We’ll be the first to admit that the term “environmental justice” causes something of a kneejerk reaction in us. That’s because, as some of its more vocal adherents insist, it means that “Nature” or “the Environment,” or “Gaia” or something else is a person and therefore has inherent rights that should not be violated.
There are some serious problems with that. For one, it completely overturns the Aristotelian-Thomism on which the Just Third Way of Economic Personalism — and the entire tradition of western law — is founded, viz., that within this mortal coil, only human beings are natural persons and therefore only human beings have rights by nature.
Digging deeper (or listening at greater length), what the demands for environmental justice boil down to by its vocal adherents is power. Obviously, Chorused Nature cannot appear in a court of law as a credible plaintiff, defendant, or witness. As the Lord Chancellor in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe put it, “[A]n affidavit from a thunderstorm, or a few words on oath from a heavy shower, would meet with all the attention they deserve,” i.e., none. That means that Nature/the Environment/Gaia, etc., needs a mouthpiece . . . and that means almost inevitably the vocal adherent, who has charged him- or herself with protecting Nature . . . and thus having power over it and the rest of humanity that interacts with Nature, meaning everyone on the face of the Earth.
That clearly is unacceptable, as it abolishes sovereignty of each human person in favor of — in extreme cases — the absolute rights of Nature, e.g., the rather apocalyptic position that “People are pollution!!”
On listening to the more moderate advocates of environmental justice, however — when they can get a word in edgewise (which isn’t often) — some genuine concerns are raised. There is still the attitude that improvements or any other changes must be imposed from the top down, but there is at least a sense that human beings have some kind of right to exist. The question then becomes, How?
Is it okay for people to do anything they like simply because they are persons by nature, and nature is a thing, that is, without rights? Simply because I own a bit of ground or an oil well or coal mine, can I do anything I want with it, regardless of who or what is harmed?
We find the answer — or an answer — in the nature of the human person as defined by Aristotle and in the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI. As Aristotle put it, “Man is by nature a political animal.” That means we are individuals who also have a social nature who normally live, grow, and develop within consciously structured societies, which Aristotle called “the pólis,” hence, “political.”
We are thus neither mere individuals who need not consider anything or anyone else, nor are we amorphous participants in a collective with no individual identity. We are persons with absolute rights that must never be exercised absolutely. That is, we have rights absolutely, but can only exercise them in limited fashion.
For example, every human being absolutely has the right to own things. What may be owned, how much, and what can be done with it is, however, necessarily limited and socially determined. In general, the exercise of property (the rights OF ownership), or “use,” is limited by the demand that the owner not harm him- or herself, other people, groups, institutions, or the common good as a while. It is therefore permissible to use the natural world and to own a portion of it, but not to inflict harm thereby — including harm to the environment.
There is also the caveat that “use” never be defined or limited in such a way as to nullify the underlying absolute right to be an owner in the first place. This corrects the extreme environmentalist position that any use is automatically harmful, i.e., the “People are pollution” assumption.
We can therefore accept and even use an understanding of “environmental justice” that includes private ownership and control of the natural world, as long as what is owned is not used in a way that causes harm. The concept of stewardship does not nullify private property, but it does giver guidelines for its reasonable exercise.
Especially for the global environment, we have to recognize that while I may own something, I do not live in a vacuum. Just as in the pólis in which each member of society must consider his or her acts as they relate to all the other members of society, the use of the natural world, even for purely personal reasons and purposes, must be done in such a way as to take the rest of the environment into consideration. For example, I might need a fire to cook my dinner, but that does not entitle me to set a forest fire, even if it’s only on my own land.
We must also be careful about how we seek to limit or eliminate harm to the environment and make certain we target the right cause of any harm. For example, there is a great deal of concern expressed today about the amount of methane released into the atmosphere by raising livestock that affects climate change . . . but let’s look at the facts.
In the 1700s to mid-1800s there were an estimated 60 million American bison (“buffalo”), mostly inhabiting the Great Plains. Following the Civil War, the number of cattle in the U.S. was estimated between 50 to 68 million, Today, there are an estimated half a million bison and 93.8 million cattle. A century or more ago the number of horses in the United States was estimated at 20 million, with less than 9 million today.
Thus, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the number of buffalo, cattle and horses in the U.S. was somewhere between 100 million and 125 million. Today, the number is about 103.3 million, either a slight increase or a statistically significant decrease. Logically, the amount of methane released into the atmosphere by livestock cannot be considered a major factor in climate change, if at all.
The same cannot be said of automobiles. In the entire nineteenth century, the number of automobiles, trucks and buses in the United States was 8,000, most of them built in 1900, the last year of the century. Today there are 276 million . . . not including aircraft and seagoing vessels. Virtually all of these use fossil fuels . . . or electricity generated by burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. Nor does this include railroads and factories using fossil fuels directly or electricity obtained by burning fossil fuels.
Conclusion? Livestock is not to blame for any effect on climate change. If anything, it’s the use of fossil fuels. The logical thing to do in that case — as well as the economically and environmentally just solution — is to develop alternative sources of energy that do not rely on fossil fuels. Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe, suggests itself, as do other sources, which is not the subject of this posting, but you get the idea.
|"Your cars outnumber us almost 3:1 and it's OUR fault?"|
Now — who’s going to pay for this? And how?
Who is easy: we all are. That way we all become owners of the future in which we all have to live, and no one will have the concentrated power to force others to live in substandard conditions or be able to damage the environment with impunity.
As for how to pay for it, that answer has been known for thousands of years. All economic growth — including (or especially) new fuel sources and systems — can be broadly owned and financed by making all profitable projects pay for themselves with their own future profits. In that way, economic growth will not only be something in which everyone should participate, but can and will. This is what is proposed in the Economic Democracy Act.