Each January, my colleagues and I design FREE’s summer seminars. We select and refine topics, then identify speakers, and finally invite participants.
These tasks are easy when creating programs explicitly for federal judges.
There are only a thousand and we know exactly who they are. All know us directly or have colleagues who have attended our seminars. Our logistics are easy; we’ve used two attractive and accommodating venues for decades, the Gallatin Gateway Inn and Elkhorn Ranch.
Although federal judges are welcome to attend any FREE event, we’re crafting next summer’s programs for seminary professors and other religious leaders, a far more diverse group. Their ages and educations are more varied, and they are philosophically more diverse. Further, a religious calling is often more intense than one to law.
Our 2012 seminars are on environmental stewardship and social justice. The titles are “Stewardship Parables and Principles from Greater Yellowstone” and “Faith, the Economy, and Social Justice.” One includes an excursion to Yellowstone Park, the other to Butte. Yellowstone is America’s first national park; Butte claims to have been America’s richest city. Economics, and particularly political economy, shed light on the successes and problems of both.
Yellowstone exemplifies a protected area. Worldwide, the number of areas where human development is restricted by governments has increased by a factor of 10 during my lifetime, from well under 10,000 to more than 100,000 today. About 13 percent of the world’s landmass is somewhat protected; roughly the size of South America.
Yet, a daylight flight into Bozeman shows that Yellowstone Park, like most protected areas, is a pristine island in “a sea of profound human transformations to the landscape through logging, agriculture, mining, damming, and urbanization” (P. Kareiva, et. al., “Conservation in the Anthropocene,” Breakthrough Journal, Fall 2011.). The key conservation question becomes this: How can we manage these lands in a sustainable manner yet friendly to human accomplishments and satisfactions?
Barring some huge fundamental demographic and economic disaster, or an opposite cornucopia of plenty, there is no possibility of returning lands surrounding pristine areas to conditions prevailing before their substantial modification by humans. This implies improving two things, environmental ethics and the institutions in which they are expressed or repressed.
Many religious leaders have adopted environmental quality as an important moral obligation. The problem then becomes one of designing arrangements that produce high quality information and incentives to act responsibly on them. Business and governmental agencies commonly distort or restrict information in efforts to increase their revenues, for example green energy today.
We explain how various systems have differing consequences as they generate and evaluate information and guide behavior. If, for example, the costs of pollution are discounted or ignored, pollution is overproduced. Likewise, subsidies mask opportunities foregone and foster overproduction. Consider corn ethanol and its impact on the world’s poor.
Our seminar speakers rarely advocate specific ends, but rather offer intellectual tools to help analyze problems. The most important is simply asking, “And then what?” What are the predictable consequences of proposed policies or admonitions?
Exploring this question helps participants avoid embarrassing fads, errors, and labels. Examples include two now discredited green nostrums, zero population growth, or ZPG, and zero economic growth, ZEG. Might the condemnation of CO2 be next to fail reality tests?
ZPG was the foundation goal of environmental protection. Now that population “growth” has turned negative throughout Western Europe and Japan, the adjustments that will be required to accommodate reduced private and government revenues and increased entitlement burdens threaten civility and environmental progress. Think Greece.
Problems with ZEG are illustrated by the 2012 presidential election campaign. Dominant themes promote economic growth. Environmental quality is a ready sacrifice.
The Yellowstone and Butte seminars share ethical, ecological, and economic principles. First, things really are interconnected; public policies can’t do only one thing. Second, both culture and institutions determine outcomes.
FREE’s seminars help religious leaders and federal judges understand such principles, all illustrated with compelling nearby examples.
John Baden is the chairman of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment and Gallatin Writers Inc., both based in Bozeman.