The Theological Questions of Ecological Economics – By Kevin O’Brien

Kevin O’Brien on Alistair Young’s Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics

Alistair Young, Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics: Alternative Views on Christians and Markets, Fortress Press, 2015, 278pp., $39
Alistair Young, Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics: Alternative Views on Christians and Markets, Fortress Press, 2015, 278pp., $39
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When we argue about climate change, what are we really arguing about? A few years ago, the discussion usually focused on whether the climate was actually changing or whether human beings were causing it, but an increasingly overwhelming scientific consensus and a series of extreme weather events have stifled those arguments in most circles. Today, the most contentious public debates about climate change are, instead, about economics: how do we distribute the benefits of burning fossil fuels, the costs of a changing climate, and the risks of continuing business as usual? More broadly, is our economic system equipped to deal with a problem as large and complicated as climate change, or must we somehow deprive markets and corporations of the power to alter the atmosphere?

Consider Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si, which has received much-deserved praise for powerfully articulating the arguments that all people of good will should take action to care for the environment, and that anyone concerned about climate change or other global environmental problems should be open to the contributions of Christians. These overarching arguments have found wide approval, but the encyclical’s more specific claims about the role of economics have proven more controversial. He encourages us “to reject the magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals” (§190). The patterns of nature, the biodiversity of God’s earth, and human health must not be treated as commodities or resources. Along these lines, Francis specifically criticizes the use of market systems to buy and sell the right to emit CO2, which he sees as a solution that “in no way” nurtures “the radical change which present circumstances require” (§171).

The editors of the National Review disagree, labeling Francis’s economic thinking “simplistic” because “human dignity has in all observed cases been better served by the private-property regime that alarms the pope.” Francis’s critics argue that he fails to understand basic truths of economics: problems as complicated as climate change and global poverty, they argue, can only be solved by the power of economic mechanisms: market exchanges and the incentives they create.

When we argue about climate change, we argue about economics. Those of us not trained as economists too often take this as an excuse to avoid the arguments. The terms are opaque, the math is difficult, and life is short. But anyone interested in taking up the challenge of climate change — particularly anyone inspired by Laudato si’ and its predecessors to use Christian resources in caring for creation — must learn to think critically, morally, and carefully about economics.

Alistair Young’s Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics: Alternative Views on Christians and Markets offers a useful resource here. Young is an economist with experience in both academia and the public sector. He is also a member of the Church of Scotland interested in how his faith connects to his vocation, which has led him to read the works of Christian environmental ethicists and to respond with this primer on what economics can offer to Christians who want to address environmental problems.

Young argues that “economics” does not mean just one thing, so that Christian thinkers who have criticized “economic thinking” or “the market” are being overly simplistic and overly dismissive. The “alternative views” of his subtitle signal this call for a more nuanced analysis, which he pursues by distinguishing three economic approaches. Neoliberal economists emphasize the efficiency of markets over all other systems, arguing against virtually all government regulation or intervention. Neoclassical economists, by contrast, study not only the efficiencies but also the failures of markets, seeking to understand the limits of economic tools. Finally, ecological economists expand the attention of neoclassical economists beyond market failures caused by human beings to also take seriously the workings and limits of the natural world and its ecosystems. Himself an ecological economist, Young advocates a thoughtful use of economic tools to determine when markets and development might help solve environmental problems.

The book presents Young’s position as a sensible middle ground between two extremes. On one side, neoliberals and many neoclassical economists assume that markets can solve most problems and see economic growth and globalization as always beneficial. These thinkers, he writes, trust economics too much. They too often suppose that resources are substitutable, that we may freely use up an ecosystem or even a species because market-driven technology will replace any exhausted good as soon as there is an incentive. They too readily interpret economics as a value-free science, ignoring important moral issues of social and environmental justice. They too often dismiss political structures and political solutions. Ecological economics offers a corrective on each point, assuming the irreplaceable value of natural systems, addressing the moral principles inherent in any economic study, and asserting the vital role of political systems in solving any problem.

On the other side of Young’s position, many theologians and ethicists argue that economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet and that market exchanges corrupt moral thinking about environmental issues. Young believes that most Christian ethicists and theologians trust economics too little. To his credit, he devotes an entire chapter to understanding these thinkers on their own terms. Reviewing Christian ecofeminist, deep ecological, political theological, and evangelical arguments about the environment, he notes that most agree with one another (and with the Papal encyclical published after his book) on the need for fundamental, structural changes to the economic order.

Young observes, importantly, that evangelical Christians tend to stress the deep structural changes least, particularly those like the Cornwall Alliance who adamantly defend market solutions to environmental problems on Christian grounds. The vast majority of academic Christian theological and ethical thought about the environment, however, does in fact assume that markets have too much power over human lives and earth’s ecosystems. Young pays particular attention to the work of Michael Northcott, a Christian ethicist who has offered one of the most detailed critiques of free market approaches to environmental problems. Northcott suggests that the expansion of free markets simply extends the idolatrous, destructive thinking that created the problem of climate change and exacerbates human injustice, moving him to call prophetically for a different path forward.

Young agrees with Northcott and others that the human race faces enormous problems that markets cannot comprehensively solve. Nevertheless, he argues, economists can play a more constructive role than most theologians have seen. The book’s best chapter introduces the ways economics can help to frame and redress environmental problems. Anyone who wants to better understand externalities, game theory, or gross domestic product will benefit from Young’s careful introduction to each. Other chapters introduce methods of cost benefit analysis and the modeling of collective action problems in equally clear and helpful ways. These explanations push the conversation forward and form a cogent and careful argument that economic thinking helps to clarify rather than to colonize Christian thought about the environment.

Most effectively, Young accuses theologians and ethicists of being “no less guilty than their free market opponents of allowing the demands of ideological purity to override the imperative to find workable and effective solutions to serious problems.” Advocating a pragmatic approach, he encourages Christians and all others concerned about global issues to draw on the best evidence available and make the best decisions possible in the moment rather than seeking utopian ideals and denying any progress for the sake of perfection. As groups, Christians and environmentalists both have reputations for being idealistic and sanctimonious rather than flexibly willing to compromise. Young powerfully cautions against such sanctimony and ideology among Christian environmentalists.

In sum, any ethicist, theologian, or concerned citizen who is skeptical of market systems should take Young’s response very seriously.

When denialists widely and influentially dismissed scientific consensus on climate change, advocates of climate action were universally staunch defenders of science. But the increasing acceptance of anthropogenic climate change puts critics of global capitalism in the interesting position of criticizing economics, which many of its practioners believe to be just as scientific as atmospheric chemistry. Neoliberal and neoclassical economists tend to agree that (a) economics is itself a science, (b) their scientific analysis has demonstrated the effectiveness of market systems, and so (c) the advancement of human civilization and the reduction of poverty require continued free trade and economic growth. Standing against markets seems, at times, like standing up against another scientific consensus, making the same mistake as climate denialists. Indeed, many critiques of Laudato si’ accused it of this precise misunderstanding, such as the Forbes editorial entitled “Pope Francis Doesn’t Really Understand this Economics Thing, Does He?”.

Statue of St. Francis. By David Morris. Image via Creative Commons.
Statue of St. Francis. By David Morris. Image via Creative Commons.

Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics helpfully emphasizes the diversity of views within the guild of economists — there is no single “economics thing” to be understood. While Young speaks of his discipline as a science, he recognizes that economists do not work with concrete data like most natural scientists, and so economists cannot focus entirely on the quantifiable. This explains his disagreement with neoliberal economists who trust unregulated markets more than he does. It also explains his disagreement with other ecological economists are more radical than he, more deeply questioning the efficacy of economic methods and the benefits of growth and development. Herman Daly — one of the founders of ecological economics who co-wrote a key book on the subject with the theologian John Cobb — advocates positions much like those of Pope Francis than of neoliberal thinkers. Economists do not agree with one another about big and basic questions. So, unlike climate science, there is no “consensus” about the economic response to climate change.

Young’s own position is more moderate than Daly’s, but this makes it important and useful. No other book takes Christian critiques of market economics this seriously while also seeking to temper them and defend economic methods. I look forward to reading thoughtful rebuttals from Michael Northcott and others.

My own rebuttal, briefly stated, is that Young has not adequately dealt with critiques of economics as a worldview. He convinces me that economics offers helpful tools to inform individual and political decisions, that a discipline devoted to identifying the costs and benefits of decisions has much to contribute to difficult questions about climate change and other environmental issues. The strongest critique raised by ethicists and theologians, however, is not about the particular tools of economics but rather about the place of economics in the lives of twenty-first-century human beings. Free market capitalism acts not only as a set of tools, but as a belief system controlling one’s views of everything else. Economic thinking has convinced many people to embrace seemingly incontestable articles of faith about the importance of growth, the efficiency of markets, and the morality of wealth. In a world so dominated by economic thinking, there is a cost to using economic tools, to pragmatically applying economics rather than ideologically standing up against it.

One thinker who deserves more of Young’s attention is the theologian Sallie McFague. He correctly labels her an ecofeminist, but does not explore her considerable writings on economic questions. In Life Abundant, McFague argues that ecological economics should rely on a fundamentally different view of reality from mainstream economics. While mainstream economics emphasizes human beings as individual, rational actors defined by their consumption, ecological economics needs to embrace a view of human beings as members of large communities, inextricably interconnected with networks of other people and other species. For her, these two worldviews represent very different paths that necessitate a fundamental choice.

The same basic choice informs Laudato si’. Pope Francis does not distrust buying and selling carbon credits because he doubts the relative efficiency of that approach. Rather, he believes the practice makes a basic category mistake, treating the atmosphere as a commodity outside human beings instead of a network we must respect because we are utterly dependent participants in it.

I hope Young’s future work will respond to this criticism more fully, not only defending the tools of economics but considering whether and how one can use them if one is reticent about the worldview behind them and the influence of that worldview on all other aspects of human life. He attractively stakes out a pragmatic middle ground between champions and critics of market systems, but one must at least consider the possibility that the two positions do not permit compromise, that it is time to choose an ideological side.

When we argue about climate change, we argue about ecological economics, debating questions of cost and benefit regarding our interactions with each other and the ecosystems that support us. But when we argue about climate change, we should also argue about theology — basic questions of what it means to be human, what human beings owe to the forces that create and sustain us, and where we draw meaning in life. Alistair Young’s Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics will help its readers argue about economics with more information and more skill. One hopes it will also contribute to deeper reflections about theology in a changing climate.