A Geo-Libertarian Manifesto

“How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all”–a very geo-libertarian question to our culture today.

Recently I heard the climate scientist James Hansen speak at the “On Earth as it is in Heaven” conference of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, in Washington, DC, at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral’s education building. Hansen’s case for a “fee and dividend” carbon tax struck me unexpectedly as reflecting aspects of geo-libertarianism or geonomics, less than a household name but an important alternative approach for environmentalism in the twenty-first century. His plan involves fining production and importation of carbon-based fuel, progressively by volume, and distributing the proceeds directly to all U.S. citizens as a dividend, which could be used for any purpose, although presumably helping to support markets for alternative energy sources. The dividend would be a bit like that received by Alaskan citizens from oil.

The basic idea behind geo-libertarianism, which shadows Hansen’s proposal in part, is that natural resources are a gift and a common heritage, and not an individual possession or creation. Geo-libertarianism seeks to tax revenues from unearned “rent” due to increases in market value of unmanufactured natural resources ranging from land to energy, while leaving wealth otherwise produced by labor, entrepreneurship, and creativity untaxed as much as possible.

Significantly for Orthodox Christians and others, this approach reflects biblical principles of land ownership, which centered on a sense of the land as a gift from God, given for the temporary use of humans in their lifespans, who bear an obligation both to God and to past and future generations, as scholarship by Ellen Davies of the Duke Divinity School on biblical agrarianism has shown. This was seen in the Jubilee years in the Old Testament, the sense of land ownership revolving around extended family networks of tribes, and in Jesus’ parables regarding material riches. Thus the approach relates to the Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart’s half-joking advocacy for a political philosophy based on “exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows.”

Moreover, geo-libertarianism operates outside the usual US political binaries, incorporating aspects of free-market principles as well as environmentalism, usually associated today with right-wing and left-wing positions respectively. It does this by opening a way to assign cost based on market functions for environmental impacts otherwise difficult to assess, and to do so in a way that encourages what the philosopher Roger Scruton has called oikophilia or “love of home” as a prime motivator for environmental care. Geo-libertarianism does so by supporting what Scruton describes in his book Green Philosophy as a necessary culture of aesthetic appreciation and piety for the earth as a shared gift. This involves not constructing earth as an object for utilitarian uses by government or corporations, but experiencing her shared relationships in effect as a household gift economy, based on impulses of human community deeper than either government fiat or market forces. Thus, although a conservative Anglican thinker and American Enterprise Institute fellow, Scruton in his  book like Hansen supports a carbon tax, but one based in a national culture of oikophilia, rather than in global approaches based in technocracy, which he sees as ultimately ineffective on environmental issues and deleterious to human community and culture.

Across the political spectrum. geo-libertarianism also affords adaptations or intriguing echoes not only of Henry George’s populist “geoism”  from the 19th century, but of both Thomas Payne’s revolutionary Citizen’s Dividend and the French Physiocrats’ Confucian-influenced thought from the 18th century (the latter having left a legacy at French Azilum near here in the Susquehanna Valley), as well as the goals of tariff-based industrial policy advocated by some paleo-conservatives, libertarian approaches to natural resources of the Property and Environment Research Center, and the ecological economics of Herman Daly associated with the Green movement and American Left. The libertarian economist Fred E. Foldvary has been a prime academic advocate of geo-libertarianism (which he refers to as “geonomics”), although his work has drawn fire from less environmentally centered free-market advocates.

At the time of the DC conference, I had just mentioned geo-libertarianism in a review of a new book on Orthodoxy and the environment, Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism by Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew P. Morriss. The new book offers an excellent discussion of patristic cosmology, and stresses the incompatibility of Orthodox spiritual practice with statist-centered technocratic approaches to environmental problems. Yet the volume, published by the conservative Acton Institute, is but one of three significant new publications on the topic in 2013. The other two, more substantial volumes in terms of range and length and depth of critique of modernity, include Bruce V. Foltz’s superb Byzantine-centered intellectual and cultural history The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible, and the magisterial anthology edited by Fr. John Chryssavgis and Foltz, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Creation, and Nature, both published by Fordham University Press. These three valuable studies, all with different emphases, seek to bring incarnational Orthodox Christian pansemiotics to bear on our current environmental predicaments, and should be read together by those with a serious interest in the topic. While geo-libertarianism is not specifically mentioned in any one of the books, it lends itself to the range of Orthodox Christian approaches addressed in all three. It provides a distinctive way to relate biblical traditions to environmental policy today.


Susquehanna run softly til I end my song

ImageCivil Engineering kayak trip on West Branch near Milton

(Above) Top: The Howland Preserve, adjoining Camp Lackawanna, preserves a stretch of the Susquehanna River’s main stem or North Branch, by its 222-mile midpoint at the Vosburg Neck. Below: Local kayakers and boaters enjoy a favorite stretch of the Susquehanna’s West Branch by the site of a proposed tire burner.

November 30, 2013

A threat to river preservation (from The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA, Nov. 30, 2013)


“Sweet Thames run softly, til I end my song,” wrote Edmund Spenser in poetry celebrating his Elizabethan green world.

T.S. Eliot later used that line ironically in his poem The Wasteland, a disillusioned commentary on the devastation of humans and earth wrought by World War I.

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a gathering celebrating our own Susquehanna River, at the Howland Preserve, part of an effort to conserve riverfront land including Camp Lackawanna on the midpoint of the main river.

Yet while that group celebrated and planned efforts to preserve its scenic natural river corridor, the West Branch near Watsontown faces a potential threat to river preservation.

That threat is a tire burner in White Deer Township to power the National Gypsum plant. It would be the only of its type in the country, in an industry with a history of accidents and fires, and with large operations less than a mile from the river and an elementary school.

Bucknell students recently spoke about this project with State Rep. Fred Keller. Stressing he is “pro-business,” Keller told of his concerns that the out-of-state operator, En-Tire, would not be a careful steward. He described his dismay that company representatives at a local public hearing couldn’t describe the chemical composition of tires, and what he saw as a general lack of care in their successful application process. Keller formerly worked for Conestoga Wood Products, which has won recognition for river-related environmental efforts.

“We look at the river and all the stresses on the river now … golf courses, energy, coal, or other,” he said. “Particularly with a company that came in unable to answer basic questions … we simply don’t need to put another user or stress on this river.”

The site is within the historic river corridor recently designated by the National Park Service, on a stretch that is a prime area for recreational uses. Native Iroquois leaders helped with the designation. Their ethos emphasizes making decisions that keep in mind the interests of future generations to come. The conservative Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton termed the motivation behind such an environmental ethos as oikophilia or “love of home.”

That is potentially strong motivation for opposing the project. Keller noted if we won’t allow elementary school children to smoke cigarettes, why would we accept a process that produces toxins, in an industry with a track record of accidents, across from an elementary school? Or near the river?

Nearby, in the Susquehanna watershed, around the corner from Conestoga Wood Products where Keller used to work, our pastor recently told our house chapel the biblical parable of the rich man and the barn. The rich man, proud of all his belongings, built a big barn to stock them up. But then his soul was required of him and he died.

Remember, Fr. Basil Biberdorf told the Orthodox Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Beavertown, what we have is not just our own, but God’s.

He wasn’t speaking of the tire burner. But lawn signs apply the lesson: “God’s country doesn’t smell like burning tires.”

In future hopefully we here in the Valley can echo Spenser with no irony: “Sweet Susquehanna, run softly, til I end my song.”

Alfred Kentigern Siewers is an associate professor of English and affiliate faculty in Environmental Studies at Bucknell University.