Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | July 23, 2007

On Regulation

Sometimes when environmentalists call for more regulation of industry, industry reacts with the notion that there is already too much regulation. I don’t know about that. It may be true in some cases and in others it may not. But when industry seems to argue that there should be no regulation at all (like some of the libertarians), I have a comeback for them — the Book of Deuteronomy!

These are some of my favorite “environmental” verses in the Bible.

The first passage is from Deuteronomy, chapter 20, verses 19 and 20:

 When you besiege a city a long time, to make war against it in order to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down, that you may construct siege-works against the city that is making war with you until it falls.
 

 

There are a few points to make here by this passage. The first is, the trees are a benefit to man, to the Israelites, so they are hurting themselves by cutting them down. In environmentalism this point is often made about natural areas and species. Rain forest trees, for instance, may benefit us in not-as-yet known ways in that they may be the source of new medicines. Or, wetlands, for instance, may help prevent flooding, filter the water, or provide other services to us. These are good arguments, but they are not the whole argument in terms of what we should protect and take care of. The second point is, that this scripture is protecting a living thing in wartime where one would expect all means would be employed to accomplish the goal. Even in wartime there are rules and regulations. And they may include protecting a tree, a living organism, which has no voice of its own. Or the regulations may protect people. When it has been found that land mines could explode long after a war and that innocent children were most often the victims, some powerful protests were made against their use. Due to those protests there is now a treaty in effect about the use of such weapons. Cluster bombs, like the ones the U.S. used in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have now also been condemned. But there is no treaty as yet about those. The third point is this, when it says, “For is the tree of the field a man, that it should be besieged by you?” — it seems to be saying that the natural world is practically exempt from being a target in war. The natural world, if possible, should be left outside the scope of war. Ecological war should be a crime of war.

The next scripture is Deuteronomy, chapter 22, verses 6 and 7:

If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.

This is such a strange passage, it’s hard to believe it’s real. First, obviously, it is allowing the ancient Israelites to use a nesting bird’s eggs or young for food. It does not forbid it. However, it forbids the taking of the mother. Why? One reason may be that the consequence was a quick reversal of population of some species. This is the way we might interpret it today. But there is another side to this, too. Not just the harm it would do to the birds in the land, but the sinfulness of using the mother’s mothering instinct (to protect her own young) against her. There is another scripture in Deuteronomy that gives this argument greater weight, Deuteronomy, chapter 14, verse 21. In a passage on what is proper for the Israelites to eat, it says, “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” There was probably no health consequences to eating a young goat boiled in it’s mother’s milk. So why the regulation? It appears that it was just an unseemly thing to do. Other regulations in Deuteronomy forbid the mixing of cloths in a garment, or planting two types of crops in the same field at the same time. There is a sinfulness to mixing, to a lack of order. Maybe there is a sense in which taking the mother bird and its young or eggs was just unseemly. I read somewhere, I think it was in a book on Aldabra, a small island in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, that people were fishing for sea turtles. Nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that most of our turtle species are in danger. But it said that some had killed the turtles while they were in the water in the midst of the sexual act. They would harpoon them and kill them and bring them into the boat to be used as food. It seems to me that our responsibility to nature is not only to make sure that we have a few of every species (which is all the Endangered Species Act does), but it is also significant how we treat them in general. In that sense, our actions may sometimes be seen as criminal, even if there is no law regarding our action, or it may be simply uncouth.

 We do need regulation at times. Our system of government is built on law – and those laws are meant to be administered fairly, without giving power or prestige unfair advantage. We should all be equal under the law. Of course, this is not always the case. Many times poor communities are sited for environmentally unsafe plants, etc. The poor have not much power to protect themselves and are taken advantage of. Another reason we should have adequate federal laws is because this same process on the community level is at work on the state level. Poorer states, have inadequate environmental laws, and so hope to attract companies that pollute. The jobs are too important to pass up. If adequate federal laws were in place, all would be equally protected, and no state would, by disregarding its own citizens need for safety, be able to take advantage.

In any case, regulation is here to stay. It’s been here for a long time. If we take each case individually, we will more often reach a valid conclusion about whether regulation is needed. To arbitrarily say there should be no regulation is counter to thousands of years of human history and experience.

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