Friday, April 29, 2005

The Creation as Commodity: A Way Forward for Environmentalism?

The science and technology writers at The Economist give their take in the April issue on how to rescue the environmental movement and the environment itself. Take a look at:

I'm a life-long green. My uncle Charlie took me on many summer camping trips through the American west when I was a kid and I've never gotten over those experiences. Lucky me.

I consider the issue of human stewardship of the environment to be one of the most basic issues for Christians and other people of faith.

Many people call the first 11 chapters of Genesis "The Primeval Prologue." That's just a fancy way of saying that those chapters of the bible are a mythical tale about the most profound human religious experiences that predate recorded history.

From my point of view Genesis teaches that God gave people the earth for our benefit. But I also think it teaches that we gain the greatest benefit from the earth when we act to serve and preserve the earth.

The (literally) multi-trillion dollar question is "How do we do it?"

The environmental movement has always relied on the romantic cult of nature that developed in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. That romantic nature worship shaped Euro-American culture for centuries. Calling on that deep faith helped the green movement to beat back the impressive powers of economic "necessity" and the half-witted "let's dominate the earth" theology of the conservative religious types.

My greens have also taken for granted the shallowness of the various types of evangelical Christianity and the obvious greed of the business community which has allowed them to demonstrate their own intellectual and moral superiority in the debate.

Since the many versions of Christian evangelicalism tend to celebrate ignorance and the business community--despite some good efforts to the contrary--continue to be mostly shortsighted, the environmentalists have mostly had their way for a century and especially for the last 30 years.

But times change and all things pass. At least temporarily.

Less reflective religion and more unbridled greed are back in vogue. This seems to be the default setting for Americans when we get scared and feel overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the environment often takes a real beating during these cyclical periods.

So how does a committed green and Genesis-believing Christian find a way to support the environment in changing times?

The Economist writers argue for an environmentalism rooted in the economic valuation of nature.

They believe that assigning prices and economic values to ecosystems and environmental assets like river systems and forests may present the best chance of protecting those wonders of creation.

They're convinced that if environmental resources are given realistic monetary values they have a much better chance of surviving because people will have to pay to destroy them as they would have to pay to use any other resource.

They argue that environmental science has made such progress that we now understand better than we ever have the specific contributions that particular ecosystems make to human economic well-being and to the health of the earth.

For example, let's say a large swamp in Africa effectively filters out huge amounts of water-born filth and pollutants and creates a whole lot of potable water. If that swamp is destroyed by developers or by agricultural interests, the government of the country in question will have to build extremely expensive filtration plants in order to perfom that same cleansing function.

If that swamp has a realistic economic valuation--based on its filtration services as well as other quantifiable benefits--developers will have to pay those costs as a part of their operating expenses if they want to wipe it out by creating a subdivision for wealthier Africans.

This is a very simple example of an approach that is already gaining steam around the world. More sophisticated versions get a lot more complex.

Some people envision "environmental resource" stock markets where ecosystems and their subsystems are bought and sold.

Environmental credit trading schemes are already becoming pretty popular in a number of places around the world. In these set-ups one company is allowed to use a particular environmental resource by buying a credit from another company that is protecting a comparable economic resource elsewhere. The idea is to balance the use of the environment between exploitation and conservation.

Can we save ecosystems by making them commodities? Would this actually serve to conserve them, or would "monetizing" creation eventually lead people to stop viewing nature as a gift of God or sacred? Can you view nature from a spiritual point of view and still see it as a commodity?

I'm not sure at this point and I'd love to hear other people's point of view.

In the past, most thoughtful Christians believed that the created environment was a gift beyond value and that it was worth protecting because it was a sign of God's creativity and love. In other religious traditions the natural world is often viewed as sacred and even spiritually charged and alive.

The secular "nature romantics" who created the modern green movement simply took on the same sense of awe and humility before nature while at the same time dispensing with God and religious dogma.

No one in any of those religious and spiritual traditions would have believed it possible that whole ecosystems would be bought and sold as commodities in order to save them.

On the other hand, adjusting to the realities of the times is normally a wise move. Sometimes you have to get the best you can now while hoping and praying for a better and more complete approach down the line.

Lemme hear what you think.


Blogger ruth said...

yeah... this is really popular. Some people in my program are doing research on that sort of thing.

I've got mixed feelings, too. I hate making things into commodities. There is a lot of post-Marxist criticism of this. We've already made privilege, education, sex, beauty, leisure, knowledge, etc. into things that can be bought and sold.

but... maybe it's sort of a lesser of two evils thing. If giving ecosystem services an economic value helps preserve them, maybe it's worth it. Especially if they'd be totally destroyed otherwise. If people currently don't value nature at all, perhaps valuing it economically is at least a step towards realizing we should keep it around?

some criticisms I think are valid are:
- it's actually pretty hard to estimate the economic value of an ecosystem. So who's going to do that research- the company analyst or the environmental science prof? these values could differ hugely.
- trading environmental credits can alleviate problems in one area while excacerbating them in another. for example, factories that pollute the air can buy credits by taking old cars off the road. This doesn't do anything for the people who live next to the factory.

10:21 PM  

Cool blog Wordc. Keep it up. I'll make some time to read more info soon :-)
- Suzie

1:43 AM  

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