Monthly Archives: August 2010

Living in God’s creation, 2

Thoughts on reading Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2009).

I want to make a few comments about the Introduction to Theokritoff’s book in this post. I need to preface my remarks by saying that I am not an economist, and that I don’t intend to play one on WordPress. Nevertheless, the author makes a number of statements in her Introduction that I find simply astonishing, and so I feel compelled to wade into the shallows of economics and fish for a response there.

The author herself raises the question of “why we need to concern ourselves with practical measures to address environmental problems” (p. 20), and quickly passes to “the question of remedies” (p. 21). She says,

Now, there is no doubt that technology in various forms has played an important part in solving human problems since the dawn of civilization. But when we look at the true potentials of various technologies (whether we are talking about improving crop yields, producing cleaner energy, energy efficiency or other areas), it quickly becomes apparent that few are without their drawbacks; almost none will produce a net benefit if they are not combined with difficult decisions to give up some of the things we have grown accustomed to doing. We need to entertain the possibility that “technical fixes” will not be sufficient. (p. 21)

I agree with the author that technology has its drawbacks. I don’t think that’s really the question, however. Lack of technology has very real drawbacks, as well. The question is rather whether the benefits of the technology outweigh its drawbacks. Take for example the new Chevy Volt. Running a car on electricity is cleaner, and it would cost about $1.47 in electricity to go the same distance as a gallon of gas would take you, so the operating cost is lower; however, it has a range of only 40 miles and a price tag of $41,000. For most people, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits, and I expect few Volts will be sold. The only way for new technology to become widely adopted is for “technical fixes” (in which the author seems to have little faith) to continue apace and make emerging technologies economically viable.

She goes on to say,

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (p. 21).

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

She says further,

[Such indulgences] reflect an expectation that nature should not be allowed to restrict us. That if I happen to feel like doing something, then neither season, nor climate, nor distance should be allowed to stand in my way (p. 23).

But, in fact, season, climate, and distance, do stand in the way. We see that they do in the higher prices we pay for some goods and services. The Latin American strawberries which I eat in winter cost a lot more than the local strawberries I buy from my neighbor’s fruit stand in the summer. Some people will choose not to pay the higher price for winter strawberries, and will wait for summer to eat them. Where there is a high demand for electricity to air-condition homes, the price of electricity goes up. In the face of higher prices for electricity, some people will choose to open their windows rather than run the air conditioner. This is how season, climate, and distance stand in our way and affect our decisions.

These are enough examples for one post. Next time, I’ll look at some of the more positive things that Theokritoff says in her Introduction.

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Living in God’s Creation, 1

Thoughts on reading Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2009).

In the Foreword, Peter Bouteneff says, “… if you want to live a truly Christian life, you must inhabit the earth in a way that is mindful of the whole of creation… This is the utterly convincing argument of this book” (p. 9). If Dr Bouteneff is correct, then Living in God’s Creation is going to be an interesting read. I say that because I have assumed, until now, that living a truly Christian life meant being mindful of God, not His creation. I am curious to see how Theokritoff handles her theme, because there isn’t much on the market about Orthodox takes on ecological subjects. I’ll be commenting as I read.

Belated reflection on Acton University

I was privileged to attend Acton University, the 4-day conference sponsored each June by Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, MI. Illness and vacation have kept me from posting some thoughts about my experiences there. Per their own website,

Acton University is a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished, international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate rigorous philosophy, Christian theology and sound economics.

There were over 400 in attendance, faculty, students, clergy, seminarians, from over 50 countries, most all of them Roman Catholic and Evangelical, but with a small sprinkling of Orthodox (may our number increase!).

A first-timer, like myself, attends four foundational lectures on Christian anthropology, Christianity and the idea of limited government, the economic way of thinking, and foundations of a free and virtuous society. Subsequently, I was free to attend lectures on environmental issues that interested me (and which contributed to my starting this blog).

Listening to the lectures, I was repeatedly struck by the breadth of learning and the familiarity with the whole fabric of Western culture that the presenters and participants had at their command. I have not participated in a discussion like this since my days at the University of Dallas. My admiration for Acton and the quality of the people it brings together is unbounded.

At any rate, as I listened to the presentations, I began to wonder what I, as an Orthodox Christian, had to bring to the table. Certainly, with regard to a Christian response to environmental issues, I do think that Orthodoxy has a number of themes and/or perspectives which I heard no mention of by the Evangelical presenters. These I will save for later posts on this blog, because they form the substance of what I want to present here on this subject.

I think, too, that on foundational issues, like Christian anthropology and fundamental ideas of a virtuous (if not a free) society, the Orthodox familiarity with–and respect for–the patrimony of the Fathers’ teaching is something we can certainly offer. (During informal discussions, I found people not merely tolerant of my Orthodox views, but positively eager to hear what I had to say.)

On the other hand, I don’t think there is much that is distinctively Orthodox that we can contribute to discussions of a free society, limited government, or to economic freedom. (Please correct me if I am wrong, but) until recent times, the broad political situation of Orthodoxy has been imperial (Roman & Byzantine), tsarist, dhimmitude under the caliph or Turkish millet, and Communist. If there have been significant Orthodox contributions to economic thought, I am unaware of them.

In view of my experience at Acton, I think that Orthodox Christians have much to offer theologically to non-Orthodox forums–and we should be willing to offer what we can–, but that we have much to learn from others about in which we are weak. In this respect, a real humility and willingness to “step out of our comfort zone” and acknowledge the expertise which others — and other disciplines — can provide can be enormously enriching, not only personally, but to the Church as well.

Now, up to this point,  all of this is rather academic (literally and metaphorically).  However, the recent Episcopal Assembly gives me pause. Some of the discussion generated on other forums about the role of the OCA’s autocephaly and lay participation in the OCA’s governance leads me to think that the Anglo-American tradition of limited government and understanding of human freedom — such as what Acton upholds — are valuable to the Church, precisely because they promote human dignity, freedom and personal responsibility.  They are ideals that need to be understood well, and articulated well, so that the Church can consider them well.  In this respect, Acton Institute is an excellent resource.