Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Burn Me At The Stake

I really like the recent South Park where Stan’s father Randy went off the deep end, proclaiming that the current recession was caused because “The Economy” is actually a powerful god whom we have offended. I thought this was great on several levels. First, the episode was a humorous counterpoint to the idea that the economy is a machine which can be “fixed” (albeit by a different type of high priest). And secondly, it reminds us of how great a temptation we have to worship material success and economic prosperity. Reading the recent comment on Doug’s post on the deep economy, I have returned to a question that I suppose our modern culture takes for granted, namely that because we are Christians there is a distinct something, an entity, called “The Environment” that we are called to “protect”. Now, I’ve worked on environmental problems for more than 30 years…everything from smog control in Los Angeles to cap and trade regulations on acid rain. But I have to confess that I really have no better idea what it means to protect "The Environment" than Randy Marsh knows about how to placate “The Economy.” I know that in 2009 this seems about as heretical an idea as disavowing the Trinity may have seemed in the 1500s, but I want to push it to see where it goes.

I asked Doug about what he thought about all of this, and he referred me to a paper he was assigned in a religion course. I’ve written some notes on the paper that I might write up for a future post, but in summary the paper has some excellent discussions on Judeo-Christian imperatives towards three broad areas. First, God demands mercy towards animals because they are his, not our creation. We are not God. We are not the “Masters of the Universe.” Second, we harm other people when we injure not only their person but also their tools of living or survival. At some points, the discussion parallels an economic discussion of the common property problem, in which the incentives for self-interested behavior and the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal” are especially likely to collide. Thirdly, there is a discussion of the imperatives for concern for the poor.

But, all of the above reinforces my original concern. What transforms this collection of specifics (animals, the commons, and the poor) into an all-encompassing, transcendent entity called “The Environment”? I don’t have to be “Green” to refrain from cutting down my neighbor’s orchard or to care for the poor. But I alter The Environment when I kill mosquitos to protect the poor and the orphans, when I move rocks and cut down trees to build a temple, and when I eat or drink or build or cultivate…. anything. If someone asked me whether they were being “Greener Christians” in their vacation by driving in an RV to a local arts and produce festival in north Georgia or by taking a commercial airplane to an island in Thailand, I would have no idea how to answer their question. The author of the paper Doug gave me[1] ends up in the following place, which seems representative to me of many people who try to construct a “theology of the environment”: mankind “has no inherent right to abuse or exploit the living creatures or the natural resources to be found in a world not of his making, nor intended for his exclusive use.” If this means that mankind has no right to harness animals for work nor transform (exploit?) non-renewable natural resources such as iron, copper, silicon, petroleum and so forth into screws, scalpels, and computer chips, then I strongly disagree. But if it means that we are simply prohibited from “abusing” or “exploiting” these or other natural resources, then the statement has no meaning for me because there is no definition of the terms “abuse” and “exploit.”

I think it is important to remember that we are in a unique position to worry about “environmental problems” simply because a ) we know so much more about how the world works than at any time in the history of mankind [we didn’t understand that “smog” in Los Angeles wasn’t really SMoke + fOG until not all that long ago] and b) we in the United States have a standard of living that allows us the luxury of considering environmental protection that previous generations could never have even imagined. We can care that we don’t like the looks of oil derricks or wind farms without fear of starvation as an opportunity cost. We forget that even 75 years ago building dams to prevent floods and generate hydroelectric power was a hallmark of the resources conservation movement. We don’t understand what it is like to live in a world in which catching a boat-sinking load of fish without a department of fisheries permit was not considered an exploitation of the environment, nor was holding an outdoor dinner for 5000 people without a health inspection or the required number of porta-potties. Today, we take those limitations for granted. Consider the following thought experiment: who was the first person in the list of Jesus, the disciples, the apostles, the church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley for whom in their times the modern billboards “Please don’t be a litterbug” or “Poop is not pretty, please pick up after your donkey/camel/horse” would have any meaning? And, indeed, horse poop is not pretty, nor healthy. As Doug and Randy Holcombe have argued to me, from the point of view of cities before 1900, The Environment may be more pleased by the automobile than by any other invention of the past 5000 years.

I don’t like the idea of the “Green Bible” any more than I like the idea of a “Free Market Bible.” We run the risk of making our Christianity derivative to our environmentalism or economics rather than the other way around (see Alan Jacobs’ excellent article in First Things, who points out: “Even Jesus curses and blights a fig tree, and, while he may have done so to make a point about human beings, it was the fig tree that paid the price.”) It seems to me that we have a good core of direction about how we are to live our lives: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”

[1] The late Dr. Robert Gordis.

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