Earthkeeping through Markets

In 1977-78, a group of scholars gathered at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to produce an interdisciplinary book on environmentalism from a Christian perspective. Earthkeeping in the Nineties was a serious attempt at integrating Christian faith and the insights from several disciplines. That volume was revised substantially and reissued in 1991. The revised edition builds on the scholarship of the first and represents an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of environmental issues. The book is particularly strong in articulating a well-reasoned Christian perspective that is nicely placed in a historical context. How we see and interact with God's creation is very much influenced by our worldview, and Earthkeeping traces numerous influences on that view. It is well-written, engaging, and nicely integrated for a book with several authors.

At the end of the book the authors give six biblical principles that I personally have found to be useful and that I have relied upon in my work on the economics of the environment. Each of these is, of course, fleshed out in considerable detail in the book in a most convincing manner. It is clear that religious perceptions are deeply intertwined with environmental concerns, and the Christian who wants a deeper understanding of how his or her faith relates to environmental issues can do well by reading this volume.

In view of the strong scholarship and high quality of exposition in Earthkeeping, it would seem that this would be a good place for concerned Christians to turn in order to enhance their understanding of environmental issues. However, despite its strengths in several areas, Earthkeeping is flawed in several others and therefore should be read somewhat cautiously.

First, the authors repeat the harsh doomsday scenarios prevalent in so much of contemporary environmental writing. Although we do have environmental problems, I regard the crisis mentality as more harmful than helpful and believe that a more carefully nuanced approach to problems is appropriate. For instance, one gets no sense from this book of the dramatic improvement in both air and water pollution in the United States in the last twenty-five years (the epa reports that total air pollutant emissions fell by thirty-four percent from 1970 through 1990), or that air pollution also substantially improved in the oecd countries over the same period.

Earthkeeping also repeats the widely accepted myth that the world is in imminent danger because of economic growth. But there is considerable evidence that economic growth after a certain level of per capita income leads to improvement in environmental quality rather than deterioration. Nevertheless, since scientific evidence continues to come in on questions about the state of the world, I am reluctant to too harshly criticize a book that was published six years ago. I would hope that if Earthkeeping is revised again that the authors will at least look at some of the more positive evidence with respect to environmental issues. For instance, one could look at The State of Humanity, 1995, edited by Julian Simon; The True State of the Planet, 1995, edited by Ronald Bailey; Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, 1992, edited by Jay Lehr; or Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment on the Earth, 1995. I also report some of the evidence in my 1994 volume with Joseph L. Bast and Richard C. Rue, EcoSanity: A Common Sense Guide to Environmentalism.

Second, the authors fall into the trap of believing that good intentions are all that matter. Although they make some effort at providing a brief analysis of institutions, most of the volume is directed at reforming people's consciousness about creation. This leads them to argue that our main responsibility is as stewards and that if only people have the appropriate stewardship attitude, environmental problems would be minimized. The difficulty of acting as a steward for the whole environment has been well-explicated in an earlier review by Paul Heyne (Stewardship Journal, Winter, 1993), so I shall not dwell upon that anymore here. However, this strong desire to reform intentions and to get values right leads to a third problem, a fundamental distrust of private property rights, limited government, and markets as a coordinating mechanism. They argue that:

• “in a market system price is the only basis for relationship with the outside world.”

• “the highest claim that can be made for a market system is that it is efficient.”

• “...with regards to many goods--things that we hold to be valuable--we do not need, in fact we do not want, to use the price system.”

The authors are correct in asserting that we do need an outside reference point for value other than our own subjective feelings. We do not want to price everything, and “valuing of the creation ought to be grounded in the Creator's norms” (p. 239). However, the authors assume that there are good alternatives to private property rights and markets as a way of valuing creation. It is true that markets sometimes express values that Christians should reject. But is there evidence that an increased role for government reduces the influence of ungodly values? Is government less susceptible to hedonism, selfishness, and secular perspectives? I think not.

In fact, the authors are fundamentally wrong when they assume that a world of markets is one where relationships are only on the basis of price and that efficiency is the primary defense of a system of private property rights and limited government. Under a regime of private property rights people have a substantial realm of control over their own lives, and it is in such a realm that families flourish, resources can be kept out of the marketplace, and decisions can reflect values other than those of a hedonistic, materialistic culture. People who have private property rights have the option of refusing to market goods and can make decisions about how many things they want to place in the market, and which they want to exclude from it. For instance, groups like Nature Conservancy and the Sand County Foundation of Wisconsin are able to stand against prevailing wisdom and buy up resources and preserve them precisely because of the existence of private property rights. In contrast, the social engineering approach (here the collective control of natural resources) opens up many more realms to the influence of special interest groups, politicking, and general expression of the values of mass-culture.

All of this is not to say that markets are perfect; the very pervasiveness of a successful market order can convince people that too many things can be priced and that all good things in life must be bought or sold. Every system has its weaknesses and the secularization and commodification of life is a significant problem for market driven societies. But private property and limited government offer substantial advantages over “social” (read government) control of resources. Private property rights generate much better information and incentives for decision makers than does government control, and private rights offer the opportunity for people to value creation by standards other than those expressed through majority rule.

Thus, although this volume represents a significant contribution to a good Christian understanding of creation, it should be read with caution. It is important to reform our worldview and to recognize that our existing mechanisms for expressing values are flawed. However, those mechanisms need to be reformed carefully and thoughtfully, and reformed in the direction of giving people greater control over resources and providing better feedback and greater accountability. Free markets and environmental quality are compatible, but one would never learn that from Earthkeeping in the Nineties.