The role of religious congregations in promoting a steady state economy
Proponents of a steady state economy could get a boost from religious congregations. Very thoughtful and insightful people are now writing about the urgent need to transition to a steady state economy. However, good ideas from deep thinkers in this day and age are often insufficient to overcome the power of entrenched lobbies such as the oil, timber, and mining industries, as well as those in the financial sector who specialize in offshore tax havens and dubious finance schemes of the kind portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Inside Job.
Those interested in a sustainable economy are seeking to focus society’s attention on the limits to economic growth. This means rethinking the measures of economic growth and coming to grips with the drivers of consumer demand, such as population growth.
Religious communities are good places to look for allies because, over the past 15 years, many congregations have developed an interest in exploring human duties to creation. The concept of stewardship of creation is gaining widespread support among those who believe in God as the creator of the universe.
Surprisingly, many environmentally concerned people are not aware the Biblical teachings on stewardship of creation. Some promptly dismiss the notion by saying that the Bible is anti-environment and against sustainability. They claim that the book of Genesis urges humans to “exercise dominion over nature and subdue the earth.” This is an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew that unfortunately played a role in promoting a view of the earth and the rest of life as resources to be exploited.
Today there is much greater theological scholarship describing the full range of environmental messages in the Bible. This scholarship has caught on in many religious congregations where support for environmental sustainability is gathering strength. For example, Interfaith Power & Light, founded by Episcopal minister Sally Bingham, has coalitions in over 30 U.S. states, encouraging churches and temples to adopt environmentally enlightened policies in operating their religious buildings and grounds and to be active in promoting clean energy.
Proponents of a steady state economy need to enlist congregations to discuss the concept of a new economy and to consider alternatives to massive consumer spending. There is a natural connection because most religions emphasize living a simpler and less materialistic life, a life that considers the impacts of one’s actions on others.
It would be fitting for religious congregations to take the lead in demanding a new national index of well-being to replace gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a good measure of the throughput of resources in an economy, or more bluntly, the rate of converting natural resources into waste. Typical economists exhort people to increase their purchases and consumption to keep GDP on the rise. Such a philosophy is incompatible with a sustainable economy on a finite planet. Religious congregations bring moral authority to a discussion of the ethics of consumerism and materialism. They can be powerful allies in challenging the basic economic dictum to go out and shop. People of faith could deliver a powerful message about the failure of GDP to serve as an accurate measure of happiness and well-being.
The Genesis story of Noah’s ark ends with a covenant that is not simply between God and Noah, but rather a three-way covenant among God, Noah, and all the animals on the ark. Humans have not lived up to this contract, as modern industrial society is devastating wildlife habitat, putting as much as one fourth of the earth’s life forms in jeopardy.
During a discussion of animal species threatened by human activity, one of the world’s foremost biologists, E. O. Wilson, was asked what animals would disappear if humans were to disappear from the earth. Wilson answered that the only ones he could think of were two species of head lice.
Religious organizations have already played a role in debates on endangered species, but people of faith could also weigh in on the topic of population growth. They could write the Pope pointing out that the Genesis blessing, “be fruitful and multiply,” is first given to all the animals. Humans, therefore, must take their blessing in this context and seek a planet characterized by a flourishing of all kinds of creatures.
In summary, the effort to attain a sustainable economy needs big allies. I have suggested that religious congregations can confront the biggest economic question of our times. What kind of stewards of creation are human beings if our global economy disrupts the earth’s climate, decimates wildlife habitat (even in remote places), expands the population of our own species beyond sustainable bounds, and gauges its success by the volume we consume?