Property-Based Ethics: Environment Edition

I recently wrote on Dissent’s blog about what property-based ethics look like; namely, people being more upset about looting than shooting. I didn’t think I would have another occasion to provide an example of what property-based ethics are like so soon, but I had forgotten Pope Francis is due to release an encyclical on the environment soon, which has US conservatives positively seething.

In Forbes, Steve Moore accused Pope Francis of advancing a “modern pagan green religion,” and proclaimed that the encyclical will, through circuitous routes, “make the poor poorer.” On a December 30th edition of Fox’s Special Report, correspondent Doug McKelway surmised the letter would put Pope Francis in line with “environmental extremists who favor widespread birth control.” Crisis Magazine, a hard right Catholic publication, featured a piece by Rachel Lu suggesting the unpublished encyclical “smack[s] of intellectual faddism,” while Maureen Mullarkey opined in a First Things post that Francis’ letter is evidence that “he is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist.”

Part of the outrage about this unpublished letter is tribal. ‘Climate’ anything just ruffles right-wing feathers; there’s a partisan divide in which Dems tend to buy climate change theory more than Repubs, and more to the point, an internal GOP division in which regular Repubs tend to buy it more than Tea Partiers. The harder right you are, the more you resist the idea of climate change and its attendant political questions.

I’m sure most of these people have no idea why they reject this stuff strongly enough to accuse Pope Francis of being a narcissist, pagan, and supporter of eco-terrorism based on an encyclical they haven’t read a word of because it hasn’t been published yet. However, it is pretty clear to me why the issue is such a nightmare for rightwing thought-generators.

The liberal story on property is that civil society, and thereby the flourishing of all, is premised upon a kind of absolutized system of property rights, in which the self-sovereignty of each person is guaranteed by their right to self-ownership and ownership of goods. So says Ellen Meiksins Wood, of Locke:

“Locke states unequivocally that the ‘chief end’ of civil society ‘is the preservation of property.’ This seems unambiguous enough, and at first glance appears to leave no room for rights that inhere in the person as distinct from property. Yet, in his chapter on property, Locke often uses a broad definition which includes ‘life, liberty, and estates.’…His reasons are complex, but one clear objective is to strengthen the inviolability of property by making it independent of, and prior to, civil society: if men have a right to property before and apart from civil society, which belongs to them by nature and not by grant from government or community, that simply reinforces the principle that no government can interfere with property unlawfully.”

Locke’s conflation of person with property is, as I have argued, a chief element in the atomization of individuals, and it comes along with the fantasy that what we all do with our property is as much our personal business as what we do with ourselves; this not only reinforces the myth of the atomistic ‘self’, but suggests that we can all carry out whatever operations we want upon our property without affecting anybody else. It also means property rights are as pre-political as the right to live, and therefore that state ‘interference’ with property is as wrong as states randomly killing their citizens. Autonomy means, literally, governance of the self; and the idea of a billion tiny kings and kingdoms is the liberal ideal.

But climate change, and crucially general destruction of the environment, reveal what a ridiculous fantasy this all is. If the operations I perform on my property destroy the quality of the air, water, or atmosphere, leaving other people at risk for bodily harm, then it is empirically false that what I do with my property is strictly ‘my business.’ More tantalizing yet, if the protection of human flourishing is actually best ensured by the regulation and mass cooperatization of behaviors related to property, then the whole story about everyone being best off when property rights are treated as pre-political and tantamount to human life is shattered.

Of course, as I have repeatedly shown, the Christian theory of property has always been premised upon the good of humanity and the flourishing of all people; the Lockean-liberal story on property, on the other hand, “includes a neat justification of gross inequality,” as per Wood. If Pope Francis’ encyclical says we are obligated to use all our tools (states included) to regulate the use of property so that future generations and persons outside our immediate geographic zones don’t endure the runoff of our carelessness, then his statement will be entirely in keeping with Christian tradition.

Which is precisely why the rightwing should be afraid.