Why Enlightened Self-Interest Doesn’t Rescue the Environment

You would think that enlightened self-interest would cause corporations, like individuals, to avoid doing things that would be unsustainable in the future, since that would nix their ability to continue in that line of business. So, for example, you would think a corporation would avoid over-cutting a particular forest, and manage it for the long-term, so that they could continue to cut it and make profits from it in the future. However, avoiding environmental damage (as any enlightened farmer would do for his fields) is not a guiding star for corporations, who often don’t own the environments they wreck, but even when they do! Socio-political thinker and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains it succinctly in his novel Antarctica (1998):

“Say a company owned a forest that it had harvested selectively for generations, delivering its shareholders a consistent ten percent return. Meanwhile the world financial markets were offering bonds with a fifteen percent return. Lumber prices dropped, and the company’s returns dropped, so the traders dropped it and its shares plummeted, so the shareholders were angry. The management, on the edge of collapse, decided to clear-cut the forest and invest the profits from that lumber sale immediately into bonds that yielded a higher return than the forest had. In effect the money that the forest represented was more valuable than the forest itself, because long-term value had collapsed to net present value; and so the forest was liquidated, and more money entered the great money balloon. And so the inexorable logic of Gotterdammerung capitalism demolished the world to increase the net present values of companies in trouble… simply the logic of the system.”

Add to this scenario the fact that it’s not a self-owned lumber company. That company is among thousands of companies some transnational mega-corporation owns, and they are into everything: lumber, cement, films, cars, oil, wind energy, toys, music, insurance, housing, aerospace technology and munitions. If some of their companies aren’t returning good quarterly profits, they take a tax write-off and liquidate the company at a loss. Thus, cutting the forest to the ground and not re-planting, and then walking away from lumber altogether is simply a decision made at a desk in a cubicle at a Manhattan (or Toronto or Tokyo or Berlin) skyscraper, and the man whose office looks out across the city with the windows never even knows the decision was made, besides some numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, thinking that the common sense of wanting-to-have-a-planet-to-live-on-in-the-future-that-isn’t-a-wasteland would naturally cause companies and corporations to make sensible, long-term, sustainable, healthful decisions… is simply not how our world system is set up to work. Those mega-corporations are not looking out for your interests. So how do you fix that? U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, (president from 1901-1909), whom the United States can thank for the vast majority of the National Forests and wildlife sanctuaries that exist, did not believe the timber barons and mining barons of his day could be trusted with American’s forests and lands. He believed vociferously in the free market and personal freedom and property, but he also believed capitalism had to be reined in by the government on behalf of the people, or the logic-of-the-system (and those who became powerful within it) would wreck the world around us. He did not allow the giant corporations to do whatever they wanted nor to take over the world. Maybe we should go look at and think about his insights again in our day. Because current events have demonstrated for quite some time now that just hoping common sense will cause smart decisions ISN’T protecting the Earth’s environments for the future.

Hot Oceans

As the world population grows, and as (hopefully) larger numbers of people move from deep poverty into better living situations, we have to deal with the build-up of toxins in the biosphere. (For a discussion of carrying capacity see the previous post). The old adage the solution to pollution is dilution has limits based on the size of the container and the amount of toxins. As we saw two posts ago, a simple calculus used by environmental engineering is

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output.

We have to keep this in mind because, for all intents and purposes, (the bleed-off from the troposphere being so slight), we need to treat Earth as a closed system, in which we need to avoid piling up toxins too fast for the natural ecosystems to mitigate in their regular, natural rates. If we surpass this natural rate of breakdown to useful components, then we have to find ways to mitigate/ break down the toxins ourselves. For Christians with a biblical theology, this should be a conversation they deem important.

One of those things we are building up at a faster mass rate of input than the biosphere is handling, is heat. The amount of carbon being piled up in the upper atmosphere, acting with a greenhouse effect, is increasing the temperature in our world. Although Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have convinced huge numbers of Americans that this isn’t really happening, every government in the world is scrambling trying to draw up plans to deal with this climate change. They are scared to death at what it means for crop failure, and nations with large coastal populations in low elevations see the writing on the wall. (Some South Pacific islands no longer have human populations, they’ve had to leave as their island is no longer above sea level – this is what happens when glaciers melt at the rate they are.) You can read about how the various gasses interact and feedback on NASA’s website here http://climate.nasa.gov/causes/.

The oceans are a telltale for the mass rate of input, in terms of heat, changing things about our planet. Ocean temperatures right now are breaking all historical records. Summer of 2014 was the highest ever recorded (Axel Timmermann, professor of Oceanography, U. of Hawaii). The Atlantic’s surface temps are now 3 degrees hotter than 30 years ago. NOAA reports that fish species are moving north and south away from the tropics, pushed by the change in temps. Inuit tribes north of Alaska do not have a word in their language for salmon, as they’ve never seen one. Until now. Half of the 36 species of fish we eat for food have shifted northward and further offshore in the last four decades, some no longer found in U.S. waters. When one species moves (due to temps) and their whole ecological food chain doesn’t move with them, disasterous population crashes can occur. Fishery managers are seeing alarming results of this kind of thing, and fearing it is going to get far worse. Widespread failures in cod reproduction have already occurred. A 20% crash in worldwide tuna harvest in the visible future. If anyone wants to argue heat isn’t building up faster than the planet deals with it, simply speak with an oceanographer or saltwater fisheries scientist. We need to be serious in considering this heat build-up if we want thriving oceans with stable, healthy ecosystems we can fish. Christians, who believe the Creator instructed humanity to steward, rule over, and care for this planet, have a moral obligation inherent in our faith to care about this subject, and go beyond taking the word of talented radio entertainers.

Sources: NOAA, Scripps Institute, Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research (Germany), James Cook University (Australia), National Marine Fisheries Service, Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology, University of British Columbia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jason Schratwieser/ Sportfishing July/August 2016

Earth’s Carrying Capacity. That’s a myth

Theology at the end of this blog. First, some environmental talk. I have an occupational background in environmental biology (not to mention a Master’s degree in International Development), so I understand the idea of carrying capacity. And I don’t believe in the idea that Earth has a “carrying capacity” of humans. Drawn over from environmental studies of animals in an ecosystem, the reason this is a non-starter for me in regards to human population, is that history has shown, time and time again, that people are capable of creatively adapting and developing ways to live in an ecosystem far beyond what its “previous” carrying capacity was thought to be prior to the innovation.

Estimates of the carrying capacity of the Earth (for human population) since van Leeuwenhoek in 1679, have been laughably incorrect over and over again, not to mention ranging from 1 billion to 1000 billion! The low end estimates were based on the agricultural technology of the day (tillable acres and output divided by human consumption per capita) and those estimates of carrying capacity have been repeatedly increased due to the increase in agricultural output per acre enabled by new advances in farming practices. I’m typing this on Point Loma, a very densely populated part of San Diego. The carrying capacity of this area is a million fold what it would have been for the Diegan Indios 500 years ago, but then we aren’t hunter-gatherers. I’ve lived on one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world: Java, Indonesia. Rice terracing and fish farming have increased the food-producing capabilities of that land far beyond its natural contours. As a 2012 UN study put it, “technological advances in efficiency can be a divisor of per capita impact.” 1 When the interdependent variables in dynamic systems modeling today are applied to carrying capacity, there are so many estimates regarding future variables, the range of estimates becomes so huge as to be meaningless. A 1995 article in Science called for “extreme skepticism” regarding carrying capacity estimates for the reasons I’ve just cited. 2

A meme I saw said “God makes a world for humans – 70 % saltwater ocean.” It was witty on the surface, but it really doesn’t make the point it attempts. Humans figure out how to live in ecosystems as we go. Our ancestors walking out of Africa could not have survived near the Arctic Circle with the savannah lifestyle they knew – but the Inuit and Eskimo have learned how to thrive there for thousands of years – with only Neolithic technology! 70% of our world is indeed oceanic – but we have only scratched the surface on learning how to live there. We can learn to live in oceanic environments just as surely as we did in Arctic ones. Aquatic farming is just in its earliest stages. Not only is there plenty more for us to learn about farming Earth’s various biomes, but we haven’t even hardly started with urban farming and stackable skyscraper farms. Figures for carrying capacity are always and utterly tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying “If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…” And that’s just silly.

But there’s a strong theological reason to question the idea of carrying capacity. For those Christians who believe we are past the carrying capacity of the Earth, we need to ask “Which of the people currently alive would the Creator God prefer had never been born?” It is theologically repugnant, from a Christian point of view, to imagine there are any. We don’t need less people created in the imago dei. We simply need what every group of people have needed (and worked out) since the digging stick was invented and there were more babies born in the tribe: new ways to find, (or in our case) increase, harvestable output.

And by the way, there is no shortage of food in the world per capita. There are local scarcities we haven’t transported to effectively. It’s not a quantity issue, it’s a transportation issue and a governance issue. Next time let’s talk about carrying capacity and pollutants in a closed system.

1 http://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/geas_jun_12_carrying_capacity.pdf

2  ttp://www.montana.edu/screel/Webpages/conservation%20biology/cohen.pdf

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

Thinking in 50,000 year Intervals

Living on the road while we travel speaking about our transition to SE Asia as development workers/theological educators, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the blog. But here is something I wrote a while back and not yet posted.

Something became apparent to me the other day.  I realized that many of my Christian friends approach today’s issues as if Jesus will return in 50 or 100 years, max. So if we just hold the line on this or that issue, just hold on, we’ll be ok. Other issues can be ignored, because they will never happen. I suddenly realized one of the reasons I often come to different conclusions than them is that I tend to think in 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 year increments. What seems like a hold-the-line issue in the short-term, when thought about in vastly larger time frames, suddenly becomes very different.

I probably have science fiction to thank for this. It deals in large increments of time. When I think of the changing face of certain ethical questions and I see how Christianity has changed it’s take in the last 2,000 years, I can’t imagine we are going to freeze frame for another 20,000 or 100,000! Or when I think about say, climate change, if Jesus is coming back in 20 years, no big. We don’t live on Fiji, so loss of shore-line isn’t of immediate alarm to most evangelicals I know in Pennsylvania. But when I think in terms of 100,000 year increments, the question isn’t simply How do humans utilize advanced technology without heating the whole planet via emissions? Nor just, How do we steward the oceans so we don’t poison them utterly? (PS I like to fish). No, the questions include but go even beyond that, to How do we plan now for the settlement of the solar system, and beyond? How much do we invest now in a space elevator and terraforming Mars and the moon?  If the Ross Ice Shelf hits the water and sea levels raise 20 feet, how do we handle 2 billion displaced people? That, by the way, is a real and potentially immediate question, because we don’t know what the tipping point is to increase the rate of slide to the point the whole thing just goes.

Short term thinking can be incredibly disastrous. Proverbs highlights this in the Bible. But I rarely hear Christians in North America call upon their Christian faith to think long term. I find most of them assuming a very short length to human history, as if we are at the tail end. When we Christians limit our interests to the immediate future, can we blame other people for concluding we have nothing to offer for a long-term durable civilization?

Schumacher: the limitations of economics to reflect reality

“I’ll post it in a few days.” A few days! I am having trouble getting back to my blog as I am being subsumed under a wave of a zillion things to do as I wrap up my job pastoring a fantastic church in rural Pennsylvania, at the same time that I have another zillion things to do preparing for a move to SE Asia.

In any event, here is E.F. Schumacher’s quote, written in 1973, regarding the short-sightedness of modern economic activity: (Well, I think this is the one I had in mind 10 days ago!)

“Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria are applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world. (Note from Todd: you can monetize wood, but when there’s no forest left, money does not equal trees anymore).

Another way of stating this is to say that economics deals with goods and services from the point of view of the market, where willing buyer meets willing seller. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for his money.

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself.

….economists have felt entitled… to treat the entire framework within which economic activity takes place as a given, that is that is to say, as permanent and indestructible. It was no part of their job and, indeed, of their professional competence, to study the effects of economic activity upon the framework. Since there is now increasing evidence of environmental deterioration, particularly in living nature, the entire outlook and methodology of economics is being called into question. The study of economics is too narrow and too fragmentary to lead to valid insights…”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 46, 54).