Edy Korthals Altes
The road towards a just and sustainable economic development is long and arduous. Will it be possible to reach the goal in time? Yes! says Jeffrey Sachs, the well- known UN expert on poverty: "the end of poverty is within reach of modern technology and our financial possibilities". Yes! claims Dennis Meadows, in his latest report on the Limits to Growth. Yes! declared the government leaders of more than 180 countries in September 2000 when they signed the Declaration on the Millennium Development Goals. In this important Declaration they solemnly committed their countries: To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and, by the same date, to halve the proportion of people who are unable to reach or to afford safe drinking water.
All very positive intentions indeed, it would however not be the first time that high sounding words were not realized!
The actual discussion on sustainable development is mostly oriented towards pragmatic solutions. High expectations exist about the possibility to solve the environmental crisis through a combination of technological inventions, fiscal incentives and other policy measures. Certainly, all of these are important but more will be needed. A just and sustainable development will not be achieved without a fundamental change in attitude towards man, goods and nature. A mutation, which should be based on a renewal of the spirit. In previous Chapters ample attention was given to the role of religions in bringing about this decisive change. Let us now look more closely on the guidance, which religions could provide in the field of economics.
There are compelling reasons for religions to be seriously involved in the debate on a new - more promising - approach in economics. The present course of economic development - particularly in the highly developed economies - is bound to lead to a collapse. Religions, faithful to their prophetic calling, should stand up whenever "the humane" is threatened or the integrity of creation trampled upon. This is a responsibility for all religions, which should receive high priority. With their vast numbers of adherents spread all over the world, religions have a great potential to mobilize resources to assure a truly humane existence for all people on earth. But the road towards a sustainable and just society is difficult to find and reliable road maps rare. Bible, Koran nor any other sacred Scripture is holding a recipe for a new economic order. Still, they can provide us with reliable guidelines about the direction to follow.
A detailed analysis of the relation, between the basic teachings of various religions with present economic thinking and acting would therefore be of considerable interest. Within the context of this book this is unfortunately not possible. As Christian churches have been particular active since the end of the 19th century in formulating a critical stand on social and economic affairs I will first give a brief sketch of their positions followed by a few observations about important developments in Buddhism and Sufism. Another - often overlooked - reason for the emphasis given to prophetic voices within Christianity is the sad fact, that the present life-threatening economic developments are chiefly the result of policies and practices in modern nations wherein Christians form a majority!
Of fundamental importance in biblical thinking is the awareness that we are living in God's world. At first sight this may seem a ludicrous thought for modern man so infatuated with an inordinate sense of self-importance. But would it not be a good thing - in a culture in which systematic doubt prevails - to ask us whether it is not a colossal mistake to push the basic notion of Transcendence beyond our horizon? A sensible question, so it seems to me, in a civilization in dire need for sources of inspiration.
Biblical thinking challenges directly the large scale process of destruction and pollution of our natural environment that is now taking place in the name of "economics". Certainly, in Genesis 2 we read that God said to man..."and subdue the earth - mastering the fish in the sea, the birds of the air and every living creature that crawls on earth..." But this much-abused text in the ecological debate does not mean that man is entitled to do whatever he likes with the earth and its creatures. These words are not addressed to so-called "autonomous beings" but to men and women called upon to love God with their whole being. The earth is after all entrusted to human beings who are fully responsible to God and not to an abstract "homo oeconomicus"! Listening with new ears to the Principal Commandment would bring us to acknowledge the enormity of the mistake of the maltreatment of our planet in the name of a false concept of economics. The Bible provides no justification whatsoever for the present irresponsible human behaviour towards nature. This is why all those who are professing faith in God should become far more active in protesting against the destruction of our natural habitat.
A document of great importance was the Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) on "new matters of misery, injustice and exploitation created by industrialization". Since then has the Roman Catholic Church consistently protested against the subordination of human well-being to economic ends. Time and again the social encyclicals affirmed the priority of the spiritual and ethical aspects in life.
Also within Protestantism there has been an impressive development of ecumenical social thought. A beginning was made in 1925 in Stockholm, during the world conference of the Life and Work movement. Another important moment was the formation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam in 1948. The ecumenical movement has since then wrestled with the role of churches in a rapidly changing world. The persistence of poverty and the threats to the earth's capacity to sustain human life became ever more clearly recognized.
During the Vancouver Assembly of the WCC in 1990, the appeal was launched for a worldwide commitment on the issues of justice, peace and integrity of creation. This was not just another proclamation but seen as part of the essence of being a living church. Considerable reflection has been going on in this area. In present efforts to develop a theology of life much attention is given to remind society of the basic truth that all exercise of power - including economic power - is accountable to God. Prominence is also given to:
At the same time another significant development took place within the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). During its general council meeting in Debrecen, summer 1997 it declared, "the struggle against economic injustice and ecological destruction is at the very center of Christian faith". The 211 member churches were called upon to "work towards a confession of their beliefs about economic life which would express justice... reflect priority for the poor and support an ecologically sustainable future".
This line of thinking finally resulted in the Accra Confession (August 2004), signed by the representatives of all the participating churches, representing more than 100 million Christians. An important achievement after the intense discussions between the Northern and Southern churches! In this significant document an analysis is given of the appalling consequences of the present economic system for countless people and… nature! It points to the dramatic convergence between the suffering of the people and the damage done to creation. In doing so it plainly rejects "the culture of rampant consumerism and the competitive greed and selfishness of the neo-liberal global market system, or any other system, which claims there is no alternative". The declaration strongly affirms that: "the integrity of faith is at stake if we remain silent or refuse to act."
Another initiative of immediate relevance for the struggle against poverty is the recent worldwide campaign of the Anglican Church. Its strong advocacy for debt relief for the poor countries could significantly contribute to alleviate the misery of millions of people.
It goes without saying that this growing awareness about the nefarious consequences of the present way of running economic activities is a potent force, which vested interests have to reckon with.
Among the promising developments in other religions I would like to mention the important work being done by Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known social activist in Thailand and founder of the "International Network of Engaged Buddhists". (INEB) Sulak, sees religion at the heart of social change.
In stressing the importance of spiritual values he is challenging an economic system, which grows through the cultivation of endless desire for consumption. This prominent Buddhist intellectual maintains that the real nature of a civilization can never be found in the cultivation of the desire to amass but only in the purification of human nature. Craving should be replaced by a longing for inner peace. A similar line of thinking is developing in Japan, notably in Rissho Kosei-Kai. This important Buddhist movement sees happiness determined by how well people have fulfilled their inner desires, by how close they have come to spiritual peace. "Even if consumption is one of the processes needed to bring people happiness, it is not the goal. The ideal is to be able to attain the greatest amount of happiness from the smallest amount of consumption."
The essence of this point of view was well summed up by Schumacher, author of the international bestseller: "Small is Beautiful - economics as if people mattered". In this visionary book he states: "For the modern economist this is difficult to understand. He is used to measuring the "standard of living" by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is "better off" than a man who consumes less. A Buddhist economist would consider this approach excessively irrational: since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption."
Interesting is also a growing awareness among prominent personalities in the international world of finance and economics that there has to be a fundamental rethinking of the relation between religion and economics. A striking example is given by a former Managing director of the IMF, Dr. Witteveen, who wrote a significant book on: Sufism and Economics.
It seems to me that the ongoing debate within Christian churches would be greatly enriched by a careful listening to those voices in Buddhism and Sufism, which are putting the emphasis on the achievement of "inner peace". One of these fruits could be the adoption of a more relaxed attitude towards consumption!
From the foregoing appears that religions could indeed provide valuable guidance for a new approach to economics. One of the first contributions could be a critical examination of the present way of handling economics. Are "economics" a goal in itself - as many think - or an instrument to serve the common good of mankind? For religious people as well as for adherents to other convictions of life it should be clear that the economy is only part of a larger Whole, not an autonomous entity ruled by absolute laws.
To avoid any misunderstanding I would like to repeat that my criticism of the present way of handling economics does not want to belittle its spectacular achievements. There can be no doubt about the impressive contribution of economics to the phenomenal improvement in the living conditions during past centuries.
The pressing question is however whether we have not been overshooting the mark. Surely, no one can object to sound economic acting and the optimal use of scarce resources for meeting material needs. But what is meant with "sound economics"? Are economics not degraded to a set of rules on maximizing profits instead of being a science serving the well-being of humanity? The iron laws of competition, efficiency and profit nowadays dominate practically all sectors. Profit, instead of service to humanity is the driving force behind Science and Technology. Furthermore, who could deny that the much-praised invisible hand has led to the misery for millions of poor and marginalized people?
The question about the purpose of economics is therefore of some relevance. A colourless definition says that: economics are dealing with production, distribution and consumption of material goods and services, as well as the art and manner of managing these different processes. Words, which are offering no perspective whatsoever in today's world. Hence, the need to develop a clear view on the essence of economics.
A few courageous economists have done pioneering work over many years in charting a new course in economics, often against all criticisms of their mainstream colleagues. Based upon their work I would like to submit the following definition:
The purpose of economics is the responsible use of the limited means at man's disposal in order to promote the common and individual well-being of present and future generations. Production, distribution and consumption of goods must be oriented towards a just and sustainable society in which the limits of nature are strictly respected.
Indeed, the essence of economics is to serve man and society in such a way that all people can lead a decent existence, within the limits imposed by the natural environment! Economics however are at present operating the other way round: man and society are serving economics! The original concept of economics as an instrument for the common good, for man's well-being, is perverted into a goal in itself, facilitating the enrichment of a limited group of people.
The above definition holds consequences, which will not be easily accepted in a post-enlightenment society in the grip of materialism and hedonism. Certainly not in a spiritual climate in which basic values like solidarity, compassion and respect for life are undermined. Economic theory and practice are nowadays built on a very narrow basis leaving little room for the basic teachings of religion. It is precisely this loss of vision on man's place in Ultimate Reality, which is at the root of the present crisis.
The forces resisting any change in the present situation are formidable. This makes it difficult to realize the profound transformation in production-, distribution- and consumption patterns now required. Not only commercial interests but also a large number of citizens show little inclination to accept a more sober life style. Material sacrifices are not popular in a secularized society where priority is given to the eager acquisition of material goods and immediate satisfaction of all sorts of desires. These reservations however will not withhold us from raising some fundamental questions about the driving forces behind the present economic order.
In order to clear the road towards a just and sustainable economic development three persistent myths, now dominating modern society, have to be exposed:
The idea that man has unlimited material needs which have to be satisfied does reflect an immature and irresponsible attitude. Immature because it is the attitude of a spoiled child. It is simply not true that man has unlimited material needs which have to be met in order to lead a satisfactory life. Adopting a mature attitude towards material goods is a matter of common sense. Welfare should never be confused with well-being. Many people in our affluent society have already gone through the experience that an increase in wealth - after a certain level is reached - does not lead to greater happiness. On the other hand we see that even a modest increase in income for the huge number of poor makes a great difference. In many cases the difference between ... life and death!
Religious leaders and philosophers have emphasized throughout the ages that material goods will never meet man's quest for happiness. They recommended instead practicing restraint, moderation and above all respect for life in all its forms. Buddhism even speaks about craving as the main cause for unhappiness. Indeed, man infinitely surpasses the voracious animal of a consumer society.
For Christians it should be obvious, that the insatiable appetite for goods in our present culture stands in shrill contrast to the Ten Commandments and the preaching of Jesus. The Gospel liberates man from the suffocating embrace of materialistic bonds thus redeeming us from the continuous pressure of social imitation of the fellow citizen. The teachings of Jesus Christ open a perspective towards a more realistic and promising approach. "Man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that issues from the mouth of God." And in the Gospel of John we read: "Jesus said, I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will never be hungry, and he who believes in me will never again be thirsty..." In a society, so bent upon acquiring "perishing food", it would make sense to ponder upon the basic wisdom: "Work for no perishing food, but for that lasting food which means eternal life; the Son of man will give you that, for the Father, God, has certified him,"
The concept of "unlimited needs" is also irresponsible in a world in which more than 1.300 million people suffer from hunger and misery. All those who are living in relative prosperity should realize that there is a direct relation between a further increase in wealth in the economically highly developed nations and the poverty in a great part of the world. How can someone who is indulging in an oversupply of goods maintain in good faith to have unlimited material needs? Are we aware that our production and consumption patterns are creating serious negative social and ecological problems particularly for the poor countries?
Already now is the world confronted with major ecological problems, largely due to the extravagant lifestyle in the prosperous North.
It should be clear that our planet couldn't bear the additional environmental consequences of a similar economic development of several billion people. More than half of mankind is in urgent need of economic development in order to meet basic needs. Many are eager to realize a reasonable level of human existence. Preaching to developing countries that they should desist from doing so because of our concerns for the health of the planet will be in vain. Apart from being politically unrealistic it is also highly hypocritical in view of the extremely negative impact of our own environmental (mis)behavior! The concept of "unlimited needs" is therefore clearly an act of irresponsibility, degrading men and women to monsters of greed and lust. It should therefore be replaced by an attitude of enough is enough.
The present cult of consumerism is also doing a gross injustice to future generations. We will leave our children and grandchildren not only a degraded environment but also an impoverished world. They will be saddled up with debts, which will most likely have to be met in a less favourable situation than at present. Debts, largely incurred because of the unwillingness of those living now to refrain from satisfying their "wants", for the benefit of those who will come after us!
If we really believe in a basic solidarity between all inhabitants of our planet we - in the North - should reconsider our extravagant consumption patterns so that others - the majority of the world population - may live. The primary goal of economics should be to meet first of all the basic needs of all people. At the same time great care should be taken that wants are met within the limits imposed by social- and environmental conditions.
Growth is inherent in nature. But not endless physical growth! Trees do not reach into heaven. At a certain point they stop growing in height, still they continue to develop. In a comparable way are human beings subject to limitations in physical growth while the process of inner development is supposed to continue! A healthy society should strive to achieve certain equilibrium between the inner drive to conquer new frontiers and the natural limits imposed by our planet. This basic wisdom is now foolishly pushed aside. In the dynamism of our actual economic growth model everything seems under an obligation to grow. This lack of common sense is amazing because permanent growth within a limited space is impossible. Even a child experimenting with a balloon could enlighten adults that one can't have unlimited expansion within a finite space.
Many people take for granted that "growth is good". But not all growth brings an increase in welfare! All depends on what sort of growth is meant. New investments do not always lead to greater employment. Quite often these could even lead to a dismissal of workers. Jobless growth, caused by technological developments and profit hunting, is a real problem. The serious structural unemployment problem in our societies demands a new approach in which greater attention will be given to existing possibilities for employment opportunities in sectors relevant to the qualitative aspects in life such as: health, education, social care, infrastructure and maintenance.
The urge for material growth in a finite world is nothing less than the growth of the cancer cell. Growth, in the economically highly developed countries, should be directed towards qualitative instead of quantitative goals. The present growth concept ignores the basic laws inherent to life on earth in order to realize a short-term material benefit. This is a fundamental error, as the laws of nature have to be respected if we want to prevent the undermining of the vital conditions for life. The need for growth in developing countries is indisputable; it is even an essential condition for the fight against poverty. But an additional claim from the highly developed nations on scarce natural resources is a sure recipe for disaster!
The underlying flaw in the present way of acting is that modern man seems to have forgotten the basics of the human condition. Not only the Bible but also other sacred scriptures constantly remind us not to aspire to become gods. Human hubris, so typical for the growth concept, is indeed leading us into utter confusion and chaos. Hence the particular relevance of the story of the tower of Babel!
The market is without any doubt a useful instrument for the allocation of resources and distribution of goods. The present emulation of the unrestricted free market however takes no notice of some serious limitations:
In spite of all these shortcomings is the privatization of public utilities actively pushed through. For governments there are obvious advantages such as less current expenditures, elimination of risks and no need to worry anymore about huge investment outlays. The general public however is paying a high price. The original goal of public service at reasonable costs is replaced by the profit motive, seldom resulting in less public service at a higher price! Private investors on the other hand will be able to benefit from the strong market position of the privatized enterprises. The growing tendency to privatization and liberation of the market system from all sorts of social fetters brings us every day nearer to a situation in which the law of the jungle prevails. Man and nature are here subordinated to the iron laws of the market economy. The inevitable victims are among the increasing number of the poor and weak. A development, which runs directly against the ecumenical tradition of a radical choice for the poor and marginalized.
Religions should therefore be alert to the shortcomings of the market and come into action whenever human rights are violated or the integrity of creation endangered. They should be resolute on the unequivocal right on a human, dignified life for all people, irrespective of race or creed. Basic essentials such as food, clothing, housing, education, social and health care, should be assured for all. Not only for present but also for future generations! Religious teachings remind us that it is not man who should stand in the service of the economy but the other way round. Indeed, economics should serve the legitimate needs of mankind in a sustainable way.
The market should therefore always be embedded within a social and economic context!
Although it is the main objective of this Chapter to focus attention on the contribution of the spiritual factor to a new approach in economics, some observations of a more practical nature have to be made. These are related to the following preliminary conditions which must be met if we want to set course towards the goal of a just and sustainable economy:
The first two conditions are obvious. We must know what the real impact is of our economic acting on human well-being and the natural environment. The third one is essential in order to stave off an imminent ecological catastrophe.
The statement: "Economics aim at maximizing result," sounds fine. There is however one serious shortcoming: the GNP, the present instrument of measurement, is giving us a distorted picture of reality. Consequently we do not know what is going on and risk to count ourselves rich at the expense of real well-being. All sorts of elements - affecting our well-being in a negative way - are now incorporated as positive contributions to the Gross National Product. If car accidents increase and insurance companies pay higher sums for incurred damages, GNP goes up! Similar absurdities occur whenever growing pollution or hinder from intense traffic is leading to a rise in the sale of air and water-filters and the construction of expensive sound screens along highways. Ecological costs, connected with the production of goods, should not be ignored and passed on to others. These real costs should instead be deducted from the GNP!
Another example - of a different nature - are the military expenditures - now absorbing a relative large part of the national budget. Surely, there will always be a need for an effective military force for peace operations. But do we really think that collective well-being will improve when the excessive military outlays in these days will be further augmented? Furthermore, how are the considerable environmental damages caused by military activities in peacetime accounted for in the present GNP? And what about the attribution of the extraordinary damages during wars of aggression, facilitated by the building up of a preponderate military position at colossal costs?
Politicians and economists continue however - notwithstanding all these anomalies - to attach complete confidence in the accuracy of the present yardstick. Governments eagerly publish every year detailed accounts of the growth of the national product. These GNP figures look impressively precise. To such an extent even that governments sometimes tumble whenever growth remains a small percentage point below original expectations! Few people dare to question the sacrosanct nature of the figures. Truly surprising in these days of no-nonsense thinking and adulation of a calculating mentality! If environmental costs would be deducted from the present GNP, there could very well be a negative growth in quite a number of countries now flattering themselves with attractive growth figures!
Clearly, without the development of a reliable indicator for the measurement of GNP it will be very difficult to set course towards a sustainable economy. We have to know what is really going on. In this respect attention should be given to efforts to compose a more reliable instrument for measuring the state of health of the economy. The Human Development Index of the UNDP represents an interesting effort to come to a more realistic approach towards a true assessment of welfare. Another intriguing example is the Gross National Happiness Index in the Kingdom of Bhutan. An original initiative, which merits serious reflection.
Not only the present way of calculating the GNP but also the actual cost and price structure is presenting a distorted view of reality. Only cost factors expressed in monetary terms enter into the calculation. Ecological and social costs are usually externalized for the unwise reason that nature, air, water, beauty and silence are taken for granted and considered to be free goods. Obviously it would be more rational and responsible to insist upon the strict application of the polluter pays principle.
Similar mistakes are made with regard to "human costs". Dismissal of workers may lead to cost reduction and most likely to a higher profitability. But what about the "human costs" for the unemployed worker who is now being marginalized? What is the impact upon those around him? The presented cost figures give therefore a distorted picture of the real situation. A more sensible pricing of goods and services would be to internalize the full costs instead of passing these on to the general public and… to future generations!
A distortion occurs also in the presentation of profits. Figures on the balance sheet may look highly promising. In reality however they reflect only part of the picture as the greater part of the "real costs" - ecological and social - are externalized. This means that while producers may register higher profits the public will have to foot the bill! Under these circumstances nobody should be surprised that human relations suffer. The negative social and psychological effects of acting on economic principles alone are regrettably still considered to be of secondary importance.
In these days much emphasis is put on technological innovation, particularly in connection with the environmental crisis. Surely, much can be achieved by reducing the use of natural resources and the input of energy. Greater durability of products and recycling could also reduce the problem of waste disposal and pollution. The Wuppertal Institute, under Dr. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker is working in this direction.
The interesting publication "Factor Four", shows how twice the prosperity could be achieved with half the use of nature. Although I am convinced of the importance - yes, even the necessity - of technological innovation I seriously doubt whether this will be enough. The formidable environmental problems now confronting humanity require also - as we have repeatedly stressed - a fundamental change of attitude among the "haves". Without a greater sharing and caring - on a worldwide scale - the present crisis will not be solved. Actual consumer - and producer behaviour is however pointing into another direction. The explosive increase in cars, consuming a high level of fuel, is a case in point. It indicates that there is little disposition to take the energy crisis seriously.
We are therefore still a long way off before people will grasp that a profound change in mentality is required. Technological innovation is certainly needed but without a spiritual renewal our problems will not be solved!
Religions are entrusted with a calling to orient hearts and minds towards the origin of our existence. They share a common responsibility to prevent a social and ecological calamity. But they will only be in a position to challenge the dominance of economics if they succeed in creating a much more intense and structured cooperation among themselves. In the actual world, dominated by powerful economic and financial interests, it is illusory to think that religions - operating separately - will be able to exercise a constructive influence. Without a bundling of resources they stand little chance to contribute effectively towards a just and sustainable economy. The strong resistance within secular society against any attempt to increase the influence of religious actors should not be underestimated! There has also been an inordinate increase of corporate and financial power in past decades. A power, which is practically unchecked. This absence of countervailing power is putting vital human interests of vast numbers of people at the mercy of a limited group of managers. This is - in view of the dynamics of the globalization process - creating a dangerous situation, challenging religions to formulate a common response in global thinking and acting!
Acknowledging the responsibility of religions for a just and sustainable economic development is one thing; effective action is quite another story. High-minded statements from separate religious bodies on pressing economic and social issues will be of little or no avail in a world with strong vested interests. Viewpoints need to be presented in an appropriate way otherwise they will be met with a deafening silence by decision makers. Religions should therefore embark upon the venture of a much closer cooperation, enabling them to participate effectively in a joint dialogue with decision makers on economic, social and environmental issues.
A relevant step in this direction could be the formation of an Inter-religious Platform on Economic and Social Issues in order to facilitate:
These positions should be based on a common analysis. A process, which could be greatly facilitated by a pooling of resources.
The Platform may decide to give special attention to:
Our present economic- and social development is neither just nor sustainable. It stands in marked contrast to basic human values of justice, solidarity, peace and respect for life. Social and ecological disaster looms if there is no timely change in the actual irresponsible human behaviour. Technological developments, innovation, economic measures and fiscal policy are certainly of vital importance for a new approach. But unless these instruments are backed up by a strong motivating force - shared by wide circles of the population - these will not bring the desired results. The required change in attitude towards man, material goods and nature will not occur without a rediscovery of the religious dimension in life, a spiritual reawakening. Religious teachings hold precious - still undervalued - elements for a new approach to economics.
Religions are therefore confronted with a special challenge. They will however fail to meet this challenge if they operate on an individual basis. None of them is in a position to challenge the actual dominance of economics. There is an urgent need for creating effective forms of cooperation! This may not only serve to prevent a further dehumanization of society but also create the conditions for a more just and sustainable development.
For more on the discussion between religion and science see The Pari Dialogues