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.