This April is Earth Day’s 41st anniversary. In 1970, Yale law professor Charles Reich, published a remarkably popular, fundamentally naive book, The Greening of America. He argued that a new, non-materialistic, environmentally sensitive culture was emerging in a “Consciousness III.”
Reich discounted the value of conventional religion. Instead, Greening celebrated the counterculture and fostered an embryonic eco-religion. “It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty—a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.”
Greening of America received favorable attention, partially because Reich was a Yale law professor. Environmentalists revered Greening because an Ivy League professor confirmed their biases about America and counseled changes they liked. Reich’s new culture would reject materialism and be ecologically gentle.
Counter to Reich’s predictions, prosperity grew while parsimony didn’t. As real wealth doubled, people demanded more and better stuff. In general, richer is safer, more comfortable, better insulated from hardships of all types, and more resilient. People worldwide seek it.
Ideally, religion guides people to include consideration of others—and environmental stewardship. Religion reminds us that wealth has its costs; though most people find that personal benefits trump those costs.
Reich’s “Consciousness III” mainly reduced constraints on illicit pleasures. What was wrong with Reich’s analysis and predictions? Much indeed.
First, he didn’t recognize religion’s role in promoting and reinforcing responsible behavior. Second, he neglected a general truth; richer is greener. Demand for environmental quality, like that for BMWs, is a luxury good. In sum, environmental sensitivity increases with wealth.
What fosters environmental quality? A culture with environmentally sensitive citizens living in material comfort is fundamental. Such folks advocate prudent constraints on rapacious behavior. This, plus scientific understanding guiding regulations, provide foundations for environmental quality.
Many well-intended individuals desiring a higher environmental quality resort to regulations; command and control is their mantra. There are two problems with this. First, regulations and the bureaucracies that administer them rarely take time and local considerations into account. Mandates commonly generate unintended consequences far worse than the problem they attempt to address. The corn ethanol mandate is a classic example.
Second, some regulations are well intended, others strictly opportunistic. Either may damage our environment and the wealth generating capacity that fosters stewardship. Consider West Virginia’s mountaintop removal process (MTR) for mining coal. It testifies to two things; the perverse power of late senator Robert Byrd and the willingness of poor people to sacrifice their environment for jobs and ephemeral prosperity.
For more than a decade, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service waived Endangered Species Act reviews for new mining permits. They claimed, “MTR can never damage endangered species or their habitat as long as mining operators comply with federal surface mining law.” This is politically driven idiocy and dishonesty.
Allen Johnson’s (no kin to Junior Johnson) organization, Christians for the Mountains, in partnership with the World Stewardship Institute fight entrenched MTR interests. In 2000, The United Methodist Church implored “...those state and national governmental and regulatory agencies involved in mountaintop removal mining to halt this practice until scientific study of its long-term effect on human life and the natural environment has been accomplished.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church and several other denominations joined this cause.
Reich’s Greening missed two key ingredients: the positive influence of religion and the importance of prosperity. Strong property rights and the rule of law foster prosperity and sustainable ecologies. Modest and responsible prosperity complements religion in building cultures and institutions that generate and protect environmental quality.
In general, political decision-making thwarts prosperity and insulates error, such as ethanol mandates, from corrections. If times get tougher, a likely prospect, economic decline will become our most serious environmental threat. Then we may find the commitment of religious organizations to environmental stewardship will help protect a Green America.