Resources are God’s gift to the world —rejecting ownership is morally problematic…
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his statement for the 2015 World Water Day makes a number of assertions that, while inspired by morally good ideals, are morally and practically problematic.
Chief among them is his assertion “that environmental resources are God’s gift to the world” and so “cannot be either considered or exploited as private property.”
While certainly not absolute, the Orthodox Christian moral tradition doesn’t reject the notion of private property. In fact, property is valued “as a socially recognized form of people’s relation to the fruits of labour and to natural resources.”
Included here are the “basic powers of an owner,” such as “the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, VII.1).
On a practical level, Bartholomew’s concern for “sustainability” reflects what George Will calls an idea whose “premises are more assumed than demonstrated” and which “as a doctrine of total social explanation, transforms all ills and grievances into environmental causes, cloaked in convenient science.”
When embodied in public policy, sustainability empowers “government planners and rationers to fend off planetary calamity while administering equity” allowing them “to supplant markets in allocating wealth and opportunity.”
These are not insignificant shortcomings. Nevertheless, the substance of the patriarch’s statement that “any abuse of our earth’s resources—and, above all, of water as the source and symbol of life and renewal— contradicts our sacred and social obligation to other people, and especially those who live in poverty and on the margins of society” is beyond serious moral dispute.
As is so often the case in ecclesiastical statements on public policy, what is left unexamined is the practical means by which we seek to achieve morally good ends.
Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation by Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana, can help Orthodox Christians and “all people of good will” reflect in a critical and appreciative manner on how well public policy decisions can help (or hinder) our pursuit of the ethical goals that so many of our religious leaders recommend.
For example, the patriarch’s call to “find ways of protecting water—rivers, lakes, and oceans—so that communities and industries no longer pollute without being held accountable” is a central concern for Anderson and Leal. Like Bartholomew, they say that “government regulation has the potential for improving environmental quality and resource stewardship.”
At the same time they are critical of the “command and control” approach since it “requires … that centralized planners … accurately account for all costs and benefits and act to improve efficiency.” They argue this is not only “unfeasible” on anthropological grounds, but it is also a demonstrable failure empirically. This latter argument is made in chapters on land management, energy, water rights, and fishing.
Though aware of the limitations of a centralized response, Anderson and Leal do say that “to the extent that … redistribution can be accomplished without other [adverse] consequences, redistribution is a sensible approach to environmental injustice.” This is especially the case when, as they argue in the chapter on water rights, property rights “can[not] be well defined and enforced.”
In these circumstances it is unlikely that market forces alone “can encourage efficient water use, conservation, and the movement of scarce water to higher valued uses” however these might be defined.
Nevertheless, the authors’ preference is for “free market environmentalism” with clearly defined, legally enforceable “property rights [that] compel owners to account for the costs and benefits of their actions and facilitate market transactions that create efficiency-enhancing gains from trade.”
Property rights are important because while “some people may act with enlightened self-interest … good intentions are often not enough to produce good results.”
At the heart of their argument is the elegant parallel they draw between the dynamic character of both the environment and the marketplace. Given this, “connect[ing] self-interest to resource stewardship by establishing private property rights to environmental resources” is a necessary element of the kind of rational and responsible stewardship that Bartholomew calls for in his Water Day statement.
The parallel the authors have drawn in this book between “both markets and ecosystems” as “bottomup systems that cannot be managed from the top down” holds great promise for a free market approach to the environment that is consonant with the moral tradition of the Orthodox Church.
The authors begin by offering reasons why we should reject the assumption common to both “ecologists and economists” that the world is (or ought to be) “an equilibrium system.” Such models “are analytically appealing” but are “inconsistent with how nature and markets work in reality.”
Our “focusing on equilibrium conditions” leads us to “overlook the dynamic human and natural processes that shape market and ecosystem phenomena,” write Anderson and Leal.
This last point is important not only for the environmentalist and the economist but also the moral theologian. Human “actions and human values exert a significant influence on natural systems.” This means that “environmental problems cannot be solved by simply separating natural systems from human influence; rather, they are an inevitable part of life.”
But neither can they be solved on merely a technical or scientific basis. Environmental questions are also moral problems and so reflect the virtue or vice of the human heart.
As I and others have argued, the Orthodox ascetical tradition has a role to play in helping craft just and prudent responses—market- based and regulatory—to environmental questions.
However, if asceticism is to be more than a mere mechanical response, the Church needs to understand the dynamic nature of both the environment and the market as arenas of human creativity.
This means a more engaged, evangelical response that takes seriously the anthropological dimension of ecosystems and markets and sees them as arenas of spiritual combat and moral formation. Anderson and Leal’s work can help us understand these arenas.
The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a social scientist specializing in religion and personality theory. Currently he is the interim pastor of St Ignatius Orthodox Church in Madison, WI and Orthodox Chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This article comes to us from the Acton Institute with permission.