Saturday, September 5, 2009

Anti-Environmentalism as "Christian heresy"

I have occasionally heard opponents of the environmentalist movement accusing environmentalists of being modern-day "Gnostics," and, indeed, there are varieties of environmentally-minded people today who consciously identify with that label.[1] It is arresting, then, to read ecological economist Herman Daly turning the tables on anti-environmentalists, by exposing their resistance to taking environmental constraints into account in policy-making as a functional current-day expression of that ancient "heresy."

Daly concludes a highly critical review of Peter Huber, Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (A Conservative Manifesto), as follows:

"What I personally learned from reading Huber is that the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism (salvation by esoteric knowledge that allows transcendance of matter) is still a perversion to be reckoned with. The salvific knowledge is now less spiritual and more technical, but the heresy of human transcendence of the material Creation by esoteric knowledge is the foundation of Huber's book, and that, unfortunately, will appeal to many readers."
--Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 183.

At issue here is whether there are any hard limits imposed by our natural environment that constrain healthy human economic and population growth, or whether we can assume that the application of human knowledge and ingenuity will always overcome such limits so as to justify perpetual unfettered economic activity and reproduction. Daly believes that the ability of humans to use ingenuity to alter the carrying capacity of our environment to sustain healthy and happy human beings, while far greater than, say, a snail's, is nevertheless finite. Daly's position, then, is really a common-sense middle position between two impossible extremes--one extreme denying our unique capacities as human beings to comprehend and work intelligently within environmental parameters, and the other extreme saying we are like gods (cf. Genesis 3:5; 11:1-9) who are not subject to such limits of creaturely finitude. This reminds me of the late Francis Schaeffer's thesis in his book Pollution and the Death of Man that fundamental to any authentically Christian approach to environmental questions is the need to recognize that humans, who are created by God in his image, are at once a part of the creation as well as, in a very limited and qualified sense, above the creation. (Schaeffer understood this hybrid position of human beings in contrast to God, who is entirely above creation, and to animals, which are entirely a part of the creation. I do not know whether Daly himself would share Schaeffer's rendering of the biblical metaphors, but that is beside the point I am making.) It follows from Schaeffer's point that human beings are capable of reflecting upon and taking into account in their decision-making the fact of their own creatureliness and the properties inhering in that creatureliness, and taking rational action as stewards under God. Thus, unlike snails, humans are capable of conceiving the very notion of "carrying capacity" and can seek to assess (imperfectly, of course) the extent to which that can be tweaked in the case of humans and other creatures via human action, as well as the limits to that ability. And I for one certainly can see no biblical reason to suppose that humans, who have been blessed to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) are not endowed with the capacity to assess what "fill" means and therefore when "fullness" has been reached, and to "subdue" by means of rational constraint and technology their own creaturely instinct to reproduce and thus avert calamity by means of "Malthus's preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate)" (Daly, 117).[2][3]

Daly says that Huber, on the other hand, like many liberatarians I have read, believes that "the natural environment is entirely unnecessary" (Daly, 180), and quotes Huber as follows:

Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers... There is not the slightest scientific reason to suppose that such a world must collapse under its own weight or that it will be any less stable than the one we now inhabit.

Daly understands Huber as arguing for Teddy Roosevelt style conservationism purely for aesthetic reasons, and not because it is necessary for human survival and well-being. "All we need is knowledge," Daly says Huber believes, "and that is unlimited."

Daly, as he argues in all of his books, believes that the multiplication of human beings and artifacts has already exceeded a point beyond which additional growth yields diminished rather than enhanced well-being for humanity and the rest of creation as a whole. We therefore need, Daly insists, to replace long-prevailing "empty-world" assumptions in our economic models and policy-making with "full-world" assumptions. The problem is that the ongoing quest for unfettered growth continues to bring CERTAIN human beings comforts and advantages in the short run, at the expense of the long-term well-being of humans and other species in the long run. And since it is these particular people who have the most money and political clout, we are faced with the "conflict of a physical impossibility (continual growth) and a political impossibility (limiting growth). But in the long run the physically impossible is more impossible than the merely politically impossible. One hopes that growth will not prove politically impossible to limit, once we come to accept that growth can be uneconomic. But we may have to suffer a bit before that becomes clear." (Daly, 11)

The application of the concept of "Christian heresy" in this context is interesting, and perhaps a bit daring of Daly to invoke given currently prevailing misconceptions of what that means. Historically, when Christians have labeled a given belief "heresy," what they meant was that an essentially un-Christian idea had taken root within the Christian community and was threatening to re-define Christian faith in ways that were irreconcilably opposed to the intentions of Jesus and the apostles. But the legacy of Constantinianism and the resulting practice that eventually took over the church of executing (or otherwise suppressing by means of the power of the state) rather than debating alleged heretics has associated the very notion of identifying "heresies" with oppression in the public mindset. Yet when it is realized that that very same Constantinianism and resulting state repression is itself one of the greatest heresies from which the church has yet to fully extricate itself, then we can see that Daly's intended use of the concept is a salutary one, concerned with opposing the subversion of faith to serve narrow selfish interests. Such corruption is surely lethal to healthy spirituality and human well-being.

So then, when the hard limits kick in and ecological catastrophes that could have been prevented alter life on the planet as we now know it, and a future generation bitterly recalls the rapacious consumption and missed opportunities of our day, is there any doubt that those 20th/21st C. "Christians" who opposed taking environmental constraints into account will be seen as having been guilty of a perversion of the faith they espoused? And will it not be evident that environmentalists (be they Christians, atheistic humanists a la Carl Sagan, pantheists, panentheists, gnostics, Wiccans, or however else they sought to articulate their vision of ultimate reality) who took practical steps to preserve the well-being of humanity and the rest of creation in the light of environmental constraints were acting more Christianly, and thus better embodied the biblical notion of God's intent that we reflect his image by stewarding his creation for the benefit of all?[4]

And is it really too late for those of us who operate consciously within the biblical and Christian conversation to recover the univocal testimony of Scripture and ancient Christian tradition on matters material--namely, to be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8), to eschew the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5), to pursue equity of burden (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)--and face the facts of our ecological circumstances squarely, unfiltered by the wishful thinking by which we imagine that we can maintain our present lifestyles of consumption without degrading the prospects of future generations?

Can we not rise up and take appropriate action, drawing inspiration from the story of Esther, who made common cause with the oppressed against the self-serving interests of elite schemers bent on genocidal extermination, and seized the opportunities God gave her to act "in such a time as this"? (Esther 4:13)


[1] The Gnostics of old sought to transcend matter by uniting with pure spirit, an idea that seems to clash, at least formally, with biblical conceptions. And Vishal Mangalwadi has pointed out--revealingly, I think--that, historically, similar anti-material ideas in the East have emphatically not led to care for the material creation or for social justice (cf. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India). Moreover, as the renowned New Testament historian N.T. Wright has pointed out, it was not the gnostics but the readers of Paul and the canonical gospels whom the Romans considered a threat and threw to lions, precisely because the latter understood Jesus Christ as the climax of the socially-concerned, anti-imperial, politically-relevant telling of Israel's story in the Jewish Scriptures, while the former's philosophy was abstracted from any such narrative of a divinely-influenced quest for shalom and justice in time and space.

The irony is that disaffected Westerners of our day who search far and wide for spiritual nourishment, after having been abandoned to starve by expressions of Christianity that have abetted environmental and social degradation, and Christians who seek to recover the social-creational concern that pervades the biblical conversation beginning to end (cf. Genesis 6:11; Revelation 11:18), may have far more in common with one another, on a practical if not formal conceptual level, than is commonly supposed, even as other Christians, whether through ignorance of our present circumstances and/or the recent influence of unbiblical notions of unlimited expansion of material wealth, deny the reality of that degradation and oppose steps to reverse it.

[2] Just as I am concerned in this essay to show that certain recent and localized expressions of Christianity have lost touch with the general drift of the whole of that ancient conversation as touching economic matters, Daly is concerned, in this chapter entitled "The steady-state economy and peak oil," to show where sound thinking in a centuries-long conversation among economists went off the rails, as neoclassical economics favoring perpetual growth replaced the view of classical economics that a steady-state economy was inevitable, and, in the case of John Stuart Mill, desirable. Writes Daly:

In classical economics (Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill) the steady-state, or as they called it the "stationary state" economy was a real condition toward which the economy was tending as increasing population, diminishing returns, and increasing land rents squeezed profits to zero. Population would be held constant by subsistence wages and a high death rate. Capital stock would be held constant by a lack of inducement to invest resulting from zero profits thanks to rent absorbing the entire surplus which was itself limited by diminishing returns. Not a happy future--something to be postponed for as long as possible in the opinion of most classical economists. Mill, however, saw it differently. Population must indeed stabilize, but that could be attained by Malthus' preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate). A constant capital stock is not static, but continuously renewed by depreciation and replacement, opening the way for continual technical and qualitative improvement in the physically non-growing capital stock. By limiting the birth rate, and by technical improvement in the capital stock, a surplus above subsistence could be maintained. Mill also believed that the surplus could be equitably redistributed. Unlike the growing economy, the stationary state economy would not have to continually expand into the biosphere and therefore could leave most of the world in its natural state. The stationary state is both necessary and desirable, but neither static nor eternal--it is a system in dynamic equilibrium with its containing, sustaining, and entropic biosphere. The path of progress would shift from bigger and more, toward better and longer lived. (Daly, 117)

The neoclassical economists, Daly says, re-employed the term "steady state" to refer to a theoretical benchmark where capital stock keeps up with population in potentially infinite growth, a notion foreign to the classical economists.

It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the classical economists were concerned with adapting the economy to the dictates of the economy. In an empty world the dictates of physical reality are not immediately binding on growth; in a full world they are. Consequently, and paradoxically, it is the older classical view of the steady state, Mill's version, that is more relevant today, even though the neoclassical view dominates the thinking of empty-world economists. (Daly, 118)

Daly offers his own updated definition of the steady-state economy as "one that maintains itself with a constant throughput that is within regenerative and absorptive capacities of the biosphere." (Daly, 118)

[3] It may be well to note, as well, that Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Industrial Revolution Scotland whom many conservative Christians today revere for his work in mobilizing churches to help the urban poor get on their feet economically and off of government welfare, was a staunch Malthusian, and succeeded in his project in part by consciously applying the Malthusian remedy of limiting births, by means of encouraging sexual restraint and delayed marriages among the impoverished classes (an approach that I suspect was scarcely less counterintuitive, culturally out of sync, and "doomed to fail" in his day as it would be if it were attempted in American inner city ghettos of our day). The irony here is that many of the voices today who laud Chalmers' accomplishments are precisely those who downplay environmental constraints and would excoriate such thinking as Daly's as "neo-Malthusian."

[4] It is not the point of this essay to consider the overall or relative merits of various worldviews in promoting practical environmental concern. I do wish to argue, however, that the common notion today that such concern does not find a ready and natural home in a biblically-informed worldview is patently false. In footnote 1 above I alluded to the observation that has been made by many scholars of religion that Christianity is particularly activistic in seeking social change in the theater of history. It would go beyond the scope of this article to consider the particular objections of the Roman Catholic Church to the use of contraception, which I think are an unjustified and tragic misstep. But I think it is beyond credible doubt that each of the major world religions, in their predominant tendencies, are united in being skeptical of recent Western notions of unrestrained economic growth, though that would be a topic deserving separate treatment of its own.

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