On Natural Resources

In Psalm 8, we read: “You have given him (man) rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet.” This passage recalls the “dominion” passage in Genesis (1:28). It means that the natural resources of the earth and cosmos are given to man so that, through them, he can live and attain his purposes.

This view is teleological. It finds that, discernible within the cosmos, things relate to each other. Each order of existing things, by being what it is, has a purpose. This abiding uniqueness of existing things is why we can study and know them with our minds. All non-human purposes are, by being good, themselves ordered to the purpose of man. It follows that, if we do not know both the inner-worldly and transcendent purpose of man, we do not know the purpose of the things we find in the universe.

I approach these comments on natural resources from a specific angle. Today, the world is not understood to be “for” man, but man is “for” the world. This deliberate reversal of the hierarchy of ends within the natural order means that the chief interest of man is not his own soul. It is rather the presumed carrying capacity of the earth, and perhaps the cosmos itself.

The “species” counts, not John or Suzie, who can be expendable. The “future” means, not eternal life, but the temporal on-going of the planet down the ages. Salvation means “saving” the planet, usually from some men for the good of presumed others yet to appear. In this context, estimates (and that is all that they are) of resource availability become the principal concern of men and states. Ethics becomes the “engineering” of this saving of some men through allocation of resources.

Talk of “rights” of trees or sparrows belongs to the same discourse of human “rights,” when “rights” mean whatever we want them to mean. “Rights” do not refer to something intrinsic to the being in question. Rather, as Hobbes said, they are whatever we want to make of them. We can endow “rights” on turtles but not on babies in the womb. This “liberty” is what “rights” are designed to accomplish.

We regard the “future” of the planet. Human beings are considered its greatest threat. They use “natural” resources. They must be controlled for future generations. We control them by postulating a “scarcity” of natural resources. This supposed lack obliges us to distribute what is left “fairly.”

“Adam Naming the Animals” by Carl B.A. Ruthart (1686)
“Adam Naming the Animals” by Carl B.A. Ruthart (1686)

No previous political thinker, not even Machiavelli, devised a better “presupposition” on which to base absolute power over ordinary human beings than this presumed “scarcity” of goods down the ages.

But what’s the problem here? Are not resources finite? Do we not need to “protect” the environment? If we inquired of a learned man in 1800 A.D., or even 1500 B.C., whether the planet could support a population of some seven billion human beings as it does today, he would not see how it was possible. Why would he not see it? He could not imagine that human intelligence could devise ways to use what is given in the Earth’s resources for the good of so many people.

Such ancestors might, however, understand that such human beings, if they did come to exist centuries later, might still have the basic human problems and have the same human destiny as themselves.

In terms of natural resources, the planet is adequate for the purposes that God had for it. Evidently, these resources were not simply to be left unused by each successive generation. It turns out, moreover, that the availability of resources is itself subject to the human mind’s understanding of them. This is why politics based on their presumed scarcity are themselves self-fulfilling. They rest on the assumption that our knowledge and capacity will be pretty much as they are now.

And since we presume that we can anticipate what existing human beings in 500, 1,000, or 2,000 years (if we last that long) might need, we base our present assumption of scarcity on what is in effect a myth.

Man himself is a “natural resource.” He exists on this planet from nature like everything else. He is different because he has a mind. This mind is the one anti-entropic power within the universe that sees what is there, what he is. The real natural resource is his mind in which what is not himself is known and placed in order.

The hallmark of the universe is not scarcity but abundance. Man’s “dominion” makes it possible for natural resources to reach their end. Man alone is the cosmic “natural resource” that must choose to accept his own end. The real drama of the universe lies with the “natural resource” that is man.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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