Wednesday, September 12, 2007

God Save Us From "Good Intentions"

The following is a guest post from, Chrys, one of the more frequent commentators on this blog. Chrys sent me the original privately a while ago and I encouraged him to allow me to post it here--he has finally agreed!

You may or may not agree with everything that he says, though I happen to be fundamental agreement with his analysis. As always, I would welcome your comments and/or observations. Also if anyone would like to offer a guest post, I would be edger to consider what you have to say for inclusion here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

One of this year’s Greek Orthodox Sunday School themes is “Saving the Earth.”

It is important to recognize that stewardship is a critical element of our discipleship. In fact, I would suggest that “gardening” is actually a central motif in the Bible, emblematic of our calling to serve God in the cultivation of and care for the earth. (Indeed, it may be for this reason that Jesus is mistaken for the gardener after His resurrection.)

Even so, the focus is egregiously misplaced. I would argue that – especially for children – it is more important to focus on those basic resources that they MUST always use (their time, energies and bodies) rather than those that they can not yet (and may never directly) use – “the earth’s resources.”

Worse, by reducing stewardship to "saving the earth" – especially in this political climate and for those who can have little to do with the actual use of it – the Church ignores the foundational components of true stewardship in the service of what strikes me as little more than propaganda.

This strikes a particularly sore point with me. It appears to be the case of the Church once again abandoning its critical role in the transfiguration of the Universe (!) for the sake of a misbegotten, self-congratulatory and all-too-passing trend. Misplaced priorities are to expected from the confused, the insecure and the foolish -- but not from the Church, which has been given a truly cosmic role to play.

Beyond the abandonment of the ultimate for the transitory, the clergy commit other errors. This is inevitable whenever anyone speaks outside of their area of expertise – a folly apparently not reserved to Hollywood. In this case, those who are (rarely) schooled in the environmental sciences and lacking an informed, critical appreciation of the problem merely assuming the popular and oh-so-political posture on the nature and causes of the issue. Regarding Climate Change, for instance, the science is far from settled; the models, methods and equipment are all still inadequate to the complexity of the task. At best, we see as through a glass darkly. Since a meaningful solution depends upon an accurate diagnosis of the problem, it is presumptuous (at best) to begin to apply the certitudes of moral suasion to such tentative concerns.

Worse by far are the economic admonishments. While most of our understanding of the environment may not exceed popular assumptions, ignorance of simple economics is difficult to excuse. Take, for instance, the oft-repeated belief that America “consumes” a disproportionate share of the earth’s resources. While this is true, it is true in the same sense that Satan was correct in his quotation of Scripture to Jesus in the desert. It is a conveniently truncated fact bereft of the context that reveals its meaning. America "consumes" resources . . . in order to “produce” a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. We aren’t just “eating” resources, we are using them to “make” something of value.

If our enlightened anointed would even briefly review history, they would discover that free exchange within a reasonably well-regulated market has produced a boon to mankind - quite apart from the intentions of the participants. (This, by the way, is the real meaning of Adam Smith's "invisible hand.") It was Ford who made transportation available to the masses – which allowed city streets to be rid of the stench and filth left by that other popular form of transportation: horses. It was Rockefeller and what became Standard Oil that made cheap oil available so the poor could affordably heat their homes. Not only did this prevent the poor from freezing, but it also saved the whales from extinction since it was their oil that had been the primary source of heat prior to kerosene. It was Edison and what became General Electric that made reliable, safe lighting available to all. It was Carnegie and what became U.S. Steel that made that remarkably strong and flexible material cheap enough to build the buildings in which we worked. The wealth of these “robber barons” was not bequeathed through the luck of happy parentage – it was earned by providing exceptional value to so many people.

Consider our tribal ancestors. As P.J. O’Rourke noted, the basket maker could not kill his meat very well with his baskets. The spear maker could not carry his meat well with his spears. When each is free to exchange what he has for something he values more, ALL are made richer, made more productive and are thus better able to meet his families' needs. It is not a zero-sum game. By rewarding those who offer the greatest value to their neighbors – that is, by blessing their neighbors in the way the neighbors actually need and want, all are blessed. In this way the market actually creates wealth. By structuring the world in such a way that man can bless himself and his family only by blessing his neighbor, God has devised the perfect system to teach even those with dim moral lights how they should behave. Adam Smith saw this in 1776. Incredibly enough, most of our “educated” leaders remain blind to it still.

Indeed, our moral betters would tell us that this is not so because it is not perfectly so. (The requirement of perfection is a curious standard since perfection can be found nowhere; it does, however, permit the user to universally "justify" his intervention.) They tell us that it is they who care more for the earth and its limited resources. Self-regard aside, what have they actually done? Do they, in fact, care more? I would argue that they have confused intentions with effects. In its ultimate form, the result is self-flattery bordering on delusion.

For example, who REALLY cares more about the state of the world’s forests - the academics or the paper mills? If all the trees are destroyed, the mills are out of work. Not surprisingly the Paper Companies pour millions into the cultivation and maintenance of the forests. By focus and practice, they are the real experts. Do they have an agenda? Certainly: the perpetual profitability of their business. Does the "disinterested" academic have agenda? Certainly: the identification of a need or crisis or novel understanding upon which to justify and built his career. The academic, who has no "skin in the game," may be completely wrong, but his career will be over and done before the damage is felt. The company, on the other hand, is designed to exist beyond that and must live with the consequences. The livelihoods of all involved in the company depend upon a healthy outcome.

We see this everyday on the “street” level. The neighborhoods that are well cared for are privately owned. If you want to see wanton destruction of property, visit a government housing project or a college dorm. If one receives no meaningful value from the improvement of a thing or incurs no meaningful cost to maintain it, there is little incentive to expend the energy needed to be "care-full" with it. Thomas Merton pointed to the monastery bicycle as the perfect example of “un-invested” neglect.

Yet enlightened elite flatter themselves for their good intentions while judging harshly others whose motives may not match their own. Experience exposes the emptiness of this posture. Whenever people become sufficiently concerned about their environment that they are willing to actually pay for it, there are myriad enterprises willing and able to use their ingenuity to create solutions – whether that involves “green” buildings, fuel-efficient planes (Boeing), reclaiming a strip mine or simply reclaiming a front lawn. Creative, entrepreneurial energies do far, far more to provide real, meaningful solutions than the best intentions of the next “live aid” concert with its massive carbon footprint.

On a purely practical level, then, I am irritated by clergy who major in motives but ignore effects. (Somehow I do not think this would pass muster when it comes time to raise money to pay the Church’s bills.) I am troubled by clergy who focus on matters for which they are ill-equipped. But the offense that is especially egregious arises when these same clergy abandon their great gift and high calling to grasp at momentary "relevance." For IF I am a Christian pastor, then I should know that the REAL cause of global destruction is not a particular market, economic system or cultural phenomenon. I should know that the REAL solution is not a series of “green” behaviors. As simply a “mere” Christian, I should know that the REAL cause of environmental distress is . . . sin. If I claim any theological insight into life at all, I should understand that the "root cause" of these recurring concerns (whatever the form of the crisis “du jour”) is really sin. It astounds me that those who would claim the right to lead the faithful could be unaware of this – all the more so since it takes real effort to miss (or avoid) what Scripture clearly says:

"For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God's children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the first fruits —we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." (Romans 8:20-23)

Had they taken their calling as Christians more seriously, our "leaders" would see that the real cause of the “corruption” of the earth lies in sin and the real solution depends upon holiness – which is, in fact, (or so I am told) within their proper area of expertise!

If only more Christians – especially clergy – would simply be more “Christian” in their analysis of issues of the moment. By stooping to popular political agendas (for which they are very poorly qualified), by trying to be “relevant,” they trade their glorious inheritance for a mess of pottage. Since, as Oscar Wilde put it, they “can resist everything except temptation,” it appears that my children may learn how to "save the earth" but not themselves. I would rather that they learn how to save themselves and then, as St. Seraphim said, thousands around them will be saved. Indeed, the cosmos will be saved if St. Maximos is correct. Presumably this includes the earth.

Some Greek Orthodox links on the environment:

Our Faith: Environment

Ecological activities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate