Posted by: Carl Magruder | May 22, 2009

God’s Economy

“Magrathea is a myth, a fairy story, it’s what parents tell their kids about at night if they want them to grow up to become [neoclassical] economists…”   —Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, p 88, Pan Books, Macmillan, London, 1992  “Neoclassical” added for clarity.–the EarthQuaker

            Do you know about framing?  It is the parameters, implicit or explicit, that provide the boundaries for a given discussion.  Framing is inevitable and necessary.  However, not seeing and understanding the framing that is being used can result in a perspective that is too limited to find real solutions to problems.  This is what is happening with the current climate change legislation on Capitol Hill.

                There are many examples of framing in the world around us.  A favorite of Noam Chomsky’s is the observation that every newspaper in America has a Business section, and none has a Labor section, despite the fact that many more of us sell our labor for wages than play in the world of high finance.  That’s a framing of economic information that determines the subsequent discussion, and the values of the dominant culture.

                Well, here’s the problem with the framing of the climate change legislation discussion.  It is very succinctly stated in this document, Market-Based Greenhouse Gas Control: Selected Proposals in the 111th Congress, by Ramseur, Parker, and Yacobucci.  In case you missed the framing in the title, it is restated in the second sentence of the opening Summary:  “The proposals offered to date would employ market-based approaches—either a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system, or some combination thereof—to reduce GHG emissions.”

                The report then goes on to fulfill its promise of analyzing these market-based approaches, and does an excellent job of it.  It is not the fault of the authors that the only “proposals offered to date would employ market-based approaches.”  In a democracy, when the people lead, the leaders will follow, so really the paucity of effective legislation to curb carbon emissions and the resultant climate change is our fault—yours and mine.  We, the people…

          Here’s the deal.  The true national religion of the United States is called “Free Market Capitalism.”  Christianity, and Protestantism in particular, are famously complicit in the near total dominance of this heretical religion, as was first clearly chronicled by Max Weber in his essay,   The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  The dominant mythos of Free Market Capitalism, or FMC, is that there is an unending resource base, infinitely expanding markets, and a bottomless disposal capacity.  All three assumptions are contrary to science, common sense, and when actualized, ethics.  The mythos also includes the illusion that the market is “free,” rather than totally contrived and controlled, and that it magically translates every economic actor’s self-interest in to the greatest good. That is, it justifies and codifies greed as a central operating principle.  To be sure, some aspects of FMC can be very effective for innovation and efficiency as long as they are directed and limited.  Nonetheless, the presuppositions of FMC are so dominant in our thinking, that like a man who has only one tool, a hammer, we see every problem in terms of a nail—something that can be solved by our one paradigm.

                When common sense finally prevailed with regard to climate change, policy makers saw a nail and set about to knock it down with their one hammer—the market.  Unfortunately, climate change isn’t a nail, and the hammer isn’t the solution.  If anyone needs encouragement to see that a solution from the banking industry might not be the best way to protect resources, they can just check the last twelve months or so.  All market based climate change policies will ultimately fail.  (You read it here first.)  Indeed, it may be that their legacy will be simply to delay by precious years, lives, and ecosystems how long it takes us to come up with a real solution.

                Part of the challenge here in Washington is one of what is feasible.  “It’s the best we can hope for.”  “Effective climate change legislation wouldn’t be politically viable.”  “It’s a start.”  “It’s better than nothing.”  I want to posit that while it MAY be better than nothing, it very well also may NOT be better than nothing.  I alluded to this before.  Here’s the reason:  If we put a carbon tax or cap-n-trade scheme into place, like a balsa-wood banister in a western saloon, it will look like there is a structure there maintaining safety.  If there was no balsa wood banister, you’d know that you had to be careful or you’d fall off the balcony.  But the balsa wood banister encourages you to think that you are safe.  When it flies into toothpicks, you fall all the way down to the first floor, through the table that some desperados are playing poker at, and they all jump up and point guns at you.  Perhaps it is better to wait for a real, solid banister.  It might also help to come to an international agreement on climate change in Copenhagen and then devise our national policy around that agreement. 

                After several years, the European Union Emission Trading System can be regarded as a bust.  Mind you, these are nations that are on the whole MUCH more willing to make sacrifices, change laws, and constrain industry and individual choice in order to protect the environment and the wellbeing of all citizens than the United States has shown itself to be so far.  Meanwhile, a large bureaucracy has been created, and money spent.  However, carbon emissions and the concomitant climate change march blithely on.

                There are those who complain loudly that carbon reduction legislation will destroy the economy.  Now, this is the point where I’m supposed to wave the Green Jobs flag, and encourage everyone to get excited about Amory Lovins’ hypercar, etc.  But I’m not gonna do it.  Wouldn’t be prudent.  I’m going to AGREE.  The economy as we know it cannot survive effective carbon reduction legislation, because it is ultimately based on the production of real goods and services (no matter how much “casino economy” we have), and doing that is currently based on burning fossil fuels which emit ancient carbon.  (Ineffective legislation which is all that has been proposed so far, will not harm the economy in the least, and may even provide massive bullish speculation and carbon hedge fund-type trading opportunities for polluters!) 

                The economy we currently have allows 29,000 kids a day to starve to death or die of preventable diseases in a world that produces a surplus of food.  This death-based economy is destroying the biosphere, which has only endured industrialization for as long as it has because God’s Creation is so abundant.  The economy is concentrating wealth so that the UN reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total.  In 2001, 2.7 billion people on this planet lived on less than $2 a day.  That’s nearly half the world’s population, and they are terrifyingly vulnerable to problems brought by climate change.  I can’t find where Jesus would have signed off on that, and please don’t float that “the poor will always be with you” at me—I see now that he meant that as a rebuke of our greed and cowardice, not an endorsement of our complacency. 

                Here’s a thought exercise for you.  If I said that I was going to go around hitting people in the head who annoy me, and taking their money, would it be o.k. with you if we decided on a general pool of how many people could be assaulted in this way annually, divided that number up among a bunch of head hitters, and anyone who hit fewer than their quota could then sell their extra head hits to people who are over their allotted amount?  Would that be o.k.?  That might be a good market-based approach to homicide.  Except that a market-based approach to homicide is abhorrent, immoral, and actually a little disgusting. 

                But ecocide is o.k.  You can kill the planet according to a market-based carbon scheme, and that’s just fine.  That’s not morally reprehensible.  It’s just politics, or business.  Perhaps instead of selling the right to destroy the planet, we need to say that ecocide is simply unacceptable, and disallow it, collectively.  There is a pile of scriptural precedent for that.  Admittedly, we would have to enter into some degree of complicity as we transitioned, but if humanity united in bending up each resource to this mighty task, with God’s help, we might achieve it.  (That’s what we’d do if we were threatened by hostile aliens from outer space, so why not hostile aliens (corporations) on Wall Street?)

                Of course, there is the efficacy argument.  We have to do something, given the situation that we are in, the politics and economy that we have, and the powers that be.  But this is like looking for your lost ring under the streetlight because the light is better there than back in the dark alley where you actually dropped it.  Sure, we can see our way to superficial market-based solutions to climate change without shifting our current paradigm.  The only problem is, we won’t save the planet, and the poorest among us, whom Jesus identified with and called “the least of these,” will suffer worst from displacement, famine, and resource wars. 

                “So, what do you suggest, nay-saying EarthQuaker?  Complain, complain, criticize, criticize.  Offer some positive solutions, why don’t ya?” 

                 O.K.  I’ve got one.   Remember the part where Jesus says “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”?  (Matt. 7.13)  I think he meant it.  It would be a lovely wide gate and easy road that would have us believe that compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid SUV’s, cap-n-trade legislation, green jobs, and curbside recycling will prevent Ecogeddon.  But they won’t.  Comprehensive change is needed, and not just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as she goes down after striking an iceberg that was ignored until too late.  This is why faith-based advocacy on behalf of the environment is so crucial.  As persons of faith, we are not to be conformed to the world around us, but to strive for a world that reflects our spiritual values.

                Is a global economy that provides for every human to reach her full potential while not just preserving but nurturing the biosphere possible?  As a matter of faith, to me, it must be.  Will confession, contrition, surrender, deconstruction, and resurrection be necessary to achieve it?  Certainly.  Is failure a possibility?  Ask the Easter Islanders.  But this is the task of our time on Earth, and it is a mighty one.  People of faith have an essential role to play, because our values are not the values of the marketplace.  Transforming our economy and our world is a task worthy of all of our love, courage, vision, passion, and creativity.  Even these will not suffice, so it is a good thing that we are never alone… 




  1. […] God’s Economy Posted on June 5, 2009 by sndden NCC Eco-Justice […]

  2. […] I am mostly in agreement with arguments, like this one on the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice blog, which demand radical changes to an economic system which is destroying the biosphere, […]

  3. Is the purpose on Enviroment/social justice to make everyone miserable?

    Who has done more for the poor, Bill Gates or Mother Teresa?

    Greed is good. Markets do not care who you are or where you come from. Only goverenments and pols do.

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