The Genesis account of creation is clear on a central point that many secular environmentalists find scandalous: The earth is entrusted to the human family for our use. After God created man and woman in his image, he blessed them with the words: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the seas, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on this earth.” This is the first charge, long before the Fall, given to human beings directly by God. And in the second chapter of Genesis, after God had created the earth for man's sake, he created man to till the soil. It was an explicit command to mix labor with God's creation to make more of that which appears in a pure state of nature. God's covenant with Adam required him to exercise dominion over the earth, to be a steward of creation on God's behalf.
No doubt there are good and bad ways to till and keep the earth. There are ways that are more pleasing to God, and that have a regard for the essential telos for which the material world was made. If we take seriously our responsibility to be good stewards, we must ask what is the best institutional arrangement to allow people to exercise this mandate. Economically, the choice is between some form of central planning and the free market.
Long experience has shown that the state is a bad steward. One reason this is so is because of what has been termed the “Tragedy of the Commons.” Simply put, if everyone owns something, no one person has any incentive to protect or take care of it. This has been graphically demonstrated by the appalling reports of environmental disaster in the former communist countries. Furthermore, the state has many incentives to be a poor steward. For example, the federal government owns a great deal of forestland. These forests are supervised by the U.S. Forest service, the mission of which is to cut down trees. Because it is federally funded, the Forest Service has no market incentives to keep its enterprises cost-efficient. As a result, the forest service is logging old-growth forests with a return of pennies on the dollar. Had these forests been supervised by a private company, they would never had been touched.
Likewise, experience has shown that the market is a better steward of the environment than the state. Not only does it allow for private ownership and offer better incentives, but it allows for the expression of minority opinions in regard to land and resource use. Take, for example, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania. Located along the Appalachian migration route, it provided an ideal location for hunters to shoot thousands of hawks. Conservationist Rosalie Edge decided that those birds ought to be protected, a minority opinion at the time. In 1934 she purchased the property and prevented the hunting of the birds. It is now considered one of the best bird-watching locations in the world. Had Ms. Edge lived in a regime where property was owned by the state, she would have to convince a majority of the lawmakers, bureaucrats, and competing special-interest groups that Hawk Mountain should be a preserve, so daunting a task it is unlikely it would have happened. As it was, she only had to purchase the land.
God has given us the responsibility for the stewardship of creation, a responsibility to which he will hold us accountable. We do well, then, to consider the role free markets can play in this task.