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A collection of short essays by Acton writers, click a link to jump to that article:

Wisdom on the environment

Robert Sirico, Acton Institute

The biblical starting point for any discussion of the nature of religious environmental stewardship must begin with the witness of the Book of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen. 1:27-28 NRSV). In our modern times, however, this biblical vision of the relationship between God, man and nature is muddled by two false views. The one sees the natural world as the source of all value, humanity as an intruder and God, if he exists at all, as so immanent in the natural order that he ceases to be distinguishable from it. The other places humanity as the source of all values, the natural order as merely instrumental to his arms and God as often irrelevant.

Genesis presents a radically different picture of how the world is put together. In this account, God is the source of all values – in truth, he is the source of everything, calling it into being out of nothing by his powerful word. Humankind is part of this order essentially and, what is more, by the virtue of his created nature is placed at the head of creation as its steward. Yet this stewardship can never be arbitrary or anthropocentric, as the old canard goes, for this notion implies than humankind rules creation in God’s stead and must do so according to his divine will.

I hope we can advance the important contemporary conversation about environmental stewardship, helping us all see our moral and religious responsibilities in keeping and tilling the garden that is our world.

Blame sin for environmental problems

Kishore Jayabalan, Acton Rome

I appreciated and welcomed Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’, which challenges us to re-examine how we treat the earth and each other. These are nonnegotiables for Catholics, and there is much we can do to improve our everyday conduct. I must admit to disappointment when it comes to the pope’s overwhelming attribution of environmental and social damage to market economics, however. He seems to blame markets, overconsumption and especially finance, rather than human sin, for all our environmental problems.

His partial analysis neglects what markets and finance have historically done to provide cleaner air and water and greater food security for millions of people the world over. We know that environmental damage is much worse when no one is responsible for their own property and when they can’t plan for their own future by way of insurance or commodity futures. Economics has actually helped well-intentioned people achieve the goals of poverty reduction and sustainable development, even as much work remains to be done. Any system reflects the character of those who act in it, so personal and social ethics remain fundamental.

I am therefore curious as to what the Holy Father would want us to do in this much-criticized global economy. We can certainly become enslaved to technology and material possessions, as the pope says, and should find ways to avoid it. But simply consuming less often ends up hurting the poor who would like to do business with us. Would making everyone materially poorer make us spiritually richer? Perhaps for some, but not for those who lack the basic necessities of life. Would saving and investing, rather than consuming, be a better way to help the poor? I would like to think the pope wants us to become more mindful and intentional in what we do and to live with a spirit of detachment as we engage the very marketplaces he seems to condemn.

The temptation of faux asceticism

Andrew P. Morriss and Fr. Michael Butler, Acton Commentary

How does a Christian integrate the Church’s ascetical traditions into their interactions with God’s creation? First, we must resist the temptation to impose our asceticism on others, as the value of the ascetical practices lie in the voluntary denial of consumption as a means of growing closer to God. Using the power of the state to compel asceticism in others would thus be counterproductive in a spiritual sense. Moreover, we must distinguish our own practice of asceticism from efforts to deny others the benefits of God-given human creativity; we cannot force asceticism onto others.

Second, we must avoid shifting the costs and burdens of our own asceticism onto others. Lobbying for subsidies and mandates for corn-based ethanol that leads to higher food prices, at tremendous cost to the world’s poor, is a particularly pernicious example of faux asceticism in which the warm feelings of doing good among the wealthy are primarily paid for by the poorest. For example, a Tufts University study estimated that U.S. corn ethanol mandates cost Mexico $1.5 to $3 billion through increased food prices from 2006 to 2011. Similarly, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy imposes tremendous costs on the poor in developing countries by denying them markets for their agricultural products through subsidies to European farmers in the name of promoting sustainable agriculture.

Third, we must resist the temptation to seek to subsidize our own consumption. Providing ourselves with subsidized goods and services, such as fuels, food and electricity, not only encourages overconsumption of those goods and services – thus leading us away from both good stewardship and opportunities to practice asceticism – but also causes damage to God’s creation. The vast, federally subsidized water projects in the western United States and the World Bank’s tragic record of supporting destructive “infrastructure” projects, such as dams in developing countries, are two examples. No less damaging is the common practice in oil-producing nations of subsidizing consumption of fossil fuels – Venezuela’s four cents per gallon of gasoline is similarly a destructive practice.

Nature has a right to be transformed and uplifted, spiritualized and revived. And humankind has an obligation to serve that right, to love nature, not for our sake alone, but for its own sake, and not just for the utility it can provide. But such a realization requires of us an attitude toward the natural world that does not preclude stewardship of the world and its resources to meet human needs but goes beyond it to the fulfillment and perfection of creation for its own sake.

Pollution causes as many deaths as two jumbo jets crashing every hour

Joe Carter, Acton PowerBlog

Imagine that within the same hour, two large Boeing 747 passenger jets crashed, killing everyone onboard. Now consider two planes crashing every hour for an entire 24-hour period. Finally, think of the accumulated deaths of two passenger jets crashing every hour for an entire year. The death toll from all those crashes would be roughly equivalent to the number of people who die every year from pollution. A new study published in the British medical journal The Lancet finds that one in six deaths around the globe is due to polluted air, soil, water and work environments. Here are some of the findings from the study, as reported by STAT:

Pollution disproportionately impacts the poor. More than 90 percent of all deaths tied to pollution occur in low-income and middle-income countries.

Deaths from some types of pollution have been on the decline. Deaths tied to household air pollution, water pollution and poor sanitation are declining.

Deaths tied to other types of pollution are rising. An estimated 4.2 million deaths in 2015 were attributed to air pollution, a big jump from 3.5 million in 1990.

The health impacts of pollution take a financial toll. Pollution-related diseases account for up to 7 percent of health spending in developing countries dealing with heavy pollution. In wealthy nations, they account for nearly 2 percent of annual health spending.

As the Lancet study notes, benefit is to be gained by pollution regulations that protect us from the tragedy of the commons-type problems. But for most of the world, the problem is not a matter of regulation but of poverty and underdevelopment.

Every day almost half the planet’s population is exposed to toxic amounts of household air pollution (HAP) because they use solid fuels, a term that includes biomass fuels or coal for combustion. The problem arises because solid fuel is commonly used in homes with poor or absent chimney ventilation of smoke. What the world’s 3 billion energy-poor people need is what those of us in the West take for granted: cheap electricity to cook their food and heat their homes.

The only effective long-term solution to HAP is to reduce energy poverty. And the only effective long-term solution to energy poverty is economic growth. Long-term economic growth, however, is dependent on increasing economic freedom, the rule of law and access to markets in developing areas.

Such preconditions are much more difficult to implement than actions that merely require passing laws that ban environmentally harmful actions. But that’s what the poor need most – and what Christians should be leading the way in bringing to the world.

What is the role of the market with regard to environmental issues?

Donald P. Hodel, Religion & Liberty

Human behavior affects the environment. The impact of communism on the environment is now proven to be demonstrably worse than anything we have seen in this country. On the other hand, capitalist countries reached a stage where quality of life became enough of a concern that people took steps to protect or improve their environment.

In one sense, it is a problem of the commons; if nobody owns something, nobody takes care of it. In fact, there is a school of thought that is well-documented and quite scholarly that says the best way to protect the future of national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas is to convey the ownership of them to groups that are dedicated to the operation and protection of those kinds of properties.

A good example is the Audubon Society's Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary. On this refuge, the Society has permitted drilling for and production of natural gas in a way that is absolutely compatible with the management of a good refuge. It has generated revenues that have helped the Audubon Society not only operate that refuge but also do many other positive things.

People who provide wilderness experiences in parks and wildlife refuges– fishing and hiking trips, backpacking, and horseback riding–are in a practical sense among the most concerned environmentalists I've ever encountered. They don't want people to trash wilderness areas because they're their livelihood. They care about them.

Adapted from R&L’s 1997 interview with Donald P. Hodel

Financial realities that affect the environment

Samuel Gregg, Acton Institute

Being in favor of free markets doesn’t mean you’re necessarily unconcerned for the environment and obsessed with profit. Many free-market supporters have devoted their lives to devising ways to align economic incentives in the direction of environmental conservation. Nor is it just to say that free marketers are uninterested in future generations. It has been, for the most part, people who favor free markets who have been arguing that the current recourse to debt by Western governments in order to avoid making hard but necessary fiscal reforms is laying up enormous trouble for future generations. Those of a more interventionist or Keynesian disposition are generally silent on this subject or don’t think it is a real problem.

You could probably count on one hand the number of promoters of free markets who believe that economic freedom alone will assure all-round human flourishing. Take, for instance, Adam Smith. Not everything in Smith’s thought is reconcilable with the Catholic vision of man. But Smith’s vision of commerce and market exchange is rooted in a wider civilizational vision that (a) stresses the need for a strong civil society; (b) acknowledges there are some things only governments can do and government economic intervention will be needed at times; and (c) underscores the importance of commercial, classical and, yes, Judeo-Christian virtues prevailing in a society if a free economy is going to flourish and benefit the majority rather than just privileged elites who enjoy close ties to the political class.

A cleaner environment requires human creativity

Anne Rathbone Bradley, Acton Commentary

Last year, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, provoking a brouhaha over environmental policy. For those who are genuinely concerned about environmental stewardship, we can in fact do better without the UN-sponsored framework.

Climate change is a true phenomenon; we can track it over time. The real question is, how much has the climate changed because of modern industrialized life and how much of that change is harmful? The other relevant question is, what does the trend line look like into the future–in other words, how worried should we be? Once we try to get a handle on these questions, only then can we understand what to do. We do know that while U.S. carbon emissions are at a 25-year low, global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing and show no signs of slowing. Creative thinking that fosters prudence and develops alternatives is key.

What we can all agree on is that we are called by God to steward his creation. The earth belongs to God, as does everything in it. We are stewards of his good creation and are asked to do two things: work it and care for it. These commands come from Genesis 2:15 (NIV): “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

God created the earth for us and his own glory. It is mysterious, orderly and beautiful, for it reflects God’s creativity and love for humanity. We cannot work and care for the earth if we are pillaging and plundering it. But we are not asked to keep it untouched or to preserve it as is either. We are to cultivate, create, tinker and innovate.

We are made “imago dei” (in the image of God). This has critical implications for our roles and responsibilities here on earth. God is a creator and we are creators. We cannot create something out of nothing in the way God can, but we can and are commanded to create something out of something.

We are here to do just that: create and cultivate God’s work. What does all of this have to do with greenhouse gas emissions and the Paris Agreement? Everything. The role of human creativity as described in Genesis is our narrative for life. What it tells us is that change, even climate change, might not always be a bad thing. To the extent that greenhouse gases are destroying the climate, we require productive solutions and ways to economize on those gases, maybe even do away with them altogether.

If you want to solve a problem, put a profit on the solution – this is the surest path to a solution. It may not be perfect, but it would certainly be better than an agreement that centralizes planning over greenhouse emissions and has no accountability mechanism. Profits and losses keep entrepreneurs accountable to results. Entrepreneurial energy is what has made us so rich and is the best bet we have to solve the problems that the Paris Agreement never will.

3 things you should know about stewardship

Joe Carter, Acton Institute

Sold into slavery, Joseph is put in charge of Potiphar’s household. Potiphar “entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the Lord blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (Genesis 39:4-5 [NIV]).You may not recognize it, but this is one of the first mentions of both stewardship and economy in Scripture.

The word “stewardship” comes from the Greek word oikonomia, which refers to someone who manages a household and is the root of the English word “economy.” Joseph began by controlling a household and would eventually control the entire economy of Egypt. In all of history, there have been few stewards who gained the status and power of Joseph.

Stewardship is an important concept in the Bible, since we are stewards in God’s household, his economy of all things. Here are three things we should know about stewardship:

God made humans stewards over creation – God has made humans “rulers over the works” of his hands (Psalm 8:5-6). We’re entrusted with the resources of the earth not for our own exploitation but for the cultivation of its use for the good of ourselves, our neighbors and those who come after us.

Stewardship is about all of life – Too often we tend to think of stewardship only in relation to finances (e.g., a church’s stewardship committee) or the environment (e.g., creation care). While both of these are important parts of God’s economy, Biblical stewardship is much broader. As Stephen Grabill explains, stewardship is a “form of whole-life discipleship that embraces every legitimate vocation and calling to fulfill God’s mission in the world.” And as Hugh Whelchel adds, “Stewardship is not one more thing we have to do, but a way of seeing everything we already do in a very different light.”

The basic form of stewardship is daily work – Work is the primary way in which we serve our neighbor. As Rev. Robert Sirico has said, “The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community.”

This is an excerpt from Joe Carter’s, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan 2016).

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