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Environmentalism: The Newest Paganism?

In June 1991, the Presbyterian Church approved a historic statement of faith that made environmental concerns part of the official canon of the church. The 80-line prayer enumerated pollution of the planet as a sin against God, saying people “exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”

A month later, the Episcopal Church closed its 11-day governing session with a united call to promote ecology. Viewing pollution as a religious issue, it urged church leaders to “move forward at great speed to respond to the challenge.”

Environmentalism, it seems, has truly become a religious movement. Religious undertones and rumblings have long hinted at a “new paganism,” but now that paganism is coldly upon us. What is it about environmentalism that casts it as a religious issue? Just where is this new fervor likely to take us?

Everyday Environmentalists

Over the past decade, environmentalism has increasingly become an integral part of our everyday lives. Products, from juice box containers to disposable diapers to tuna fish, are touted as environmental “goods” or environmental “bads,” with their uses being cast as morally right or wrong. The effect of such marketing is having an impact. In frank confessions, mothers admit quietly to using disposable diapers. They are quick to add, however, that they feel guilty about damage to the environment. Consumers toss so-called “recyclables” into their trash cans but not without looking over their shoulders to escape the watchful eye of school children who have been told that recycling is the only way.

Virtually every social, economic, and legal issue is now promoted as an environmental cause. Surprisingly, much of the fervor behind the religion of environmentalism stems from a deep-rooted attack on the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Environmental zealots argue that our world is lacking an environmental ethic—that somehow the relationship between man and nature has gone seriously askew, creating an explosion of ecological and environmental problems. Rather than respecting and treasuring nature, man has “exploited” and abused it. In a 1967 Science article, Lynn White tipped off the ethics debate by writing:

Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia's religions, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God's will that man exploit nature for his proper ends...Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.

White's conclusion was that we are in great need of a new ethic in environmentalism. Rather than supporting man's limitless rule of creation in which nature has no reason for existence save to serve man, we need to substitute the idea of the equality of all creatures.

White's ideas were further pondered by a variety of thinkers. In articles including “Should Trees Have Standing—Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects?” and “Do Rocks have Rights?” writers raised legal questions about the rights of nature. Philosophers argued that the “shallow ecology” of mainstream conservation groups is too anthropocentric or homocentric, that is, centered on man, and is aimed only at improving the environment for the benefit of humans. “Deep ecology,” on the other hand, leads to a view of “biospheric egalitarianism... the right [of all things] to live and blossom.”

The 'rights of nature' proponents, then, contend that all things are created equal; they should be venerated as ends in themselves, as intrinsically valuable apart from man; and they have equal rights to their own kinds of “self realization,” without human interference or exploitation. Failure to recognize such truths will lead to our downfall. Joel Schwartz, writing for The Public Interest, summarizes one such view:

Unless humans treat the environment more cautiously and less violently, the environment will take revenge on us, and bring about the unpleasantly premature death of the human species. Our demise may stem from the exhaustion of irreplaceable natural resources, or from the creation of a climate that cannot support human life—but in any case, the argument goes, unless we are more ecologically responsible and less short-sighted, our lives will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Human self interest requires that we cease to exploit nature so systematically.

Who Shall Speak For Nature?

An ethic based on the rights of nature approach, however, raises more questions than it answers. Writing for The Freeman, Robert James Bidinotto says “Any intelligible theory of rights must presuppose entities capable of defining and respecting moral boundary lines. But animals are by nature incapable of this. And since they are unable to know, respect, or exercise rights, the principle of rights simply can't be applied to, or by, animals. Rights are, by their nature, based on a homocentric view of the world.”

In “Christian and Creation,” P. J. Hill also argues that man must be the center of our considerations:

It may well be that trees have, in some ultimate moral sense, rights. However, if those rights are to be protected by human institutions it will be because humans are the repository of those rights. Individuals can include the welfare or preferences of trees within their own set of preferences and thus grant those rights to the trees. But those rights will only exist because the individuals have rights.

He cautions that giving rights to nature can end up as a camouflage for “differing views about the question of which person's view should win in the conflict over resources.”

In The Public Interest, Schwartz further develops this idea by asking “What entitles anyone to act as nature's representative?” Several agencies and organizations have already been proposed to serve as spokesmen for nature: the Federal Department of Interior or other guardians to be appointed by the courts such as the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other environmental groups. He envisions the rights-to-nature approach will ultimately expand “privileges to private environmental organizations.”

In a country where political rights are very often cast to those most politically vocal, we are in danger of establishing a dangerous precedent by going down the rights-to-nature path. Such a course will surely lead to greater control and power by the organized environmental special interests. The fanaticism and fervor of the movement has already left us with some rather disturbing rules and regulations. Aside from the myriad of legislation that has excessively boosted the costs of conducting virtually every form of business, regulations are now invading the more personal aspects of our everyday lives. Just to mention a few examples:Vermont has banned air conditioners in cars, Maine has banned juice boxes, cities in Minnesota have banned polystyrene, and Los Angeles is in the process of outlawing the use of lighter fluid at backyard barbecues.

An Alternative Approach to Environmental Ethics

Rather than formulating an alternative religious and ethical view of man and nature, or proliferating a new environmental paganism, an alternative approach is to accept the human responsibility towards nature and find a way to guide us in exercising this dominion. An environmental ethic based on the idea of property rights provides both legal and ethical guidance in environmental stewardship, thereby helping to minimize confusion regarding the proper relationship between man and nature.

“Man's rule is that of a careful and wise shepherd, one who accepts responsibilities as well as privileges,” says Hill. “God has given us the opportunity to have dominion over the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, but He also holds us accountable for our actions with regard to these creatures.” Admittedly, we have not always exercised that dominion carefully and wisely, but there are remedies.

What theological and moral standards should guide us in this stewardship responsibility? Fortunately, there exists an environmental paradigm that rests squarely on the ideas of private property, liberty, and other critical biblical ethics.

Environmentalism, Property Rights, and Free Markets

In seeking an environmental ethic, the guiding concern should be to develop a means to encourage and achieve responsible stewardship. A property rights ethic effectively achieves this task by enforcing accountability for actions. Consider a simple, everyday example: Nearly everyone knows of particular spots in neighborhood parks or other common areas where people seem to walk their dogs. These same people, however, would never consider exercising their dogs in the backyards of their neighbors. The difference is property rights.

Property like public parks, that is owned by everyone, ends up being cared for by no one person. In contrast, private property has an identifiable owner—one that has an interest in seeing that his possessions are well cared for and maintained. And so, while people can get away with polluting public parks with their dogs, it is unthinkable in private backyards where the homeowner is likely to raise vocal objections.

The same is true with the more obvious environmental problems. Most air and water pollution problems, for example, stem from common property institutions. Stretches of oceans that are jointly owned by everyone are rapidly becoming overfished. In contrast, privately leased oyster beds and fish farms are rapidly gaining shares in the seafood industry. The difference is accountability. With public property, the incentive is to fish as rapidly as possible before competing fishermen get the take. But on private property, where people can limit access and otherwise carefully manage, owners have the incentive to allow the fish to grow to optimal sizes before harvesting.

The classic textbook pollution problem is the pollution of streams by riverside industries. When industry dumps its by-products into the waterways, it is concerned only with the private costs of its capital and labor in determining the best way to maximize profits. What it overlooks, of course, is the social cost of the pollution it causes by dumping, just as dog owners overlook the cost of polluting public parks and fishermen ignore the costs of overfishing in common oceans.

A proper property rights institution can alter each of these instances of poor stewardship. What is needed is a twofold approach: First, we need to privatize as much of our resource base as possible in order to get a steward behind each one. Privately leased oyster beds, fish farms, forests, and other examples have amply demonstrated the care of private stewards. Secondly, where it is difficult to discern clear property rights, as in airsheds, or certain watersheds, we need to institute some sort of mechanism to treat pollution as property with a market value. By treating environmental and natural resources within a market context we can achieve an efficient allocation of resources in which people are held accountable and responsible for their actions.

Consider, for example, the approach taken by Singapore to reduce production of CFCs (chloroflurocarbons) which are believed to deplete the earth's protective ozone layer.

Under a newly implemented auction system, industrial users of CFCs must bid for the right to produce the chemical. By forcing producers to recognize the perceived social costs, there have been tremendous changes in industrial processes. Some electronics companies have decreased CFC use by 75 to 80 percent. Some of this is due to the discovery of alternative materials, but surprisingly, much of the cutback stems from better housekeeping—fixing leaks and other careless uses. When CFC emissions were “free,” there was no incentive to “clean house.” The reduction in CFC use via the auction has been efficient: Those industries most able to adopt substitutes have done so—without the need for a big bureaucracy.

These examples suggest how changes can be made to create greater stewards of the environment.

Resistance to the Property Rights Ethic

The property rights ethic has been widely rejected by environmental special interest groups and extremists. Instead, they support the growth of governmental control of environmental resources through a proliferation of stronger laws and regulations and through increased governmental ownership of natural resources. Unfortunately, these efforts only magnify the conditions that created fears of “exploitation” by weakening and distorting incentives for people to act responsibly in their stewardship duties. By its very nature, the command and control approach restricts our choices for stewardship.

Now, more than ever, it is important to recognize the critical crossroads that we are at. The rhetoric and emotionalism of environmentalism can lead us further down the path of regulatory control. This path, however, not only poses tremendous restrictions on liberty, it also overlooks the ability of incentives to guide people towards environmental stewardship. If, instead, we pursue the property rights ethic, we can learn more about ways to protect the environment and voluntarily incorporate such actions into our daily lives.