Don’t bust my “bulble”


If progressives can credit Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with anything, it would be in shining more of a light on environmental issues. Of course, those inheriting the tradition of the Old Testament have realized since Genesis 2 that we are called to be good stewards of the earth and its resources. But it just ain’t green unless it’s solar-cells-on-the-roof green. Benedict continually made reference to environmental issues throughout his pontificate, and so folks may hold out hope that the next pope will not hide his compact flourescent bulb under a bushel basket but will set it on a recycled-materials lampstand and bring this crusty, conservative Catholic Church into the green generation.

Perhaps he will, but let’s pray that our concern for good stewardship does not override concern for good science. All actions have consequences; no less does legislative action intending to help the environment have consequences that might be bad for said environment. If Catholics want to truly demonstrate concern for the environment, it is important to recognize good vs. bad efforts, and policies that will minimize unintended secondary effects vs. policies that sound and feel good but that have no real benefit (and may even cause more harm than good). It is important to realize that rational human economic behavior can be channeled to the good end of stewardship, instead of reflexively believing that only government legislation and bureaucracies can properly take the long-run view of the earth (do most politicians take a view that runs longer than the next election anyway?). Some background on the costs and benefits of recycling can be found here and here.

Light bulb vase by entso

Light bulb vase by entso

A case in point: incandescent light bulbs have been all but banished from store shelves in favor of compact flourescent bulbs (CFLs). As their name implies, CFLs basically house a small, curved flourescent light within a bulb that looks like a typical incandescent. Under the right conditions and use, flourescent bulbs last longer and use less electricity than incandescents. That was enough to convince regulators that incandescent bulbs are no longer permissible, even though CFLs have some strikes against them:

  • In my own experience, CFLs work great in rooms where lights are turned on or off infrequently: the kitchen, office, or living room. They die very quickly in situations where the bulbs is turned on or off frequently and for shorter spans of time: a closet, bathroom, or hallway. For these latter situations, the incandescent bulbs I used lasted significantly longer than CFLs I was guilted into trying (and were orders of magnitude cheaper).
  • It turns out that CFLs are bad for the environment, if they break and release their toxic mercury.
  • Even if one doesn’t break in your house, it can still expose you to harmful UV rays.

Source for the last two points here. (Sidebar: will Thomas Edison be cast as a bad guy in history books?)

This post isn’t ultimately about light bulbs, though, nor is it to bash the environmental movement. I am probably more “green” than the average person with my same political and religious beliefs. I would actually consider buying this car, to be built in my hometown, if my wife would let me (she won’t). But sentiment cannot win the day against logic and facts, and too often environmental proposals fail this test. If the green bubble inhabited by environmentalists is impervious to science and reason, then it should be burst.

As a Catholic, I want our Church to be taken seriously in all debates in which it engages. In my opinion, the Church is becoming very strong on issues of bioethics, being able to make its case with sufficient academic rigor as to be considered legitimate in the secular scientific world. On many other issues, though, the Church (echoing other ill-informed voices in the world) can sound sophomoric.

Before the Church suggests specific ways to help the poor, we would be wise to ask whether these same proposals can actually hurt the poor. Before the Church suggests specific ways to protect jobs, we would be wise to ask whether these same proposals actually hurt the ability of businesses to hire. And before the Church suggests specific ways to help the environment, we would be wise to ask whether these same proposals can actually cause more environmental harm than good.

If all we do is offer platitudes or proposals with significant unintended consequences, we will be taken less and less seriously by the world we are trying to engage.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Tim Shaughnessy is a cradle Catholic living in Shreveport, Louisiana with undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from Kalamazoo College, and a Master’s and Ph.D. in economics from Florida State University. He teaches economics at the undergraduate and graduate level, and is a faculty advisor for the campus Catholic student organization. He has worked at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty and was the first managing editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality while an undergraduate. He also worked for Representative Harold Voorhees in the Michigan state legislature. He serves the parish RCIA program as a sponsor and lecturer, and is active in parish and diocesan pro-life activities.

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