One would think that, having established a worldwide reputation as the Green Patriarch, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I — and his advisers — would approach the writing of a statement on Orthodox Christian stewardship of the environment with a certain gravitas, a sense of responsibility to those in the Church searching for answers on the weighty and complex problem of how to live in this Creation, deeply troubled but still productive and beautiful. One would also hope that these environmental statements from the Phanar would be informed with the sort of intelligence and insights that display some familiarity with environmental science, economics, public policy, the political realities of living in advanced democracies, and the awareness that these problems are often technical and leave ground for well-meaning Orthodox Christians to debate or even disagree on the particulars. This sort of approach to understanding environmental problems does not in any way undermine the non-negotiable demand to practice stewardship of the environment in a sacramental, liturgical and ascetical way that is truly Orthodox. We are, after all, called to be “priests of creation.”
Unfortunately, the latest brief “message” on the environment from the patriarch amounts to little more than pious Sunday School affirmations (“We need to bring love into all our dealings”) and simplistic denunciations of capitalism and globalization that, in effect, indict just about anyone with a job in today’s market economy as an accomplice to the destruction of the planet.
We do get a blessing for a forthcoming environmental conference sponsored by the United Nations, an organization led by a man who recently warned that we have only four months to act if we are to save ourselves. I believe that is what’s known as alarmism.
This patriarchal statement does not portend well for the forthcoming “symposium” at various locales along Mississippi River in October. What will Orthodox Christian young people learn about environmental stewardship from this event? What witness will we offer to the wider culture?
This brief message is notable for its really one sided “exhausted Earth” view of stewardship (which really isn’t a guide to stewardship but to despair). There’s not a word about how exactly we are to help the poor if we replace “big business” with something else. But what?
Having endured, for the past year, one of the worst financial crises in decades, with much attendant suffering, and endless analysis as to its root causes — again a subject on which Orthodox Christians can charitably find room to disagree — we are now told that the market economy is “failing.” Certainly, the rapid rise of unemployment in the United States in the last year has caused a lot of anguish and suffering. We have an obligation as Christians to take this problem seriously. But we did not get a serious statement from the Phanar on the subject.
It seems not to have dawned on those composing this message that you cannot begin to address the very real problems of pollution and environmental degradation, including what goes on in lesser developed countries, unless you first create wealth. Things like solar power technology, hybrid vehicles, energy saving appliances, and thousands of other products and services designed to be green, are really luxury goods. They are, by and large, created by the same market economy that the patriarch condemns without qualification.
This statement is also mute on the question of social and human development. Which economic model is best suited to lift people out of dire poverty? Or is that a problem that can be cured by aid from rich countries — as is hinted at in the text? If simply throwing more money at the problem of dire poverty solves it, we would have “cured” poverty long ago. Whoever worked on this encyclical should buy a copy of Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo, for circulation at the Phanar.
In the past fifty years, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse.
In Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo describes the state of postwar development policy in Africa today and unflinchingly confronts one of the greatest myths of our time: that billions of dollars in aid sent from wealthy countries to developing African nations has helped to reduce poverty and increase growth.
Or read the new post on Daniel Hannan’s blog, “Stop giving us aid, say Africans.”
Or perhaps a better idea: Instead of coming to the world’s richest country and holding a symposium on the environment, maybe the patriarch should go to India or China and lecture them about the failings of the market economy. The Indians and Chinese, however, would find it much more helpful if the patriarch could show them how to increase growth and international trade, as this report makes clear:
For Asia to cope with the global downturn, it needs to strengthen domestic demand to sustain growth, said chief ADB economist Lee Jong-wha. Global demand for Asian exports was expected to remain sluggish, but the region could see a V-shaped recovery in 2010, he said.
“It’s unlikely that Asia can export its way out of this slump, as they did after the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis,” Lee told The Associated Press. “This crisis clearly shows that Asia cannot rely only on external demand but must diversify its sources of growth and revive its domestic industries.”
“A return to a fast-growing developing Asia will require some rebalancing of growth toward domestic demand in the region as a whole,” it said.
Governments should focus not only on fiscal stimulus and large enterprises but on supporting small and medium-sized enterprises — where most Asian workers are employed — to build a substantial urban middle class with spending power, he said.
They could do that by strengthening infrastructure, particularly transportation and electricity links, and removing regulations to make it easier to do business.
But doesn’t the market economy lead to tremendous inequality of wealth? Yes, it can, and the progress from an agrarian to a developed economy can be halting and uneven. But the surest way to make incomes perfectly equal is to impoverish everyone, as the communists did, or somehow keep your people permanently in a condition of scarcity, limited life expectancy, high rates of infant mortality, poor nutrition and sanitation — and simple squalor — that they enjoyed before the evils of industrialized “globalization” arrived.
Here’s another insight from a new book by a professor of environmental studies:
In the mid-19th century Sweden was one of the world’s leading producers of iron ore; today it’s a multidimensional modern economy. “It’s quite possible that if those resources were not used, they would not have had a more service-oriented economy later,” Ali says. Botswana, meanwhile, has used the much-maligned diamond, first discovered there in 1966, to transform itself from one of the poorest countries in Africa to the one with the highest per capita income. That’s not to say that development in Botswana has been flawless; the country suffers from high unemployment and an aids epidemic. But the question to be asked, Ali says, is not whether things are perfect but whether a country would be better off if the diamonds–or oil, copper or natural gas–had never been extracted. Probably not.
What’s puzzling is that Patriarch Bartholomew did actually disavow any move toward income redistribution in his 2008 book Encountering the Mystery. “I am by no means advocating the sharing of wealth or eradication of poverty through some abstract dogma or Marxist formula for the redistribution of wealth,” he wrote. “The reader should remember that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is nonpolitical in its role and responsibility; it seeks to underline the spiritual value of social justice and to challenge the spiritual dangers implicit in the vice of greed.”
All well and good, but what exactly is the patriarchate advocating with the latest message? Is this the best the Phanar can do?
No one of course, can ask the Church to endorse a given economic system. That’s not what the Church is there for. No one should expect the Church to “baptize” capitalism or any other economic system. We should expect — demand even — well reasoned, informed, moral reflection on important social issues. And we do have some practical, hard won experience in the Orthodox world of what works and what doesn’t work. We need to go beyond the cheap and easy moralizing, and by that I mean the reflexive condemnation of an entire way of life that does not recognize the real good that has come out of this “failing” U.S. economy. It is the same “failing” economy that has built so many Orthodox churches in this country with the wealth earned and freely given by the laity — not from the “largesse” of government (taxpayer revenue) that flows to established churches in some countries.
If we’re going to talk about social problems, and endorse groups like the UN or those who will be along on the Mississippi symposium, we need to first acquire a deeper understanding of these problems. You can’t, for example, make definitive pronouncements about economic policy without understanding something about economics. The same is true for environmental issues.
I’ll stop here. My comments below are in the brackets.
Ecumenical Patriarch’s Message for the Day of the Protection of the Environment
Aug 31, 2009, Prot. No. 862
† B A R T H O L O M E W
BY THE MERCY OF GOD ARCHBISHOP
OF CONSTANTINOPLE, NEW ROME AND
TO THE PLENITUDE OF THE CHURCH
GRACE AND PEACE
FROM THE CREATOR OF THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE
OUR LORD, GOD AND SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST
As we come again to the changing of the Church year, we reflect once more on the state of God’s creation. We think about the past and repent for all that we have done or failed to do for the earth’s care; we look to the future and pray for wisdom to guide us in all that we think or do.
These last twelve months have been a time of great uncertainty for the whole world. The financial systems that so many people trusted to bring them the good things of life, have brought instead fear, uncertainty and poverty. [On the face of it, this sentence is preposterous. Despite severe economic problems during the past year, and rising unemployment, some 155 million Americans got up today and went to work in the most productive economy in the world.] Our globalised economy has meant that everyone – even the poorest who are far removed from the dealings of big business – has been affected.
The present crisis offers an opportunity for us to deal with the problems in a different way, because the methods that created these problems cannot provide their best solution. We need to bring love into all our dealings, the love that inspires courage and compassion. Human progress is not just the accumulation of wealth and the thoughtless consumption of the earth’s resources. The way that the present crisis has been dealt with has revealed the values of the few who are shaping the destiny of our society [who, exactly, are these people? And why would we as free people let them shape our destiny?]; of those who can find vast sums of money to support the financial system that has betrayed them, but are not willing to allot even the least portion of that money to remedy the piteous state the creation has been reduced to because of these very values, or for feeding the hungry of the world, or for securing safe drinking water for the thirsty, who are also victims of those values. [what about that $1 trillion for Africa?] On the face of every hungry child is written a question for us, and we must not turn away to avoid the answer. Why has this happened? Is it a problem of human inability or of human will?
We have rendered the Market the centre of our interest, our activities and, finally, of our life, [Christians don’t do that] forgetting that this choice of ours will affect the lives of future generations, limiting the number of their choices that would probably be more oriented towards the well-being of man as well as the creation. Our human economy, which has made us consumers, is failing. [If we’re talking about advanced industrialized countries this is simply wrong. The “human economy” has problems, which is a different thing than failure.] The divine economy, which has made us in the image of the loving Creator, calls us to love and care for all creation. The image we have of ourselves is reflected in the way we treat the creation. If we believe that we are no more than consumers, [I don’t know any Orthodox Christians who believe that] then we shall seek fulfilment in consuming the whole earth; but if we believe we are made in the image of God, we shall act with care and compassion, striving to become what we are created to be.
Let us pray for God’s blessing on the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, so that the industrially developed countries may co-operate with developing countries in reducing harmful polluting emissions, that there may exist the will to raise and manage wisely the funds [Won’t we be forced to ask the few “destiny shapers” that control everything in the world for the dough? Are we talking about will power and personal sacrifice, or taxing authority?] required for the necessary measures, and that all may work together [and with the approval of the United Nations] to ensure that our children enjoy the goods of the earth that we leave behind for them [we don’t leave goods of the earth behind like litter. We create them.]. There must be justice and love in all aspects of economic activity; profit – and especially short-term profit – cannot and should not be the sole motive of our actions. [what exactly is the moral distinction between long-term and short-term profit?]
Let us all renew our commitment to work together and bring about the changes we pray for, to reject everything that is harming the creation, to alter the way we think and thus drastically to alter the way we live.
September 1st, 2009 A.D.
Your beloved brother in Christ and
fervent supplicant before God,
† BARTHOLOMEW of Constantinople