Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Environmental Optimization

In my last piece, I argued for optimization over preservation, as my preferred goal for environmental stewardship. This goes against the traditional view of environmentalism. Preservation, the traditional goal of environmentalism, is a mostly mindless exercise. Protecting nature achieves the goal, while changing nature violates the goal. Preservation is simple to understand, simple to enforce, and simply wrong for the advancement of humanity.

The traditional view of environmentalism also has a very nasty underbelly. Preservation is achieved by the enforcement of laws enacted to limit the freedom of citizens to own and use land in the most optimal way. Preservation is achieved by imposing the will of some on the will of others. The “some” who impose their will are usually the elite who believe they know better than anyone else how to use and preserve resources.

Optimization, however, is not so simple to define, enforce, achieve, or even understand. Optimization for some farmers may mean higher yields per acre of land, while optimization for other farmers may mean more nutritious or flavorful produce. Some consumers of apples may want less expensive or larger apples, while other consumers of apples may want more flavorful or colorful fruit.

Some voters may want to use a publicly owned piece of land for hiking in a natural environment, while other voters may want to build a football stadium, and still other voters want to build a park or a golf course. For some, optimization is preservation, while for others, optimization is development.

Does every species of rodent, and every species of bird, and every species of plant, and every species of anything need protection from extinction? Perhaps God created every species with unique characteristics for the benefit of the environment, but it is far more likely that many species have characteristics that are harmful, not beneficial. Mosquitoes carry malaria and are extremely irritating. It’s clear to me that optimization means getting rid of both mosquitoes and malaria. Neither need protecting. Fear of what might happen if malaria is eradicated and mosquitoes become extinct makes about as much sense as fear of what might happen if the Yankees lose the World Series.

Fear of what might happen if certain species of rodents become extinct is only slightly less silly than fear of what might happen if malaria is eradicated. However, what is extremely silly to me may not be silly to a rodent lover. Does a rodent lover have a moral right to impose his will on everyone else in order to ensure a rare species of rodent is protected? Does everyone else have a moral right to ignore a rare species of rodent while developing land inhabited by rare rodents?

Since optimization means different things to different people, who gets to decide the definition of optimization? The only fair way to decide who gets to decide the definition of optimization is the same as the only fair way to decide other matters.

The owner of a piece of property is the one most likely to care for his or her land and derive the optimum value out of the land. The owner of a piece of real estate can use free market commerce to determine the optimum value of a piece of land. He or she can preserve the land, develop the land, or sell the land based on the preferences of others willing to part with an appropriate amount of hard earned cash. All other methods for determining the appropriate and optimum use of land are forms of socialism, which is what most environmentalists want anyway.


Dave Smith said...

Hey, David:

It's been over a week since I last looked at this stuff. Two good posts!

As I stated in my original post, I'm still in the formulation stage on most of this. Two points, though, I'm firm on:

1) Government ain't the answer! Our Constitution, particularly as it pertains to emminent domain, etc., needs to be adhered to!

2) Proper use/stewardship of the Creation comes via submission, individually and corporately, to God Himself. Yes, there are times when building one more strip mall, one more golf course (I'm meddlin' now!), one more strip mine, killing a rare species of rodent, etc. may very well be wrong.

And, yes, I could state the paragraph above the opposite way, and at times I would also be right. The bottomline is submission to God.

By the way, I'm doing more research on pasteurization and other food processing. Some of these "industrialized" methods of producing food may very well be hazardous to our health.

More on that perhaps later. . .

Rick and Gary said...

Hi David -- Great post! And ironically, on a longer-term, macro-level, optimization often achieves better environmental results than conservation does.

As far as strip malls and sprawl goes, we live in a town that limits the height of buildings so that everyone can see the mountains and long ago purchased most of the land or the development rights to the land around it for open space. We also live in a sub-division that regulates the appearance of houses. But that's our decision. Other people are apparently happier with bigger houses and lots than with lots of common space and bike lanes.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Dave,

I agree 100% with your bottom line. I would also add that excess is sinful. Paving over nature just to have more developed space would be wrong and not optimization, in my opinion. However, building more affordable housing in the suburbs is not sinful because there are many hard working people who are having difficulty affording a house now; especially in Southern California.

I would also agree with you that pasteurization and other food processing techniques are not all good. Usually, a little nutrition has to be sacrificed to get a longer shelf life. However, I don’t want a cow in my backyard or my neighbors back yard just so my milk can be slightly fresher and slightly more nutritious. I think pasteurization is a good trade off.

There is also an issue of more and more adults and even children who suffer from diabetes which is often, but not always, a disease of inactivity and too many processed foods. Still, I don’t think it is fair to just blame processed foods since processed foods have lowered the cost of food and provided adequate nutrition for most people.

I suspect your disdain for food processing might have something to do with MRE’s. : - )

Thanks for stopping by. I am inclined to let everyone be their own environmentalist and have as few government enforced regulations as possible, but I am not an absolutist; I do realize there needs to often be community standards.

David M. Smith said...

Thanks Rick,

I’m not against zoning or community standards. I would like to live in your town. Your community standards sound like optimization to me.

I also accept the fact that people will disagree on what is an acceptable community standard and what is not an acceptable community standard. Most of us do have to live with some community standards that we do not support.

I mostly just wanted to explain a framework for my views on environmentalism which utilizes government as little as possible and allows for as much freedom as possible.

Dave Smith said...

Allow me to re-state part of my current position another way. As far as the government is concerned, it's more about what I don't want it to do than what I want it to do. Again, strict adherence to the original intent of the Constitution and all that.

I think the Church, however, is in need of a well considered statement of its position on environmental matters, and not merely a reaction to what the world is doing.

How do I/we use the freedom we have in Christ when it comes to matters of the Created Order? Let's begin to define as best we can what good stewardship looks like. Once we've done that, let's live it!

Overly simplified, we need to be admonished from the pulpit and our consciences, not the judicial bench!

And I'm thinking we need folks on the order of a J.P. Moreland, or a C.S. Lewis to start helping to shape what this looks like. On one level, it seems pretty simple; on another, well, I think there's a whole lot of complexity!

I can't prove this, but I somehow suspect that we in the Church are still very post-Enlightenment and even gnostic in our thinking about the environment (as well as most matters). Although we talk a good talk about recognizing God's role in the Created Order, we still behave as if it's merely one more system we can figure out and go on about our business - "Don't worry, Lord, we've got it from here!"

This is where I get a little mystic. Yes, there's a beautiful, ordered yet complex system to God's world. And just like the early scientists who took it as a given that the Universe was created by a beneficent and ordered God, I believe we can apprehend His hand in all of it. The problem it seems is that we get caught up in the system and forget all too easily the Inventor of that system. The Created Order is to be admired and comprehended; ultimately, though, it's to point us to Him.

Therefore, a tree isn't merely cellulose and a zillion photo-chemical reactions. It's a poem, a gift - having value in itself because of Him! Yes, it can be used as furniture, building materials, paper - why, it can even bear delicious fruit! But we must recognize that it is from God and not simply use it willy-nilly, taking it for granted.

Okay, I don't know if restating it made any difference, but at least it helped me think about it a little more clearly, and I guess that's what writing is supposed to do, at least in part.

David M. Smith said...

Hi again Dave,

The Church definitely needs to grapple with environmentalism and not just accept or react to popular opinion. (Actually, the Church needs to do more grappling with many issues, not just environmentalism.)

I think both of us have been doing a little grappling. I don’t disagree with anything you have written, but I did want to present a different, yet valid perspective. It sounded to me like you were leaning towards preservation, whereas I am neutral on preservation. I think some of nature needs to be preserved and some of nature needs to be eradicated. I can’t be absolutely sure we won’t regret eradicating malaria, but I do think the risk to humanity of not eradicating malaria is much, much, higher than the risk of eradicating malaria.

Like you, I see poetry in the nature God created. I see poetry in forests, trees, streams, animals, flowers, clouds, polar bears, snow capped mountains, and all sorts of wonderful things. However, I also see poetry in tornadoes, hurricanes, and alligators chomping on prey. I’m sure the sporozoan parasites that cause malaria also look poetic under a microscope. I don’t see how the poetry of nature is an argument for preserving the malaria parasite or not trying to protect humanity from tornadoes or alligators.

Additionally, I see poetry in some things created by man, not God. Many computers, golf courses, furniture, buildings, stereos, televisions, clothes, music, literature, and even a few poems are all poetic. Some of the creations of humans seem more poetic when they have outgrown their usefulness. Antiques become more valuable and seem more poetic the more useless they become.

I have known enough wealthy people in my life to know more stuff is not a path to contentment or a way to honor and obey God. I believe a conservative lifestyle is a path to contentment that does honor God. Perhaps if believers and our leaders focused more on living a simple conservative life, less of nature would be abused or destroyed.

buz said...

If it doesn't move, pave it. If it does, kill it and then pave it!!

Seriously, I stand on both sides of this fence ... even when it comes to mosquitoes. (Do you realize that it was the mosquitoe that was the inspiration for the hypodermic needle?) It seems that every part of the curse that we have brought upon ourselves, God has used to inspire something to help us. Most of the medicines that we have are directly or indirectly derived from the poisons that plants or animals make. So, yes, I can see a reason for not erradicating everything that we see as harmful.

Having said that, I don't believe that we need to preserve everything in its natural, pristine form. Some very unexceptional trees can make some very beautiful furniture.

I believe environmentalism has two basic foundational flaws:

(1) [Romans 1:25 "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator"] At its root, those radical environmentalists are worshipping the earth. Oh, they may not do it overtly (although, some just might), but they believe that all that we have and all that we are is wrapped up in this world. If something terrible should happen to this world, then we have no hope. And, that, in the end, is worship.

(2) [2 Peter 3:10 "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare"] Hey, that is sort of the ultimate end of any environmental initiative. Talk about Golbal Warming!! No matter how well we try to preserve the earth, the last chapter has already been written. It's toast! I believe that another part of the movement is shaking a fist in the face of God and saying, "oh yeah, well we're going to keep this from happening. We're going to make a liar out of you."

I believe that we need to use a lot of wisdom in how we use things ... where we clear and where we leave things alone. And, yes, I think that we need to have govt. (gasp) be the ones to make those decisions. ([Soap Box] However, before you swallow your gum and choke, if you read my short-lived blog, you might remember that I stated in there that we need to elect the best MORAL people to those positions. Not necessarily moral in the bible-thumping definiton, but moral in terms of having a steady compass when it comes to recognizing the right thing to do as opposed to the popular or expedient thing to do. Because, ultimately, that is what those people are there for, not to make economic decisions or whatever, but to be our guides when there are issues that are so complex and have such long reaching effects that it is beyond our ability to see what a yes or no vote on this today will do twenty years from now. [/Soap Box])

I certainly cannot imagine what the effects it would have twenty years from now if we wiped out all mosquitoes to get rid of malaria, but the idea of wiping out all of something scares me. I am certainly not the one to make that decision. Nor am I the one to decide about Global warming, but then, I don't trust Mr. Gore to even have the ability to look 50 years down the road to see what might happen, and to put the good of the country above his own ambitions. Looking at the facts about Global Warming (Google "Global Warming scam fraud" and read ... there was even a 30+ minute video out there), it seems to me that he has either knowingly lied, or unknowingly been duped when it comes to that. Either way, that tells me that he is either not capable of recognizing the truth, or of telling it when he has found it.


David M. Smith said...

Hi Buz,

Great comments; thanks!

Yes, wisdom is the key to realizing optimization. Optimization is not perfection, which will only come when our Lord returns.

Yes, government plays a role, because without government we have chaos, which is not close to optimization.

However, for me at least, the optimal environment is an environment where people have freedom and choices even when some of the freedom is abused and some of the choices are bad choices. I think we can live with a lot of people making a lot of little mistakes regarding the environment. We may find it difficult to live with a Big government making Big mistakes.

Now, keep your pesky mosquitoes off of my property or I will call the authorities!

Hammertime said...

If we don't believe that God created, but instead that evolution created (or even claiming that God used evolution), how can we maintain that extinction of any species is, by definition, a "bad" thing? Far more species are extinct than exist. It seems to me that extinction is a pretty natural effect of "nature".

Similarly, if we have an evolutionary viewpoint, men are just as much a part of nature as any other species, and our adaptations should therefore have no greater weight than a species changing migration patterns. Both are adaptations that affect other species, some negatively, but for some reason our use of pesticide is morally wrong?

I, of course, do not hold an evolutionary view, and instead hold that our dominion over creation is meant to glorify God. What does that mean? Perhaps you have put it best - optimization.