Monday, December 03, 2007

Energy, global warming and the marketplace

At Vox Nova, a I offered comments on this post praising a move by Congress to force automakers to make cars that get better mileage. I probably should have done what I'm doing now, offering my thoughts here.

Why is it a bad idea for Congress to do this?

Underlying this is the assumption that it is good if Americans consume less oil. That may be true, but let's analyze this. Why is it good? Some would say because it means consuming less foreign oil, and that is desirable because of the way oil is entangled in our foreign affairs (more on that shortly).

But if the foreign source of oil is the main issue, then it would also make sense to look at producing more oil at home; there are a number of places we know are very promising sites for pumping oil: the northern slope of Alaska, and off the coasts of Florida and California. But many of the same folks pushing this bill--as I say, to force automakers to make cars that currently don't sell--oppose those efforts, for reasons that, to my mind, aren't very strong. Yes, drilling oil does involve some disruption of the environment, but I simply don't find it believable that you can't go in, drill, build derricks and pumps and what all, and then have the local environment recover nicely. What, the deer and the antelope will be traumatized by the sight of an oil derrick? I don't believe it. "What about oil spills?" That's bad; but when oil is $100 a barrel, do you suppose the owners of that oil wouldn't rather get it safely to market than dump it out on a beach?

Back to the question of oil distorting our foreign policy. No question oil is a huge issue; but it would be, even if we didn't get a single drop of oil from outside our borders, because the rest of the world would certainly rely on that same oil, and what affects the rest of the world, affects us. So while it might indeed be a good idea if we drew less oil from places like Iraq or Venezuela, it wouldn't necessarily mean we'd have less reason to care about access to oil worldwide; and if we did care less, that might not be a good outcome. To the extent the U.S., and other nations, act to keep world trade humming, and to keep the prices of important commodities more or less stable, that is good for everyone. Isn't that rather obvious?

So, again, why is it important, to those who are backing this bill, that we use less oil?

For some, it's about global warming. I'm obviously not a scientist, but there's enough about all this hype to make any reasonable person skeptical of what is being fed us. And you have to separate out the issues. First: is there such a thing as global warming? Sure seems so; okay, say there is. Second: what is the human responsibility for this? That is the big question, that I do not believe has been adequately addressed. But even if you grant that one, you still have this next set of questions, that really get ignored: How significant will the consequences be of said warming; what can we reasonably do about it; what will sad measures against global warming cost in money, resources generally, trade-offs, social consequences, and in what will be left undone if we make this our main focus?

And finally, given all the possible environmental problems we might choose to invest lots of political energy, lots of money, and lots of social change into, is global warming the one that wins the prize (as opposed to providing clean drinking water, eradicating malaria or hunger, etc.)? People a lot smarter than I am are all over the map when it comes to the actual, foreseeable consequences of the warming supposedly underway: will sea levels rise a small or large amount? That really makes a big difference, doesn't it?

And don't assume all the effects of global warming are bad: there are many good consequences, and you have to weigh it all if you're going to make policy about such things. And it's rather naive to think this is how our esteemed solons in Congress go about this--don't kid yourself! And there remains good reason to question whether this warming is really a human-caused, or more fundamentally a natural, cyclical phenomenon. After all, no one disputes that there has been warming, as great or greater than what is supposed to be happening now, in centuries past; and absolutely no one claims the warming in the middle ages, or in ancient Roman times, was human-caused.

But, okay, to move this along, let's assume it is a good thing for the government to make Americans use less oil--because, at bottom, that's what this is all about. Is this proposal concerning the mileage cars get, the way to go?

Here's the thing: why is it even necessary for Congress to do anything? The automakers are already able to make such cars and they do; why don't they make more? There's only one reason...people don't buy them! Either because they cost more (the hybrid cars that are likely to proliferate as a result of this can cost several thousand dollars more); and if they require extra batteries, or have less power, then there are other trade-offs too; higher-mileage cars are not as big, they have less power, and they are not as safe--or at least, so many people believe.

Let's be clear: behind this is a moralism that says it's bad for people to drive big, gas-guzzling cars. They "should" drive smaller cars, drive them shorter distances, and less often. Maybe they shouldn't drive at all, they should walk, or ride bikes, or ride buses and trains.

Now, of course, I'm in the morality business, so I'm not against a moral argument per se. But I do think such moral claims need to be supported, otherwise it's a cheap sentiment, and I like my cheap sentiments better than yours.

This moralism argues that we're bad because we--Americans, and/or people who live this post-industrial lifestyle--use "too much" energy, we're thoughtless, we're using it all up, we're hurting the environment, we're hurting the future, we don't need it, we could live better, etc.

Well, I don't know how much is "too much"; depends on the alternative. What we do know is that we have a very advanced, very prosperous society, and it runs on energy. Energy isn't just "consumed," it's used--to do things, all manner of things, from exalted to debased, important to trivial. God knows what the optimum is, and how we might reshape things to get there; but the rest of us use our best judgments, and collectively, we are where we are. If, for example, we all washed our clothes by hand, and dried them on clotheslines, that would save a lot of energy. Whether that would be "better" in the broad measure? I don't know. We do know that all the energy we use serves to produce things, move things and people and information around at remarkable speeds, and all that brings great benefits that we take for granted.

Yes, oil is finite, but it also happens to be extremely useful. As of now, it happens to be about the best fuel we have, all things considered. Every means of generating energy has pros and cons; oil is widely used for the obvious reason that it has the most pros and fewest cons. If we can do the same with grass and hay, or with wood chips, or corn, swell; but for the present, these bio-fuels are in use only because of a huge, government "thumb on the scale." And I have too little confidence in politicians to think they are getting that right. Meanwhile, thanks to the government promoting corn for ethanol, corn prices are climbing, and that affects food prices.

Of course oil consumption affects the environment; but again, what is the alternative? Coal? Nuclear? Solar? Wind? Incinerating garbage? Exxon and BP and the rest all are happy to make money, and so do other people with money to invest. They'll make solar work, if it can, because they want to sell it to you. Why haven't they? Maybe because it just...doesn'; at least, not yet.

Meanwhile, left out of this is the bigger-picture alternative. Would humanity be better off with less advancement? Fewer appliances? Less travel? Less electricity? All of this has mixed consequences: the Internet can both save lives and destroy them. That's Original Sin and free will. Till we get rid of one or both of those factors, it'll always be "a mixed bag." But really, does anyone dispute that overall, we live better, live longer, overcome disease and illness and suffering far better, as a result?

Yes, there is some optimal way to live, an optimal use of technology, energy, an optimal commute to work, an optimal amount of usage of fuel and so forth. But I don't happen to know what it is for myself, let alone for you. The marketplace is an imperfect instrument of regulating such matters, and yes, you do need to monitor the marketplace, regulate it, and occasionally, intervene, but in general, I trust it more, because it's the cumulative action of lots of individual decisions and judgments, with greater freedom and rationalism, than the alternatives, certainly the politicians.


Titus said...

Excellent synopsis of the various issues, Father. In addition (and I admit to borrowing this from . . . I forget who), it's important to note that even if we decide it's a good thing for the government to promote alternative energy forms or lower oil use, regulations and subsidies are very poor ways to do it. Mileage minimums and large cash payments to existing businesses simply promote a drab mediocrity -- and smaller cars. What seems like a better idea is to frame the governmental encouragement in terms of a contest -- give rewards for making innovations, not simply for producing more units of your existing product. Now, that model is fraught with it's own difficulties, and still raises the question of how much we want the government butting into such things, but it seems to be a better solution theoretically if we insist on the government doing something.

Rachel said...

That last paragraph sums it up very well, Father.

Morning's Minion said...

Hmm, you forget that the Church views both capitalism and socialism as the "twin rocks of shipwreck" (Pius XI). My problem with your way of thinking is that it is eerily similar to the laissez-faire liberalism comdemned by the Church.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Pius XI???

Have you even read Centessimus Annus? It came out in 1993.

TerryC said...

One aspect of any decision like this is to ask who is it good for and who is it bad for?
Right now with oil sitting around $100 a barrel cars powered by gasoline still have an advantage over fuel cell cars in terms of price. When, not if, oil price increases this will not be so. Unfortunately at that time it will still be more profitable for oil companies to push gasoline than not.
So for the user, in the long run alternatives to oil are a good thing, not because the oil companies shouldn't be allowed to make money, but because in the longer term they will make more money by pushing technology that will cost the user more.
The U.S. and world depend on oil means that govenrments in the middle east and elsewhere which would not be tolerated are kowtowed to. Support for Israel, a democracy in a sea of dictatorships, would be a no brainer if oil wasn't involved. It's not that we wouldn't care. we would just be more rational in the governments we support. Not to mention how if oil was $6 a barrel we wouldn't be worried about people from anti-American buying our ports and banks.
As for solar..if you sell a man a fish you can get him to buy one every day. If you sell a man a net, he can catch his own fish. Sell electricity and they keep paying. Sell solar technology and you're done.

Anonymous said...

Fr, My husband works offshore on an oil rig. You would not believe all the rules and regulations they have regarding the enviroment. They are about to drill what is believed to be one of the biggest deposits in the Gulf (please pray for them).
It would be nice if we weren't so dependent on foreign oil. It is also good for us to use our cars wisely, especially because of smog.
BUT, I really do not feel this, gas guzzling cars, is the reason for global warming or that global warming is necessarily a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Two things occur to me here that I didn't notice addressed:

1. Oil is scarce. It's a limited resource. Technically, there'll be more but probably not within the lifetime of the human species. If you only have a certain amount of something, it seems to me it would be wise to conserve it as best as possible by limiting consumption. If we can delay the depletion of oil, it should be possible to move beyond the usage of it altogether. But if we run out before such an infrastructure is in place - well, that would be bad.

2. I don't think those supporting progress should have to give rationale for their support. Increased fuel efficiency is a technological improvement, getting more energy from a source. You even speak of the progress of earlier days as though that was a good thing. Cars have resulted in millions of deaths; the internet in pornography and child predation. Certainly no one was bored in the 80's waiting for the internet. The world got along fine without the automobile. And yet we can argue these things are good since they are progress. I submit that the same should be default for fuel efficiency. As we know, not all progress is good, ESCR being an example. But still note that with that the moral (dis)qualification has to be provided from the opposition, not the supporter. You have a new medical advancement? Well it kills countless humans, so it's bad. The burden is on you, not fuel efficiency advocates, to explain why greater fuel efficiency is a bad thing.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I pray your husband does well and is safe, and thank you to him for providing such a valuable service to us all!

Everything we do has impact on the environment; we are, after all, part of this world, by God's design, so we're supposed to "have impact." By that I mean, we're supposed to use the resources we've been given, well; we're supposed to make something from it, make our habitation more human (so it's good that many of us no longer live in caves and huts), and things like pollution and waste products, as a result of human activity, are therefore normal. (These may seem obvious, but a lot of discussion of environmental matters seems to consider humans intruders or guests on this planet, rather than those for whom this world was created.)

So the question becomes, as I said, what is optimum? Yes, oil-based fuels do generate some pollution, but as compared with the alternatives, they seem to be among the better options we have.

Also, these things involve trade-offs; yes, we have some pollution; less than we used to, because of technology. The means to acquire that technology was made possible by a certain level of prosperity; less-prosperous societies (such as ourselves not so long back) have to live with dirtier air.

Try a thought-experiment: suppose you were part of a group of people arriving on a new planet somewhere, just like earth, only with no people, no infrastructure, whatsoever. And you would only have what you brought with you, this one time. So you'd have to build a civilization from all the resources you have.

You would know--from our own actual history--what the steps could be, and you would have the opportunity, within the bounds of what resources you had, to chart the most favorable path forward.

Would you choose to remain, say, pre-electric? Would you rely on human- and animal-power to move and construct things?

If you moved to electrical-generation, how would you avoid the steps we actually did take: using wood, then coal, then oil and natural gas, on the way to nuclear power? Along the way, yes, you'd build windmills and dams, as well, but you'd have to be pretty advanced before you could make effective solar cells, and you might find (as we did in actual history) that windmills and dams just aren't enough to generate enough energy, or else that they, too, have adverse environmental impact (as they do).

You might choose to stay in the pre-industrial phase, but at what price? There are a lot of wonderful things that make life a lot better that require industry and electricity.

Imagine if all our homes and clothing were done without power tools; imagine a world in which we did not have die-cutting and mass manufacturing. Imagine a world in which we dentistry without electricity; imagine the state of health without x-rays and radiation and chemotherapy. I suppose we would still have antibiotics and pain medication; but would we have insulin?

And so, anticipating this, you might say--I believe most would say--we will plan for a phase in which we'll have to live with coal furnaces that belch black smoke, on the way to a further state where that is no longer necessary, as an acceptable price for long-term human flourishing.

I'm not saying we did everything perfectly to this point; but we might find, with such a thought-experiment (and who knows, some day this may well be what will happen if we ever settle on a planet other than Earth), that we would go along a very similar path by choice.

Anonymous said...

I think promoting better fuel efficiency is generally a good thing. Because even large cars have benefited from this. Example, my father's imperial star cruiser station wagon that sat 7-9 (if you used the wayback) got 3-5mpgs. My minivan, able to sit 7 gets about 21mpgs a fullsize van capable of carrying 10 gets about 16-18mpgs. So it isn't just small cars that benefit. Far as the rest, i think we should drill for oil where it can be found and work to improve the technology (which is going on ) to protect the environment. Otherwise we get into the stupid catch 22 situation the environmentalist play with: We could use wind, but the wind generators are ugly and look bad. We could use hydro-electric, but the dams are bad for the environment. We could use nuclear, but it generates radioactive waste. We can't use coal because it's stinky and pollutes, but we have loads of it and it currently generates over 50 percent of our electricity right now. We could use hydrogen, but the electricity it takes to generate it out weighs the good, and lets not forget the potential safety issues!

**An aside
How many deaths by automobiles? Not that many really. Considering deaths by automobiles represent 40,000 deaths a year. or potentially 2.4 million over the last 60 years of widespread automobile use. Automobile deaths represent .17 percent of total deaths in this country. On average 40 percent of those are alcohol related.

This pales in comparison to the carnage from abortion which averages between 1.3 & 1.4 million a year or about 48.6 million in the last 34 years alone.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments.

Oil is presumably finite; I say, presumably, because it is a naturally generated thing, and somewhere in the bowels of Earth, more may be being made, but most likely not at the speed we currently use it. But in years ahead, that may change. In the meantime, we use it because it seems to be the best option available, all things considered.

No one really knows how long it will last.

I think it's not reasonable to talk about "running out"; we will never "run out of oil" for the simple reason that long before that happens, the price-mechanism will work very effectively to hasten us along either to making much more efficient use of it, or finding something else, or deciding that, on balance, we prefer to do with less of it. I don't see why the price-mechanism is a worse way to incentivize such decisions than government edicts.

You seem to think I am against greater fuel efficiency -- when did I say such a ridiculous thing? Of course it's good to conserve something, but everything involves trade-offs, so what are the optimum trade-offs? I'm not sure, and neither are you, I imagine.

So the question becomes, how do you make these decisions? I am not asserting that government must never play a role, but I do favor avoiding adverting to government action. It just stands to reason that the "marketplace" -- meaning the broad area of all human action and choosing -- is a better way to sort out most of these decisions and trade-offs than from a top-down, command-economy model.

There simply is no way anyone at "the top" can approximate the same level of information gathering and sorting and real-time decision-making, as can the market. So non-intervention in the marketplace need not be a dogma; it ends up, I think, being practical most of the time.

We already have a mechanism for moving toward greater fuel efficiency, and we're doing it. The question is, should Congress force automakers to make cars that people don't want to buy?

It would be a little more honest simply to put a high tax on each gallon of gas, or to outlaw cars that don't get so many miles per gallon; except if you do the former, then you have a moral duty, it seems to me, to consider the actual negative consequences of that new policy, both where will the money go, and who will suffer because of such an increase.

And with the latter--outlawing certain cars -- then you have all manner of problems: what do families with six kids drive: Conestoga wagons? Do they have to drive their kids in two cars -- is that a net improvement over one, lower-mileage car? Or shall we say that auto makers can build such cars, but only for those with special permits? And how much will those cars cost, when only a few thousand are produced? And so it goes.

Yes, you can use the blunt instrument of government action to move things along, but is that the best way to go; time and again, experience shows government is, even at its best, behind the curve.

Also, when government gets involved in trying to help along the advance of technology, there comes the problem of whether government chooses well.

If those decisions are driven by political advantage, rather than dispassionate consideration of the actual science, then the wrong technology gets boosted. It's fine to say how things ought to be, but we live in the world that actually is--the world where political decisions are "tainted" if you will. Once again, having government choose the winners would seem not to be the optimum way forward.

Back to the fuel-efficiency standards: the base problem is that policy-makers want people to want cars they don't want.

About the goodness of progress...

No question, every step forward includes both good and bad possibilities; but it seems to me, from what St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both said about the intrinsic goodness of creation, and the goodness of applying the human intellect (here this is more Aquinas) to the discovery of the potentiality of creation, that it is far to say that, on balance, the goodness of drawing out the possibilities inherent in Creation outweighs the badness.

Of course, that presupposes that one makes full use of Creation in accord with what is moral: the problem with stem-cell research is not the discovery of what we can do with stem cells, but when we destroy human beings to do it. The Church has no objection--and I dare say the Church would encourage--exploring the possibilities of stem cells, as long as they are acquired ethically.

And I would say that the Internet, despite the bad purposes for which it is used, does more good than harm.

Morning's Minion said...

Fr. Fox:

Are you trying to argue that Centessimus Annus makes Quadragesimo Anno redundent? I think not. In fact, Centessimus Annus is perfectly in accord with Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra etc-- and don't like Michael Novak tell you otherwise.

But back to the issue: are you saying that what Pius XI said back then was not relevant?

Darwin said...


Given that you didn't even cite the encyclical by name in this thread, and the names are somewhat similar, it's possible that Father was unclear on which you were referring to.

The section that you quoted four words from was Paragraph 46 which says (quoting the first half): 46. Accordingly, twin rocks of shipwreck must be carefully avoided. For, as one is wrecked upon, or comes close to, what is known as "individualism" by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property, so by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of this same right, one inevitably runs into "collectivism" or at least closely approaches its tenets. Unless this is kept in mind, one is swept from his course upon the shoals of that moral, juridical, and social modernism which We denounced in the Encyclical issued at the beginning of Our Pontificate.[29]

The pontiff then goes on to distinguish between the right to property ownership and the duty of property owners to use their property only in the right way (para 47). He then does on to say in para 48: Those, therefore, are doing a work that is truly salutary and worthy of all praise who, while preserving harmony among themselves and the integrity of the traditional teaching of the Church, seek to define the inner nature of these duties and their limits whereby either the right of property itself or its use, that is, the exercise of ownership, is circumscribed by the necessities of social living. On the other hand, those who seek to restrict the individual character of ownership to such a degree that in fact they destroy it are mistaken and in error.

It does not seem clear to me that Piux XI is talking strictly about "socialism" and "capitalism" in the senses that you use the term, nor does Fr. Fox's above post seem to violate the precepts the pope was laying down.

Nate said...


I think you sum up many of the issues, and it is good to remember that the market has a role to play. However, you haven't mentioned the problem of third-party externalities.

The true cost of oil we use is not perfectly reflected in the cost we pay for it. Oil is one of those items whose use impacts others around us -- pollution and the (possible) environmental and health effects thereof, the foreign policy issues, etc. These externalities are borne by the public at large, and not the individual user of the oil/gasoline/automobile. This is one of the reasons people haven't bought better-mileage cars in record numbers. The cost difference does not seem to be that big of a deal to people.

Given that, isn't it at least partially the role of government to redress some of these concerns? Mandatory mileage might be one of those issues. Others might include raising the gas tax, a carbon tax, an auto-use tax, subsidies for alternative energy use, etc.

And, Congress may be the best to use given the nature of our federal union. Not every state has car manufacturers or oil refineries, etc. But, every state has drivers.

Just some thoughts,


Rich Leonardi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fr Martin Fox said...


Those are very good points.

Do drivers bear those costs? I'm not certain, but it bears further consideration. After all, drivers do already pay about 40 cents per gallon in taxes, that are supposed to represent some of those costs; mainly roads, but I'd be interested to know if, in past hikes of these taxes, whether pollution abatement wasn't also included as a rationale.

Also, over the years, the federal government has mandated various pollution-control measures regarding cars, whether devices on the tailpipes or reformulation of the gas, resulting in higher prices. So, again, attempts have been made to bring this cost directly to the car owner, or gas-buyer, to pay.

And I have no problem with more of that if its justified. For that matter, that might be a sound basis for regulating gas mileage, as opposed to this vague moralism that says driving big cars is "anti social." Saying it doesn't make it so.

Rich Leonardi said...

But back to the issue: are you saying that what Pius XI said back then was not relevant?

Hey, two can play this game!

Are you trying to say that what Pope John Paul II said, namely that "the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs," is not relevant?

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for the analysis of the text that I probably wouldn't have had time to do!


You wrote: "Are you trying to argue that Centessimus Annus makes Quadragesimo Anno redundent? (sic) I think not. In fact, Centessimus Annus is perfectly in accord with Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Mater et Magistra etc-- and don't like (sic) Michael Novak tell you otherwise.

But back to the issue: are you saying that what Pius XI said back then was not relevant?"

No, it's not that Quadresimo Anno is "not relevant," that's a bit too black-and-white.

This area of Catholic teaching, by its very nature, is subject to more development and evolution, not to mention being bound up by particular conditions. If you read each of the encyclicals that has come out, over the 100 years since Rerum Novarum, it's striking how they vary in many ways; I don't mean in core principles and values, but in tone and setting and emphasis. That's the very nature of "social teaching" -- it's very different from both other dogmatic areas, and specifically from other areas of moral theology, because of its social subject matter.

Unless stated otherwise, enclyclicals are not offered as crystalized, irreformable statements of faith, but are more fluid expressions of faith, building on, and read in relation to, other statements of faith. They are teaching documents.

This is especially clear here, as a succession of popes issued letters using Rerum Novarum as their launching-point, well aware their predecessors had done the same; clearly, each one builds on what went before.

So I would say that QA is still relevant, but now we should read it in conjunction with Centessimus Annus -- or else we might ask the same question the other way: do the earlier letters make the latter "not relevant"?

While I'm not in a position to provide a close analysis of QA, as Darwin has done, I do feel very confident what I'm saying is very compatible with Centessimus Annus, which everyone admits went farther than any prior papal teaching in this area in addressing the positive role of the marketplace, and in addressing issues such as the "welfare state" and "social assistance state" that prior documents had not.

You can see that as contradictory is you like, but Pope John Paul, of happy memory, did not seem to think so, and he's a better judge of the matter than either of us. Rather, his teaching took the matter further, with closer analysis and attention to things not given earlier. Another few years, another pope will do it again.

Finally, in this area there remains a far wider area of prudential judgment, as to ways and means, than in any other area. For example (largely unrelated to the instant subject): just wages. The Church is clear that workers ought to be paid a just wage, but I think you will search in vain for the Church to explain precisely how a society must achieve that. She was particularly wise in that reticence, because this is a particularly ticklish problem.

Kailash Chand said...

Now a day global warming controversy is very hype. NASA sciencetists completely work on global warming research. According the sciencetists after 30 year earth is completely effected by global