Fair Mother Earth

James Lovelock’s Gaia theory may be a bit Aquarian for some Mormons, but it is worth remembering that Mormon scripture also offers a “personified” earth (Moses 7:48-49):

And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face? And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth? Wilt thou not bless the children of Noah?

In honour of Earth Day, I think a little Jim Morrison is also in order:

What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister? Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her…

Be green. Mother Earth grieves.

Comments

  1. For years, I’ve hoped for an Earth Day-themed issue of the Ensign, but no go…

  2. cj douglass says:

    I once saw a “take care of the earth” article in the Ensign. I kept it to show all my friends that christians do care about the environment. If I could only remember which Ensign it was from.

  3. Back in 1998, Gibbs Smith published “New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community,” edited by Terry Tempest Williams, et al. Good book. It contained a mix of new and reprinted essays, as I recall…haven’t seen anything similar since.

    Here’s a link: http://www.coyoteclan.com/books/new_genesis.html

    Williams is one of my favorite writers. It’d be interesting to see what other here think about her.

  4. Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for this reminder, Ronan. In honor of Earth Day, this is one of my favorite nature poems by e.e. cummings.

    when faces called flowers float out of the ground
    and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
    but keeping is downward and doubting and never
    -it’s april (yes, april; my darling) it’s spring!
    yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
    yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
    (yes the mountains are dancing together)

    when every leaf opens without any sound
    and wishing is having and having is giving-
    but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
    -alive; we’re alive, dear: it’s (kiss me now) spring!
    now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
    now the little fish quiver so you and so i
    (now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)

    when more than was lost has been found has been found
    and having is giving and giving is living-
    but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
    -it’s spring (all our night becomes day)
    o, it’s spring!
    all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
    all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
    (all the mountains are dancing; are dancing)

    Happy Earth Day!

  5. cj douglass (2): I also remember such an article but also not well enough to find it. The lds.org search returns a few hits, but none jump out and touch my memory. The most likely contenders, however, are in July 1991 and August 1971.

  6. LOL, Ronan! I have always loved that line from When the Music’s Over and equated it with that amazing scripture from the BoM! The idea that Earth has a spirit is certainly not new in LDS thought (the whole flood = baptism for Earth thing, etc), and the Native Americans’ view on Mother Earth I felt had to come from some kernal of truth somewhere. It’s weird to personify the earth in that manner, but maybe it’s one more of those realities that we’re just not “tuned into” yet as a church. Thanks for reminding us of this.

    And perfect poem, Elisabeth!

  7. I did an undergraduate religion paper in my BYU days tracing the treatment of environmentalism in church magazines over time. It was fun — one in particular that I remember was a piece from the 1960s warning parents that concerns about the environment were an early warning sign that their teenagers were taking the wrong path.

    I’m so glad that the tone has changed!

  8. A recently published book I’ve noted:

    Stewardship and the Creation.

  9. It hasn’t changed that much. Environmentalist is a dirty word here in Cedar City. I go with a middle ground, I think both camps can go extreme on us.

    I liked your poem, too, Elizabeth. I like this time of year. My daffodils are blooming all crazy and the hyacinth came up through this old log basket I bought at DI and it looked really cool. Plus the lilac bushes are full, just pregnant with buds. You guys, pray it doesn’t freeze. Just for me.

  10. So what do people think our responsibity to “mother earth” consists of?

    Is it just part of our responsibility to our children and to our fellow man, or does it go beyond that? Does moral law require us to worry about “the earth” or “the environment” as a end in itself, apart from it’s effect on human happiness? If you say yes, what standards are you using to judge what is good for “the earth.”

  11. Good comments everyone. Justin, thanks for pointing that book out.

    ed, you ask a tough question. I think respect for the creation shows respect for the Creator, and so yes, I think it is “moral” to do so in and of itself. And of course, our care for the earth does indeed impact our children and fellow man: global warming, for example, is more likely to devastate the poor (we in the West may have the technology to deal with rising sea levels, but in parts of the Third World maybe not).

    But I have no absolute standards, other than, perhaps, “consume less.” Sorry if that’s wishy washy!

    For environmentalism to succeed it needs the support of the market. As soon as we show that we want things to be “green” and that we will pay for them, then we could do away with oil in a decade (to provide one example).

  12. Ronan, I’m afraid I do find that a little wishy washy. I have ways of thinking about what’s good for my fellow humans, but I don’t have any framework for thinking about what’s good for “mother earth.”

    For example, what about agriculture? It’s pretty darn invasive. We cut down trees and completely decimate whatever animals and plants were living there before. Then we violently plow under anything that happens to be left and replace it with some totally artificial plant life just to suit our own purposes and desires. Doesn’t sound like something you’d want to do to your mother. Should we get rid of agriculture?

    (By the way, you must realize that “consume less” does not in any way constitute an “absolute” standard. It’s hard to think of a standard less absolute.)

  13. I’m with Ronan. Consume less. Who cares if it’s wishy washy, think about what would happen if every ‘developed world’ citizen seriously attempted that. Maybe that would reveal what we could do to fix other problems: global warming, rain forest depletion, etc.

    It always boggles me why this didn’t become one of our issues. I mean, we’re noisy about homosexuality, abortion, the family, evangelism, and food storage. How come not taking care of the earth? Was it because by the time we realized it might be a good idea it was popular among bearded folk and we’re distinctly anti-beard?

  14. Yep, well that’s me. Wishy-washy. But still, I see a difference between careful resource management/sustainable agriculture and massive slash-and-burn farming. I just don’t have a definitive framework to describe the difference.

  15. For other good reads: see George Handley’s “The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief” in BYU Studies 40:2 Summer 2001: 187-211); and Matthew Gowans and Philip Cafaro’s “A Latter-Day Saint Environmental Ethic” in Environmental Ethics 25 (2003): 375-94.

    Thanks Ronan for this reminder.

  16. Amri,

    “Who cares if it’s wishy washy”

    I think Ed means wishy washy in the sense of meaningless. Not in the sense of insufficiently radical. Comsuming less means saving more or giving more away or working less. But the stuff we give away gets consumed, so has consumption declined? Savings is used to build machines and other things to be used for future consumption, so has overall consumptino declined? Lastly, it is not clear at all that working less is implicitly good for the environment.

    Thus the phrase “consume less” in and of itself has no discernible relationship (that I can see) to our stewardship over the Earth. It could be related, if one were to be more specific and one was clear about what that constituted. That is what Ed is pushing Ronan to do. But Ronan is having trouble figuring out how to define it because the answer is going to be in the language of economics and resource management, not Sumerian.

    Ronan, that sounds nice, but that slash and burn agriculture is keeping some people alive. How many people would you trade for 1000000 acres less of slash and burn agriculture? Or do we not have to? Poems about Mother Earth notwithstanding, these are the questions that have to be answered.

  17. You are right, Frank. I am not an economist so I should just stick to dead languages. Clearly, there is no point in me articulating my concern for our environment unless I know how to form specific policies. Forgive my impudence.

  18. Elisabeth says:

    Frank, are you serious!? I may have gone to a state university for my Econ degree, but even I know that “the stuff we give away” is not “the language of economics and resource management”. Until you can shed some real light on the interesting questions Ronan (and others) posed instead of trolling around with vague threats about the “language of economics”, I’ll stick to e.e. cummings (and Sumerian).

  19. Steve Evans says:

    *sigh*

    Again Frank fails to realize that we’re a focus group here, not his Econ students.

  20. Frank, I get you on the wishy-washy as in be more specific but I’m not convinced that my consuming less compels others to consume more. I shop only at thrift stores. Does that mean someone somewhere is urged beyond control to go buy something new at the Gap. And if I stop using paper towels at work, does that mean my co-workers, beyond explanation, start using more? Granted in the whole scheme of things, my conservation will not save the world but I don’t think people use more because I use less.

    Also what if say me and Ronan and 15 people who worship Ronan on BCC started consuming less. Throwing away less, buying less, eating less, eliminating (e-hem) less. And then their families start doing that. And friends etc. It’s like a stone cut out of the mountain without hands filling the whole earth. You get me. Good things can happen when I say I’m not going to buy anything new for a month and then other people decide to do that too.

  21. Ronan, I didn’t say anything against you “articulating concern”. I’m fine with that.

    I did, I admit, note the inadequacy of “consume less” or your belief that “slash and burn” is prima facie bad. I don’t know if slash and burn is a good idea or not, but it is those claims where you sounded like, well, like me if I was reading Sumerian. But I think you recognize that too.

    Elisabeth,

    Giving stuff away is “resource allocation” no more or less than any other kind. You are allocating a resource. Just because there is no price does not mean it isn’t resource allocation. Hence, the economics literature on altruism.

    Steve,

    Oh, this is a focus group? I thought it was a place that tolerated dissension but not stupidity. I am sorry I tire you so much Steve. If you want me to not comment I will be happy to oblige. It’s your playhouse.

    Amri,

    You have a certain income from working a certain amount. If you spend less of it, what happens to the other part? Do you put it in the bank (which then becomes investment for later consumption by somebody) or do you give it away? If you give it away, then what do the people you give it to do with it? They probably consume it, possibly in non-earth friendly ways. I’m fine with that, but you do see the ambiguity in terms of the environment, right? I suppose one could say, consume less, and give it to the Nature Conservancy, and if you think they do something that helps the Earth, then that would be a net gain.

    Lastly, you could work less and lower your income. But it is not clear to me that working less is necessarily how God wishes us to use our stewardship over the Earth. It might be, but the general injunction “consume less” does not differentiate any of these cases.

  22. Sorry Frank. You’re right. (No irony I swear) It will get consumed. I have a big issues with how much Westerners use of the world’s resources. It chaps me. Even more than most Mormon issues *gasp*. I did not say this but when I consume less and I command others to consume less it is because I hope that “developing countries” will be able to choose to consume more. Which is not necessarily earth friendly as you have pointed out. But I also hope that as Westerners consume less the global community learns together how to consume in a more respectful way. That would be the hoped for net gain.

    I do hope for a world that works less too. For me, the drive to work fuels the drive to consume fuels the drive to work. (I obviously read too much Juliet Schorr)I think if our hours worked decreases we’ll spend more time with family, we’ll want less, we’ll invest more emotionally in our communities.

    I have my head in the clouds. But it’s quite pretty.

  23. Kristine says:

    Frank, the Sermon on the Mount is pretty darn wishy-washy. “Consider the lilies…” is at least as non-specific an injunction as “consume less.” And yet, that is the language Christ chose to talk to us about care for each other and creation–perhaps we are supposed to care and to act as well as we can, even before we are able to theoretically model the ideal form of stewardship, rather than doing what is comfortable while we work out the niceties of the perfect policy recommendation.

  24. Amri,

    You are right, Westerners consume a disproportionate share of global resources, but they also contribute a disproportionate share, as well. The universities and labs that discover cures for diseases are hopelessly wasteful. From a strictly utilitarian point of view, the billions we spend on R&D could probably cure world hunger overnight. Is that what we want to do?

    I think Frank was intending to say that, no matter what we choose to do, tradeoffs are involved.

  25. Kristine says:

    “I think Frank was intending to say that, no matter what we choose to do, tradeoffs are involved.”

    Mark, I think perhaps we should hire you as a translator for Frank–you seem to have the requisite diplomatic skills :)

  26. Steve Evans says:

    “I thought it was a place that tolerated dissension but not stupidity…”

    I guess it depends upon how you define being stupid. I freely admit that you’re a smart guy, Frank (although at times your delight in demonstrating this is a little too apparent). If there were a way for you to participate so that not every thread gets completely sidetracked with your remarks (whether here, or in a carbon copy thread at some other blog), I’d be much more enthusiastic with regards to your remarks.

  27. Elisabeth says:

    Frank – I understood what you meant by “stuff you give away”. I was commenting more on the general tone and substance of your comment – which certainly wasn’t any more intellectually or analytically rigorous than Ronan’s or anyone else’s on this thread.

    In any event, as you can discern from the ensuing dogpile of comments after yours, do not disrespect our Sumerian expert. He rocks.

  28. Thanks Kristine, but it is really just the spiritual gift of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. That means that Frank and I both have an abundance of the spirit, so I don’t know where that leave the rest of you. :-)

    But Frank usually does make a lot of sense to me. Econ was the major I wish I had taken in college. I only took two courses, and both of them were very rewarding.

  29. Alright! This is why I got myself addicted to a blog!
    Mark IV–absolutely trade offs. I understand that. Are you saying that were third world countries to be taken out of poverty, starvation and being squashed at the bottom that they would still not be able to contribute in the lab, in academia or in other arenas now ruled by the first world? I’m not sure I buy that. No matter how much I love America.

  30. Kristine says:

    Mark–I agree; Frank often makes a great deal of sense to me, too. I occasionally get frustrated because I’m not convinced that economics is the right lens through which to view *everything*, and because I am fully aware that it probably is the right lens through which to view some things and I’m too ignorant to properly discern the difference sometimes.

  31. Amri –

    I think you concede to Frank’s arguments re consumption too easily. You and Frank are using different definitions of the term “consume”. He’s using the term in the sense that consumption = any spending of money. You seem to be using it more in the sense of “more trinkets that we don’t need, more plastic/metal/electronic/styrafoam/etc. stuff that’ll get used for 20 minutes then go to a landfill”. The reality is that there are more options than (a) stuffing your money under your mattress, (b) spending your money on an SUV, that 4th TV you’ve been thinking of getting (gotta have one for each room, right?), and (c ) giving it to someone else so he/she can buy the SUV or TV (or better yet, an SUV _with_ TVs!).

    My guess is that we all could consume substantially fewer goods (especially the kind that require large inputs of energy and other natural resources) and then take the money we’ve saved and spend them on something more environmentally friendly. Services is any easy one that comes to mind (healthcare, U2 concerts, your local theatre). Items made from recycled goods would be great.

    By the way, I also think that many, many Americans would do well to work less–and earn less–so they could spend more time with their families (oh, yeah, and do their hometeaching, magnify their callings, actually study the scriptures, etc.).

    The economist’s perspective on the world is extremely valuable, but let’s keep his/her perspective in the proper perspective.

  32. Travis,
    You’re my hero.

    And Kristine #24,
    Exactly.

    Frank me ol’ china,
    Listen, I admit, I know very little about economics. But I am reasonably sure that:

    a) looking after the environment is “good”,
    b) a poor environment is “bad” for all of us,
    c) when Jesus told the rich man to give away all of his belongings to the poor, the fact that the poor may have taken those belongings and used them for evil was probably not something he was worrying about,
    d)”consuming less” oil/coal/junk does not have to mean someone else will consume more. On the contrary, if my mates see how cool my Prius is, they may buy one,
    e) I can be reasonably sure about all this without being an economist.

    BTW, the economics of the Ur III Sumerian state is a really hot topic. You’d like it. I’ll handle the Sumerian, you handle the economics.

  33. Oh, and:

    nij2 gu2 kud-ku5-ra2 gu2 nam-ba-e-ku5-re6

  34. Or, if you prefer it normalised into spoken Sumerian:

    ning gu kukura gu nambakure

  35. On the contrary, if my mates see how cool my Prius is, they may buy one,…

    But see, Ronan, that is exactly the point. You think you are consuming less, when it turns out maybe you aren’t. Look here for a persuasive argument that you are being more wasteful than if you drove a Suburban.

    Hug Mother Earth is a good slogan, and I don’t disagree with the underlying sentiment. But the actual practice is tricky. And we have gone so far down the road with cheap and easy sentiments and bumper sticker platitudes that, in the eyes of many, a person who drives an SUV to WalMart to shop for groceries has committed the sin next to murder.

    Amri, what I am saying is that I wouldn’t blame people in the third world if they thought we are a bunch of pretentious snobs. We use devices worth a year’s wages to them, connect with high speed wireless to something hugely wasteful in terms of resources and time called the Internet, and chat about how environmentally sensitive we are when we shop at Wild Oats rather than Piggly Wiggly. Clean air and clean water are luxuries that people can afford once they have a reasonably predictable supply of food.

    Kristine, Travis,

    Isn’t that a good thing about the bloggernacle? People do have distinctive voices, and often that voice reflects their academic training. The ‘nacle is pretty thick with lawyers, and even though I can’t contribute to the some of the discussions, I enjoy lurking and learning. So I agree that an economist’s perspective isn’t always the best perspective, but neither is anybody else’s, standing alone.

  36. Ronan (and others),

    I agree that you don’t have to have a full plan for how to fix everything before you can express concern. My critique was actually basic than what Frank wrote about.

    You say careful you see a difference “between resource management/sustainable agriculture and massive slash-and-burn farming.” Can you tell me exactly what you think the difference is? Is slash-and-burn bad because of how it effects human beings, or because of how it effects “the earth” as a entity with moral standing?

  37. Amri, thanks for the gracious rejoinder. It is good to know that I am not speaking to a wall. You realize, though, that people who earn less are also able to give away less. If (just a hypothetical) I gave an extra $2,000 to the poor for every $10,000 I earned, would you say I should earn more or less?

    Mark, glad you showed up! Although Kristine’s comment reminded me of the woman in Galaxy Quest whose job was to give all the commands to the computer because the computer would not listen to anyone else.

    Kristine, I think “consider the lilies…” is pretty specific and deep in regards to gratitude to God and trusting him. But as I pointed out, the relationship between “consume less” and our stewardship to the earth is anything but clear. And Travis manages to show yet another way in which the phrase is too vague– since its meaning is so easy to change. And your DO SOMETHING! attitude is great until you start seeing all the harm done in the world by people who just wanted to DO SOMETHING!

    Travis,

    It looks to me like Amri actually cares about helping the poor, in that she actually wants to spend less and give it to people. And is there some part of your statement that is outside the “economist perspective” :). We could spend less on things that use energy, and more on other things that use less. That’s a reasonable first guess if one thinks energy consumption is a big problem. And if that is what you wish to do, then great. On the other hand, it is not clear to me that there are a lot of changes I could do with noticeable changes in energy consumption that would be socially beneficial enough to be worth the inconvenience to me.

    Or you could do as Amri seems to prefer and save the money to give to poor people. Tradeoffs abound and I am heavily biased in favor of charitable giving that is most likely to help people directly. And is healthcare really all that cheap in terms of energy use? Personally I have no idea, but it would not be my first example. Nor is it clear that the added cost of a theatre trip is worth it over a dvd rental on the basis of the energy savings, although it might well be worth it just because I want to go to the theatre.

    Ronan,

    a. a value statement! great! I prefer a clean environment too.

    b. sure, but so are other things. With finite resources one must pick one’s battles.

    c. You’ve missed the boat. I was talking about giving as an environmental tool, not as a welfare tool.

    d. Well, personally I do not have that much influence with my friends’ car decisions, but you clearly have groupies around here that worship your every move. As for a Prius, once again, there is some added cost to it that may or may not be worth the fuel savings compared to, for example, providing malaria vaccines (and see Mark’s link for another take).

    But the funniest part is that your statement about not causing others to use more gas is almost certainly wrong based on some pretty straightforward supply and demand theory. As hybrid drivers use less gas, this lowers demand and so decreases the price. This price drop causes other people to use more. In general, their increase is less that your decrease, so the net result is still some fuel savings (but not as much as you yourself observe). In a special case, this feedback does not happen because people’s gas use is completely unresponsive to prices. On the other hand, if the supply of gas is fixed, then prices drop enough that your gas use is exactly replaced by other users! Isn’t economics fun!

    e. see above

    As for the Sumerian stuff, I had an econometrics professor who was really into the Ancient Greek economy. It was kinda weird, because his forte was some pretty deep math and statistics. On the other hand, ancient greek economics was a pretty open field.

    “nij2 gu2 kud-ku5-ra2 gu2 nam-ba-e-ku5-re6″

    See now this is why you’re good to have around, Ronan. You can bang your head on the keyboard and everybody just stares in awe.

    Elisabeth,

    I am sorry I was insufficently jargony for you. But I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that you don’t think charitable giving is outside the realm of economics.

  38. Mark IV: “Isn’t that a good thing about the bloggernacle? People do have distinctive voices, and often that voice reflects their academic training. The ‘nacle is pretty thick with lawyers, and even though I can’t contribute to the some of the discussions, I enjoy lurking and learning. So I agree that an economist’s perspective isn’t always the best perspective, but neither is anybody else’s, standing alone.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more (speaking as lawyer who’s tired of lawyering and who’s wishing he had a better handle on economics).

    Frank:

    “It looks to me like Amri actually cares about helping the poor, in that she actually wants to spend less and give it to people.”

    Agreed. She is now on Elisabeth’s and my list of top 10 favorite people for this reason and because she knows of cool places to go listen to acoustic/folk musicians sing for an entire evening covering songs written/performed by Prince.

    “We could spend less on things that use energy, and more on other things that use less. That’s a reasonable first guess if one thinks energy consumption is a big problem. And if that is what you wish to do, then great.”

    I think this is only one example of how we can–and should–make judgments about the world and its problems and then make consumption decisions based on our values/beliefs. I guess what I objected to from your comments above was the implication (which I may have mistakenly read into what you wrote) that making decisions about what to consume can’t make a difference–on the environment or on other issues.

    “On the other hand, it is not clear to me that there are a lot of changes I could do with noticeable changes in energy consumption that would be socially beneficial enough to be worth the inconvenience to me.”

    Therein lies the rub, Frank. Just because there aren’t changes in your consumption decisions that are socially beneficial based on your values/beliefs, doesn’t mean that there aren’t for others. Right? And maybe if we all reaxmined our values/beliefs on this we would realize that we could do better on these issues, despite our reluctance to do what’s inconvenient.

    It’s been a long time since I read Amartya Sen’s “On Ethics and Economics”, but I recall that he made a pretty strong critique of economic models that assume “utility” maximization is only measured in income/profits/dollars-and-cents. His point was that there are “ethical” or “moral” (i.e., value or belief-based) considerations that also motivate people to action (in some cases just as much or more than money). I think this is important because it makes explicit the idea that the monetary impact of decisions is not the only–or even the primary–indicator of whether people take action.

    So then, maybe what we need to do is spend more time thinking and talking about problems around us and the values, beliefs, doctrines that we have as Latter-day Saints as they relate to what we consume. I admit this sounds a little too pinko-commie-tree-huggerish to me sometimes. But I’m thinking more and more that this is the right way to go.

  39. greenfrog says:

    If folks are interested in some ecology-intelligent discussion of ethical principles, Fritjof Capra concludes The Web of Life with his first approximation of principles that can be teased out of an understanding of ecology.

    Though I don’t have the book with me here in the office, IIRC, the principal principle is for mankind to find a way of living on earth that is sustainable. IOW, for mankind to consume entirely renewable (and actually renewed) resources. To the extent that we do not, we are living in a way — and teaching our children to live in a way — that cannot continue for the eons that Earth has left before her atmosphere is burned away by the expansion of the Sun.

    FWIW, I don’t think that “sustainability” automatically leads to a pre-Industrial Revolutionary agrarian lifestyle at all. Sustainability when combined with tek can yield a variety of different kinds of lifestyles. But it still would teach that demonstrably unsustainable practices (consumption of and dependency on non-renewable resources, for instance) should never be considered a long-term strategy, but should rather be used only as a vehicle to reach a sustainable one.

    There are a variety of other principles that Capra distills from his understandings of ecology. I’ll hunt them up tonight, and summarize them, if there’s interest.

  40. “Frank. Just because there aren’t changes in your consumption decisions that are socially beneficial based on your values/beliefs, doesn’t mean that there aren’t for others. Right?”

    Absolutely. I am in now way claiming that I know if you should buy ten plasma TV’s and then spend the afternoon driving your SUV up and down your driveway. It’s all up to you. So here’s a question for you. What consumption decisions have you made that are motivated by a desire to help the environment?

    (FYI, I was not making some general claim that there is no way consumption changes could matter to the environment. That would, as you correctly noted, be crazy talk.)

    “It’s been a long time since I read Amartya Sen’s “On Ethics and Economics”, but I recall that he made a pretty strong critique of economic models that assume “utility” maximization is only measured in income/profits/dollars-and-cents.”

    I admit that there are definitely some economists who seem to want to make everything consumption and income, but I hope you believe me when I say that is not (as best I can tell) even close to the most common view among economists. It can be a nice shorthand sometimes in modeling, but the reason we call it “utility maximization” is so we can put whatever we want into it as being important– leisure, altruism, ideology, social norms, charity… whatever. It’s a big party. Bring the pinata.

    “I admit this sounds a little too pinko-commie-tree-huggerish to me sometimes. ”

    I hope thinking and talking about beliefs and values never becomes pinko-commie. I’d have to stop talking about my beliefs and values, and then who would Steve have to get huffy about?

  41. But it still would teach that demonstrably unsustainable practices (consumption of and dependency on non-renewable resources, for instance) should never be considered a long-term strategy, but should rather be used only as a vehicle to reach a sustainable one.

    This sounds right to me. We probably do not have more than a few centuries of depletable resources. So if we have not moved to readily renewable ones by then we’ll have big problems. And I think we’re making some pretty good progress on the renewable energy sources. Especially if you don’t think we’ll really need to rely on them for another 40-100+ years.

  42. greenfrog,
    there’s interest. cheers.

  43. greenfrog says:

    I’ll do some more this evening, but I found the following extract from Capra’s book, which was first published in 1996. The publication date is worth noting, as that date preceded much of the information developed in recent years regarding global warming, and several of Capra’s ideas have become much more commonplace since then than they were at the date of publication. I’ve boldfaced Capra’s principle elements, for those not inclined to read the entire passage:

    Based on the understanding of ecosystems as autopoietic networks and dissipative structures [which are defined and discussed at length earlier in the book], we can formulate a set of principles of organization that may be identified as the basic principles of ecology and use them as guidelines to build sustainable communities.

    The first of those principles is interdependence. All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. They derive their essential properties and, in fact, their very existence from their relationship to other things. Interdependence – the mutual dependence of all life processes on one another – is the nature of all ecological relationships. The behavior of every living member of the ecosystem depends on the behavior of many others. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole.

    Understanding ecological interdependence means understanding relationships. It requires the shifts of perception that are characteristic of systems thinking – from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from contents to patterns. A sustainable human community is aware of the multiple relationships among its members. Nourishing the community means nourishing those relationships.

    The fact that the basic pattern of life is a network pattern means that the relationships among the members of an ecological community are nonlinear, involving multiple feedback loops. Linear chains of cause and effect exist very rarely in ecosystems. Thus a disturbance will not be limited to a single effect but is likely to spread out in ever-widening patterns. It may even be amplified by interdependent feedback loops, which may completely obscure the original source of the disturbance.

    The cyclical nature of ecological processes is an important principle of ecology. The ecosystem’s feedback loops are the pathways along which nutrients are continually recycled. Being open systems, all organisms in an ecosystem produce wastes, but what is waste for one species is food for another, so that the ecosystem as a whole remains without waste. Communities of organisms have evolved in this way over billions of years, continually using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water, and air.

    The lesson for human communities here is obvious. A major clash between economics and ecology derives from the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear. Our businesses take resources, transform them into products plus waste, and sell the products to consumers who discard more waste when they have consumed the products. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. To achieve such cyclical patterns we need to fundamentally redesign our businesses and our economy.

    Ecosystems differ from individual organisms in that they are largely (but not completely) closed systems with respect to the flow of matter, while being open with respect to the flow of energy. The primary source for that flow of energy is the sun. Solar energy, transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants, drives most ecological cycles.

    The implications for maintaining human communities are again obvious. Solar energy in its many forms – sunlight for solar heating and photovoltaic electricity, wind and hydropower, biomass, and so on – is the only kind of energy that is renewable, economically efficient, and environmentally benign. By disregarding this ecological fact, our political and corporate leaders again and again endanger the health and well-being of millions around the world. The 1991 war in the Persian Gulf, for example, which killed hundreds of thousands, impoverished millions, and caused unprecedented environmental disasters, had its roots to a large extent in the misguided energy policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

    To describe solar energy as economically efficient assumes that the costs of energy production are counted honestly. This is not the case in most of today’s market economies. The so-called free market does not provide consumers with proper information, because the social and environmental costs of production are not part of current economic models. These costs are labeled “external” variables by corporate and government economists, because they do not fit within their theoretical framework.

    Corporate economists treat as free commodities not only the air, water and soil, but also the delicate web of social relations, which is severely affected by continuing economic expansion. Private profits are being made a public costs in the deterioration of the environment and the general quality of life, and at the expense of future generations. The marketplace simply gives us the wrong information. There is a lack of feedback, and basic ecological literacy tells us that such a process is not sustainable.

    Pp. 298-300

  44. Fascinating discussion, thanks to Ronan for the initial salvo. I think that the unspoken concern people have is that economics makes an absolute muddle of moral discussions and arguments and attempts to impose (through pseudo-scientism–when is the last controlled experiment published in actual economics, and I’m excluding the psychology lab as sufficiently remote from actual economics as to be not particularly relevant?) an overwhelmingly hypertrophied utilitarianism on discussions about moral implications for behavior.

    My impression is that people are trying to give a behavioral voice to their intuition that we ought to treat the earth, its resources, and our collective future with respect, that such is a goal that ought to affect our daily lives in an inconvenient way.

    The economic voice I hear in this thread (as a microcosm of larger discussions outside the Blogdom of God) suggest that human society is sufficiently complex that the actions of a single individual will be modulated, emended, limited, and perhaps countermanded by shifts in the behavior of other large groups of people (for all our paeans to the Market, it is fundamentally large groups of people interacting). This is a valid point, but we’ve taken it to an absurd extreme.

    I doubt we’ll find an answer at either extreme, but surely we can find room for making moral stands without overwhelming regard for every possible permutation of outcome. I know there is a specter lurking on the other side, the possibility of dogmatic action taken with absolute disregard for consequences, but I don’t think that an equal swing in the opposite direction will get us very far either. At some point in our personal behavior we ought to take moral stands.

    The economists do have something of a point, that if we want to make large-scale change we need to also effect large-scale policy changes, and those policies ought to be informed by our best educated guesses about their outcome. But I don’t think that ought to affect our own personal behavior in the same way. Spewing gas into a lake, growing fat as we commute in fuel-inefficient cars for all our needs, burning through huge quantities of plastic and paper without a compelling need, all seem to me to be disrespectful of nature in a personal way. I think that we will be better people by adopting a philosophy of respect for nature, and I do not think this is an economic argument.

  45. greenfrog says:

    We probably do not have more than a few centuries of depletable resources. So if we have not moved to readily renewable ones by then we’ll have big problems. And I think we’re making some pretty good progress on the renewable energy sources. Especially if you don’t think we’ll really need to rely on them for another 40-100+ years.

    As a practical matter, there will doubtless be specific uses to which depletable resources are uniquely suited, so as the available resources decrease and the costs of extraction for those resources increase (and presumably, we’re exploiting the lowest cost presently available, since current profit margins on those will be highest), we could have access (at very-much-higher-than-present prices) for much longer than the “few centuries” you reference.

    But as prices for the resources increase (and pump prices show that they do and suggest that they will), those resources will become increasingly unavailable for various purposes, some of which will probably come to an end.

    Do you view the basic dynamics of the non-renewable energy resource market differently?

  46. “through pseudo-scientism–when is the last controlled experiment published in actual economics”

    You might be surprised. But I suppose you’d want to start with the field experiment work done by guys like John List at the U of Chicago.

    These costs are labeled “external” variables by corporate and government economists, because they do not fit within their theoretical framework.

    Do you know if he is talking about “externalities” here? In which case, the corporate ones certainly are ignoring them and the government ones often are not. The whole field of public economics is obsessed with how to deal with just these sorts of externalities.

    Do you view the basic dynamics of the non-renewable energy resource market differently?

    Nope, I think you’ve summed up nicely what I had in mind. Although it is not clear to me, outside of the last couple of years, that oil prices have risen all that much over time. Maybe 50% in 50 years?

  47. greenfrog says:

    “external” variables = externalities?

    From the context of the rest of the book, I believe this is what he is referring to.

    I think that pollution has been discussed as an important externality at least since the mid-to-late 1900s, as we were pretty well versed in them at the UofC law school when I was there. But until I read Capra’s book, the notion of societal structures and relationships also being subject to externalities hadn’t occurred to me. Although, on reflection, I suppose that much of the public morality debates in the Bloggernacle may be aimed, albeit fuzzily, at such a concern.

    BTW — in honor of this Earth Day, I offer the following verses of LDS scripture:

    (trees have souls)

    http://scriptures.lds.org/moses/3/9#9

    (earth is our mother)

    http://scriptures.lds.org/2_ne/9/7#7

    http://scriptures.lds.org/mosiah/2/26#26

    http://scriptures.lds.org/morm/6/15#15

  48. Frank M said,

    Although it is not clear to me, outside of the last couple of years, that oil prices have risen all that much over time. Maybe 50% in 50 years?

    You’re right about this Frank. Average price per gallon was about $0.30 in 1956, and last week I believe the average national price was about $287.3. That is an 826.7% increase. The average annualized rate of increase (geometric average) is 4.55%. For comparison the average inflation rate during the same period (from the CPI; also the geometric average) is about 3.9%. A little higher than inflation, but I believe this is actually lower than the increase in candy bar prices (6% average from 62-06).

    P.S.

    Frank despite your ogre like reputation, I know the truth. You are one of the nicest guys I have ever met (of course, my sampling is skewed towards economists so there is clearly a selection bias at work here.)

  49. Thanks Karl, although your caveat must be respected. It is sort of funny to me too. For some reason there seems to be a cadre of bcc’ers who decide that what I mean is at least two standard deviations worse than what I actually say.

    Perhaps they each had a beloved animal run over by a mad economist.

    Man, I sure wish President Bush would take some leadership to hold down candy bar prices. This administration is a disgrace!

  50. Ronan #11 – (we in the West may have the technology to deal with rising sea levels, but in parts of the Third World maybe not)

    Speaking from the disappearing Louisiana coast, my perspective is that we may have the technology, but we have not the will.

    For that matter, perhaps this really IS a third world country.

  51. greenfrog says:

    Karl D — what would the math look like (I’d do it myself, but math and me aren’t on speaking terms) if you disregarded the price changes during the past 18 months? My sense, uninformed by actual math, is that the price increases would be less than inflation.

    But, as Capra intimates, it’s always worth keeping in mind that the externalities of gasoline mean that the pump price per gallon is far from the real end of the calculation of cost.

    Even so, I’m not sure we have data that suggest a a change in the un-internalized costs of gasoline per gallon over time. Though framing the sentence that way makes me wonder how one might hypothesize such externalized costs could change — if there’s a “tipping point” on global warming and each incremental addition of greenhouse gas brings us closer to the tipping point, how could we “monetize” the greenhouse gas increments to calculate a fully internalized cost-per-gallon of gasoline…

  52. greenfrog says:

    Oh — and Karl D. — am I right in supposing that you were at UofC in the late 80s for graduate work?

  53. Karl D — what would the math look like (I’d do it myself, but math and me aren’t on speaking terms) if you disregarded the price changes during the past 18 months? My sense, uninformed by actual math, is that the price increases would be less than inflation.

    That’s about right. National averages were around $2.00 about 18 months ago. That would put that rate right around 4%.

    I was at the UofC, but not in the late 80s. I was there from 98-03. Frank M., Robert C., and I were econ undergrads together at BYU. (note: There was a Mormon named Karl studying economics at the UofC in the late 80s but that would be Karl Snow and not me.)

  54. greenfrog says:

    Ah — got my Karls mixed up.

    Thanks for the math.

    How do you decide in an economically-responsible way which periods to examine when trying to identify pricing trends? The ’62-’04 prices or the ’04-’06 prices? Is there a way to tell which trend should be more relevant to the ’06-’26 period?

  55. How do you decide in an economically-responsible way which periods to examine when trying to identify pricing trends?

    I didn’t; Frank said 50 years so I just looked up prices from 50 years ago. The candy bar thing was mostly a joke. I knew candy bar costs in 1962 (about $0.05) because it is an example from a book called “Random Walk Down Wall Street” which I normally use when I teach undergraduate Investments.

  56. Kevin Barney says:

    See this article from the SLTrib:

    http://www.sltrib.com/contentlist/ci_3737974

  57. BMarley says:

    Is Mormons for a Gore presidency a group of 3 people (2 are illegal)? It isn’t like Gore and Clinton or even Carter did anything to change environmental practices.

    How many CRT’s, TV’s, Computers, and other electronic items have the people on this board thrown out during their life times? All of you can sit and talk about how humans are destroying the Earth, but remember, you shop at Wal Mart where many of the goods are made in China, a country with low environmental standards. You are using a computer that has lots of toxic chemicals in it. Etc… This kind of reminds me of my local LDS Church where certain groups are just so righteous that they can tell everyone else what to do while in reality the righteous are cruising for porn on the internet, shopping on Sundays, etc… I guess a case can be made for mormon environmentalism.

    “Save the Earth”. Environmentalism should be about saving humans. The Earth will out live us and restore itself. It was around for a lot of years without the help of groups like Earth First.

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