Let Justice Flow Down – God and Economics a discussion by Bishop Geoff Davies.
The world is facing multiple challenges, with burgeoning populations, diminishing resources, gross economic disparities, increasing poverty, environmental destruction. How do we meet these challenges? The Bible contains a number of principles regarding economics. These will be examined to see if we find answers to our dilemma.
I have set all of us quite a task. I accepted Brian Robertson’s invitation as I believe – and see – that we are fundamentally on the wrong course. We have to get onto the right track, just as we had to get on the right track in South Africa and remove the injustices of Apartheid. We now have global apartheid. We have a separation between ourselves and the rest of life on this planet, and between those who have and those who have not and are even having what little they may have, taken away.
I will be largely anecdotal and make no pretence of this being an academic lecture. And I readily admit that I studied theology, not economics but am greatly encouraged by the statement of, I think it was the Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef that “economics is too important to be left to economists”. We are all involved in and affected by economics and I ask you to look at it from a common-sense point of view. We shall then also see if we can gain insight from the Bible. In brief, it is essential that we move the goals in our life and societies to planetary and socio-economic well-being, based on the Biblical principles of Justice and Equity, and away from the goal of economic growth and wealth accumulation.
Last week Kate and I returned from the Drakensberg, driving north of Lesotho to Graaff Reinet and back home on the R62 route. It was a magnificent trip with a really interesting stay in Graaff Reinet – a beautiful town as you will know, within the horseshoe of the river. But on the outskirts, as with all the towns we passed, were hundreds of RDP houses and informal settlements, with thousands of people, with probably about 80% unemployment. Drive through the former Transkei, which we knew well, and what do you see? Children and young people meandering, with no occupation. This happens across South Africa.
And together with this, all the signs of overuse of the land – bare hills and the scars of deep erosion gullies. All this is indeed a ticking time bomb.
On our journey we listened to SAFM. Throughout the day we heard the state of the market, international exchange rates and the prospects of growth in economies. It was good news that the American economy was now growing, with rising employment, but concern that the Chinese growth rate was declining. We are dominated by the prevailing mind-set of economic growth. This mind-set is upheld and promoted by most governments of the world and, of course, the IMF, World Bank, WEF – in other words, by most countries and institutions.
But surely this is necessary, you might say? After all, with burgeoning populations and the call for at least two billion people to be lifted from poverty, we have to have economic growth. Our politicians would say it is obvious. There are two fundamental objections to this.
The first is, of course, that we live on a finite planet with the limited resources, even though we behave as if we have to use them as fast as we can.
The second objection is that we have known for some time that our present neo-liberal economic system is simply not working. In fact it is a disaster! Certainly it is benefiting the rich – dare I say the capitalists? – but it is also a direct cause of increasing poverty and environmental destruction. The wealth generated during our neoliberal era has overwhelmingly gone to those who were already rich – to the top 10%, and even the top 1%, with only 10% of increased wealth going to people in the poorest half of the world’s population. 85 people hold more wealth than half the world’s population. As a follower of Jesus Christ I can only say that this is an affront to God!
As I prepared for this talk I asked myself if I was really right to question the prevailing assumption about economic growth. I am a believer in God incidences! On our return home the latest copy of “Resurgence” magazine arrived. In it was a review by Jonathon Porritt, previously director of the Sustainability Institute in the UK before David Cameron closed it down, of a book by Kerryn Higgs “Collision course: Endless growth on a finite planet”. In it she examines the “limits to growth” debate as well as unearthing the political reasons why the sheer infeasibility of continuous exponential growth on a finite planet has been almost totally ignored over the last 30 years.
Why is it that the “limits to growth” common-sense view has been so singularly disregarded? I take the liberty of quoting from Jonathon Porritt’s review of the book:
“We are all very familiar these days with the narrative about climate denial and the way in which an immensely powerful cabal of the super rich and neoliberal fundamentalists has very successfully undermined the science of climate change. This is a battle that has been waged both through quasi-academic think tanks and through the outlets of dominant media conglomerates.
“Exactly the same malign forces have been at work (from the mid-1970s onwards) to disparage the “limits to growth” thesis, to undermine the case for effective environmental regulation and to create the institutional and political mechanisms to prioritise globalisation, free trade and economic growth through personal consumption as the only route to prosperity.
“The links between this ideological crusade, the astonishing power of the advertising industry and the self-interests of big corporations, may well surprise business leaders as well as environmental campaigners.
But, he continues to write “there is no way this ideological crusade could have achieved such a comprehensive victory were it not for the fact that the Left has been just as enthusiastic as anyone on the Right about what is seen as the non-negotiable primacy of economic growth”.
And so I was encouraged to allow common-sense to prevail and to follow books that have been maintaining the need for limits to growth since the 1970s when we saw the publication of the Club of Rome’s book “The Limits to Growth”. Among books I would like to give credit to are:
E F Schumacher: “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. Still a classic.
Ulrich Duchrow: Alternatives to Global Capitalism. Drawn from biblical history, designed for political action.
Herman Daly: Steady State Economics and Ecological Economics.
Our own Margaret Legum “It doesn’t have to be like this”
But in particular the Lutheran professor who was teaching in Pietermaritzburg, Klaus Nürnberger: Beyond Marx and Market and Prosperity, Poverty and Pollution – Managing the approaching crisis, from Cluster Publications in Pietermaritzburg. The great thing about Professor Nürnberger is that he examines the issues facing us from economic, environmental and theological perspectives, unlike many university economic departments who, I am told, look at life purely from an economic perspective.
Add to these:
Richard Heinberg: The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality
Richard Douthwaite: The Growth Illusion: How economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many and endangered the planet.
And Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate.
All point to the absurdity of unlimited economic growth policies. Margaret Legum did say that I should not argue against growth as such, but argue for the right kind of growth. That could be key as we campaign against the economic growth paradigm.
Naomi Klein is quite devastating in her critique of capitalism and the growth of globalisation which coincided with the 1992 Rio Conference. World bodies have favoured capital growth over environmental and social care and responsibility. Fascinating is her analysis of climate denialism, which the US Right wing strongly supports. To acknowledge the reality of climate change would “fundamentally change the American way of life, choking off economic development.” (US Chamber of Commerce 2008)
Einstein said that you can’t solve a problem with the same policy that caused it. For long we have known that our present neoliberal economic policy is not the right way to move ahead, even though the free marketers trumpeted that it was the only way, following the collapse of Marxism. Communism, as implemented, was disastrous, but that does not make our present neoliberal policy right.
The problem was the challenge to say what is right. What are the alternatives to our current neoliberal Washington consensus capitalist system?
It was then that I was introduced to Charles Eisenstein with his books Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, and I thought, here is the way forward.
He is not proposing a revolution, but a transformation of economics. His opening words are: The purpose of this book is to make money and human economy as sacred as everything else in the universe. That means using it aright and applying ethics to our economic decision making. This is anathema to the free marketers as money – capital – must be free to find the best growth and profits.
Charles Eisenstein does not write from a religious perspective, but puts forward ethical, biblical and spiritual principles which I want to examine with you.
1) Planet of plenty: This incredible planet Earth is an amazing planet of abundance – as well as wonder and beauty and intricacy. I think it behoves us well to be reminded that it has taken 4 billion years to reach the state of beauty and magnificence we now experience and 14 billion years since the start of the universe. On this planet of abundance we have the wonderful riches of forest and wildlife and marine resources, as well as an abundance of agricultural produce, minerals and energy. And we know that we are dependent on clean water, unpolluted air with an ambient climate, land to grow crops on, and the warmth and energy of the sun.
But we have made this planet of plenty one of scarcity by hoarding and controlling our resources for selfish purposes. Our present economic system aids and abets this.
Food is possibly the best example. 40%, or even 50%, of food is wasted every day while over 2 billion people go hungry. We have multinational corporations who now control the seeds, the growing, the transport, the marketing and advertising of food. What is an essential to life is commercialised and controlled. We know there are companies who would wish to do the same with water and have done so. Water again is an essential of life. All creatures have the right to water.
Prioritise people and planet – rather than profit – and we can overcome hunger.
2) Gift economy: Charles writes at considerable length about this. Many of you will know of talent exchanges where you give of your talents in exchange for something which you need. He takes it further than this. Writing from the perspective of the United States he describes how life has become so commercialised that it undermines community. An example is of a babysitter. Instead of developing community, getting to know your neighbours and helping out when you can, it is commercialised and you pay for the babysitter.
We clearly see in our own country that the increasing commercialisation of life is undermining that wonderful gift of Africa – Ubuntu. With the gift of Ubuntu we recognise our interdependence on each other and the importance of community. He takes it further – share what you have. Give away what you don’t need to those in need. Why hoard things when they could bring life to others? Following the United States, we have increasing numbers of storage places where we store our unused – and unneeded? – things. Do we keep them for that rainy day when we may need them?
Did Jesus not say it is more blessed to give than to receive? Did he not say you should give your coat when you are asked? An investment adviser told us recently that those with the most money are the most reluctant to give it away! He asked one client who had R160 million worth of investments if he would give to a particular charity and there was an adamant refusal, yet those with a few hundred thousand Rand were keen to tithe to charity.
A gift economy would not necessarily entail transforming our economic system but a transformation within ourselves.
The Old Testament is quite clear about economic principles: justice and equity.
Justice: The Old Testament prophets are unanimous in their call for justice and their condemnation of injustice, notably economic injustice, epitomised by those moving words of Amos “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) Justice provides the foundation for our ethics and a civilised society. The principles of love and compassion build on the foundation of justice.
Equity: when God led the Israelites through the wilderness and fed them with Manna from Heaven, recall that he told them: “Gather as much of the bread that the Lord has given as each of you needs….Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till morning, and it bred worms and became foul.”
God provides for our needs, but not our greed. Our present day world must be extremely disturbing to our creator God. The Church needs to be far bolder in following the Old Testament prophets and proclaiming: Thus saith the Lord! Archbishops Desmond and Denis Hurley spoke out boldly against the injustices of Apartheid. Now we need to speak out about economic injustice and environmental exploitation. We give huge thanks that Pope Francis is now speaking out boldly.
3) Negative interest: this is where I found Charles pretty complex, especially when we combine negative interest with inflation! But I think its essential principle is clear. We have had, if not negative, an extremely low interest rate in many countries since the 2008 financial collapse. Of course we have been complaining that we get negligible return on our savings in a bank. But that is the point. Instead of putting your money in a bank and speculating on financial exchange where billions of dollars circulate the globe changing hands every 14 seconds, I am told, invest your money into something constructive for people, for planet and for yourself. Use your money to build a factory or a school or a hospital or to restore the natural environment. Be creative. Build society and care for our life support systems. When you look at the story of the universe you will see that it is one of creativity. Speaking as a Christian, we know that our God is a creator God. God has brought into being an incredibly beautiful world. God wants us to use our creativity to build and further life and love. God did not create us to be selfish and hoard and destroy.
But why are positive interest rates so deplorable? After all, it forms the basis of our present-day capitalist system. With positive interest rates you lend people money and encourage people and governments to go into debt to get what they want now and not to wait for the future. The problem is that with our present system you have to go on ‘growing’. You have to catch more fish, cut down more forests, drill for more oil, get people to buy more goods, to pay back the interest and to keep the system going. And so if you go to the bank to ask for R1 million to buy an indigenous forest that you wish to protect and preserve, the bank will laugh you out of court. If you say you can make a good profit out of this indigenous forest the bank will readily lend you the money and you will have to cut enough trees to pay back R100,000 a year, if it was 10% interest. Likewise, if you borrow money to build a bigger fishing boat, you have to catch more fish to pay back your loan. With the negative interest rates your money would depreciate if it was just left in the bank, whereas your investment in the indigenous forest would be an asset increasing in value over the years. More important, if you invested your money in a factory that employs people and provides goods that are needed, you would get a return on your money and be involved in developing society and overcoming unemployment.
You will recall that Usury is condemned in both the Bible and the Koran and it seems for good reason.
I would also add here that how you use your money and what it is used for is a most important aspect of your Christian responsibility. Is your money used for the good of society, people and the planet, or is it is used for destructive purposes? Is our money used to further the armaments trade or to build hospitals? So often we just want to know that our investments are getting a good return. However, ethical investments are becoming increasingly important.
The growing divestments campaign from fossil fuels is becoming critically important. Last year the oil companies invested something like $560 billion in exploring and developing new oil resources, yet we know that we cannot burn all the oil and coal that is in the ground if we and our children are to have a future on this planet. The only way, it seems, to put a halt to the profit-driven drive of oil companies is to disinvest. We had somehow to end Apartheid in South Africa. We now have to bring an end to the domination and drive of the fossil fuel companies, and our continuing addiction to fossil fuels.
In saying this we are not being negative. We are saying, invest in renewable energy. God has given us all the energy we need from the sun – they say 10,000 times more energy at any given moment than we need. We have only to harvest it. We know we can get all the energy we need from sun, wind and water. It is also reported that if the United States had spent what it did on armaments over the last decade it would have been able to provide the world with the renewable energy resources needed to provide for our energy needs. Again, this is a justice issue. Let us get our priorities right!
Climate change is going to be devastating unless we take urgent steps to counteract it. Yet the continent that has done the least to cause climate change – Africa – will suffer the most. If global average temperature increases rise by 2°, it is said that in Africa temperatures will increase by four or 5°C. There is justifiable argument that the developed North is in ecological debt to Africa, the way they have exploited our people and our resources. If they now seek justice they could enable developing countries to leapfrog the polluting fossil fuel era to the clean renewable energy era, bringing lights and electricity across the dark continent. The latest developments in both solar and wind generation, combined with the exciting advent of the new Telsa Power Wall battery, could bring decentralised electricity to the homes of Africa which could end the ongoing and destructive practice of cutting down the trees of Africa for charcoal.
Seeking greater justice and sharing the wealth of the world would also bring down population increases in developing countries. People reduce the number of children they bring into this world, not when there is greater wealth, but when there is security. Let justice roll down.
There is now a burgeoning growth in extractive industries, particularly in Africa. Our government supports this and South African companies are in Africa boots and all. They would argue that they are bringing wealth and employment to the people and countries of Africa. With growing populations there is an ever increasing demand for minerals and energy needed to bring about development. The reality is clearly stated by Vandana Shiva in an excellent publication by the Gaia Foundation: Opening Pandora’s Box, The New Wave of Land Grabbing by the Extractive Industries.
“It’s not about what we need; it’s about pure greed. It’s the greed of the corporations that want to push consumption of these metals to sell the products they want to sell. And there’s a higher level of greed which is being driven by investment. The financial world is turning to metals and minerals as a place for growth and that too is driving mining on a scale that goes way beyond human need.” Vandana Shiva
4) Mammon: Mammon is not money as such but accumulated wealth. Here again we are faced with a question of our own attitudes, beliefs and goals in life. Is our goal to accumulate as much wealth as possible or to live a fulfilling creative and enjoyable and worthwhile life on our planet with clean air and clear flowing streams and surroundings filled with the variety of life God has brought into being?
You will recall that Jesus said you cannot serve God and Mammon. Yet what is the goal of our present day world? Get rich, get rich, get rich. It is a mantra we hear and see daily on our televisions and in a glossy magazines. The governments of the world proclaim that by getting rich we will overcome all our problems. Certainly, we need to overcome poverty, but unless we are guided by ethical principles of justice, love and compassion then we know increased wealth is not going to solve the manifold challenges we face.
It is now well known that once a level of security is reached, increased wealth does not bring about greater happiness and welfare.
Aristotle said there were two economic systems we could follow – the need system or the greed system. He said it would be disastrous if we followed the greed system. Guess which we have followed. Because wealth has become the goal, because so many rewards are offered through acquiring wealth, people resort to the most heinous and horrendous practices. So we poach rhino and elephant near to extinction; we traffic drugs and wildlife and people; we make billions out of the arms trade and weapons of destruction. You may have seen the film some years ago Slum Dog Millionaire. There is that incredibly disturbing scene of a young girl’s eyes being put out so that the men can hold her enslaved as a beggar for them. It is almost unbelievable that some people can behave so gruesomely to make money for themselves. A few months ago the Cape Times Motoring supplement reported on a new McLaren sports car costing R26 million. 375 people had ordered one. Why? It could do 100 kms in 3.26 seconds, or something like that. But why would one want to do that? Is it just prestige and satisfying one’s ego which is what so much of our consumer economics is about? Archbishop Geoffrey Clayton used to say: Examine your motives!
The book ‘The Spirit Level’ reports from extensive research that the more equal a society, the more healthy, stable and happy it is. In more unequal societies there is greater violence, mental and physical ill-health, social unrest. We in South Africa have an horrendously high crime and violence rate. We also have the highest inequality rate in the world. Can we not put two and two together? Countries like Malawi and Mozambique don’t have the wealth of South Africa, but there is far less crime. How would you behave if you were without food or drink, while you saw the obscene wealth of some?
A more just world is a more peaceful world and a much happier one – surprise! Why does it not happen? Because we not only allow but encourage the pursuit of wealth, to meet our greed.
A few years ago I preached at my old school, Diocesan College. Bishops was founded by Bishop Grey for the education of the sons of clergy and to bring the light of the Gospel to the people of Africa. I said that what was needed now was to bring about an understanding of our need to live in harmony with the natural environment. What was the point, I asked, of seeking to acquire wealth if we were killing the planet in the process? Far better, devote your lives to caring for the planet and preserving life. I suspect that my sermon went down like a brick!
What do we do with our increased wealth? We have a more lavish home, more luxurious car and a more exotic holiday – while millions have not even clean water to drink, and life is threatened. Our goal should not be the acquisition of wealth. It should be the pursuit of well-being, or can we call it sustainability or, as Jesus said, life in all its fullness. Life in all its fullness does not mean wealth, it means a fulfilled life so that we are able to benefit from and share in the abundance of beauty and resources of this amazing planet, our only home.
Michael Ramsey, that lovely Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that when you get to heaven – and I like his saying when and not if – our Lord will ask you if you enjoyed the world God had made for you. This is really clever because on the one hand it is asking whether you have led a fulfilled life, living in harmony with others and with God’s world, or whether you were so trapped in poverty and exploitation you could not enjoy life.
We may not change our economic system soon. Those in control and with wealth and power will strongly resist change and rallied to uphold the system following the 2008 financial collapse, which we should remember was caused by the very institutions that were then propped up. But remember, we did not know when we would get rid of Apartheid, and suddenly it was happening. The question is whether we can bring about change before it is too late. Climate change has some harsh time lines, less than a decade significantly to reduce carbon emissions.
While we continue to struggle to establish greater economic justice, environmental destruction continues apace – growing alarmingly, so that we are facing a number of tipping points, where our natural life support systems can no longer bear the demands we make on them and we experience sudden collapse. These include, possibly the most serious, biodiversity loss and extinctions threatening the evolution of life, together with ocean acidification and pollution, depletion and pollution of fresh water and land, deforestation. These all threaten food security, as marine resources collapse, land is eroded and rainfall is unreliable.
As we know, one of the greatest of threats is climate change. Here there could be tipping points. With warming oceans, less carbon is absorbed. The Tundra in the Arctic could melt and release millions of tons of Methane, far more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. With recurring drought the Amazon could become a massive carbon emitter and no longer a carbon sink. We would have runaway global warming and could do nothing to stop it. The oceans would rise a metre at least. I need not describe the impact of the sea reclaiming the Cape Flats!
Our dilemma is that we are hungry for more energy, while at the same time we have to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. And the constant cry of the government is that we need more energy to bring about economic growth.
But maybe there are solutions staring us in the face. First, we can get all the energy we need from renewable sources. It is shining on us daily and blowing in the wind, and can be small scale and decentralised.
Secondly, the parallel crisis to environmental destruction is poverty and unemployment. The unemployment rate among young people in South Africa is well over 50%.
But while the government calls for more energy, we know that energy intensive machines do people out of jobs! What skills do the majority of young people have – the 80% who don’t even reach matric? “I can do anything” they say, which means their only skill is their strength. But let us use their asset. Let us benefit from the energy and strength of our people, using intermediate technology. There are so many new low energy inventions we can utilise. Train our young people in building and construction and organic agriculture, replacing the energy intensive machines that replace so many people in factories and farms and construction. We have already lost half a million jobs on the land, from 2004 to last year. Environmentally, we cannot follow the American fossil fuel based agriculture. Let us develop labour intensive organic agriculture.
We have known this since the Luddite rebellions. Their weaving was done on hand looms in their own cottages. There was skill and pride in their work. They were replaced by shockingly paid factory workers, where no skill was required. The English Parliament sided with the mill owners. Some Luddite leaders were hanged and others sent to Australia. In Charles Eisenstein’s words:
“The Luddites were outraged not only by their loss of livelihood but by the shoddy products, numbing tedium, constant danger, and dehumanising conditions of the factories. They were resisting the mechanisation of Labour. The replacement of highly skilled, autonomous production with a degrading, dangerous factory work is an affront to the human spirit.”
But, I am told, nowhere have people wanted to revert to less industrialised systems. The reality is that we may have to. How else do we lower our energy consumption and increase employment? But this does mean we learn to value the energy of our fellow human beings.
We also need to recycle, repair and reuse our material constructs. A pox on our throw away consumer society! Make things that last, and can be repaired! Every time I fly I am appalled at all the throw away items, and wish that we could employ people who would wash the cutlery and plates for reuse! We don’t because it costs less, and therefore increases profits, to have a throw-away society. We don’t internalise the costs of land fill sites and the impact of mining and drilling for oil on our land, water resources and atmosphere. Have you seen photographs of the tar sands mining in Canada? Has our government really considered the impact of fracking on the ground water of the Karoo – on which life in the Karoo depends?
The key is living in harmony with nature and the natural environment. The question for every enterprise should be “will this build society and care for the natural environment, or bring greater inequality and environmental degradation?” I have to say that under our present system, the assessment is “what profit will it bring?”
Our goal should be how little we consume, not how much! But we know that the capitalist system is premised on growth, without which there is collapse. This would be disastrous, so the growth economists argue that growth must continue, to keep employment high, so you must go on buying the latest gadget and more clothes and a new car, to keep the economy going. The Americans are told it is patriotic to do so.
Unless, as Charles Eisenstein explains, you redistribute wealth. Today’s world, on this planet of plenty, has sufficient resources to care for all. Though the rich will object to redistribution, there are a variety of ways of doing it.
BIG: There is one way of redistribution which the government could implement with urgency– the Basic Income Grant, BIG, described by Charles as the ‘Social Dividend’. It would not have all the costs of administering social benefits, and the rich would pay it back in tax. Implementing BIG would help overcome hunger, poverty, crime, violence, alcoholism, prostitution, ill-health, you name it, – because people will be living in greater security. For those who would argue that it would lead to a nation of lazy people, I would respond that there is in all of us – all of us here in this hall – a spirit of creativity. We yearn to be creative and constructive in our lives; to think we have accomplished something, that our lives have been worthwhile.
Unlike the free marketers who hold that profit is the driving incentive, I believe that doing something worthwhile with our lives is the incentive. Those who don’t are trapped in the great delusion that wealth is the driving force and goal of life. And that is our dilemma – today’s world worships Mammon, the Golden calf, and not the living God!
I did not intend ending on a hortatory note! What I am saying is that in the great purpose of the universe, we are to be creative and constructive. Our finances are there to assist us in this process. We are not here to serve the Golden calf. I was encouraged that our new Finance Minister, Minister Nhlanhla Nene, spoke of Economic Development, not growth, and that he recognises the need for social development. We need to assist him to bring it about!
The great collision will happen if we don’t change course and take action. It might be the planet taking action, saying that there are just too many of this one species – about two billion of us is optimal. But what does that say of a loving, compassionate God? God is calling us now to be responsible and care for this incredible creation.
To conclude: We must learn to live in harmony with the rest of creation. Our money is but the tool, the resource to enable and assist us to fulfill our responsibility. As Charles Eisenstein puts it:
“Just as no piece of sacred economy can stand alone, so also does each piece naturally induce the others. But if there is a linchpin, it is the end of growth, the transition of the human species to a new relationship with Earth, a new story of the people. Ultimately, it is our emerging desire to be Earth’s partner, and our new found spiritual realisation of the uniqueness and connectedness of all beings, that underlies what I have called sacred economics”. (Page 345)
Bishop Geoff Davies 20th May, 2015