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Sustainable stewardship (Acton 6)

The discussions surrounding ecology and economy at the Acton conference raised two sets of questions: (1) the relationship between creation and human flourishing; and (2) the relationship between free markets economics and the growing ecological crisis. I talked about the first of those questions yesterday, so today we’ll move on to the second question.

Unfortunately, the sessions that I attended did not really address this question directly. The best that I got from most seminars were various comments leading me to believe that most thought that market forces themselves would eventually address the ecological concerns. For example, one person argued that market forces would never allow us to exhaust completely a natural resource because it would eventually become too scarce, and consequently too expensive, to continue pursuing. Others seemed to think that the market would eventually come to see environmentalism as good business and develop adaptive technologies that would address ongoing environmental concerns. And, most seemed to think that the real solution was to develop more virtuous societies who would not pursue market economics in such abusive ways. Overall though, very few people offered a cohesive argument for how free market economics could be expanded globally, along with the corresponding rise in the consumption of natural resources, without have a correspondingly deleterious effect on creation.  (Did you like my use of “deleterious”? I thought it made this paragraph sound much more intellectual.)

One exception to that was a seminar I attended on the last day arguing that consumption was not the problem at all. This lecture specifically criticized any “stewardship” model for creation ethics because such models are unable to provide specific direction for concrete action (precisely the problem we discussed in yesterday’s post). According to this lecturer, stewardship models can give us the environmental “why” (it’s God’s creation), and the environmental “what” (take care of it), but they are fundamental incapable of providing any concrete “how” (how exactly do you do this?). In its place, he offered the principle of “environmental sustainability.” Throughout the lecture, he argued that the ecological problem does not result from over-consumption, but from faulty design. The production and consumption of products harmful to the environment, he argued, is necessarily wrong-headed. And, it doesn’t help for us to do less of it (reduce consumption and/or recycle), because that just succeeds in destroying the environment more slowly. As he commented frequently, “Being less bad is not good.” (His biggest target here was the idea that we can save the world through recycling. He pointed to recent research suggesting that the recycling process itself is harmful to the environment and, thus, can’t be part of the solution).

Instead, he argued that we need to look more closely at how we are designing the products that we use. Rather than creating cradle-to-grave products that are designed to end up in a landfill some day (he pointed out that very few things are 100% recyclable), we should design cradle-to-cradle products that are fully recyclable and, thus, fully sustainable. And, he argued that the best way to find ideas for such products is to look at creation itself. He claimed that the natural world is replete with products that could be used for industrial purposes, but are not harmful to the natural world itself (e.g. the protein-based adhesives produced by mussels). (Interestingly, he did not consider the harmful consequences that could result if we began replicating such “natural” products on a scale never seen before in nature.)

Unfortunately, this approach also remained almost entirely theoretical. Very little of this is actually being done today and it seem highly questionable that such products and processes could be done on the scale necessary to sustain modern markets and industry. (Since he suggested throughout that cutting consumption was not necessary, he presumably believed that his proposals could at least sustain current levels of consumption.) To believe that we should just sustain current levels of consumption in the hope that someday we will have a solution to the problem, given the widespread destruction we’ve already caused and the potential for future destruction caused by growing majority world economies, is simply inadequate.