Environmentalism, Poverty, and the Church
by Ryan McMaken
With the latest environmental ‘summit' having come and gone in Johannesburg, scores of political hacks were given the opportunity to play ‘scientist' and to distort the science of global climate conditions to serve their own political fortunes. The most disappointing of the crowd was the delegation from the Vatican who arrived at the conference armed with a report reflecting the personal opinions of the Pope and a handful of Bishops and rarely reflecting anything that has to do with Catholic teachings on faith and morals. Sounding like some of the worst kind of double speak to be churned out of academia these days, the report spoke of ‘intolerable' levels of pollution and consumption and managed to draw a tortured conclusion that stated in essence that devotion to environmentalism is akin to devotion to the poor. To its credit, the Church has always maintained that humans, and not the environment for its own sake is the reason to protect nature, but that being said, the recent proclamations by some in the Catholic hierarchy have been so filled with faulty assumptions as to require quite a bit of correction.
Modern environmentalism is not now, and never has been, a friend of the poor. Those prattling on and on about global warming and old growth forests and the sacredness of trees, hills, and prairies have always been fine with the full subordination of human interests to the protection of the environment for its own sake. The industrial engine of the 19th and 20th centuries with all its pollution, noise, and consumption has done more to improve the lives of ordinary people of simple means than any other economic system in the history of the human species. It would be unwise to forget that in pre-industrial Britain, 75% of children never reached their fifth birthday due to malnutrition, exposure and disease. By the beginning of the nineteenth century as the industrial revolution began to really be felt by most people, the life expectancy in Britain was about 35 years which was a substantial improvement from pre-industrial days.
To add to the uncertainty of poor health care, economists Joyce Burnette and Joel Mokyr point out that entire economic systems were constantly being ruined by "corruption, wars, and inept government." Before the dawn of liberalism and its favorable attitude toward free economies, economic systems were being perennially crippled by bureaucrats of the old regime who mistrusted the unplanned nature of open commerce. This scenario played itself out again and again from Spain to China and through the Americas as well.
The medical progress, affordable shelter, and plentiful food of the industrialized world was not made possible by careful central planning or devotion to ‘equality', but through the diligence, hard work, and intrepid creativity of generations of American and European entrepreneurs and workers who labored within a free society. Many of these worked and still do work under a theology that defines work as a means to glorify God, and hardly bears any resemblance to true avarice.
In spite of this however, some in the Church have insisted on blaming the industrialized world for the very unfree, and thus ruined economies of the developing world. Unfortunately, the solution proffered by the Bishops is not to encourage economic freedom around the world or to encourage peaceful and mutually beneficial trade among all nations, but to wax philosophical about the supposed ‘responsibility' that the industrialized world has to the developing world. What does this mean?
Probably the most extreme example of this dangerous philosophy can be found in a report released last year by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good. Well, there's certainly nothing wrong with dialogue, prudence, or considering the common good. The problem with the report becomes clear when it is obvious that the supporters of the report make some very bad assumptions. The report assumes not only that global warming is occurring at some terrible rate, but that human beings are responsible, and, worse yet, it also assumes that human can do something about that warming, and that combating the warming would be beneficial for the developing world. They figure that since global warming must be bad, it must be especially bad for poor countries that have fewer resources to deal with the coming Armageddon.
Since at the core of the report's argument is a call for attention to the poor rather than a call to environmentalism itself, we must look at what would really benefit the poor nations of the world, and even our poor neighbors in our own communities. It is never a bad thing for the Church to draw our attention to the plight of the poor and need for charity properly understood. Public policy is a different matter, though. Although A Plea for Dialogue states early on that the Bishops are not economists and scientists, they push on and start tossing around policy recommendations as if they were. The report refrains from endorsing any specific treaties or legislation, but it is pretty clear that the conclusion is that some kind of (presumably government) "program" must be put in place to halt global warming, reduce "pollution" and thus save the developing world from the scourge of environmental destruction. While the goals of the report are admirable, the recommendations, if carried out, would undoubtedly bring even greater poverty to parts of the world that are just beginning to benefit from the allegedly pollution-saturated world of industrialized civilization.
Presumably, the greatest danger that the pollutants of modern economies offer is the danger of fossil fuels contributing to global warming. Even if we assume that global warming is a bad thing (a ludicrous assumption in itself) it is becoming more and more clear that the affects on human society of cutting out fossil fuel emissions is much greater than the cost of simply dealing with the warming after the fact. According to Tom Wigley, a member of the UN Global Climate Change panel, implementing the Kyoto treaty would not prevent global warming, but would only mean that the temperatures we would expect in the year 2100 wouldn't happen until the year 2106. We would buy six years. But what is the cost of such a purchase? It would take the developing world a whole extra six years to find themselves (climatically) where they would have been without the treaty, yet with the treaty they will also find themselves in dire economic straits. If international climate controls are allowed to strangle the consumption of the industrialized world (which is one of their explicit goals) and to cut off export markets for the developing world, what can they expect other than more of what they have now?
The poor countries of the world will not find themselves immune to the economic disaster that major fossil fuel cuts would undoubtedly bring to the industrialized world. All will suffer, yet according to those who insist on muddling the cause of environmentalism with the cause of relieving human poverty will have found themselves to be supporting policies that bring nothing but additional misery to nations already ruined by statism, economic stagnation and central planning. As much as we would like the opposite to be true, there is only one way to wealth: peaceful commerce, hard work, and economic freedom.
The statement of the Bishops concludes that the earth's environment is terribly fragile and at the mercy of human capriciousness. The true fragility, however, lies in human societies and in economic prosperity. For all of human history man has struggled against nature's diseases, its random acts of violence, and its droughts and blights. This is most obvious today in the developing world where civilization and prosperity is the most fragile thing of all. If the Bishops wanted to help the developing world, they would spend their time encouraging peaceful societies instead of sacrificing them on the altar of global climate change. From the vantage point of the United States, it is easy to declare the war against nature won, for as Aldous Huxley put it: "To us who live beneath a temperate sky and in the age of Henry Ford, the worship of nature comes almost naturally. It is easy to love a feeble and already conquered enemy." The developing world should be so lucky.
September 13, 2002
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