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.

The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.

Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

Slow Ways and Means

If you are a practicing Christian investing your energy in the Kingdom of God, or a person working for the betterment of the world, maybe you should realize this will not be quick.  Almost every image Scripture (and Jesus!) used – seeds, trees, vineyards –  are images of slow.

I am pastoring again. I thought that phase of my life was over, but it is not. I am on the shores of Lake Erie with wonderful folk in an exciting church. And lots of snow.

Pastoring is slow business. Church growth sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t – it depends on lots of factors – and I’ve known it both ways. But pastoring is slow. It requires patience, to do it well. It involves a long obedience in the same direction, and you walk slowly through the years with people in their lives. As I said, it requires patience, because most of its best outcomes require time to germinate and come to fruition. It’s probably good I’m a gardener and tree-planter, fisherman and hunter too, as these things propagate patience in the soul. Having pastored some 22 years, I’ve become much more patient about these things than I used to be. And patience is a cousin to wisdom. Hard-charging isn’t the answer to every problem, though our culture certainly likes it, and it can cause outcomes you didn’t foresee, because you are rushing in – something Solomon said about fools.

So the ways and means of pastoring – and Christian spirituality for that matter – are slow. God is inefficient, one person quipped, just look at the Old and New Testament story – long and winding. I am thinking about this because I am reading Northern Farm by the great American naturalist Henry Beston. Whether you are working in International Development or something else, these words probably apply. At one spot, Beston says this:

“There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this – that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.

 In our barn the larger beams were worked over and squared by someone using what was probably an old-fashioned ship builder’s axe. They are honestly and carefully made, and something of the humanity of the past is in them to this day. Certain other beams have been sawed out, and they are good beams, too, though quite different in look and feeling. The means used in making have marked each kind of beam for all time.

 But I do not wish to labor the point. It is enough to say that prophets of expediency who are careless of the means they use and who work outside the human and moral values, have never been able to build anything humanly worth while.” (Henry Beston, Northern Farm; 1948. Pgs 70-71).

Poverty, lack, enough

I meant to post this two weeks ago, but my access to internet has been spotty the last few weeks. Looking around our new location (we have moved to SE Asia) has sparked thoughts about, among other things, what is poor and what is not. I am looking at the cover photo right now of Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick’s Theories of Development. It is a rural African scene, with the small clay-brick houses and stick-wall-and-thatch-roof homes of smallholder farmers. There are tools on the roofs, fruit trees around the homes… this field-and-tree homesteader view rolling into the distance, where it creeps one third up a mountainside, with the top two thirds of the mountain still wild-forested. The scene appears to have sufficient water, and there are harvested crops stacked and stored.

In terms of ‘material civilization,’ this scene doesn’t have a ton. It is a relatively sparse setting, in terms of the number of objects the households own. But does that make it ‘poor’? If there is sufficient water, food, shelter and clothing, is that poverty because there is less than rural Pennsylvania? (My grand parents and their parents used to say to me “we didn’t know we were ‘poor,’ everybody was.”) Or is poverty more an issue of enough, and then access to sufficient education, healthcare and opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and develop one’s life (… aka Amartya Sen)?

I have a feeling we often think ‘poor’ when looking at a material civilization without as many accumulated household goods and gadgets as is typical in the West. But I don’t think that’s accurate. My family of six came here with 12 suitcases of clothing and small personal effects (no one in their right mind goes across the world without their favorite fishing reels!) We then bought some furniture, an iron, some cooking and eating implements, and mosquito nets. Our new home (palatial as it is!) seems more than adequately outfitted. I now am wondering, aside from my books, why we shipped 200 cubic feet of household items and fun stuff. The families around us have far fewer material possessions than people accumulate in America, yet they do not seem poor at all. Alongside Sen, I wonder if our impressions and measurements of ‘poverty’ and ‘lack’ are often skewed toward material possessions that are not actually the determining indicators.

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).

I’m moving to SE Asia

So, I’m a bit late in posting, as some rapid developments in our lives here have resulted in something exciting and new: my family and I are moving at the end of the summer to SE Asia where we have accepted a position in our denomination. More on that in the future. In the meantime, I promised some more from E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, from 1973. And here it is… Schumacher starts the book with the following two quotes:

“Few can contemplate without a sense of exhilaration the splendid achievements of practical energy and technical skill, which, from the latter part of the seventeenth century, were transforming the face of material civilization….

If, however, economic ambitions are good servants, they are bad masters.

The most obvious facts are the most easily forgotten. Both the existing economic order and too many of the projects advanced for reconstructing it break down through their neglect of the truism that, since even quite common men have souls, no increase in material wealth will compensate them for arrangements which insult their self-respect and impair their freedom. A reasonable estimate of economic organization must allow for the fact that, unless industry is to be paralyzed by recurrent revolts on the part of outraged human nature, it must satisfy criteria which are not purely economic. “

  • H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

“By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of a gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.”

  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac