Potential New Allies in the Effort to Achieve a Sustainable True Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThose who want a true cost, steady state economy need some new, powerful allies. We need allies that stretch across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative. We need allies that can speak from a values perspective to bring moral considerations to bear on the discussion.

Neither the environmental movement nor the progressive movement possesses enough political strength to overcome the most powerful economic interests in the world. These potent interests include the oil and coal industries, banks, agribusiness, mining and chemical companies, Wall Street, etc. Congress will not act on big economic changes because too many members depend on election money from these very same economic interests.

Faith-based communities could play an important role because they can reach across the conservative-liberal spectrum, have member congregations that convene on a weekly basis, and can speak with a moral voice that moves people to action. Such an approach may work well with the growing number focused on serious environmental problems because the root cause of many of such problems is the system of cheater economics that dominates today’s economy.

During the 1970s and 1980s, some of us worked with churches on various environmental concerns. These efforts have been expanding and today, the environment is a common topic among the faithful. For example, consider the mission statement of Interfaith Power & Light, established over a decade ago by Reverend Sally Bingham:

The very existence of life–life that religious people are called to protect–is jeopardized by our continued dependency on fossil fuels for energy. Every major religion has a mandate to care for Creation. We were given natural resources to sustain us, but we were also given the responsibility to act as good stewards and preserve life for future generations.

Interfaith Power & Light has engaged hundreds of congregations, has affiliates in 38 states, educated thousands of people of faith about the moral mandate to address global warming, and helped pass California’s landmark climate and clean energy laws. Christian environmentalists such as Matthew and Nancy Sleeth have formed an educational group, Blessed Earth, to equip faith-based communities to become better stewards of the earth and have written books about the duty of caring for creation, including Almost Amish; The Gospel According to the Earth; and Go Green, Save Green. To illustrate this point, I present a sample of five defects in today’s unsustainable economy, followed by the kind of response faith-based communities could make.

  • Defect: Assigning future generations close to zero value and obsessively focusing on the quarterly return. Rapacious commercial logging, for instance, can wipe out forests that are needed to sustain future generations with water, fuel, fish, and wildlife.

    Moral Response: We care about future generations and have a responsibility to care for the environment and not leave a polluted earth for our children and grandchildren.

  • Defect: Pushing for massive expansion of the consumer economy. Today’s economy is involved in a relentless drive to sell a never-ending array of consumer goods.

    Moral Response: Most denominations preach against excessive materialism. (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth where moss and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.” Matthew 6:19)

  • Mt Top Removal - James Holloway

    Faith-based communities can become powerful allies in the fight to stop growth at all costs, including the once forested Kentucky mountains. Photo Credit: James Holloway

    Defect: Offering economic justifications for extraordinary environmental destruction, such as mountain-top coal removal mining.

    Moral Response: Such practices are an attack on the earth and cause serious harm to local residents–their health, their water supply, and their homes, leaving the once biologically forested mountains of West Virginia with a Martian landscape.

  • Defect: Permitting enormous pollution externalities to be shoved off on fellow competitors and on the public. Today’s economy tolerates cheater economics in which products do not reflect the real ecological costs of their manufacture and usage.

    Moral Response: We are charged with loving our neighbors, not poisoning them. Prices of consumer goods should reflect the damages being done to obtain the raw materials and energy used in their production and in their usage or consumption.

  • Defect: Counting population growth as an asset when in most places it is a liability that pushes localities as well as states to exceed the carrying capacity of their environment. None of the great challenges to the health of the earth’s life-support systems are made easier by having more people. World population today exceeds 7 billion and is headed to between 9 and 11 billion by 2050. The tax code in many places encourages more population growth and the global economy depends on a growing supply of cheap labor.

    Moral Response: While there is a large rift among religious denominations over the question of abortion, the population question is directly addressed in Chapter 1 of Genesis. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” is first given to every kind of animal, including crawling things, then to humans. Thus, humans must take their blessing in the context of the previous blessings by God and live so that the earth is flourishing with many kinds of life.

In summary, those who seek a true cost, steady state economy should work with faith-based communities to discuss how the crucial linkage between serious problems like climate disruption and new economic policies to achieve a sustainable economy fit into their work.

By raising objections to cheater economics, to pollution externalities, and to phony benefit-cost analyses used to justify grotesque environmental practices (such as tar sands oil and mountain top removal), faith-based communities will make a difference. These coummunities can speak with moral authority about caring for future generations, about caring for God’s creation, and about loving one’s neighbors–not polluting them.

Note: Brent Blackwelder received a Ph.D. in moral philosophy from the University of Maryland in 1975 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary in May of 2014.

Logic in the Face of Sea Level Rise

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThe response of federal and state governments to sea level rise leaves much to be desired.  That’s because governments are stuck in a business-as-usual, grow-at-all-costs mindset. When the goal of the economy becomes sustainable and equitable well-being, rather than continuous growth, the response will be far more logical and ecologically sound.

The need to address sea level rise is growing more urgent by the day. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates that 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties that border an ocean or a Great Lake — that’s 120 million people in the U.S. alone who are facing increased risks to their health and property.

Congress created an atrocious model for responding to coastal disasters when it passed the Hurricane Sandy relief measure in 2013. This model conflicts with the beneficial changes Congress had made to fix the bankrupt National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which remains $24 billion in the red. This year over 100 Members of Congress are prepared to gut the reforms with a 4-year delay because premiums are going to be too high. J. Robert Hunter, Administrator of the NFIP from 1974 to 1979, aptly characterized the NFIP debacle in a scathing letter to the Senate this January:

Consumers are not well served when the government runs an “insurance” program that is not true insurance, but rather, as the NFIP had become, an unwise and untargeted subsidy program that misleads consumers into putting their homes, businesses, and lives at risk in areas that are dangerously flood-prone and that often unfairly subsidize affluent individuals and contractors who do this building.

True-cost premiums would send a signal of the real and growing risk of building in hazardous coastal zones. Current political and economic practices, however, disguise the true costs and underwrite additional ill-advised construction in the coastal zone.

The U.S. government’s approach to sea level rise is the same as its misguided approach to inland flooding along rivers and streams that began in the early twentieth century: provide loans, grants, and subsidized insurance to build right back in flood-prone areas. Only occasionally has relocation been chosen.

The shocking result, delivered to President Lyndon Johnson by the 1966 Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy, was that the more federal money spent on river engineering and flood control, the worse the flood damages became. The U.S. is headed for the same debacle with the bailout of coastal properties. The likely result is bankruptcy, given the large rise in sea level expected this century.

Falling house built on sand

Construction on the coast produces a predictable outcome (photo by Judy Baxter).

If the government could get its economic act together by striving for a steady state rather than the impossibility of perpetual growth, it would take an entirely different approach. Subsidies for buildings in floodplains or along beaches would be eliminated. When inland or coastal flooding destroys structures in these zones, the steady-state response would be to relocate to higher ground away from the shoreline. This approach would not break the bank, but would provide resiliency not only for floodplains and beaches, but also for families and businesses.

Left in their natural condition, floodplains and beaches provide extraordinary benefits in the form of recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, flood control, and spiritual refreshment. Over the last century the massive shoreline build-out has put trillions of dollars at risk while simultaneously degrading the beauty of beaches and destroying natural storm barriers, such as mangrove forests.

There is strong evidence that mangrove forests help protect shorelines against storm surges. Despite the evidence, the World Bank continues to push projects like the Inga 3 hydro-complex that will harm downstream mangroves along the west coast of Africa.

Questions always arise over places like Lower Manhattan which has billions of dollars of buildings. Wealthy businesses and individuals could pay a lot to armor plate this urban zone for a while; however, using this strategy up and down the U.S. coastlines would be way too expensive.

Relocating people, especially in the wake of a disaster, is a difficult thing to do. But what is more humane? Finding a different but safe home for families or setting them up over and over again directly in the path of catastrophe? A true-cost economy would provide a much kinder response by assisting victims of weather disasters and avoiding the repetition of past mistakes.

We would do well to remember that 2,000 years ago Jesus used the analogy of the wise man building his house on the rock and the foolish man erecting his house on the sand. This parable is powerful because the listeners immediately recognized the folly of building on the beach.