Theophany, Subsidiarity and the EPA

Theophany, Subsidiarity and the EPA

Published: Jan 6, 2008 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Today, in celebration of Theophany, my friend John let his facebook friends know that he "blessed the Pacific Ocean. It's ambitious, but hey, we have a big God." Traditionally, the celebration of Christ's baptism in the Jordan and conclusion of the Christmas season (twelve days...after the 25th of December, not 30 days after Thanksgiving) is accompanied by the blessing of water which is taken home in small vials by parishioners to keep on hand for the year. The prayers of blessing are an eloquent reminder that the incarnation of Christ is meant to be a blessing to the universe not simply the human beings who populate God's creation. The are also, or at least should be, a reminder of our obligation to participate in creation as a blessing, not a curse.

Which, of course, brought me round to the great state of California and our not so great EPA. I find it ironic that a Republican administration that theoretically touts small government would reject the bid of California to enforce tougher emissions standards in the name of a 'better' federal standard. Of course, the EPA under Bush has hardly served its mandate of environmental protection. The opposition to a "patchwork of regulations" is more likely motivated by a desire to protect the U.S. automobile industry. The EPA's own regulations are hardly better, especially if California is accompanied by 15 other states in applying the waiver. The EPA's denial that there is any serious problem requiring California's greater regulations is simply another strand in the administration's refusal to take global warming seriously (which of course, will make the Pacific all that much more ambitious to bless as it licks at our doorsteps). This is a classic states rights issue.

What pushes me into the state's rights camp in this case is a key component to Catholic Social Teaching, Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity basically argues that the smallest possible unit capable of solving a problem should do so. So, if I can tie my own shoes, it is better that I do so than my parents. Or, more significantly, if a local community can solve its own problem, it should do so rather than a state or the federal government. Conservatives love subsidiarity. Of course, subsidiarity has other implications. If the local cannot meet its needs, it is the responsibility of the next unit 'up' to do so, and on 'up' the hierarchy from individual to international until a solution is reached. The debate is usually about whether the smaller or more local can succeed with or without help (so, can individuals and small businesses really continue to provide for health care needs without a national plan? I don't' think so, but that is another topic).

Federal regulations of emissions are necessary. Without them, many states would do nothing, and since pollution tends to wander far afield of its source, there must be national and international controls. But this does not mean that a more local unit, in this case, the state of California, cannot implement tougher measures. Indeed, if the national government refuses to do so, given the real danger emissions poses to our immediate and far-flung future, I think they should do so. I must admit, I am a little shocked that the EPA would so whimsically deny a state its attempt to address such a serious concern. Unless of course, they don't think it is all that serious (see above).

Now, I want to be clear: I don't think that regulating emissions is sufficient. It leans towards greater energy efficiency as a solution, not reduced energy consumption. Nor do I think that the Orthodox liturgy obviously demands that we support California. However, I do think that blessing the waters of the world should press us to think carefully about the policy and lifestyle decisions that we are privileged to make as participating members of God's world, and citizens of the U.S, who consume energy far out of proportion to our population.

Related Resources

In the midst of editing this post, I read a very interesting article in the most recent Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. My only quibble is that the phrase "Liturgical Asceticism" was hardly coined in 2004. It has been a part of Orthodox parlance as long as I can remember. Other than this admittedly petty point, it is an excellent article, well worth the read:

Margaret R. Pfeil, "Liturgy and Ethics: The Liturgical Asceticism of Energy Conservation." JSCE v. 27, no. 2, 2007, 127-149.