A livestreamed lecture event hosted from Hope College on September 7 featured Christian economist Dr. Peter J. Hill and was attended by a nationwide audience.
“Stewardship for Everyone,” sponsored by Hope’s Markets & Morality (M&M) student organization, was distinctive in two ways. As the opening event of the annual lecture and film series M&M has hosted for eight years, it was the first fully-produced livestream event of its kind on campus. M&M employed a Michigan-based online event management firm which developed a customized, interactive video stream framework they will utilize throughout the academic year. Second, the subject matter bridged two ideas that are not often understood as compatible: free markets and environmentalism.
Hill is an economics professor emeritus at Wheaton College and a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center. His research has been impactful in bridging environmentalism, economics, history and theology. Hill spoke previously at Hope on the topic of economic growth and the Imago Dei in 2016. He also hosted M&M at PERC in Bozeman, Montana during its 2017 spring break study trip focused on property rights and institutions.
Hill opened his Labor Day lecture with relevant scriptures constituting a biblical mandate for Christians to be faithful caretakers of the Earth. He proceeded to give examples of the intersection of markets and environmental issues ranging from fisheries in Alaska to pesticides on farms across America. He pointed out the strengths of market mechanisms for addressing issues like groundwater allocation in California and their more limited usefulness in application to global warming.
One example Hill used to make clear the role of property rights in market functioning was a cross-country comparison of elephant population growth or decline. In Zimbabwe, where villages have quasi-property rights to the local elephants, citizens have incentives to police against poaching. Consequently, Zimbabwe’s elephant population more than doubled in less than 20 years. In Kenya, no such incentives exist, and the elephant population has declined by more than two thirds.
Hill argued that in many cases environmental health is not provided for by top-down political regulation. This gives control to politicians and institutions unaware of local ecology and unable to perfectly control private practices. Rather, it is best achieved through legal institutions that support and incentivize private owners to care for land and natural resources, he said.
“Markets & Morality is interested in the strengths and limitations of institutions, particularly markets, in facilitating human flourishing,” Dr. Sarah Estelle, a Hope professor of economics and founding director of M&M, said. “The role of markets in stewarding environmental amenities has been tremendous in many notable areas, and we wanted to bring Dr. Hill, a faithful Christian and brilliant economist, to campus, even if only virtually, to explore that optimistic viewpoint.”
M&M is focused on optimism this year, in light of the challenges around the COVID-19 pandemic. Estelle said that because of the physical distancing measures on campus, M&M is committed to ramping up its production of events to provide safe and thought-provoking community engagement for Hope students and the Holland community.
“We knew early on that even after the lockdown it would be some time before we could gather again for an in-person lecture in Winants Auditorium, as is our tradition,” Estelle said. “But togetherness and community, and the life of the mind for that matter, are even more important these days. So we’re working hard to serve our community with faithful, compelling and high-production-value events this year.”
The lecture event featuring Hill was emceed by senior student and second-year M&M member Regan Corum, who also facilitated a time for audience questions. She said that “the fact that it was virtual did not make us feel far apart. Many people watched who normally would not be able to attend events due to location, so the webcast event and the Q&A after made the event fun and unique. Participating as a host made seeing these connections more enjoyable.”
The audience might have wondered when they clicked the link to the event if they were entering an upgraded Zoom call or an updated Google Meet interface. M&M did have a successful film screening last April utilizing Zoom and a film available on PBS.org. But, while that worked out fine, especially with the use of breakout rooms after the film, this time Estelle wanted something more polished.
“M&M always aims to show hospitality to our audience and gratitude to our speakers,” Estelle said. “So because our public events are necessarily online this year, we wanted to ensure our brand came through in these ways and that Hope students feel they are experiencing something special when they attend our events.”
After contacting an online event management firm who had facilitated a conference she spoke at in June, Estelle learned that the process and budget for such an event was more than expected. “Providentially and unexpectedly,” she said, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, located in Grand Rapids, called later the same week offering financial support for student-centered events this academic year. They agreed to support the Hill lecture and two more events later this year.
The benefits of hiring an outside party to produce the event included a top-notch internet connection, branded aesthetic overlays and easy behind-the-scenes communication between Corum, Estelle and the professional tech team. The team also helped brainstorm ways to help people feel close while physically distant.
“We’ve received great feedback on the event and feel wonderful about attendance, too,” Estelle said. “We had more Hope and Holland community members than would have fit in Winants, and we also had students and faculty from around the country join us. It is really fun to see silver linings, wherever they exist, as we face the serious challenges of pandemic.”
Even as they innovate, M&M is trying to keep as much of the good from previous years as they can. M&M frequently partners with other departments and groups on campus in organizing its events. This time on-campus cosponsors included Hope’s Green Team and the Department of Economics and Business.
M&M also enjoys its intellectual intimacy as a small group and would typically host a speaker for dinner preceding a talk and a casual but thoughtful conversation. The weekend prior to his public lecture this semester, Hill met with M&M members online for a discussion during the group’s annual membership retreat. Hill spoke from a laptop screen propped on a lawn chair to the group spread out in a church parking lot.
M&M also viewed Hill’s public lecture together, though in smaller groups. At the conclusion of the event, they debriefed as a whole under the tent in Van Andel Plaza.
To view a recording of Hill’s lecture, go to Hope College’s YouTube Channel. The video “Stewardship for Everyone” can be found on the Markets & Morality playlist there. To learn more about M&M and stay apprised of upcoming events, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow Markets & Morality on Facebook and Instagram. They will be offering two more public events this semester, an evening student seminar which will also feature a public live-streamed lecture on October 12, and an online academic film screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” on November 2.