I recently read Jonathan Merritt’s “Green Like God,” an evangelical call to stewardship of creation.
I am always suspicious of greeny-type arguments, for reasons I will explain presently, but I decided to give Merritt the benefit of the doubt inasmuch as that is possible from a biased perspective, and we are all biased by what we have been previously been exposed to.
Merritt has engaged me on Twitter, which I did not expect. I hope to retain his respect, and to approach this discussion in an intellectually honest manner. I expect to learn something from this interaction.
Let me also preface by noting that Merritt and I share a few characteristics. First, we both grew up Baptist boys. I’m not a PK like him, but I was in church almost every Sunday growing up. Second, we both share a little of the “young, restless, and reformed” profile. Neither of us would qualify for their poster-child, both we have both dipped in that stream some. Third, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. I never attended, but I lived in Durham, NC for eight years, working in full-time ministry, which means I met a lot of SEBTS students who were doing internships or volunteering. I’ve had pastors who were graduates from SEBTS, and have known members of their leadership, who were also donors to the ministry where I worked. Lots of overlaps there, so I understand some of the culture. Fourth, I also had a sort of epiphany in seminary. Of course, I wasn’t enrolled! I used to sneak into a class in Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity taught by Stanley Hauerwas. Consequently, I am highly suspicious of the interaction of evangelicals in politics. I may even write my dissertation, or a future book on the topic, as Merritt has recently done. I have not read “A Faith of Our Own” yet, but I’m going to the beach for a week, so maybe I can fit it in then, and have more to say next week. All this to say I feel an affinity for Merritt, a camaraderie, as we are fellow travelers seeking reform within the church of Christ which we both love, and with an intense interest in justice.
Green Like God I think was written to assuage the concerns Merritt was hearing from inside the church that Merritt had become heretical by championing environmentalist concerns. He recounts several instances where church folk approached him negatively on account of his writings on the issue. Further, his involvement in steering the SBC (now, the GCBC) toward a resolution on creation stewardship made him a threat to more conservative factions within evangelicalism. In this book, Merritt primarily defends himself (though the tone is not defensive by any means) against charges of heresy, and actually provides a sound theology for creation care.
That God cares for His creation ought to be obvious, and a thorough reading of Scripture ought to reinforce what the creation teaches us both about stewardship of creation, and about God’s character as well. Merritt deftly and appropriately counters arguments which are really lazy and selfish against creation care. Eschatological arguments are common among these, as are faulty dominionist defenses. Adam and Eve were given stewardship over creation, and we forfeited that role over to Satan at the fall. Part of Christ’s redeeming work is the initiation of reconciliation of man to God, but also of all things back into their right relation with one another. This includes humankind’s relationship with God’s creation, and the proper stewardship thereof. By demonstrating the right attitude toward creation we also testify of how God set aright the relationship between us and Him.
Merritt rightly identifies the way many environmentalists go too far, worshiping creation rather than creator. This is a legitimate concern and may be behind honest concerns within evangelicalism about the environmentalist movement. I think both Merritt and I suspect that not many of the concerns are actually honest or legitimate.
Merritt challenges attitudes within the evangelical camp that have been used as justifications against good stewardship. Further, he prophetically points to consumerist behaviors within the church. We seldom adopt truly frugal lifestyle choices. We frequently fall into the purchasing of status goods. We seldom obey the call to work hard so that we have something to share with the one who is in need. We often work too hard in order to achieve the acclaim of men. Indeed we often despise rewards in heaven in favor of the praises of men. We have that reward in full.
Merritt handles these problems adeptly, and with more grace than I just demonstrated.
My only criticism is when Merritt somewhat less critically adopts much of the environmentalist propaganda and activist suggestions. Most of these are trifles, but they get a lot of public attention because they are very visible. If our intention is to get men’s attention, then programs like recycling, locavoring, and fair trade purchasing are easy ways to do that. But that is almost all the good they do.
Recycling is often just as wasteful as throwing used packaging away. Michael Munger is the chair of political science at Duke University and has written a good bit on the ways recycling can be wasteful. For starters, most of what we recycle isn’t all that bad for the environment in the first place! Glass is mostly sand. Aluminum cans do not contain harmful chemicals. Paper decomposes. Plastic may be more of a problem, but packaging has gotten ever more efficient and uses less and less raw materials all the time. Much of the concern about recycling seems to be related to landfill space. But this is not really a problem, so much s the fact that no one wants a landfill near them. This is a NIMBY problem (not in my backyard), not a quantity of trash problem.
Last week Merritt tweeted that a full grown man disposes his own body weight in trash every three months. The implication was that this is too much, and a dangerous quantity. Indeed the link in his tweet carries one to an article with other similar statistics. “This year the world will generate 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage — the weight of about 7,000 Empire State Buildings.”
I carried Merritt’s first statistic forward and calculated just how much trash would accumulate if he was right that an adult male disposes his own weight I trash every three months. Let’s repeat the exercise here just for kicks.
The nightmare from the first few minutes of Wall-E is a myth. First, assume the average man, weighing 175 lbs. is about 6 ft tall. If squished into a square shape he could easily fit into a space 2 ft by 2 ft by 6 ft. Indeed, I postulate a 200 lb. man could be squished into such a space. Let there be 400 million such men. Let each of them produce the same amount of trash for 80 years. That would be 400 million, times 80 years, times 4 periods of 3 months per year, times a space 2 ft by 2 ft by 6 ft. Big number, huh? Try 3.072 trillion cubic feet.
But wait. A mile is 5280 ft, and a square mile is more than 27 million square feet. And we can pile trash up higher than just one foot. One landfill in California has trash 500 feet deep. At that rate we can pile our 3.072 trillion cubic feet of trash into piles a mile wide and a mile long, or 27,878,400 ft sq, and 500 ft high. That would require 221 square miles, or a space 15 miles wide and 15 miles long. Now that’s one big landfill. But it’s for the whole population for the next 80 years! Even if we made the landfill more shallow, or increased population growth, or waste production per person (though the trend is in the opposite direction) the result is of similar magnitude. Suppose we needed a space 50 miles wide and long. We’ve got that, and more to spare. The panhandle of Oklahoma, for example, is 33 miles wide and 166 miles long.
The point is that landfill space is not the problem. Existing landfill space is, and this is only exacerbated by regulations and NIMBY influences which restrict the creation of new landfill space. But we often hear claims like the Empire State Building factoid.
For starters the factoid measured the weight of the building empty! How much space would the building take up if crushed down to rubble? I don’t know, but there are several million people from Manhattan who can tell us how much rubble was created when two larger buildings were toppled some 11 years ago. Astonishing how something so big can be reduced so dramatically. This also is true for environmentalist propaganda.
The same goes for the recent grocery bag kick some folks are on. I’m pretty confident a disposable grocery bag can be squished down pretty small. Reusable bags, not so much. How many uses do you suppose one can get from a grocery bag? How many disposable bags would fit into the same space? How much time is wasted at the checkout counter by using reusable bags? Multiply by the number of people in line. Is time worth anything? Is the extra electricity wasted keeping all those people in line longer important? Which is better?
Paper cups go into the trash and require a production process. But washing dishes uses energy and may pollute the water. Which is better?
The bottom line is that we can know which is better in a simple, indirect way. We can look at prices.
Prices communicate information about relative scarcities and costs to the person making a relevant decision. If grocery stores give disposable bags away for free but charge for reusable bags that tells me disposable bags introduce a higher cost. I’m better off using the disposables, and everyone else is better if I use disposables, too!
That last bit is the hardest to believe, but it is true. People’s eyes glaze over when we start to discuss the wonder of the market economy and the efficiency of prices.
Prices tell me whether to buy free trade or fair trade coffee. I buy whichever is the best combination of price and quality. I don’t check for the Fair Trade label. Further, the debate is still out as to whether the benefits from Fair Trade even make it all the way down to the farmers. Having spoken to some folks from Guatemala not so long ago I was told that it does benefit some farmers, but often at the expense of others who could not get into the program. Often the poorest are the ones who do not qualify. The demand for their product is then reduced and they end up worse off.
Locavoring seems to make more sense until one understands the role of increasing returns to scale. It can be tremendously less expensive to produce tons of tomatoes in Florida and then ship them to Atlanta than it is for Atlanta to grow its own tomatoes. Shipping is less expensive than it has ever been before, and this is thanks to efficiencies which are both good for the environment, but also easily motivated by the desire for greater profits by large firms. Producing locally is often much more labor intensive and more land intensive than other methods.
Again, eyes will glaze over. Some economists will be right about this and some will see it another way. The question is do we believe in prices? I do.
But Merritt might not, and that’s okay. He can read and believe other economists. We can disagree. But in Green Like God he does not lay out both sides of the argument. He makes assertions, unsubstantiated. Recycling is not always better. Eating local might not be the best way to live frugally. Fair Trade may do more harm than good in some cases.
One final note. I was expecting admonitions toward political activism in the book at some point. There were hardly any. This pleased me greatly. The legislative process is almost certainly the worst way to make a difference in the world. Instead Merritt concentrates on what the church and what Christians can do independently and voluntarily. For this I applaud him. I’m eager to read “Faith of Our Own” to see how he approaches public policy in general. I’m hopeful that he might take an approach similar to Shane Claiborne and others who have emphasized what Christians can do to make the world a better place. I believe sacrificial altruism best demonstrates the Christian Ethic.