Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics

Alternative Views on Christians and Markets

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Alistair Young
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , January
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There have been several books by Christian ethicists in the past few years focusing on economics. Many of them, unfortunately, proceed from a faulty understanding of the field of economics. Their key arguments are easily refuted with basic economic principles. Enter economist Alistair Young, both a respected economist and one well-versed in Christian ethics. This may be the well-argued, expert opinion that our field needs. In Environment, Economy, and Christian Ethics: Alternative Views on Christians and Markets, Young lays out a coherent argument for a mixture of market-based reforms and government regulation as a reaction to anthropogenic global warming—no, he’s not a denier. He does all this through the lens of Christian ethics while understanding the field is not monolithic.

After introducing Lynn White’s feminist and deep ecological models of environmentalism, among others, as a background, Young delves into the economics behind ecology. Perhaps his most important contribution is found in the figure on page 53, which shows the relationship of households to firms. While this is found in every economics textbook, Young emphasizes that the traditional version of this figure occurs in a vacuum, whereas the real-life version does not. His addition of the ecosystem as the home for every action in which a household or firm acts is not only important for centering our beliefs but for pointing out the two glaring errors in market-based solutions: the use of “free” natural resources, and the addition of “non-market waste products” (53).

Young devotes a chapter to sustainability, explaining its importance in countering climate change. By outlining three separate categories of resources, he allows us to focus our attention on the most pressing policy needs. Nonrenewable recyclable resources are mainly metals and the justice concerning them revolves around the difficulty in recycling finite resources for future generations (108-109). This category has also historically been helped by technological advances resulting in substitute resources. Nonrenewable nonrecyclable resources are the most in need of reform. These include fossil fuels. While warnings of fossil fuels’ being exhausted have come and gone many times, they are undoubtedly limited in their supply. Young offers a middle-ground of continuing to rely on fossil fuels while at the same time “investing in innovations seeking to make renewable sources of energy cheaper” (112). The last category of resources are renewables. Yet renewable resources can still be exhausted for future generations if overuse is allowed (113). Young introduces the “prisoner’s dilemma” often as a means of explaining the necessity for government regulation or market-based reforms for even the most sustainable of resources.

A large part of this book involves outlining the theory and practice of incorporating market-based reforms into environmental issues. For those especially interested in the economics of the environment, these chapters are necessary reading, yet they can feel like sloughing through an accounting textbook. Terms like net present value, cost-benefit analysis, shadow pricing, contingent valuation method, and more will easily glass over the eyes of even the most passionate ethicist. These terms are necessary, though, and Young does the best that he can in making them palatable. These terms are important to understand because they form the basis for correcting the market externalities mentioned above. How do economists price a ton of carbon emitted? By using these very terms. While it may not be necessary for a Christian ethicist to be able to work out one of these problems, having him hold our hands through one is well worth the time spent reading.

Young ends the book with ideas for Christian social action. He is quick to note both the opportunities and dangers of bring our faith into the political sphere. This can include an over-reliance on lists of acceptable goods, and behaviors that can result in self-righteousness (223), but because Christians meet at the same time and place weekly, and already have communication and aid networks, churches are particularly well-suited for social action. He ends with five “principles for Christian environmentalists” (244-246):

  1. While market-based solutions may be important for some situations, there will still be a need for a strong role of government.
  2. Just because the market cannot solve everything does not mean it doesn’t have a place in public policy.
  3. We should be “pragmatic rather than utopian.” A solution that leaves us better off than we are now is good, even if not optimal.
  4. There are times we must fight commercialization–especially when the “least of these” are affected.

We must be wary of falling into “Constantinianism” by continuing to speak truth to power and avoiding becoming one with the power structure itself.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Curtis Lanoue is adjunct professor in the religious studies department at Florida International University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alistair Young is a retired economist; during his career, he taught and researched in the universities of Glasgow, Zambia, Ulster, and the West of Scotland and tutored for the Open University. His interests lie in development and environmental economics and in the economics of the public sector. He is a member of the local Church of Scotland and resides in St. Andrews, Scotland.


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