Monday, May 11, 2015

Wanted: a theology of mining (part 6)

My last post in this series was nearly a year ago.  In December, blogger Cellarius left an interesting comment on that post - following along, I discovered his paper "God of piston and wheel" (can be found here) which begins
The psalmist hymns the benevolence of God who tells the number of the stars and yet also provides for his animal creation, including 'herb for the use of man' (Ps 147.4, 8b BCP). What happens when the same theological attention is given to the furnaces of the stars as Christian tradition has given to the biosphere? In what sense and to what purpose has the non-living fruit of creation been provided 'for the use of man'?
In thinking more about questions related to mining, I want to acknowledge the writings of Donald Hay.  Donald was Tutor in Economics at Jesus College in Oxford when I arrived as a very young mathematics fellow in 1986.  He was and is an example to me of how to live an academic life which is also a life of Christian vocation, and since his retirement he's invested himself in the program Developing a Christian Mind which helps students and others integrate vocational and intellectual training.  I think it's also fair to say that, as a professional economist, Donald would be skeptical about my embrace of a "limits to growth" philosophy. So it is interesting to turn back to his Economics Today: A Christian Critique, first published in 1989, to see what he has to say about nonrenewable resource extraction (which is what I mean in these posts by "mining").

The discussion of resource constraints appears in Chapter 8, Economic Growth, of Donald's book.  It begins (p298)

On the question of  exhaustible resources, we can get little direct guidance from the biblical material, which refers exclusively to biologically renewable resources.  We have to proceed by extrapolating our biblical principles.

The basic ethical question he asks is: "(If) an exhaustible resource is going to be put to a good use, are we justified in depleting it and so depriving future generations?"  He answers yes, provided that a "biologically renewable substitute exists".  I wonder about the meaning of the word "exists" here.  Some cornucopians put their faith in human ingenuity to create new resources that are presently unimaginable: it is hard to imagine that these could be said to "exist" at present in a sense that is relevant to the ethical question that has to be answered today. On the other hand, I don't think he means that the substitute must "exist" right now in the sense of being fully developed and economically competitive.  So it's hard to see how to apply this principle in making a practical decision.  It's interesting to me though that Donald sees metals as "more of a problem" than energy resources - "the fossil fuels could in principle be replaced by wood and solar energy".

Later (section 6 of the chapter), there is a summary of the standard analysis (Hotelling) according to which the price of a non-renewable resource should increase at the rate of interest.  "The price path will exhibit growth over time at the rate of interest.  But the absolute level of the whole path may be 'wrong'...It is therefore inappropriate to assume that markets will get the rate of depletion right."

Donald discounts the argument that "taking no thought for the future is regarded as a (biblical) virtue."  And he appears to favor an outright ban on the production of non-degradable toxic wastes (radioactive wastes are explicitly mentioned).  His conclusion:

These considerations suggest that a market economy will deplete resources too fast... Even if we are sure (my emphasis) that a substitute will be available, there is no justification for gobbling up resources just because they are there.   We can never know how a future generation might have used an exhaustible resource, if we had not used it up.  We should attach a considerable value to leaving resources untouched in the ground... we need perhaps to appoint keepers to regulate the use of exhaustible natural resources."

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