Give man the earth and he will look after it

Catholic Bishops' thinking on environment in need of revision: article in Catholic Times by Philip Booth

Every ten years or so, environmental problems come to the fore and governments use a lot of energy trying to find solutions to problems such as global warming, global cooling, natural resource extraction and over-fishing. We are going through one such phase at the moment.

As Catholics, we should of course think of the needs of future generations and we should care for the created universe. Indeed, our own local Bishop’s conference published a document on the environment in 2002 – though it left much to be desired.

There are three concepts in Catholic Social Teaching that are often held in constructive tension and that are relevant to environmental issues. The first is the primacy of private property and the autonomy of individuals and families. Secondly, there is the “universal destination of goods” and the recognition that private property, though very important, is not sacrosanct. Thirdly, there is the notion that government should always behave in such a way that promotes the “common good”: generally through supporting structures in which we can fulfil our own legitimate needs as individuals, families and in voluntary associations, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. These ideas are particularly helpful in thinking about environmental problems. Can the common good and the rights of all peoples to a dignified living be properly served in the field of environmental policy by the institutions of private property, underpinned by a market economy?

Our Bishops were sceptical of this approach in their document. They were also highly pessimistic. In their words: “Beautiful coasts have been turned into sewers, fertile soil lies barren or has turned into desert. Forests, often described as the lungs of the earth, are reduced to wasteland, and cities are choked with smog.” The Bishops then point out that it is where poverty exists that environmental problems are at their most acute and that property rights must be restricted to deal with environmental problems.

Certainly this description of environmental apocalypse bears no relationship to the truth in the developed world or in our own country. In the UK, national income per head has more than doubled since 1970 yet energy usage has increased by only 13% and aggregate emissions have fallen by 60%. The output of all major pollutants had dropped to a third or a quarter of their 1970 levels by the end of the 20th century.

It is true that the poor suffer more from environmental problems. But we should be careful how we let this fact affect our thinking on environmental policy. More prosperous countries tend to value environmental goods more highly than people who barely have the needs for basic living. More subtly, prosperous economies are built on foundations of secure property rights and effective legal systems so that people are more likely to pay for the environmental resources they use and are held responsible for the environmental costs they impose on others. The key to a clean environment is economic development, properly underpinned by the enforcement of property rights, so that industrialists cannot ruin the environment at the expense of others.

As has been noted, the Bishops suggested in their statement that the right to private ownership must be restricted to preserve environmental goods. This is the precisely the reverse of the conclusion that most economists reach: ownership rights in environmental resources need to be defined and enforced. Communist countries poisoned lakes and rivers until they were dead as nobody had an incentive to keep them clean. In under-developed countries, if land rights are not well defined, instead of preserving and nurturing land areas for growing crops, it is farmed until it is exhausted and then farmers just move on to a virgin piece of land – often cutting down forest areas in the process.

Indeed, we cause the same problems in our management of the marine environment. Whereas farmers have an incentive to make agriculture sustainable because, if the land they own is to have any value its long-term productivity must be preserved, we fish the seas to the verge of extinction. There is no incentive to preserve fish stocks because nobody owns the seas’ resources. Every individual trawler has an incentive to catch as many fish as possible and exhaust the capacity of the fish population to reproduce itself – just as in countries where land rights are not defined, land is farmed to exhaustion.

Solutions to environmental problems should involve extending private ownership, rather than restricting it as our Bishops suggested. Iceland, as well as New Zealand, provide fishermen with tradable quotas that they own and can sell. All trawler owners, as well as the government, then have an incentive to ensure that the quotas are not breeched and marine life is conserved.

There are signs of a similar approach towards rain forests having some success. Johan Eliasch has bought parts of the Amazon rainforest for the sole purpose of protecting it from exploitation. The Anglican MP Frank Field, inspired by Eliasch’s approach has, with others, developed a wider scheme to increase property ownership of the rainforest. Government reserves are frequently flouted by illegal loggers, whereas Eliasch has been able to preserve the rainforest he owns, as well as protecting the indigenous communities. Sadly, his achievements are now being put at risk by the Brazilian government. President, Lula da Silva, has announced that the “rain forests are not for sale”. There are risks that Eliasch’s land will be expropriated.

There are many examples around the world of how the environment is preserved by giving people ownership. In many circumstances, elephants and other “big game” animals are a pest that will be killed by farmers and villagers in Africa. But if they are reared in privately owned parks and if some limited trade in their products is allowed, they become valuable animals that people have an interest in preserving. Farmed cattle are valuable in the UK, but wild cattle that nobody owned would be a menace – the same goes for elephants.

In their document, the Bishops warmly applaud the Kyoto agreement on limiting greenhouse gases. This subject is more complex than the issues discussed above. Perhaps some government action is desirable through an emissions trading scheme. Nevertheless, we should think carefully before taking action that will damage the capac