geoengineering, predatory bureaucracies, and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
We talked about tradeoffs, unintended consequences, opportunity costs, and human nature.
One speaker I enjoyed was P.J. Hill, a retired professor of economics at Wheaton College. He handed each person in the group a bag of candy; one row got Jolly Ranchers, one got saltwater taffy, one got Starbursts, and one got Hershey’s chocolate. I happened to be sitting on the chocolate row. He allowed us to trade, first only with those on our row, then with anyone. After each transaction, Professor Hill asked us to write down our “satisfaction quotient” on a scale of one to 10, then tally up totals for each row. Each group’s satisfaction with their candy increased after the trades, but many people were disgruntled with the Hershey’s row because for the most part we declined to trade.
Professor Hill used this exercise as a lead-in to a discussion of gains from trade. He asked, “Is trade stewardship?” a question that baffled most of us until someone proposed that part of stewardship is “taking care of the system that takes care of the children of God.” A few people countered that the selfish behavior we just witnessed in our candy trades failed to take into account our responsibility as religious leaders to foster social justice, community, and sharing. I ate my chocolate guiltily during the discussion.
The conference crystallized an idea that recently became real to me: wealthy societies are the ones that most value environmental quality. I returned from Siberian Russia less than a month ago. While there I noticed people throwing liter-sized plastic bottles in the trash. I asked my Russian friend whether people in the region ever recycled. She said people in that part of Russia had more urgent things to worry about: “That’s something you do when everything else is good.” As one person at the conference said, “When there’s much food on the table, there are many problems. When there’s no food on the table, there’s one problem.”
It was odd to me that the conference did not discuss “sustainability” as I know it from higher education. With 667 U.S. colleges and universities pledging to “make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students,” and 1140 institutions having joined the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, sustainability is by far the most popular social movement today in American higher education. I’ve heard that ideologies that grow dormant in the outside world live on in the academy, but this was, I think, a case of an ideology not yet ripe for the outside world being incubated in the academy. Or it might have been a generational thing. Most of the people talking about sustainability are fresh out of college or younger. The folks at this conference generally represented an older demographic.
In any case, I think organizations such as FREE should have sustainability on their radar screens. They should know what the next generation of Americans is constantly being taught. If they dissent from the kind of economic approach sustainability advocates take, these organizations should explain their disagreement and offer alternatives.
I did come to a better understanding of both the idea that “we are responsible for the way we impose ourselves on the world” and the idea that justice requires that the wealthy “give back” to the poor. While I still don’t exactly agree with either idea, I can learn from talking with people who do. And I heard from one speaker whose worldview is drastically different from mine, but his approach to knowledge is aligned that of the NAS. He said a claim is justified only when it (a) corresponds to the world as we know it, (b) follows from truth, (c) is reliable, and (d) is consistent with other claims. I saw for myself that people from different ends of the ideological spectrum can come to the same conclusions about weighing arguments on their merits.
For those of us living in the urban Northeast, it’s easy for “the environment” to become an abstract thought. In Bozeman, Montana, however, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, cascading waterfalls, and crashing river rapids, nature in its pure grandeur is inexorable. It makes you feel small. And it’s in places like that that “Creation stewardship” starts to mean something.
 Dr. Ben Hale, professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder