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What Evangelical Environmentalists Do Not Know About Economics

Mises Daily: Thursday, April 10, 2003 by

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Some of the most common arguments advanced against the price system are those based on religious faith. In fact, all forms of statism can be tied to some form of faith. It may be a faith in a human being, or committee of human beings. Certainly, socialism requires a great deal of faith in the abilities of central planners to collect relevant, nonquantifiable, up-to-date information about the desires of millions of remote individuals. It requires more faith to believe that a government can prescribe an efficient allocation of resources and methods of production to meet the most important of those desires. 

This may not be the sort of faith evidenced by attendance at a church, synagogue, or mosque, but it is faith nonetheless, and, in a sense, it is religious. As the statist Bernard Bosanquet wrote over a century ago, "the modern nation is a history and a religion rather than a clearcut idea."[1] Using the term "religious faith," then, requires us to cover too much ground. So I will be more specific. I shall deal, in particular, with the views of those identifying themselves as modern evangelical Christians.

In the last thirty years, modern evangelicals have attacked the market economy on several fronts. Individuals, para-church organizations, and entire denominations have advocated government run welfare systems, minimum wages, restrictions on hiring and firing employees, monetary manipulation by governments, trade restrictions, and other major interventions. Frequently, some attempt is made to show that a free market is, at some fundamental level, inconsistent with the Bible. 

Recently, evangelicals have been mimicking the secular environmentalists' assault on the market economy. Pollution, deforestation, endangered and extinct species, food shortages, and global warming are all, they say, evidence of our failure to be good stewards over creation. Overconsumption, particularly in the industrialized parts of the world, is responsible, they say. Personal frugality, coupled with government regulation to prod along the unrepentant SUV-driving glutton, is the answer. Late last year, the Evangelical Environmental Network launched its "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign, which associated low gas mileage with immorality and advocated stricter government fuel economy regulations. 

There is a great deal of activity on the environmental front, and it is perhaps the most vigorous attack on markets that evangelicals have launched in the last twenty years. This attack is not coming from Gaia worshiping cultists or fringe groups within the churches. Major Protestant denominations, and some groups of Roman Catholics, have issued documents stating that caring for creation is inconsistent with a market economy. Of course, many of these groups have had a statist social policy for the better part of a century, so antimarket environmentalism may be viewed as a variation on the same old theme.  

Not all believers have participated in this attack. There are quite a few, particularly in the more theologically conservative denominations, who have strong promarket views. But in most churches and seminaries today, a majority have been convinced that when it comes to the environment, the market economy cannot be trusted.

For most Christians, the idea that humans should be good stewards of creation is easy to swallow. The trouble, as usual, begins when the particulars must be addressed. How does one know which use of a resource constitutes "good stewardship"? Can the government identify poor stewardship and take steps to correct a misallocation of resources?

Stewardship and Human Goals

Modern evangelical environmentalism cannot solve basic questions of resource allocation because it has rejected the foundations of rational economic calculation. Like their nonChristian counterparts, evangelical environmentalists regard private property as a source of environmental problems rather than the solution. Writing on the tragedy of the commons, Loren Wilkinson, a prominent figure among evangelical environmentalists, claims that the overgrazing of the common pasture is due to private ownership of the cattle, not the absence of property rights in the land. The problem, he writes, 

…is based on the hypothesis of individual interests, detached from ties with nature, humanity, or God, [so] it is almost inevitable that resources held in common will be misused—or that common actions which need to be taken will not be taken unless someone can speak for the whole interconnected system, not just for one's individual interest.[2]

That "someone" who speaks for the whole system would seem to be the socialistic central planner.

More recently, Calvin DeWitt has argued that because the creation has value, we should preserve it as we would a classic work of art. He writes, "When it comes to masterpieces created by human artists, respecters of Rembrandt keep and take care of Rembrandt's paintings; how much more so should respecters and worshippers of the Creator keep and take care of the Creator's works?"[3]

DeWitt's statement is an example of the second major problem within evangelical environmentalism—the denial of individual valuations of resources in accordance with individual goals. DeWitt assumes, in effect, that individuals have the same tastes and preferences and do not come up with different plans. Therefore, if DeWitt is to be logically consistent, every person's subjective valuation of a particular natural resource must be identical.

This explains why DeWitt chose a Rembrandt as an example. DeWitt assumes that we would not think of using a Rembrandt for anything other than visual contemplation. And, indeed, most of us would never dream of using a Rembrandt to patch a hole in a roof. We think it appropriate that Rembrandts stay behind velvet ropes, untouched. For most people, Rembrandts fulfill goals that require this careful preservation.

Yet most of nature is not so uniquely suited to the fulfillment of one purpose as is a Rembrandt. Parts of nature have value to the individual according to how well each meets that individual's specific goals. Unlike a Rembrandt, where the highest valued use is (in most people's minds) its visual appearance, a tree is more versatile. In both cases, value is inseparable from the achievement of individual goals. 

DeWitt and others overlook the possibility that an object might be useful in achieving multiple, mutually exclusive goals. Yet it is clear that the same natural resource (an acre of land, for example) might be used to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, clothe the naked, or teach the ignorant, as well as for simply viewing and appreciating the wonder of it all. All of these goals have a place in the Christian's life. The difficulty lies in deciding which goal to achieve with each piece of the created order.

Some evangelical environmentalists have attempted to counter this line of reasoning by claiming that it is too anthropocentric. They argue that the value of some part of nature—say, a tree—originates not in how well the tree meets human goals, but in the value that the Creator places upon the tree. As Steven Bouma-Prediger wrote, 

God's creatures are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans—though some are useful, indeed essential, to us. …[R]ocks and trees, birds, and animals are valuable simply because God made them. Their value resides in their being creations of a valuing God, not in their being a means to some human end.[4]

First of all, from the Christian perspective, God's valuations are fundamentally different from man's valuations. Economists speak of value as being related to how much one is willing to sacrifice of one thing in order to have one more unit of another thing. But for God, no such tradeoff is necessary. He never needs to choose between a red-cockaded woodpecker and a tree; he can have both merely by thinking them into existence. Distinctions in moral values are valid for God and for us: truth is to be valued over falsehood, faithfulness over infidelity, true worship over idolatry, and so on. But to speak of God having to make economic tradeoffs as we do is inconsistent with Christianity.

Second, and more to the point of this lecture, attempting to have economic valuations without humans leaves us no way to discover these valuations. Bouma-Prediger wants to separate value from human goals. "God's creatures are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans," he wrote. As much as he may dislike it, he really has no alternative. Because we humans are finite, we must value in an economic sense. Yet none of these advocates of price free stewardship have been able to locate divine revelation that informs us of the proper tradeoff between red-cockaded woodpeckers and trees. In fact, the dynamic economy would seem to indicate that continuing divine revelation is necessary so that we can keep our price controls up-to-date. I know of no evangelical environmentalists who claim access to this kind of information.

Now, certainly, our individual economic valuations will flow from our moral values. And we Christians regard ourselves as having some divine revelation on which actions are moral evils and which actions are good. So, for example, Christians regard rape as having a negative economic valuation because it is a moral evil. Thus, Christians would pay to have rape eliminated. Christians have a moral obligation to appreciate God's creation, so trees and wildlife have a positive valuation. The problem arises when we must choose between the trees and housing for the homeless. Since we humans cannot create ex nihilo, scarcity of wilderness and scarcity of housing are real problems for us. Without further information to help us decide which need is more pressing, we are left in chaos. Good intentions alone are insufficient to make choices among multiple moral goals. As economist P.J. Hill wrote,

Good intentions cannot ensure that people manage resources appropriately or prevent environmental degradation. Given that much of what we see in the world is the unintended consequence of human interaction, simply reforming our intentions is an inadequate policy prescription.[5]

Most of the evangelical statements on the environment reveal an inability to solve the basic problem of deciding between alternative beneficial uses of the created world. One example is an environmental statement from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This document states, "…caring, serving, keeping, loving, and living by wisdom sum up what is meant by acting as God's stewards of the earth."[6] There is no way to tell from this how to balance the goal of environmental preservation with the goal of satisfying some other human need, though the authors apparently believe that the current tradeoffs being made are inappropriate. The authors have concluded in advance that the market is not the answer to their lack of information. We are left with vague platitudes about stewardship with no explanation of how that stewardship is to be accomplished. Paul Heyne explained:

We will almost certainly fail to achieve our objectives if we simply ask people to become "better stewards." No one knows what "stewardship of creation" implies for his or her own actions. Exhortations to change our lifestyles just do not give us sufficient information.[7]

Stewardship and Prices

Advocates of marketless stewardship seem unaware of the severity of the problems that a socialist planner faces. Yet these problems were pointed out over eighty years ago by Ludwig von Mises. In his book Socialism, Mises argued that because economic valuation was ultimately subjective, the protection of private property and voluntary exchange is indispensable if an economy is to be rational. In a complex world, we are constrained to use prices to assist in determining the particular uses of resources that will best reduce the problems of scarcity. If we refuse, we are left with chaos.

This is a core problem with evangelical environmentalism today: it has no rational method for economic calculation. Instead, we have appeals to inner wisdom. Loren Wilkinson wrote that we should not govern our use of creation with price information. We should, he says, make "wise and frugal use of it."[8] 

This sounds high-minded but is completely meaningless when it comes to making actual decisions. How do we know what uses of resources are "wise"? How do we know what level of use is "frugal"? Even the best of intentions cannot overcome the absence of price information that tells us how frugal to be with various resources. Furthermore, as Mises argued, the presence of profits and losses is also a necessary ingredient for the efficient production and distribution of goods. Profits and losses send signals to the owners of factors of production as to what is being demanded.

Christian stewardship does not benefit from doing away with the market system. Prices, wages, and profits provide a way to "count the cost" of an endeavor—which Jesus Christ said was a necessary part of wise decision making.

Paul Heyne presented a wonderful example of how acting on good intentions, without price information, can actually lead to poor stewardship:

Suppose that every inhabitant of Los Angeles was miraculously converted overnight to the worldview of St. Francis of Assisi. We would no doubt see major changes in the behavior of Los Angelenos; but I would not be at all confident that we would see a decline in air pollution caused by the automobile. Each newly-sanctified Los Angelino, eager now to bring benefits and blessings to all other beings, would still need his car to do so effectively, given the physical layout of the city and its environs, just as any current Los Angelena desirous of doing good finds her automobile a valuable asset for getting food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked, for visiting those sick or in prison, and for earning income with which to do any of these things more effectively. Citizens of Los Angeles who make the "good steward's" choice and leave their cars at home end up getting less done, breathing more exhaust fumes, and dying earlier than those who refuse to behave like "good stewards." That looks like very bad stewardship.[9]

Official Denominational Statements on the Environment

One way to see the antimarket tendencies in modern evangelical environmentalism is to look at the official statements of some of the largest Protestant denominations, and certain Roman Catholic organizations. As I have said, this antagonism toward market freedoms is not universal—there are many Christians who hold promarket views. But let's take a look at some of the documents on the environment that have appeared in the last ten or twelve years.

Some of these official statements are lowest common denominator, platitudinous recommendations, like the document produced by the Wesleyan denomination: "Seek information on environmental issues." "Avoid polluting as much as possible." "Examine the pattern of our consumption, and avoid unnecessary expense."[10]  We must presume that when the authors say, "avoid polluting as much as possible," or to "avoid unnecessary expense," they expect individual decision makers to take price information into account when deciding what is "possible" or "unnecessary." To the denomination's credit, all of its recommendations save one can be achieved without resorting to state intervention. The exception is a call to "support political efforts to make recycling available where it is not."  

Other denominations make more comprehensive attacks on the market. Hope for a Global Future, a document produced by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), condemns market-based resource management as "unjust," but does not provide an alternative to the market's role in calculation. Somehow, however, the authors have managed to calculate that our current rate of consumption is too rapid. In a section on resource exhaustion, the P.C.U.S.A. statement asserts that we are, as it says, "living beyond [our] planetary means…maximizing current benefits, particularly for the affluent, at the expense of future generations."[11] And, while the document admits that better technology and substitutes can forestall resource exhaustion, it states, "[t]here really is no substitute for the conservation of nonrenewable resources." Predictably, the question of how much conservation is necessary is left unanswered. Also predictably, prices are viewed as inadequate as a rationing mechanism. As the document says:

Current market prices made higher by temporary shortages tell us only about near-term demand and supply conditions: they rarely anticipate the longer-term effects of resource depletion. By waiting to recognize environmental scarcity, it probably will be too late to conserve nonrenewable resources for the sake of future generations.[12]

So, we might ask, how do we know how to strike a balance between conservation of resources for the future, and consumption today? Our Presbyterian churchmen are left groping in the dark for answers, while implying publicly that they know the correct balance.

Ironically, when the Presbyterian statement provides examples of resource scarcity problems, they are traceable to an absence of a pricing mechanism. It mentions the scarcity of potable water in certain parts of the world, and the reduced yields of open ocean fisheries. Where drinking water is scarce, it is typically because it is a common access resource, not privately owned and rationed by the price system. Likewise, open ocean fisheries[13] are producing smaller catches because property rights in fishing banks are largely unprotected.

An Episcopal resolution on energy policy supports extensive government intervention to achieve energy conservation and reduce pollution.[14] The resolution urges government to:

  • Raise federal fuel economy standards and require SUVs and minivans to meet the same standards as passenger cars        
  • Require or subsidize the production and purchase of "clean" vehicles        
  • Use tax dollars to fund inter-city and intra-city mass transit        
  • Use taxes to fund "renewable energy" research and development        
  • Include carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and thereby subject it to E.P.A. regulations        
  • Apply the "strongest feasible" energy efficiency regulations to consumer goods        
  • Ban drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and         
  • Subsidize energy consumption by low income households

Price information is regarded by the Episcopal Executive Council as irrelevant or inconsistent with an appropriate allocation of resources. Each of their policy recommendations is in accord with the socialist ideal of centralized planning, rather than the market system of decentralized, individual planning. 

Government fuel economy standards, just to take one example, will misallocate resources and make drivers worse off. Drivers have decided that fuel economy is only one of many desirable automobile characteristics. We want gas mileage, but we also want safety, comfort, and performance. In a free economy, each person has the freedom to decide what combination of these features they want in a vehicle, and will have better information about their own preferences than any government regulatory agency could possibly possess. The cheapness of gasoline in the United States today, even considering gasoline taxes, tells the vehicle buyer how scarce gasoline is relative to other goods. Without knowing the volume of oil reserves, the rate of new oil discoveries, the uses that drivers in New Zealand might have for that oil, the advances in technologies of extracting or refining oil, or anything else about the process, the buyer has enough information to make an appropriate energy conservation decision. If oil reserves decline, or supplies from the Persian Gulf are threatened, the price of gasoline will immediately rise, and people will begin conserving gasoline. In short, any event that would lead a well informed, well intentioned environmentalist to promote gasoline conservation should, through the market process, result in just that. In fact, it will be conservation of the best sort—those who can cut back on consumption at the lowest cost to themselves will do so first, and not those for whom it would mean great hardship.

So, can we answer the Evangelical Environmental Network's question, "What Would Jesus Drive?" Knowing everything the price system communicates about relative scarcity, would Jesus drive a gas-sipping econobox? Of course we cannot presume to know such things. But I find it more plausible that he would have a balanced regard for other human concerns like safety and comfort—and be generous enough to allow room for his followers. I do recall that Christ once rode a donkey, which creates many more pounds of pollutants per mile than walking (and more than an SUV).

After reading these denominational statements myself for several days, they began to merge in my mind—they contain the same exhortations to a vaguely defined "stewardship" and the inevitable condemnation of the market. It is no wonder that Mises could say that Christian socialism "has taken root in the last few decades among countless followers of all Christian churches."[15] 

True to form, the Lutheran statement on the environment which I mentioned previously deals with a comprehensive set of environmental issues, and exhorts readers to a vaguely defined "stewardship."[16] It is clear that the Lutherans who drafted this document have no use for free-market pricing. 

I mention the Lutheran statement because one paragraph, under the heading "Justice Through Sustainability," demonstrates an important, and common, flaw in evangelical environmentalism. It reads:

We recognize the obstacles to sustainability. Neither economic growth that ignores environmental cost nor conservation of nature that ignores human cost is sustainable. Both will result in injustice and, eventually, environmental degradation. We know that a healthy economy can exist only within a healthy environment, but that it is difficult to promote both in our decisions.

Setting "environmental cost" against "human cost" is problematic. How can a choice be made, unless there is some common unit of measurement by which to calculate these two costs? Because value is subjective, so is cost, and therefore information about "human cost" is not directly observable. The only information we do have about human cost is revealed through voluntary exchange. In a voluntary exchange, each person reveals that the thing he acquires is ranked higher on his personal value scale than the thing he gives up. Without explicit divine revelation, there is no other way of comparing values. 

"Environmental cost" here must refer to some alteration or consumption of some environmental resource. Ultimately, it is impossible to separate this "environmental cost" from "human cost." "Environmental degradation" refers to a loss of one or more of the properties of the environment that were useful to some individual. That usefulness may not involve an alteration of the natural state. True, some may value the environment for mineral deposits or farm land. Others, however, value it for a scenic view or for the wildlife habitat it provides. Therefore, one person's "degradation" may not be another person's "degradation." A farmer viewing the encroachment of indigenous plant life onto his cultivated field may regard this return to a natural state as damaging, while another person may find cause to celebrate the erasing of man-made scars on the earth. 

"Environmental degradation," or "cost" is not objective, but is subjectively perceived by those individuals who might use the environment in some way. The concept of "environmental cost" is nonsensical without reference to the impact on a decision-making individual. That person has individual goals. The event some call "degradation" either furthers or hinders his accomplishment of his ends. The inanimate environment does not seek ends, and therefore cannot be said to incur "costs." Can there be such a thing as "environmental cost" that is not reducible to "human cost"?

If "environmental cost" is really a subset of "human cost," we are back to the problem of comparing human valuations. The only feasible solution is a price system, which implies private property rights and the freedom to voluntarily exchange that property. Yet property rights in the environment, much less pricing of the environment, is anathema to our environmentalist churchmen.

The statement of the American Baptist Churches begins with an uncritical review of the science of global warming, ozone depletion, and resource exhaustion. The document as a whole identifies any damage to the environment as sinful, and regards use of resources for private gain as necessarily inconsistent with the "common good." It reads: 

We can choose to disobey, to be irresponsible, to disrupt and disturb the peaceable relationship of creature and creation. We can choose to use nature's resources only for what we perceive is our own immediate interest. Such action is sin. It is a violation of the basic covenant wherein we are called to stewardship.[17] [emphasis added]

We could quibble with the idea that all creation would be at peace except for the existence of this bumbling, selfish interloper called Man. But we are focusing here on the problems that confront evangelical environmentalists when they try to get by without market prices. The core problem is a familiar one by now. If using nature's resources for our own immediate interest is sinful, how are we to assess the needs of others?

The writers try to bypass this problem early in this document by using the analogy of a household. One of the words translated "steward" in the Bible is oikonomos, meaning "the manager of a household." One suspects that the authors find this analogy attractive because those abominable market prices are not normally part of a household's resource allocation process. Paul Heyne explained why this concept of household stewardship cannot carry through to the larger economy:

The problem is that we live in a complex, decentralized, highly specialized society that no one controls or can control. What we call our "economy" is not at all analogous to a household or anything else that could possibly be "managed." …A modern industrial society, characterized as it is by extensive and minute division of labor, is a social system far too complex to be managed by any oikonomos not endowed with godlike powers.[18]

In a household with (usually) 2–6 individuals, it is relatively simple to estimate the needs of that small number of people without assistance of prices. Penalties (explicit or implicit) for failure to work for the good of the whole household are readily available.[19] Once we move beyond a handful of individuals in close association with one another, prices become indispensable as a way to communicate the intensity of needs. 

Using the earth's resources today does not imply a lower standard of living for future generations. Burning cheaper fossil fuels today instead of using cleaner and more expensive sources of energy will allow greater expenditure on research, education, and permanent or semipermanent capital (for example, housing or infrastructure that will be used for decades). Would it be better to bequeath to future generations the outcomes of that research and education, or stocks of underground coal? Most likely, future generations will desire both.

Market prices can help to make that allocation decision. Market prices take into account expectations of future scarcity, and in so doing serve to encourage the use of less scarce alternatives. As a commodity is consumed, the supply curve shifts upward, driving the price up and promoting conservation. The needs of future generations are taken into account—if a commodity is expected to have a sufficiently higher price in twenty years, suppliers have an incentive to maintain some quantity of the commodity to sell at that time. Even if the individual supplier does not expect to be alive to collect those future revenues, the supplier does at least have the incentive to make the firm attractive for a buyer who will be around to collect. The immediate interest firms have in profits (both current profits and expected future profits) tends to produce a result that is beneficial to both living and future generations.

In contrast, political systems allow only the living generation to have political power. Politicians, after all, are not elected on the expectation of future votes. It would seem that political solutions would be more likely to neglect the interests of future generations than would a market system. Yet this is exactly the proposed solution: "As Christians and faithful stewards, we bear the responsibility to affirm and support programs, legislation, research and organizations that protect and restore the vulnerable and the oppressed, the earth as well as the poor. This responsibility for a habitable environment is not just for human life, but for all life."

The authors of the Baptist statement, like many others, read into certain biblical texts a message consistent with their own statist environmentalism. A good example is their statement on the Old Testament law of Jubilee. This was a law that set a particular year for the freeing of slaves—indentured servants—and returned land to the tribe that originally owned it. According to these writers, however, the Jubilee year was "a year of land reform. It is a recognition that all land basically and ultimately belongs to God, and that no person or group has the right to destroy it or to use it unendingly for unjust personal or institutional gain."[20]

The message of the Jubilee year had nothing to do with the destruction of land, or the use of it for "personal or institutional gain."[21] It was not "land reform" in the modern sense, in which the State seizes land from rightful owners and transfers it to those of its choosing. It was a restriction on the market alienability of the land, not on the use of the land. This is a twisting of biblical interpretation to grant power to the State. As the biblical scholar and economist Gary North has argued, the time and place for applying that law is long past. "No judicial appeal to any of those laws is valid today," he writes. "Those who appeal to them risk placing us in bondage: the revival of permanent chattel slavery or the imposition of permanent slavery to the messianic welfare State…."[22] For many evangelical environmentalists, however, their interpretation of the Bible is apparently based on their personal brand of statism.

Protestants are not the only ones having problems with the concept of stewardship. One key Roman Catholic statement acknowledges that allocating resources to their most appropriate uses is not easy, but goes no further in suggesting ways to solve the problem: 

Stewardship implies that we must both care for creation according to standards that are not of our own making and at the same time be resourceful in finding ways to make the earth flourish. It is a difficult balance, requiring both a sense of limits and a spirit of experimentation. Even as we rejoice in earth's goodness and in the beauty of nature, stewardship places the responsibility for the well-being of all God's creatures.[23]

In The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility, Pope John Paul II (1989) promotes world government as a way to exercise stewardship over the environment: "The concepts of an ordered universe and a common heritage both point to the necessity of a more internationally coordinated approach to the management of the earth's goods."[24] Later, in Centesimus Annus, the same pope contends, "It is the task of the State to provide for the defence and preservation of common goods such as the natural and human environments, which cannot be safeguarded simply by market forces."[25] In the next paragraph, the encyclical affirms the value of the market, but within limits:

Here we find a new limit on the market: there are collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms. There are important human needs which escape its logic. There are goods which by their very nature cannot and must not be bought or sold. Certainly the mechanisms of the market offer secure advantages: they help to utilize resources better; they promote the exchange of products; above all they give central place to the person's desires and preferences, which, in a contract, meet the desires and preferences of another person.[26]

What it is about the nature of goods that precludes their market alienability, or the logic of this distinction, is never made clear in Centesimus Annus. Certainly Christian thought regards certain goods or services as properly market inalienable, such as children or murder. Yet an appeal to the nature of the good or service is not likely to produce consistent understanding among Christians. While we consider rivers, oceans, scenic wilderness, and even air quality as marketable goods, other Christians will regard these environmental goods as offlimits to pricing mechanisms.

Conclusion

In the writings of modern evangelical environmentalists runs a disturbing theme: the idea that it is possible for a small group of individuals to improve upon our use of the environment through coercion. In the name of stewardship, they lay claim to control of every aspect of our lives. Private property, a protected institution throughout the Bible, is regarded as dispensable. Of course evangelical environmentalists deny that destroying private property is part of their plan. Mises wrote about these types decades ago, who avoid "drawing the logical conclusions of their premises."

They give one to understand that they are combating only the excrescences and abuses of the capitalist order; they protest that they have not the slightest desire to abolish private property; and they constantly emphasize their opposition to Marxist Socialism. …[T]hey constantly proclaim that they do not wish to attack private property. But what they would retain is only the name of private property. If the control of private property is transferred to the State the property owner is only an official, a deputy of the economic administration.[27]

Almost completely neglected by the evangelical environmentalist is the recognition of the dangers to human life and freedom of handing over such power to the State. The Bible contains multiple examples of the misuse of state power. To trust the State to put our interests first, and to sacrifice our liberties for the empowerment of bureaucracies, is to deify and idolize the State. Evangelical environmentalists are seeking salvation in the very institution that has been responsible for slaughtering countless numbers of Christians. Turning over regulatory power to the State is a fatal mistake.

Another evangelical environmentalist (of a very different sort) named Calvin Beisner has contended that environmentalist central planning contradicts another Christian moral standard: to avoid pride. To claim that a bureaucrat, or a committee of bureaucrats, can have sufficient knowledge to plan an economy is to lay claim to one of the attributes of God: omniscience. Beisner wrote, 

Humility applied to environmental stewardship should lead us, in the light of the vast complexity of human society and the earth's ecosystems, to hesitate considerably at the notion that we know enough about them to manage them (as opposed to enforcing the rules of justice)—particularly that we are confident enough of our knowledge to assert our management preferences in place of the free choices of those who disagree with us.[28]

Mises's observations on the impossibility of socialist calculation should lead the environmentalist toward humility. Market prices represent, in summary form, billions of inexpressible assessments of the value of different parts of creation. In a complex world, caring for creation is impossible without them.


Timothy Terrell teaches economics at Wofford College. The text is the Lou Church Memorial Lecture delivered at the Austrian Scholars Conference, Auburn, Alabama, March 15, 2003. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Articles Archive. Click HERE to view the online video version of his lecture, or HERE for the audio only.

References

American Baptist Churches. 1989. American Baptist Policy Statement on Ecology: an Ecological Situational Analysis [Electronic version]. Valley Forge, PA.: American Baptist Churches.

Beisner, E. Calvin. 1997. Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate. Grand Rapids MI.: Eerdmans.

Bonsanquet, Bernard. 1899. Philosophical Theory of the State.

Bouma-Prediger, Steven. 1998. Creation Care and Character: the Nature and Necessity of the Ecological Virtues [Electronic version]. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50: 6–21.

———. 2001. For the Beauty of the Earth: a Christian Vision for Creation Care. Grand Rapids MI.: Baker.

Calvin College Department of Economics and Business. 1986. Through the Eye of the Needle: Readings on Stewardship and Justice. Grand Rapids, MI.: Calvin College Department of Economics and Business.

DeWitt, Calvin B. 1994. Preparing the Way for Action [Electronic version]. Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith 46: 80–89.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 1993. Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice. Minneapolis MN.: Augsburg Fortress. Retrieved October 9, 2002 from http://www.webofcreation.org/education/policystatements/elca.htm

Executive Council, Episcopal Church (U.S.A.). 2002. Resolution: Conservation Based Energy Policy. Retrieved from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/peace-justice/resolution_15.asp.

Heyne, Paul. 1993. "Are Christians Called to be 'Stewards' of Creation?" Stewardship Journal 3:17–22.

Hill, Peter J. 2000. Environmental Theology: a Judeo-Christian Defense. Markets and Morality 3.

Mises, Ludwig von. 1981 (1922). Socialism: an Economic and Social Analysis. Indianapolis, IN.: Liberty Classics.

North, Gary. 1994. Leviticus: an Economic Commentary. Tyler, TX.: Institute for Christian Economics.

Paul, John, II. 1989. The Ecological Crisis: a Common Responsibility: 1990 World Day of Peace Message (Dec. 8, 1989).

———. 1991. Encyclical letter Centesimus Annus (May 1, 1991). Retrieved October 8, 2002, from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 1990. Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice. Louisville KY.: Office of the General Assembly (P.C.U.S.A.).

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 1996. Hope for a Global Future: Toward Just and Sustainable Human Development. Louisville KY.: Office of the General Assembly (P.C.U.S.A.).

Rushdoony, Rousas J. 1986. Christianity and the State. Vallecito, CA.: Ross House.

United Methodist Church. 2000. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Nashville TN.: United Methodist Publishing House.

United Methodist Church. 2000. U.S. Agriculture and Rural Communities in Crisis. 2000 book of resolutions [Electronic version]. Washington D.C.: 2000 General Conference of The United Methodist Church.

United States Catholic Conference. 1994. Renewing the Face of the Earth: A Resource for Parishes [Electronic version]. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

Wesleyan Church. 2002. Standing firm: the Wesleyan Church Speaks on Contemporary Issues. Retrieved October 8, 2002, from http://www.wesleyan.org/issues14.htm

———, ed. 1991. Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans.


[1] Bosanquet (1899), cited in Rushdoony (1986), p. 186.

[2] In Calvin College Department of Economics and Business, (1986).

[3] DeWitt (1994), p. 82.

[4] Bouma-Prediger (1998), p. 10. See also Bouma-Prediger (2001), pp. 128, 142, 171.

[5] Hill (2000).

[6] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1993).

[7] Heyne (1993), p. 21.

[8] Wilkinson (1991), p. 241.

[9] Heyne (1993), pp. 20, 21.

[10] Wesleyan Church (2002).

[11] Presbyterian Church (USA) (1996), p. 53.

[12] Ibid., p. 51.

[13] Ibid., p. 53.

[14] Executive Council, Episcopal Church (U.S.A.) (2002).

[15] Mises (1981), p. 223.

[16] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1993).

[17] American Baptist Churches (1989).

[18] Heyne (1993), p. 18.

[19] Other denominations’ documents have also made use of this analogy (e.g., Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.] [1990], p. 25).

[20] American Baptist Churches (1989).

[21] Note that the authors are tripping over superfluous qualifiers: is using land “for unjust personal or institutional gain” acceptable if it is thus used only temporarily instead of “unendingly”?

[22] North (1994), p. 429.

[23] United States Catholic Conference (1994).

[24] Paul (1989), p. 9.

[25] Paul (1991).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mises (1981), p. 225.

[28] Beisner (1997), p. 28.