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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Posted on August 17, 2010, in Environmentalism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I understand the concern represented in this section:
    ————–
    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)
    ————–
    There’s any number of extremes of this “control” that I could list, I suppose. Medical advances in gene-splicing that (may) allow us to choose our baby’s eye color, or graft a squirrel’s tail onto a turtle, or whatever.

    But really, what human activities are NOT some act of control? If mid-winter berries are too controlling, what about greenhouses? roto-tillers? watering cans? Is it back to hunting and gathering for us, hoping that the birds have not gotten to the wild berries out in the meadow yet?

  2. Well said. I’ve linked to this on my blog.

  3. With all due regard, I have to say that the perspectives of Theokritoff come strongly in the discourse of most environmentalists who try to stay in the dominant paradigm. As an engineer, I see opportunities to shift how we do things so as to enable smarter design decisions. However, as a person, I have to wonder about the relationship between my wants and my needs. Yes, I do have financial controls over what I decide that I “need” but it is very easy to spend beyond our means.

    As an Orthodox Christian, I have to wonder about how stewardship factors into our considerations of how we live. So much of my limited understanding of the fasting disciplines of the Church points towards a desire for a rightly ordered relationship with my stomach, my neighbor, my limitations, and my Creator.

    “Simple economics” can create an interesting set of lenses to view the world. When volcanoes over Iceland disrupted trade over Europe, the NY Times ran an article about produce wilting in Kenya for which the Kenyans had no local use. For instance, Kenya has substantial industries working to produce freeze-dried vegetables for stir-fry although most Kenyans do not know what stir-fry is. Why produce something that has no value beyond outsourced economic returns?

    • Are you saying there is an inherent friction between decisions you make “as an engineer” and “as a person”?

      “Stewardship factors” do point to a right relationship with ourselves, our neighbor, our world and our God. And it is appropriate that our Faith inform these relationships. How to discern what is, in fact, the “right” relationship (or the “best” relationship, given a range of possible responses), is not always easy to do. This is the burden of oikonomia. I do give Theokritoff sincere kudos for wrestling with difficult questions.

      My interest in “simple economics” is not taken just because it is an “interesting set of lenses,” but because economics is a practical and useful tool for studying the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses; and it gives insights into exchange and trade and how everyone (and the environment) can be better off through good exchanges; and it deals frankly with effective tools, like incentives, to leverage desirable changes in behavior. My fear is that neglect of simple economics will mean that concern for environmental issues will not result into practical, beneficial actions but will remain stuck in sentiment and feel-good but ineffective gestures.

      In answer to your question, why produce something that has no value beyond outsourced economic returns, I say produce it precisely because it has nets outsourced economic returns. Kenyans produce freeze-dried vegetables for people that want them; people that want freeze-dried vegetables give Kenyans money for them so that Kenyans can buy what Kenyans want. Both parties are happy; both parties are richer for the trade. Forgive my density, but I’m not seeing a problem here.

      • “As an engineer” means something slightly different than “as an economist” or “as a priest.” Additionally, I do not expect every person to appreciate a vantage point stemming from my professional discipline of engineering. There is no friction, other than to know that as engineer, I can typically design a material solution that allows me to get what I want even if getting what I want is not in my best interests for a whole host of reasons.

        “Economics” is one lens to look at scarce resources; “Design” is another lens that deals with much of the same ideas from different angles that can incorporate a wider net of concerns. I have had the privilege of studying under an anthropologist who worked in the World Bank for several years; he regularly shares a story about a resettlement initiative in Sri Lanka that involved a people group he lived with for some time. One of the economists was having difficulty explaining why the numbers were not coming out right about what this resettlement project was supposed to be doing in the area. My professor briefly explained the nomadic structure of herding and family structures in the area, to which the economist replied “Well, that’s all very interesting but I can’t build in non-cost factors into my spreadsheet.”

        Kenya’s agricultural exports are vegetable crops and flowers, two incredibly water-intensive crops in a water-stressed country where the majority of persons work as subsistence farmers. Moreover, the value chain is a lot more complicated than “the Kenyans get the money.” We might buy our frozen vegetables at Wal-Mart, who then pays their contract for those vegetables to Birdseye, who then contracts out to assorted distributors, paying off those contractors who might be foreign nationals operating in a different country under legislation particular to operating a multi-national corporation in that country. And I still really don’t know where individuals fit into this whole macro-economic paradigm as I’m not an economist. If there are vegetables on the ground in a booming metropolis where people live, then it strikes me as odd that those people cannot eat the vegetables they produce.

      • Thank you for your clarifications.

        Your comment on the value chain for Kenyan veggies is helpful. I have no specific knowledge of Kenya’s agricultural situation, but, apparently, packaging frozen stir-fry veggies is a preferable job for some Kenyans (I’m assuming no one is coerced into working for the packaging houses).

  4. Wesley J. Smith

    Radical environmentalism is becoming progressively anti human. Example, deep ecologists call humans the AIDS afflicting the living Gaia. Ecuador has the “rights of nature” in its new constitution, co-equal with those of humans. Individual plants have been granted intrinsic dignity in the Swiss constitution. Some climate change alarmists are calling for China-like population control measures–the tyrannical potential of which is obvious.

    The popular culture reflects these nihilistic attitudes, such as the remake of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, in which the alien played by A-List star Kenau Reeves comes to earth, not to save mankind from itself, as in the original, but to commit total genocide to save the planet. In the end, he shows mercy by merely taking away all our technology, which would of course result in billions of deaths.

  5. Forgive me, I agree that we must begin to address environmental concerns on a personal level and in practical ways.
    I recall in the early 70’s to obtain a whole grain loaf of bread one had to go to much trouble to find an odd health food store miles away to buy a loaf or the whole grain flour to make it oneself. In time the knowledge hat it was far more healthful trickled down to the mainstream population and demand brought the needed change.
    The same with Homeschooling, in the late 70’s we had to hide our children during school hours lest we be arrested ( as many pioneers were).
    Think of the 60’s when we all still tossed our trash out the car wndows!
    In these examples the individuals made the needed choices they believed good and in time others followed, and then the markets and laws adjusted to the demand of the people.
    If we conscienteously don’t demand winter strawberries, the trend may become understood by others in time and the consequence will be that we find what we need locally, the suppliers will decrease their supplying and believe it or not the environment will be a small bit improved simply due to less transport and packaging.
    Regarding the poor, Fr. Michael, in one sense it is true that the poor of America are comparitively less so than in other countries, yet the poor in America because of the handouts suffer in terms of loss of ingenuinity and some very basic lifeskills that as a culture we laid aside a few generations ago. In addition the expectations of the American poor is higher due to the extravagance portrayed by the media. Thus they are far less contented and satisfied than the poor of some other countries.
    I have lived many years with the Old Order Amish, I lived as they do no electricity, no vehicle and telephone, not even an indoor privy! By American standards this would be considered dire poverty!Yet, though I raised 4 children with less than 400. a month we were far away from poor! We were very well fed and above all contented. This is where true asceticism is needed, in the area of contentment I think it takes changng our lenses as was suggested. Change must begin in the little every day things first with ourselves, then our families and communities. As a Orthodox Christian , I feel I am responsible to do my small part no matter what the world does. The world at large will not be content ,so they will continue to grow in their consumption, whereas Christians try each day to crucify such desires following the many instructions to be content with food and raiment. I believe most everything we do matters. It takes conviction and courage not to go with the flow…or as Christ termed ” the broad way”.

  6. I recently came across this article in National Geographic about some of the current economic practices in Madagascar that speaks to the complexity of our choices. In particular, I appreciated the discussion of the associated costs of Rosewood harvesting. The full story is at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/09/madagascar/draper-text

  7. Sarah Wagner-Wassen

    Re: strawberries in January:

    Dr. Theokritoff may have oversimplified things, but I believe the issue she is trying to point out is much larger than just buying strawberries in January. The issue, as I see it, is that people today approach going to the grocery store much the same way they go to Blockbuster. The store had better have what they want, when they want it. Food in this mentality becomes little more than yet another commodity. And indeed, many people today don’t realize the irony in the phrase “strawberries in the winter.” Of course there are strawberries in the winter, the supermarket stocks them in little plastic boxes.

    Food availability, and food choice, especially when it comes to strawberries in winter, has to do with consumption, and increasing consumption of more expensive foods among consumers. As the proponent of free globalization of food put it:
    “Consumers value this variety for its own sake, and not just because of lower prices or higher quality, says Broda. When comparing two types of coffee, you may not think one is necessarily better, but sometimes you’d prefer one type of coffee to another. Being able to buy exactly the coffee you’re in the mood for makes you better off as a consumer.”
    http://www.chicagobooth.edu/capideas/sep06/2.aspx

    It all comes down to one’s “mood” or “wants”, which is fine for picking out a DVD for the night at Blockbuster, but maybe shouldn’t be brought into the supermarket. But when it comes to food the simple fact of the matter is that this earth has growing seasons based on the movement of the earth around the sun while it shifts on its axis. It also has particular plants which naturally grow in some areas better than others and need some amount of cultivation for optimum yields. Does transporting highly fragile fruits, such as strawberries, from one growing season on the world to another make sense? Does it use more energy (in terms of fuel and man-hours of handling and transportation) than the strawberries themselves? But it offers “variety” and “choice” to the American consumer, and whether to partake of that “variety” and “choice” may be a moral decision when it come to food, instead of DVD’s.

    Though if this article is any indication, we Americans may lose the ability to buy strawberries in the winter. Asians are willing to pay more for them than we are. http://www.freshplaza.com/print.asp?id=68218 . One could hope that by fetching a better price the individual farmers would make more money per piece than they are currently. But, frankly, I would be very surprised if it did. If even a good percentage of the money we spent on imported food actually went to the farmer we wouldn’t be constantly asked to build homes for them/build a well for them/buy them a cow/send their kids to school/buy their kids a soccer ball/etc. etc. etc. We complain about people who won’t work for their food, and then turn the people who work the hardest to grow the food we eat into charity cases. The irony is so astounding that it is nearly incomprehensible.

    My basic philosophy to all the mumbo-jumbo surrounding food is the Native American axiom to walk softly on the earth. Just last week I bought eggs from the farmer down the road, seems like a hard-working guy just trying to pay the bills and raise his kids. Does this make perfect economic sense or am I taking away the job of a guy who runs a egg production factory farm? On both counts the answer is “probably not.” But sometimes logic needs to supersede simple economics, and sometimes people need to have the quaint concept of principles.

  8. Today the Guardian ran a story about how exporting asparagus has created some major environmental issues ( full story at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/15/peru-asparagus-british-wells?CMP=EMCGT_150910& ) This article properly observes the irrigation need of asparagus and the challenges of irrigating a plot where demand greatly outstrips supply.

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology | Koinonia

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