Tyranny or Theft? Part I

Peter Wood

Over the weekend I attended two conferences: one in Philadelphia on “Business Ethics and the Eighth Commandment” and one at UCLA titled “Big Footprint: Is Green the New Tyranny?” They didn’t quite rhyme, but they were consonant. The Eighth Commandment—“Thou shalt not steal”—turned out to be a surprisingly rich source of reflection on the financial crises of our time and the moral order needed to foster the kind of prosperity that benefits everyone. The “Big Footprint” conference centered on the thesis that efforts to combat global warming are really a stalking horse for those wish to curtail private property rights and democratic freedom.

These two conferences, though quite different in tone and spirit, were both expressions of discontent with contemporary ideas about how we should conserve and use resources. I want to thread these two conferences together as a way of sharpening my own critique of the sustainability movement. To make this more digestible, I’m breaking this post into three parts.

Both conferences were suffused with the view that free markets are a key to human flourishing, and that the right to own property is the indispensable basis of constructive trade. The Eighth Commandment conference was co-sponsored by the Center for Christian Business Ethics and the Westminster Theological Seminary, which gave it a decidedly Protestant flavor. The UCLA event was sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance, which describes itself as “a non-political, non-aligned movement which promotes, defends and upholds Western values and ideals.” The AFA’s topics include “the Islamic penetration of Europe,” academic freedom, media bias, and missile defense. Non-political it may be, but it is not likely to be mistaken for the AAUP.

I had a good deal of time on my flight home to reflect on the points of convergence and how all this bears on the future of higher education. These conferences, back to back on opposite coasts, were dramatic contrasts in outlook. The business-ethics conference was in spirit apologetic. It defended “proper Godly business thinking and behavior,” but allowed that business often falls far short of that ideal. One session towards the end dealt with a well-intended business venture in Africa that failed because of the embezzlement and self-dealing by the African partners. Biblical principles met tribal self-interest, and tribal self-interest triumphed. How are the blessings of the free market going to be achieved in the global community when confronted with obstacles like that? Pessimism was not about to carry the day, but there was a element of humility in the proceedings, perhaps best voiced by Dr. Jack Templeton, whose address on “Morality in Finance,” emphasized that the way “to gain freedom from the ego is through listening and learning.”

The UCLA conference, on the other hand, was rambunctious and rather assertive in its diagnoses and prescriptions. It aimed at kicking out the props holding up bad science, worse economics, and really awful politics.

Big Footprint

The tone of “Big Footprint” was set by the opening keynote address by Christopher Monckton—Lord Monckton—a hereditary peer and deputy leader of the UK Independence Party who is an outspoken skeptic about anthropogenic global warming. “Skeptic” is perhaps an understatement in his case.

Lord Monckton is an agile, nose-tweaking, derisive foe of those who believe that significant global warming has resulted from human contributions of CO2 to the atmosphere. He is more caustic still towards those who believe that carbon reductions, cap and trade, windmills, and the like can be deployed to achieve any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gases. Let’s say Lord Monckton’s keynote address was not an attempt to find the redeeming features of a flawed movement, or to discover a winsome approach to those who are ambivalent about the alleged threat of global warming.

Several other speakers took similar tough-minded approaches, though none were so wry in delivery.

Another keynote speaker, Michael Shaw, an attorney and CPA from Santa Cruz and board member of Freedom Advocates, focused on one of the initiatives that came out of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992: the Sustainable Development Agenda 21, which is a kind of comprehensive planning document that has filtered down from President Clinton’s 1993 Executive Order that created a President’s Council to implement it, to state and local efforts. Mr. Shaw observed that Agenda 21 makes property rights, in principle, subordinate to community interests. Those community interests, in turn, are defined by what might be called an excessive fondness for decisions made by unelected bureaucrats.

Mr. Shaw’s bête noire is a scheme called the “Reserve and Corridor System to Protect Biodiversity,” which is a plan to cluster the human population in relatively dense settlements and return much of North America to “little or no human use.” One way this program advances is through the contributions of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI, pronounced ICK-lee), and Mr. Shaw had stern warnings about ICLEI’s mischief too.

To the question posed in the Big Footprint  conference subtitle, “Is Green the New Tyranny?” the conferees offered a yeti-sized YES.  It may surprise some of my readers that I have doubts about this.



This article originally appeared on June 16 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations Blog.

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