John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This speech was written in August, 1991.
The author takes issue wtih two leading Christian ethicists, Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann. Because of the continuing suffering of industrial labor and the vast wealth accumulated by some capitalists, there arose a conviction on the part of many that industrialization should be controlled by the state and its products distributed equally. This vision is associated especially with Marx. But despite its obvious appeal to Christian ideals, it was always founded on erroneous assumptions. It calls into fundamental question the process of global industrialization. Cobb holds that our task is to find a way between the Scylla of ecological holocaust to which our present policies are leading us and the Charybdis of degrading poverty that would follow from deindustrialization.
I appreciate this introduction. I am not always treated so kindly. And because it is directly related to the topic of our discussion today, I am going to read a recent statement about me published in The Christian Century, January 23. It is written by two leading Christian ethicists, one Protestant and one Catholic: Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann.
"Our differences with John Cobb can be simply stated, and though they are directly connected with theology they have consequences for economics. We do not think of God as merely immanent in the historical process or that human history can be understood as a natural unfolding of the cosmos. Cobb’s perspective strikes us as more naturalistic than substantively Christian, and it is not without its unacceptable moral costs; it not only relativizes all ethics to the Zeitgeist, it leads to a monism which produces great suffering and pain as can be seen in any number of poor lands around the world. It maligns the implicit universalism of our new global interdependence and denies the associative aspects of modern corporate capitalism (confusing it with the ideology of rugged individualism, which has not been a serious contender since 1929). Cobb ignores the ways corporations, where permitted to develop, are breaking down the barriers between peoples and are allowing the grandchildren of peasants to develop relationships, group solidarities and cosmopolitan understandings that for most of human history were available only to a few elites. We must confront the spiritual, moral, and intellectual challenge of how to guide, and not simply repudiate, the global market that Cobb apparently detests. To follow his ‘small is beautiful’ vision is to relegate eventually everyone to slow death in subsistence cultures."
Let me set this account of my contribution to theology and economics in context. The January 16th issue of The Christian Century featured a "manifesto" by Stackhouse and McCann. The occasion of the manifesto was the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe and the parallel collapse of the attractiveness of socialism as an alternative way of organizing economic life. The authors proclaimed that in this situation the long debate among Christians as to the more Christian way of ordering society is ended, and it is time now both to endorse corporate capitalism and to devote our Christian energies to working in and with it. They recognize that there are problems, and they believe that when Christians find their own voice they can be effective in guiding corporate capitalism through those problems.
The next issue of The Christian Century carried six responses to the manifesto, including mine. I expressed the view that Stackhouse and McCann are correct that central planning has been shown to be ineffective. But I objected that the global corporate capitalism that they celebrated is not the only alternative. Indeed, this system destroys both human community and the natural environment. The more appropriate direction for Christians to support is relatively self-sufficient local and regional free market economies.
The other five responses elicited appreciative responses. It is clear that Stackhouse and McCann did not take them as fundamentally opposing the direction they support. I think they were correct in singling mine out for vitriolic attack. The practical implications of our proposals are diametrically opposed on many basic issues. Reflection on the issues involved should be a good way to highlight the moral dilemmas in economics and ecology.
Of course, I do not accept their characterization of my position. I do affirm divine transcendence as well as emphasize divine immanence. I certainly do not view history as the unfolding of the cosmos. And I believe my position to be substantively Christian. In my opinion it is their ethics rather than mine that conforms to the present Zeitgeist. I could, therefore, wish for a fairer depiction of my thought. And of course I do not agree that my proposals would relegate everyone eventually to slow death.
But setting aside the distortions and inaccuracies in their characterization of my position, I do believe they are correct in judging that very fundamental matters are at stake, and that the perspective I embody and represent is now the greatest threat to their celebration of global corporate capitalism. And although in my response to them I did not express my theology explicitly, I appreciate and affirm their insight that theological differences do underlie our different perspectives on economics and ecology.
So I have decided to present to you this evening these two points of view on theology, morality, economics, and ecology. I will try to describe the position of Stackhouse and McCann more positively than they depicted mine. It is the dominant position in the church, and it supports the type of policies advocated by most politicians in both parties. Hence, even though I am sure I cannot do it complete justice, it should not be difficult for you to appreciate its plausibility and persuasiveness. I will then explain why I oppose it, and I will propose a different view.
In relation to the two terms of the title, "economics" and "ecology," Stackhouse and McCann are generally aligned with the thinking of the economic community. I am generally aligned with the thinking of those who see ecological issues as more fundamental. Hence, if you want labels, you can identify the two positions as economism and ecologism. I will present first the mainstream Christian position as it lies behind the manifesto of Stackhouse and McCann and gives rise to support for economism.
The mainstream of Western Christian thinking has emphasized God’s transcendence. It does not deny divine immanence in the world, but it usually sees this almost exclusively in religious phenomena. It certainly affirms the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and it usually sees the Holy Spirit as present in the church and especially in the hearts of believers. But basically it views God as one whom we encounter as an Other, and as one who acts on the world from beyond it.
This transcendent God created the world out of nothing. The purpose of the creation of nature was to provide the context for human beings. It is human beings whom God loves and with whom God seeks community. For their sake God became human and suffered and died. The community of human beings who have responded to that supreme act of God is the Christian church.
To be a Christian is to respond to God’s gift to us by witnessing to it and by acting in love toward other human beings. The expression of love involves a concern for their bodily and mental welfare as well as their spiritual wellbeing. Fundamental to this welfare is the economic condition of people.
Through most of human history the great majority of people lived near subsistence levels. When crops were bad, many starved. The rich were called on by the church to share with the poor, but this was at best ameliorative. The total produce of society did not suffice to spread prosperity beyond an elite.
The industrial revolution changed that. For the first time, people learned how to increase production rapidly — more rapidly than population. This made it possible to raise the great majority of people in whole societies beyond the subsistence level. Of course, some were far richer than others, but in time all benefitted.
Because of the continuing suffering of industrial labor and the vast wealth accumulated by some capitalists, there arose a conviction on the part of many that industrialization should be controlled by the state and its products distributed equally. This vision is associated especially with Marx. But despite its obvious appeal to Christian ideals, it was always founded on erroneous assumptions.
In fact industrialization develops most efficiently and to the greatest benefit of all when it operates within a free market. The motive of self-interest can be harnessed in such a market to the benefit of all, whereas bureaucratic control always and inevitably leads to distortions. Less is produced, and therefore less is available for the people. Furthermore, when there is only one employer, namely the state, people have far less freedom, and in fact centrally planned economies have usually been totalitarian.
One of the cornerstones of economic theory has been that production increases faster as the market is enlarged. There are good reasons for this assertion. Industrialization requires specialization. One factory can efficiently produce enough of a particular product to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people — or even tens of millions. In a large market several giant producers can compete with one another. This forces all of them to seek ever more efficient means of production and to sell their products at the lowest possible price. The result is an abundance of cheap goods. When goods are cheap in relation to wages, the standard of living rises.
This system has worked brilliantly in the North Atlantic countries and Japan. It is now working its magic in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The Christian goal must be to extend this success to the rest of the world. That requires breaking through the remaining barriers to free trade so that there can be one truly global market.
The major agents of the industrialization that brings prosperity to still impoverished nations are the great transnational corporations. These have the technological and financial resources to bring to the whole world the rapid increase of production that has saved the industrialized nations from subsistence living. Their work is thus fundamentally positive. Of course, they are sometimes insensitive to the human suffering and environmental destruction that they cause, and it is the task of Christians to work with them and through them to minimize this suffering and destruction.
This movement to global industrialization in a global market not only solves the economic problems of the world. It also overcomes the barriers that in the past have set tribe against tribe and nation against nation. The European Economic Community, for example, has overcome the national rivalries that have so often plunged Europe and the whole world into war. As the peoples of the world become more and more interdependent, there emerges a sense of our common humanity that replaces our tribal and national loyalties. Stackhouse and McCann celebrate the "relationships, group solidarities and cosmopolitan understandings" made possible by the new economic order in contrast to the miserable condition of the peasants in traditional societies.
I hope that I have presented the position I ascribe to Stackhouse and McCann in a way that shows its convincing power. I have no question whatsoever as to the sincerity of those who see the world in this way. I rather wish I could do so myself, and as recently as 1969 I did see it more or less that way, even though Stackhouse and McCann are correct that the theology to which I subscribed even then had different implications. We do not always understand the full implications of our own beliefs!
Although I objected to the formulation of my view of immanence and transcendence by Stackhouse and McCann, they rightly begin there in explaining our differences. I believe that God is immanent in all things, not only in special religious phenomena. Life as such reflects and expresses the immanence of God. From my point of view what is immanent is also transcendent. God is in all things, but equally, all things are in God. This means that there is value in all things as they are, and that all things contribute to the richness of the life of God. This way of thinking also leads to a different view of the relationship of humanity and the natural world.
In describing the dominant view in which Stackhouse and McCann participate, I spoke of the natural world as created for the sake of human beings. Humanity is seen as the real purpose of creation, the only real object of God’s love. For me, theologically, this is wrong. God loves all creatures, the sparrow as well as the human being. The human being is worth much more than the sparrow, but the sparrow, too, is of value. When we cause suffering to the least of our fellow creatures, we cause suffering to God.
This leads to a rejection of the dualistic view of humanity and nature. The Biblical language of creation in which human beings constitute the most important part is better. If "nature" is taken as the modern word for creation, then human beings are part of nature, not outside it. If "nature" means only that part of God’s creation that is not human, then it is important to emphasize the continuity between the natural and the human.
This does not mean, as Stackhouse and McCann suppose, that human history is merely an unfolding of the cosmos. But human history is, indeed, a part of the cosmos. It does not stand outside it. Like every part of the cosmos, only in an eminent degree, it has its own distinctive characteristics, not shared by other cosmic events and processes; so it must be understood in its own terms. But it must also be understood in its interaction with all other parts of creation.
Now if we suppose that God cares for the whole of creation and that human history interacts with all the other processes taking place on this planet, we view the global industrialization that is celebrated by Stackhouse and McCann quite differently. We see it in the context of a long story of human interaction with the other processes of creation. We note that since the domestication of plants and animals, some ten thousand years ago, human beings have changed the face of the earth. They have cut down most of the forests, turned many grasslands into deserts, and lost half or more of the arable land. This has had a massive effect on patterns of rainfall and other aspects of climate. Furthermore, these changes have been accelerated in our own generation.
We note also than in the past two centuries, the destructive effect of human activity on the environment has taken on additional dimensions. I will not rehearse this history. Suffice it to say, that the reduction of the ozone layer and the increasing greenhouse effect are but two of the more dramatic global expressions of these effects.
Looking back we see that many ancient cities were abandoned and whole peoples disappeared when their environments were destroyed by overuse. But these were local events that did not have a major effect on global population. What is now happening appears to be a global event analogous to those local ones.
Obviously industrialization has played a major role in the global assault on the human environment. Continued industrial growth around the world promises to intensify this assault. That means that it will hasten the ecological catastrophes that lie in wait.
You can see, now, why Stackhouse and McCann are so upset by my approach. It calls into fundamental question the process of global industrialization to which they look for the solution of the world’s continuing problems. They see any alternative to this process as ceasing to provide the goods people need for a decent life. They believe that to halt or reverse industrialization would condemn all people to slow death. And for reasons I have explained they associate the advance of industrialization with the global market in which the transnational corporations are the major players.
Stackhouse and McCann are not indifferent to environmental problems. They know that these can be serious and harmful to human welfare. But they see these as challenges to be responded to by improvements in the way that industrialization takes place. They do not view them as inherent in industrialization as such. They believe that there can be economic growth based on industrialization without unacceptable environmental costs. Indeed, they would probably say that only as industrialization brings prosperity are the resources available to deal with environmental problems.
I trust you will see that they are not altogether wrong in their insistence that environmental problems must be dealt with in the process of industrialization rather than through deindustrialization. Those of us who believe that trying to solve the world’s problems by further industrialization will only hasten catastrophe must propose something other than the slow death that could certainly result from widespread abandonment of industrial production. Obviously, I have not proposed that. But I did propose self-sufficient regional economies. And from the point of view of economism, that points away from the conditions required by healthy and growing industry.
I take very seriously indeed the challenge to show an alternative way of meeting the economic needs of the world’s peoples — a way that does not further weaken the earth’s capacity to sustain us. Our task is to find a way between the Scylla of ecological holocaust to which our present policies are leading us and the Charybdis of degrading poverty that would follow from deindustrialization.
I have used "industrialization" to stand for the process of increasing production through specialization. This process has been inseparably connected with massive use of fossil fuels. It is widely assumed that as fossil fuels give out the only replacement possible will be nuclear fuels. From the ecological point of view, much of the problem with industrialization is its dependence on fuels of this sort. There is a fairly close connection between the amount of such fuel that is used and the amount of resultant pollution or danger.
This suggests one step on which believers in economism and ecologism should be able to agree. Use fuels more efficiently! Especially in the United States we continue to use far more fuel than is necessary. Indeed, until very recently and even now to some extent, our official policies often discourage efficiency. Although it is now clearly demonstrated that the most cost-effective step for most utility companies and industries is to invest in more efficient equipment so as to reduce the use of fuel, the energy policy of the Bush administration, supported by prevailing preferences among economists, gives only lip service to this approach. The emphasis is on increasing production of fuels rather than on achieving the same end product with less fuel. This is sad, but we can hope that this particular perversity will give way to the growing consensus that we should use our resources efficiently. Although I have no direct knowledge of the views of Stackhouse and McCann on this point, I will assume that this is not an issue between us. A major national effort to become more efficient in the use of fuels will slow down the Greenhouse effect.
Beyond this point, however, and such other relatively noncontroversial steps such as increased recycling, the paths suggested by economism and ecologism are likely to diverge. From the point of view of ecologism, becoming much more efficient in our use of energy and other resources is but one of many changes that are needed. The next I will propose is the shortening of supply lines. Goods should be produced nearer to where they are consumed.
The reasons for this are easy to point out. A great deal of fuel is used in transportation. This amount would be reduced with shorter supply lines. Shorter supply lines would require fewer freighters and trucks, the building of which also uses exhaustible resources. Further, preparing goods for transportation often requires much more elaborate packaging than would be needed if the goods were consumed nearby. Much pollution, of the ocean, for example, is caused in the process of transportation, both by accidents and by standard practices. In these and other ways production for local consumption is far less costly to the planet than the present system of global interdependence.
Disciples of economism protest that shortening supply lines means smaller markets and less specialization. Since they take specialization as the key to prosperity, they oppose any such goal. Note the rejection of the "small is beautiful" ideology by Stackhouse and McCann.
From the side of ecologism, there is a double argument at this point. There is first the question of whether in fact there is a limit to the economic gains from specialization and large-scale production. Many studies question that bigger is always better. There is a great deal of evidence that beyond a certain point, varying of course with the type of goods in question, economies of scale disappear. Much of the most efficient factory production today is in medium-size factories. At present these are usually owned by transnational corporations, and their goods are marketed at great distances from production. But there are no technical difficulties in having locally owned small to medium-size factories producing for local and regional markets. Even now in our society most of the innovation and growth occurs in smaller industries that are then bought up by the giants. There is really no reason to think that relatively self-sufficient local or regional economies would be unable to provide well for their people.
But even if it turns out that prices would be higher when goods were produced locally than when they are brought in from all over the world, is that latter procedure really better? From the point of view of ecologism, paying a little more for goods, and having a smaller selection, would be a small price to pay for the reduced level of ecological destruction. Further, paying a little more and having a smaller selection should not be confused with the slow death that Stackhouse and McCann associate with the goal of local self-sufficiency.
Another major area for reducing the use of energy is in transporting people. Here, too, there is a double program needed. First, we need to make our equipment, especially our cars, more efficient. Second, we need to arrange our lives so that we have less need of them.
The latter brings me to the arcologies of Paolo Soleri. He has for many years been envisioning human habitat that would make all services and amenities accessible without the use of private automobiles. His arcologies would also take care of heating and cooling without the use of fossil fuels. Others take steps in this direction, but Soleri shows us the goal of an attractive city that can operate with very little use of fossil fuel. His arcologies would be a major step toward reduced use of fuels and the self-sufficiency of cities.
Although moving toward local self-sufficiency is very objectionable to those committed to economism, it is only one step forward for those committed to ecologism. For us it is important that we shift away from fossil fuels without resorting to nuclear energy. Reducing the total amount of energy used in the manufacturing and transporting of goods, and in the transporting of people and the heating and cooling of homes and offices is helpful in itself. The less we use fossil fuels and other forms of polluting or dangerous energy the better. But the goal is to shift away from all such energy to benign forms, ideally to passive solar energy. This shift is already realistically proposed in Soleri’s arcologies. It will be possible elsewhere only as the total energy use is drastically reduced by a combination of technical efficiency and reordering society.
So far I have emphasized that enormous improvements can be made without any reduction in the availability to consumers of either goods or services. I am arguing that the legitimate goals of economism, the provision of the goods and services people need, can be met by a system that is far less destructive of the environment than the global interdependence controlled by transnational corporations that is advocated by Stackhouse and McCann. But from the point of view of ecologism, still more change may be needed.
Although I emphasized that I do not advocate deindustrialization in general, nevertheless, we may need some shift back from factory production to the work of artisans. Some of that is already occurring because of the enjoyment experienced by artisans and the preference of some consumers for handmade goods. If factories had to pay the true costs of the energy they use, handmade goods of some types could compete more successfully with those made in factories.
Both handmade goods and factory products could be made to be more durable. Also, it would be possible to create a climate in which long-lasting products would be prized and there would be less need to replace goods frequently. Such a shift would also reduce the use of energy as well as other resources. It would not lower the quality of life.
Finally, from the point of view of one committed to ecologism, the affluent could do with less. Most of us have more goods than we need — often more than we really want. Human happiness is little improved by this surfeit of consumption and possession. As ecologism becomes more widespread, consumerism will decline with no loss to the real quality of life.
From the point of view of economism, on the other hand, these changes are highly undesirable. Reduced consumption would lead to a decline in the size of the economy, whereas our whole economic system is based on growth. Reduced consumption is what we call a recession, and the sort of reduction I envision would be much worse — a depression. The only way out of a depression is renewed growth; so my proposals would be a recipe for permanent depression.
Here we face a profound dilemma. From the point of view of ecologism we can describe a society in which all the necessities and many of the luxuries of life can be made available to all with greatly reduced pressure on the environment. This society is technically possible and does not violate anything deep-seated in human nature. Yet we are told that this would be economically disastrous, and we know that those who say this are sincere.
To understand this requires a deeper reflection about economism. It turns out to operate at two levels. The first level is an admirable concern that the goods and services people need for a decent life be available to them. The second concern is bound up with a particular theory, a particular ordering of economic life. Ecologism is compatible with economism at the first level — or so I have argued above. But it is strongly opposed to economism at the second level. Against this it argues for fresh thinking about the economic order, a thinking that locates the human economy in the larger economy of nature.
Consider why reduced consumption is disastrous. It means that industry can sell less, will produce less, and will lay off workers. These workers will not be able to buy as much as before and hence a vicious circle is instituted. We might propose that instead of laying off workers, the factory should reduce the hours of all. If demand declined by twenty-five per cent, then the work week would be reduced from forty to thirty hours. Of course, wages would also be reduced by twenty-five per cent.
The economist points out that a drastic cut in pay of this sort is a massive hardship. Workers will not be able to maintain payments on their cars and homes. Their children will have to drop out of college. The crisis spreads.
But, of course, all of this assumes the present economy and way of life. Suppose instead that our workers lived in an arcology and had no need of cars. Suppose their utility bills are negligible. Suppose that they acquired more long-lasting goods, so that they had less need to replace them. In other words, suppose just those things which in this proposal lead to reduced demand. In that case, receiving a lower wage would not be a hardship, and many would find the shorter workweek a boon. If one can attain as good a life with a shorter workweek, why should this be considered a disaster? If further changes reduce demand still further, and hours are cut still more, surely that is not to be regarded as a loss from the point of view of true human wellbeing!
Or if a shift from capital-intensive to labor-intensive production occurs, then the reduced need for workers in the factory will be compensated by increased need of workers as artisans. But surely this is not evil either, from a human point of view. Many people prefer the personal creation of goods to the routine work in the factory. If the goods people need and want can be supplied in this way, why should this be viewed as an economic disaster?
Nevertheless, it is clear that contemporary economic theory is all oriented to growth of production. The academic discipline of economics as it now exists is the study of how to make the economy grow. The underlying assumption is that only a growing economy can supply growing human needs and desires. I am making proposals as to how to make the economy shrink without reducing the quality of life. There is no community of economists discussing how this can be done. As it now stands in general, as well as in the form represented by Stackhouse and McCann, economism involves commitment to increase of production. From their point of view, not to be committed to that growth is tantamount to recommending slow death — as they say in their response to me.
I have focused thus far on the urban-industrial scene. It is at least equally important to deal with the production of food. We need to realize that overall food production on this planet since the domestication of plants and animals has been on an unsustainable basis. The goal of economic growth applied to agriculture has devastatingly heightened the unsustainable character of production. Soils are eroded and poisoned on a massive scale. I have been speaking of how the production of other goods and services could shift to a sustainable basis. There can be no more important topic than how food production can also be shifted to a sustainable basis.
The first step here would be the de-industrialization of agriculture. I did not advocate the de-industrialization of production generally. Given our global population, I do not believe that sufficient goods can be provided without industrialization. But with agriculture the situation is different. Industrialization shifts agriculture from being labor-intensive to being energy-intensive. The cost is not only that inherent in the use of energy. It also involves an exploitative attitude toward the land that has far reaching results. The agriculturally productive land that remains to us must be treated with the loving respect that is possible only when the human relation to the land is renewed.
This means a profound reversal, of course. Under the banner of economism our national policies have consistently favored bigness in farms. There has been a concerted effort to reduce the need for labor in agriculture so as to fill jobs in industry and low paid service in cities. Rural America has been decimated by these successful governmental policies. From the perspective of ecologism all this has been exactly wrong and needs to be reversed. Government policies should favor much smaller farms worked by owners who care for the land. Of course they will continue to use equipment that consumes fossil fuels; but on small, diversified, labor-intensive farms, the quantity used will be greatly reduced. Also farmers will find many jobs that can be done better with horses or mules. They will invest far less in equipment and be far less in debt. They will supply many of their own needs, so that they will not be so totally dependent on markets as they now are. Also they will grow diversified products for local markets much more than single crops for distant ones. International commodity markets dominated by a few giants will no longer control their fate.
I do not think I underestimate how difficult this reversal will be. But I also know it will not suffice. Small family farms have also been unsustainable. Few have done all they could to preserve and regenerate their soils. But even those whose practice is a model for all are still unsustainable in the very long run.
The person who has taught me this is Wes Jackson, and being sponsored tonight by his institute and speaking in the neighborhood of his pioneering experiments, I will not develop this point. If you have not heard him, you must. He has persuaded me that as long as our food supply is based on annuals, it will not be truly sustainable. Hence to develop perennial plants as the basis of the agriculture of the future is a matter of utmost importance.
The likelihood that Stackhouse and McCann — or other devotees of the dominant economism — would follow much if any of what I have said is slight. But even if they agreed that in already industrialized countries with adequate productive capacity a shift toward regional self-sufficiency would be possible, they would be likely to argue that this withdrawal from the global market on the part of the wealthy nations would be unconscionable. The way in which Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have moved toward our standard of living is by selling us their manufactured goods. If we stop buying, their economies would be destroyed. Even more important, the hope of other, still impoverished Third World nations to become industrialized and prosperous depends on the global market.
This is the greatest moral dilemma faced by ecologism. It is true that the hopes of the leaders of most Third World countries are pinned on investments by First World corporations and on First World markets, especially the United States, for their goods. The system has worked for the countries noted. One may argue that they have paid a high price for their success, but nevertheless the success, at least in economic terms, is truly impressive. In a single generation they have accomplished what required a century in the West. If this is the one way in which progress can be made in meeting the economic needs and wants of people, then to shut the door on the billions who have not yet made the transition to abundance does indeed appear to be immoral!
Nevertheless, I am not persuaded by this argument to change the direction of my recommendations. I have several reasons.
First, the planet simply cannot support its present population, much less the much larger one anticipated in the future, using resources at the per capita rate now typical in the First World. Hence the idea of solving the Third World’s problem in this way is completely unrealistic. This is even more apparent when we realize that the proposed scenario assumes continuing growth of resource use in the already affluent world as well. It proposes no point at which per capita resource use would cease to grow anywhere, since its whole theory is about how to increase production and consumption.
Second, even if there were no physical limits of the sort I have indicated, the economics simply cannot work. The countries that have succeeded have done so by running favorable trade balances over a sustained period of time, especially with the United States. But the United States cannot run an unfavorable balance of trade of vastly growing proportions indefinitely. At this point we can keep our trade unbalanced by selling our assets to our creditors. Japan, especially, has bought huge amounts of American real estate. But surely there must be some limit to how much of our land we are prepared to exchange for consumer goods. We must leave something for our children.
Third, it is very doubtful that many other Third World countries have the political and social ability to emulate the few successful ones. The successful ones generated capital internally, exercised tight control over labor, which acceded in the hope of future rewards, and restricted their own consumption. Most Third World countries lack the capital, the national solidarity, the political leadership, and the business experience to follow in this path.
Indeed, what is being proposed today for most of them is quite different. The successful countries exercised tight national control over their own economies. What is now being proposed in the name of economism is that national boundaries play less and less role in the global market. The idea is that capital will flow freely wherever it can be most profitably invested. All restrictions on the movement of goods will also be abolished. The hope for the Third World is that as the local governments cease interfering in the economies, the great transnational corporations will find it profitable to invest in their countries, taking advantage of their cheap, abundant, and docile labor as well as their lack of environmental regulations.
The real question is not whether the successful Asian countries can be emulated in the Third World generally but whether investments controlled by transnational corporations function to bring prosperity to the local people. My own judgment is negative. I do not know of any success stories in development where ownership and control of investments is by transnational corporations whose natural and appropriate interest is their own profits. And I do not foresee such successes.
Consider such examples as the purchase of Philippine and Indonesian forests by Japan. Of course, Japan made payments to the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia and to some large landowners. These were, presumably, of some economic benefit to those countries. Also, Japan employed considerable numbers of Philippinos and Indonesians to cut down the forests and ship out the logs. That, too, was of some help to the economies. But if we compare these gains with the permanent loss to those peoples of the services performed by the forests, the damage to the rivers and to the agricultural lands by the erosion of the mountainsides, the loss of fisheries, and so forth, one can hardly judge that the lot of the people has been improved.
Of course, transnational companies do not always only exploit nonrenewable resources. They sometimes invest in productive enterprises. Here the balance sheet is likely to be better. Usually, however, they do not produce for the local market. They use local labor to produce cheaply goods to be shipped elsewhere for sale. Some Third World countries will not allow the transnationals to build these plants unless there is local participation in investment and unless local management capability is developed. But it is just these restrictions that the advocates of the global market are now working to overcome. Where nothing of this sort is done, the benefit to the local community is limited to the employment of unskilled labor at local wages — or very slightly higher. If the alternative is unemployment, then there is some gain. If the alternative could be the employment of that labor in meeting some local need or producing something for the local market, then there is a loss.
Another major form of investment in the Third World is in agriculture. A pineapple plantation can be taken as a typical example. Usually the government cooperates in evicting subsistence farmers from the land in anticipation of earning foreign exchange through the export of the pineapples. Some of the subsistence farmers can get jobs on the plantation. These are paid wages that exceed in cash what they formerly earned. But formerly they were able to support themselves from their own farms. Now they must buy everything. Almost always they end up eating less well than before. Indeed, malnutrition becomes a serious problem among these agricultural workers. Since the plantation does not need all the farmers who have been evicted, others go to growing slums surrounding the cities. There can be little doubt that the lot of the farmers is degraded.
On the other hand, from the point of view of economism, there has been some gain. There is now an exportable surplus. This makes possible the importation of goods. Of course, the imported goods do not go to the displaced farmers. They go to the middle and upper classes who can now afford to buy automobiles and television sets. Thus the poor become poorer and the rich become richer.
It is my conviction that other models for Third World development must be found, that the one recommended by economism is disastrous. Some thinking about this has been done by those Latin Americans who have developed "dependency theory." They have shown how what has been called development in their countries has not "developed" the mass of the poor people. They have become more destitute than ever. They are less and less able to have any control over their own lives. They are dependent on the rich in their own locale. These are dependent on capitalists in the major cities. And these are dependent on the great centers of economic power in Europe, North America, and Japan. The system works to make the resources, natural and human, benefit the owners of capital. It does nothing for labor.
It uses the natural resources of the region, most of them nonrenewable, for the benefit of people who live elsewhere. And it leaves the nation as a whole less and less able to work itself out of its poverty and weakness.
I am not happy with what I have learned in my studies of Third World development. They have led me to the conclusion that what we have called development has been a new form of colonialism. Colonialism here means that the power to make decisions is held by powers outside the colonized countries and that the decisions are made in the interests of those powers. In the old colonialism these powers were usually governments. Now these powers are corporations that are but little subject to any governments. I do not think this neo-colonialism is an improvement over the old form. In both cases, an elite within the colonized country benefits economically from the arrangement and participates in First World lifestyle. But the masses of the people have no prospects of either political freedom or economic empowerment.
What would happen if the planet as a whole changed its goal from a unified and interdependent global economy to a multiplicity of relatively self-sufficient local and regional ones? I wish that I could present a positive scenario of which I could feel confident. I cannot. Nevertheless, I do believe that movements of liberation in these countries would have a much better chance. The United States would not feel that it had to suppress revolutions such as the one in Nicaragua, and it is my opinion that if the Sandinistas has been assisted and encouraged, instead of forced to devote most of their resources to defending themselves militarily, their government would have led to a Nicaraguan economy that did much more for the masses of the people than had ever been done before. It could have become a model for other Latin American countries, without the authoritarian and oppressive government that has corrupted almost all previous revolutions of the poor. That is now water over the dam. But the aspirations of the people of Latin America have not been ended. If the external forces of neocolonialism were removed, the chance that relatively self-sufficient local economies will emerge, and will provide a better living for their people, is enhanced. In general I am quite sure that the common people of Central America will eat better when their land is used to produce food for them rather than to raise fruits and cattle for North American consumption.
Despite my recognition that there can be no assurance of happy outcomes throughout the Third World if they become more independent economically, my conviction remains that this is the only real long-term hope they can have. The sooner policies shift in this direction, the better the chance of economic success.
I hope that I have posed the issues in such a way that the moral dilemmas have become clear. I have certainly not concealed that my own position is an extreme and revolutionary one. I see no possibility of a happy outcome of the direction we are now proceeding under the guidance of economism. I am deeply distressed by the prospect that Christianity will function to give sanction to this suicidal direction. It is urgent that the best theological, ethical, and economic minds join those already committed to ecologism in fundamental revisioning of what makes for the good society.
But though I am deeply convinced that the ideas and ideals of economism are wrong, I am also quite sure that they are honestly held by persons who are sincere in their Christian beliefs and committed to the wellbeing of humanity. Moral dilemmas do not arise in disputes between the good guys and the bad guys. The moral dilemmas we now face in economics and ecology arise from the clash of two quite different visions of reality, two ways of understanding God’s relation to the world. I hope that, despite my inability to deal fairly with views with which I disagree, you are able to appreciate both the more traditional Christian vision I reject and the, in my view more Biblical, one, that I affirm. What we believe religiously does profoundly affect how we act personally, and what public policies we espouse. It is time for us to reflect with greater seriousness about our theologies, asking whether the one we have inherited is adequate to give us the guidance we need in this time. It is my hope, of course, that you will decide that it is not, that we need to return to a more Biblical and holistic vision. But whatever the outcome of your own reflection, I also hope that we can continue the discussion with mutual respect for one another as faithful Christians.