Noah Toly is Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations, as well as Director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has previously studied theology academically. His book, The Garderners’ Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, is more political science of environmental concerns than theology, but it written from a distinct theological perspective that sits well within the bounds of orthodoxy. The book seeks to offer an approach to environmental policy that is more helpful than more idealistic perspectives.
The weakness in many approaches to economics and environment is the failure to recognize the need for tradeoffs. Solutions must be either black or white. Businesses must be either evil monstrosities or saviors of society. Either you are for certain environmental policies or you want to pillage the created order.
These sorts of positions on political problems are rewarded by society today. However, they are rarely honest representations of reality. There are always tradeoffs. When we close coal power plants, a number of people lose their jobs, are dislocated from their neighborhoods, and have their lives disrupted. When a new wind farm is put in place, there are going to be birds killed and people unhappy about the noise and sight of the turbines. The funding for the cleanup project may take money from another socially beneficial plan. We can’t have everything.
Most activists and theoreticians retreat from these prickly realities into vague generalities. The easy part of politics is coming up with a goal that sounds good to enough people that you can get elected. The hard part is wrestling with the realistic impact of the steps necessary to achieve that goal.
The chief triumph of The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands is that helps explain there are no perfect solutions and provide some ideas on how to approach the real implications of environmental governance.
The book is brief. It contains only five chapters after a brief preface. In Chapter One, Toly introduces the concept of the tragic, which frames the argument of the book. The tragic is the idea that there is no solution that provides only benefits. Chapter Two builds on the concept of tragedy and adds scarcity and risk as additional forms of the tragic for environmental decisions. In the third chapter Toly provides some examples of the tragic in environmental ethics in the real world, discussing limitations, harm, and the prevalence of economic analysis to ignore instances of abuse and oppression. Chapter Four provides some handholds intended to assist the reader in using the Christian tradition to respond to environmental tradeoffs. In the fifth chapter Toly argues that the ability of humans to impact the global environment is more significant than ever and likely to stay that way. It is imperative that we begin to wrestle with the tradeoffs and not to ignore them for the benefit of or to the detriment of the environment.
The crux of the book, I think, can be summed up by quoting the first sentence of Chapter Four:
“The burden of environmental governance is to weigh competing claims, measuring risk against risk, right against right, confronting moral dilemmas of extraordinary scale and scope in the context of increasing power to shape the future of the planet.” (p. 79)
If this volume begins to shift the balance of arguments about environmental policy toward actually doing these things, it will have accomplished a great deal. This is a worthwhile volume.
The argument made in this volume is limited the repeated reliance on Bonhoeffer’s ethics to show how we should reason through difficult moral decisions. Bonhoeffer is helpful in many regards, but his basic ethical methodology is one of conflicting absolutes. That is, God’s moral law can conflict with itself leaving humans in a situation where all options lead to sin. That position is problematic on several fronts, not least because it raises Christological concerns.
Conflicting absolutes feels right for environmental ethics, but its problems remain. In reality, the majority of the conflicts can be solved by properly defining the summum bonum and what, scripturally speaking, defines sin in a particular instance. This is, of course, much more difficult to do than to say, particularly on a societal level.
Additionally, part of the dirt on the gardeners’ hands is there because many penultimate goods are treated like ultimate things. And proverbial dirt is also generated by the simple inability to know what will come from a given action or even what the real impact a particular environmental policy will have. We are beset by complications on all sides, but we automatically fail by ignoring obvious problems because of complexity.
The Gardeners’ Dirty Hands requires readers to wrestle with the hard questions of environmental policy. Serious thinkers about the relationship between politics and ecology––particularly those working from a Christian worldview––would do well to read this book and begin to recognize both the importance of the questions and their complexity.
NOTE: I was given a gratis copy of this volume by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.