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Did you ever go to Catholic Mass? If so, you would know that there are times when the priest says something, and you instinctively respond with a hymn, prayer, or some other saying. It’s in our blood. We just say it. The same goes for when we listen to mass. We know every word the priest is about to utter, indeed the homilies are sometimes pretty predictable based on the news of the day and what the readings for that mass might be.

But the Catholic Church recently changed the mass (a little, it’s not like they are going back to a Latin mass with the priest’s back to the audience, which I would prefer). And still a few months later some of us find ourselves responding to prompts during mass with the old phrases and hymns that we grew accustomed to for 30 years.

Which brings us to the Green movement. I was invited to talk to our college’s Eco-Reps a few weeks ago. I am pretty sure I’ll not be invited back – I felt like I was an interesting zoo creature on the other side of the glass from the more civilized humans gazing at me. But here’s why there is absolutely no hope for “opening a civil discourse” or “reaching common ground” or “working together” to see the world be a better place. You may think this is a little thing, but I don’t. Leaving aside the fact that the default view of the Eco-Reps and others in the Green movement is that anyone who defends property rights and understands the economics of environmental problems must automatically be a lackey for the oil company and wish to see the destruction of the entire ecosystem, there is simply an inability to actually hear what it is folks like me are saying, much like I still have a hard time responding properly at mass.

What is the flashpoint for this? When we moved our discussion from “How all environmental problems ARE economic problems” (not received well of course) to illustrating an application of this – Global Warming, the air came out of the room. My first comment was, “it simply doesn’t strike me as useful to talk of an entire problem like “Global Warming” as “Global Warming.” I was intimating that to the economic way of dealing with massive externalities, it makes as much sense to talk of “Global Warming” existing as it does to talk of “Health Care” as a good or “Food” as a good, for example. But that gets us nowhere. What I suggested was that we first thing of the specific environmental economic problems that a warming planet is expected to cause, and then apply what we know about externalities and tools for dealing with them to each of the specific problems. If it so happens that the same low-cost solution to every one of those problems presents itself (or in the aggregate is the lowest cost) then it would be serendipitous, and perhaps then makes sense to talk of Global Warming.

At that point, the folks in the room, as far as I can tell, and from what I’ve learned in subsequent discussions, stopped listening.

You see, their “Ec0-Sirens” starting detecting the same language that may be employed by a “Climate Science Denier” and therefore sent electric shocks through the brain which prevent it from even processing what comes out of the speaker’s mouth next. What is the possibility for engaging in civil discussion, or perhaps even teaching folks, when this is the reaction? I’d normally at this point solicit your feedback about how to proceed, but I am going to apply the same electro-shock to my head and only hear what I want to hear you say, so I am best just chilling out for a few days before formulating different thoughts on it.

I will be giving an Earth Day talk in a week or so, which perhaps reveals how I choose to handle it. Whether that’s the right way remains to be seen. But I really do think I am very long past the point of thinking that anything we do is but a veiled argument about “my values versus your values” and about “limited government versus tyrannical state interventions.” It’s not. I don’t respect the “values” of someone who views it as a moral right to take the shirt off my back, who views it as “harmless” to not have to define or defend anything that they do on any grounds beyond “it just feels right” or who cannot conceive of a world where free people might actually try to cooperate to obtain a vision of what is “good.”

Respect has to be earned. And when two “values” butt heads as such, I do not think there is room to “agree to disagree.” There is, for example, no serious evidence that my consumption of bottled water harms you. And I do not accept on any grounds your claimed right to prevent me from producing such a good and consuming it either. We both cannot be right.

I’ve been accused of having a “God” complex for making such observations. But let me ask, who is the one who is actually playing God? The one who is asking to have his autonomy respected, or the one who seeks to order the world in a way that suits their own interests?

10 Responses to “Sunday Morning Thought: Environmentalism and Catholic Mass”

  1. Michael says:

    As you have told me, you incorrectly assume they care. It seems that they care enough to spend a few minutes on it, but God forbid that complex issues require more than an afternoon’s thought. I am reminded of a “collective action” course I had, where the proffesor spent a good portion asking, “What’s the good?” In order to analyze the collective action, you needed to know what good was being peddeled. “Global warming” is an abstraction, a boogeyman with not much in specifics.

  2. Instant Karma says:

    The division lines on this debate are indeed frustrating. There is a great discussion on the limits of growth between a real physicist and an economist at the following…

    Note how the physicists refuse to grasp the fundamental concepts of free markets and their potential as complex adaptive problem solving systems. Their weakness is that they think they understand how markets work, they import their conventional (naive) assumptions and then project ignorance or bad intentions on the economists. They assume we are blinded by free market ideology.

  3. Alex says:

    “I’m pretty sure I’ll not be invited back..”

    So they rejected you as a notorious heretic.. perhaps they will soon issue their official “12 Anathemas Against Wintercow’s Dissident Climate Change Views”- here are the first two:

    1. If anyone will not confess that the earth is warming, and that therefore we need to bring all economic progress to an utter halt, inasmuch as those mean capitalists take pleasure in belching out CO2 into the air, let him be anathema.
    2. If anyone shall dare say that all environmental problems are economic problems, and shall not rather confess that no costs need be considered when dealing with the ‘environment’ (and Health Care too for that matter), since according to my self-righteous conscience this just feels right: let him be anathema.

  4. Harry says:

    They are spoiled brats, interested in the next thrill, as long as it does not require work.

    This is not new. Their parents went to Columbia and Berkeley, class of 1970. Love the one you’re with, or alternatively, do your own thing. Everybody gets an allowance for life. Whatever it takes to get laid, and if that means being green, then go for it. Grow a soul patch, get a few prison tattoos, and complain at Occupy events about not finding anyone who wants to employ you because of circumstances beyond your control.

    This does not describe all of Dr. Rizzo’s students; far from it. I think Rizzo hopes to open a few more minds, beyond those already opened.

  5. chuck martel says:

    Try to remember what was going on in the late ’80s. There were television news broadcasts that purported to show blind Patagonian sheep and children unable to attend school in Tierra del Fuego because of an excess of ultra-violet rays caused by a shrinking of the “ozone layer” caused in turn by the migration of escaped CFCs from refrigeration equipment and spray cans. All of this was based on a theoretical computer model first generated at UC-Irvine. The treaty was signed in 1989 and has had several revisions since. The important point is that we hear virtually nothing about the subject any longer, despite the fact that all of the CFCs ever produced are still inevitably being released into the atmosphere and that the products (which are banned in the developed world) are still being produced and distributed elsewhere. Centuries from now the reaction to the theoretical problems with some of the most beneficial products ever known to man will be a matter of disbelief for whatever unbrainwashed humans survive.

  6. Trey says:

    Instant Karma, thanks for the link. As a physicist, I understand Tom Murphy’s hubris. He thinks he can extrapolate his knowledge of physics into every subject (in this case economics). Not true.

    Tom Murphy shows a plot of energy usage in the United States over 400 years that is exponential. It looks to me like it has been tapering off over the last 50 years. It still may be an exponential, but the rate constant is lower (2% instead of 3% ?).

    Extrapolating energy usage over another 400 years into the future is ridiculous. Extrapolating anything even 10 years out is dangerous. No exponential lasts forever. In the semiconductor world, the 50 years of Moore’s law comes with some caveats. Moore’s “Law” says that the number of transistors in a given area doubles every two years. But in the early 60s it doubled every year, then went to every 1.5 years. Over the last 2-3 decades it’s been doubling about every two years. In 5 years or less, we may be going into a slower growth, but still exponential doubling every three years. This is still rapid improvement relatively speaking. And there is still a chance for disruptive technology. (On the manufacturing side, “directed self-assembly” could be a game changer.) Moore himself wasn’t willing to go beyond 10 years:

    “The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year … Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years.”

    There’s still lot of room for growth in semiconductors, but the industry is relatively young. Energy however is a much more mature industry (but surely with improvements to be made.)

    Tom Murphy is extrapolating in time (2000->2400) and space (physics -> economics). Be very wary.


    PS, here’s a nice response


  7. Harry says:

    Insightful comments from WC’s readers, some of whom are still teachers. My first Earth Day I was teaching, too, but I was ill-equipped to teach my students about the peril that would ensue. It may sound self-serving, but I told my students not to believe everything they read in books.

    We can be optimists about the future, especially since those such as WC and others are around to speak on Earth Day.

  8. Student says:

    Keep presenting to groups like this even if you don’t get invited back. It would be helpful to find a way to be invited back without compromising your values, but unfortunately I have no suggestions. I suspect whether or not any students speak up there is at least one in any of these environmental groups who isn’t blinded by the dogma and ideology of the environmental movement. Economics is counter-intuitive to most people (even economists) so it’s hard to get through to anyone, but it would be a disservice to yourself and your potential student not to try to teach how environmental problems are economics problems. One more student who considers economics when addressing environmental issues is better than none.

  9. Josef says:


    This student (currently co-president of Grassroots) has spent much of his time here trying to say what you’re saying. He seems to have had some success in communicating with the environ-fundamentalists. Perhaps you can borrow his approach.

  10. Instant Karma says:

    Thanks Trey,

    Yeah, I have about a dozen comments under another name in the discussion comments.

    Nothing is sinking in with the believers.

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