Patheos Blog

Blue Environmentalism – Part Three

By Michael Novak at Patheos.com on July 9, 2015

Henry Adams saw that science and technology were the masculine “Dynamo” of our progress – but he intuited that they needed to be balanced by a feminine nurturing of nature, which nurturing he expressed in the symbol of the “Virgin.”

There is now a battle under way in Western culture as to the precise meaning of the symbol of the Virgin. The pristine mountains, waterfalls, lakes, forests, and rivers have come to be seen, in and of themselves, as Virgin surrogates. Nature is envisioned as a sublime, purer order that rebukes the order man has made. The fact that nature has through most of history exerted cruel and killing dominion over man has been repressed; Nature is now viewed, implausibly, as simply beneficent.

This is the great psychic drama being played out in the modern environmental movement. Mythic elements of great power are involved in it. Those who choose to proceed with critical intellect intact must pay due respect to realities of that kind: The underlying arguments are not about policy only, but about quasi-religious visions of the pure, the good, and the nurturing.

And so the first guiding principle of Blue Environmentalism needs to be realism. This means we need to gain the most accurate, nonpoliticized, and independent view of the hard reality of environmental trends that is possible, and to promote the development of expert techniques to cope with them. Pope Francis writes:

At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. Viable future scenarios will have to be generated between these extremes (LS, 61).

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The second guiding principle must be liberty. While some environmentalists of the past have preferred to castigate and punish, Blue Environmentalists should choose a method of greater proven effectiveness: creating markets in which both positive and negative incentives function well, in the interest of the environment as well as that of individuals. When human beings make free choices, they normally calculate the costs and benefits of their actions fairly carefully, in order not to suffer the consequences of not doing so. Therefore, these costs and benefits should be so aligned as to promote the common good, while respecting free choice.

The third and final guiding principle is that we must focus on raising up the poor. The world’s worst pollution is in the poorest countries; it arises from primitive methods of heating and cooling, inadequate sanitation systems, and other causes rooted explicitly in poverty. We know the negative impacts, including deforestation and desertification, in areas where energy is derived from burning peat, firewood, and other primitive materials in vast numbers of homes and kitchens. All of this should make poverty a core environmental issue.

With Pope Francis, our deepest motivation for trying to help the poor gain a more becoming affluence is for their own liberation and basic dignity – so that they might become all that God has given them the potential to be. Blue Environmentalism holds that the best way to help the poor rise out of poverty is to recognize the strict relation of the right to private property to the right to personal economic initiative, and to take the necessary political and institutional steps to give these basic rights realistic support in practice.

“We were created with a vocation to work,” Francis writes. “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work” (LS, 128).

And so it is fundamental, for example, that the right to enterprise not be criminalized – yet many entrepreneurs in Peru and other Latin countries are forced to work as informales or illegales. The right to incorporate a small business follows from the right of association. The state has a right to regulate such registration, and may charge a small sum to cover its expenses; but such registration must be cheap and quick. In addition, it is crucial that a large supply of microloans be made available for poor persons who have promising business plans. New institutions that specialize in making such loans, as well as in providing technical support to help borrowers succeed, will need to be started from scratch, since most existing banks in Third World nations lend little or nothing to the poor. Borrowing is the mother’s milk of infant businesses, since poor people have no preexisting capital with which to launch, or to expand, their businesses. All they have are their ideas, their sweat, and their good habits, but thankfully these are the main cause of the wealth of nations.

Blue Environmentalism, therefore, stands for the spreading of those institutions of empowerment that promote private property and creativity. It is not the natural endowment God gave the poor that is currently at fault, but the inadequacy of political systems and social institutions that fail to nurture and support it. We can appreciate Francis’s comment on the role of politics:

[I]t is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. . . . Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. . . . To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute. Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good (LS, 197).

Liberty releases the eminently realizable hope of bringing every woman, man, and child into the circle of universal affluence, which this planet has been fashioned to support. As Francis affirms in Laudato Si’ (93-95, 158), following his predecessors Benedict and John Paul II, the goods of the earth have been given a universal destination, and that destination is the freeing of everyone on earth from the prison of poverty.

Freedom, too, has its own ecology. Blue Environmentalism cherishes the ecology of liberty.

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