return to religion-online

Will Economism End in Time?

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

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 cobbj@cgu.edu.. The following paper was delivered at a conference held in Hamburg, Germany, in November 1998.


We live in a world in which the economic order reigns. National and international decisions are made primarily in terms of expected results for the economy. Even issues of national sovereignty are subordinated to economic considerations. This organization of the world's life and institutions, together with the underlying belief system, I call "economism".

In an economistic society the highest good is wealth. Of course, many will say that the reason for seeking the increase of wealth is that only in this way can human needs be met. Originally, it was important to the belief system of economism that it hold that the global increase of goods and services be for the benefit of humanity. But for practical purposes it is now the increase of goods and services rather than the good of humanity as defined in any other way that governs policy and action.

From a Christian point of view it is obvious that this is idolatry. Idolatry is making primary and central -- treating as the object of ultimate devotion -- something unworthy of that status, something other than God. This particular idolatry was directly rejected by Jesus according to both Matthew and Luke. We are told that no one can serve both God and wealth. Clearly, therefore, the global system does not now serve God.

On these grounds Christians must condemn economism. But sheer condemnation is useless and often worse than useless. It sounds self-righteous, as if Christians thought that we could organize the world in a way that is not based on idolatry. But we have not demonstrated that. We did organize much of European society over many centuries, and much that we did was good. But looking back it is clear that we, too, were idolaters. We treated one form of Christianity or another as absolute, destroying those who did not agree. It was our institutions and belief systems, not God, that ordered society when we were in power.

We need, therefore, to approach the present, economistic age with greater humility and a broader and deeper analysis. If we are to call for its ending, it cannot be simply because it is idolatrous, since it may be that every human ordering of society will be tainted with idolatry. We can validly call for the ending of this form of idolatry only as we can point toward the prospects of a less idolatrous society, one that has a better chance of serving God through serving God's creatures. Let us, then, consider briefly how we came to our present situation, whether we can envision a better one, and what prospects there may be of moving into that more promising future.

I am proposing a theological periodization of history. The history I am considering is that of what we call "the West". At first this was the Western Roman Empire and the societies that succeeded it. Later it spread across the Atlantic to include Canada and the United States. The history of Eastern Europe is different, and the histories of the Islamic, South Asian, East Asian, African, and Latin American worlds are even more different.

Nevertheless, the history I am tracing has a unique importance for the whole planet. It is the patterns that emerged in this history that now determine much of what happens in the process of globalization. The now regnant economism has sucked much of the world into its orbit, even those parts whose histories have not prepared them for this development.

The first period of Western history, then, is one in which Christianity was the dominant force. It lasted for more than a thousand years. It shaped the institutions of society and undergirded them with a system of belief. Most people in the West identified themselves first and foremost as Christians. They were more willing to make personal sacrifices for Christian goals and purposes than for any others. It was as Christians that they went to war, engaged in conquests, and sought to convert others. I call this system of society and beliefs "Christianism".

Christian fervor did not decline gradually. On the contrary, it reached a kind of apex in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Beginning with the Reformation, however, different forms of Christianity competed with one another, and much of Christian fervor was devoted to supporting one form against others. This led to fratricidal confawct on a mass scale. The first half of the seventeenth century saw religious warfare threaten to destroy the fabric of society. Most Christians turned against Christianism. They looked to the political authorities to enforce peace among warring Christian groups.

Obviously this was possible only because political authorities had exercised considerable power throughout the Christianist period. Military and police power was exercised by them. Still, during the Christianist period, they understood themselves to derive their legitimacy from Christianity. When they struggled with the church for power, the debate was about the right way to organize a Christian society. They understood themselves, no less than the church, to be in the service of Christianity.

Beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century, this changed. Theological beliefs were not to be allowed to disturb the political order. New theories emerged to justify the exercise of political power that did not depend on Christianity. More and more the nation state superseded Christianity as the object of devotion. Nationalism became the ordering principle of society.

As nationalism assumed dominance, many people began to identify themselves first and foremost as Frenchmen and Englishmen rather than as Christians. It was for France and England, and later, Germany and Italy, that they were willing to make great sacrifices including giving their lives in war. Gradually the nation state took over such services as education and care for the sick and indigent that had previously been the responsibility of the church. National languages replaced Latin, and this accompanied a heightened sense of the particularity of each ethnic group. The nation state was less and less understood to be closely allied with any one form of Christianity.

Nationalism established peace among competing religious groups but generated wars between nations. These became increasingly bitter and destructive. The first half of the twentieth century saw two World Wars in which enthnocentric nationalism reached a fever pitch. Nationalism destroyed its credibility during that period much as Christianism had done three hundred years earlier.

By the end of World War II, nationalism was discredited. Europe could not be reconstructed on a nationalist basis. This did not bring an end to nations, any more than the nationalist reordering of Europe earlier had ended churches. But nations agreed to put their shared interests ahead of their competitive ones, and they identified their shared interests as economic. Europe was reorganized as the European Economic Community.

In the United States the change was far less dramatic. American nationalism was not as obviously discredited. The United States emerged as one of the world's two great military powers. The competition with the Soviet Union in some ways heightened U.S. nationalism.

On the other hand, even in the United States the issue was formulated not in terms of national glory but in terms of competing economic systems. American power was said to be in the service of Western democracy, which was understood as inseparable from free enterprise, or the capitalist, system. Furthermore, it became increasingly clear that we Americans did not exercise our power so much to advance human rights and democratic freedoms as to insure our economic wellbeing and that of our allies by expanding the capitalist world. The shift from political to economic considerations was apparent in the United States as well.

On a more global basis, the shift from nationalism to economism has been apparent in the development of global institutions. The end of World War II saw the creation of the United Nations as a political organization of sovereign states. But it also saw the creation at Bretton Woods of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Officially, these institutions were under the United Nations, but they quickly established their independence. During the following half century there has been a massive shift of power from the United Nations to the Bretton Woods institutions.

This shift has been promoted especially by the United States. As it became clear that the ideas of development advocated by Third World nations in the UN General Assembly involved some shift of power from the industrial nations to developing ones, the United States moved the power to act in this field away from the United Nations to the IMF and the World Bank. The dominance of established financial interests was thus secured.

The structural adjustment imposed by the IMF and the World Bank on debtor countries as a condition of aiding them to renegotiate their debts has transformed the relative power of governments and economic actors. The role of structurally adjusted governments is to serve the global economy. The theory is that by doing so their own economies will grow and that encouraging such growth is the primary role of governments. In practice there have been few successes even as measured in strictly economistic terms.

Further, much of the energy of the United States in international diplomacy have gone into the successive rounds of negotiations called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The announced goal of these agreements has been to reduce barriers to trade. Each agreement has further restricted the power of nation states to establish boundaries around their own markets, forcing them to open their markets to others. This involves a surrender of national sovereignty to establish policies according to the desires of the people in each country. The World Trade Organization is the outcome of these negotiations; and nations, including the United States, have granted extensive sovereignty to this organization to overrule national laws, and laws of subnational political units, deemed in restraint of global trade.

The United States has been a major actor in the attempt to go still further in the transfer of authority from governments to economic actors. It has pushed the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. If enacted, this would disempower governments from passing legislation that could hurt international investors. For example, a government could not create laws to preserve its environment if these added to the costs of factories established by transnational corporations. If these corporations believed their interests had been injured, they could take the government to court -- not in the courts of that country to be judged by its laws -- but in special courts set up to adjudicate between governments and corporations for the sake of maintaining the free flow of capital. Each corporation is thereby placed on the same legal footing as a national government.

There is sufficient nationalism in the United States that as the implications of the MAI became apparent, opposition arose, and Clinton withdrew the measure. Whether it will ever be passed by Congress is uncertain, but no doubt its measures will be imposed on Second and Third World countries through structural adjustment and other devices. Since the main concern all along has been to further disempower the governments of these countries, proponents may be satisfied.

II

Thus far I have been descriptive without concealing my concerns about economism. I need now to say explicitly why I am opposed to it.

First, I believe that people should have a role in determining the system and policies that shape their lives. Democratic political institutions provide a possibility for them to play such a role even if we complain how poorly they work in practice. Corporations are not organized so as to provide such a role to any except stockholders. Even with regard to most stockholders they work no better than popular democracy works with respect to ordinary citizens. The number of people with a significant influence on corporate policy is usually quite small. To transfer power from governments which can be influenced by popular desires to corporations which cannot works diametrically against important convictions that most Christians today share.

Second, the aims of corporations to grow and make more profits are inimical to the wellbeing of the natural world. Individual leaders in the corporate world may be deeply concerned about species diversity, global warming, the pollution of the oceans, the loss of forest cover, and many other matters. But corporations are not established to serve future generations or nonhuman creatures. They are established first and foremost to make a profit.

If we could count on corporations to think of profits over the longrun, such as fifty years, there would be many opportunities to show that their selfinterest coincided with some of the environmental needs. Unfortunately, even those corporate leaders who individually think this way are rarely able to act on these considerations. The global financial system is oriented to very short run profits, and corporations are forced to give major attention to these.

We can rejoice that in spite of these pressures there are moves among corporate leaders to develop principles of responsibility in relation to the environment. We must honor those who swim against the stream for the sake of the rest of us. But this does not justify the shift of power from the political system which can express the concerns of people for their grandchildren and for the nonhuman world to economic institutions for which these considerations are typically felt as interfering with their primary goals.

Third, the transfer of power to economic institutions has not reduced poverty. It is certainly true that the industrial revolution has led to the reduction of poverty in a good number of countries. But this is not an argument for economism. Those countries in which poverty has been virtually eliminated achieved this goal by government control and government policies. The global economy is now exercising increasing pressures on these countries to abandon just those policies that have had these results, leaving the distribution of goods and services to the market. The United States never went very far toward the elimination of poverty, but its recent market-oriented policies have led to its increase. In Europe the policies that have guaranteed all citizens a share in the national prosperity are under siege. The more closely nations follow the ideals of economism, the greater the gap becomes between the rich and the poor.

It is evident that global production is now sufficient to meet the needs of all. The problem is distribution. Economism succeeds in increasing production, but it works against the kind of distribution that would go far to justify this increasing production, even at some cost to the environment. It is simply not the case that global economic growth by itself reduces poverty. Nor is it the case that poverty cannot be reduced without growth.

The evil of economism becomes even more apparent when we view environmental concerns and poverty together. I have said that today production suffices to meet the needs of all. But this may not continue to be the case. Economistic policies degrade land an water, rendering them less able to produce food in the future. To keep up with the needs of a growing global population may no be possible. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that while the number of the poor does not decline, the ability of the affluent to consume grows greater. The prospects of feeding the world through an economistic system are bleak.

For reasons such as these, we must hope for the end of economism. But simply to oppose does little good. What would follow economism? Should we call for a resurgence of nationalism?

Surely this is an inadequate goal! Watching the destructive power of nationalism in Eastern Europe reminds us of the even greater destructive power it has, in the past, exercised in the West. If we call for a return to nationalism, it must be a very different form, one of which we do not now have any clear vision.

Yet I cannot avoid some support for nationalism today. I do favor the renewal of national control of national economies. If people are to have any say in the matters that determine their lives, this must be through governmental channels. And today in most parts of the world, the only governments capable of regaining such control are national ones.

This may not be true in Europe. The European parliament may be able to exercise such a role. There may be an increasing division of power between national governments and international ones of this sort. That would be a great gain. It would mean that problems that could be dealt with at the level of nations would be dealt with there but that those that could be dealt with better on a continental basis, would be treated there. Similar political structures are desirable in other parts of the world.

Since many problems are now global, they cannot be dealt with adequately even at the continental level. This has been recognized in the development of such global institutions as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. But all of these were brought into being to support the globalization of the economy. They are protected from influence by the people of the world. If, as I have emphasized, the economy should be in the service of wider human purposes, and these are best determined by popular participation through governments, then global economic institutions must be subordinated to global political organizations. The General Assembly of the United Nations is currently the best candidate to assume this role.

This means that the principle that economic actors should be subordinated to governments does not entail the renewal of the nationalism that has led to such horrors. It could and should lead to new political structures. If the economy continues to be ever more global, it would lead to a great concentration of political power at the global level. The United Nations would have to evolve into a world government with considerable centralized power. Only that would be able to control the enormous transnational corporations that now rule the world.

Although I am convinced that a global economy calls for a global government, I am not happy with this outcome. Even if the global government is far more subject to the will of the world's people than are transnational corporations, it is very far removed from ordinary people. Few will feel that their voices are adequately heard. Because of their great wealth, the corporations will be far more effective lobbyists than will popular movements. The cynicism about the lack of independence of legislators from corporate interests, already so extensive in the United States, is likely to generate widespread alienation from the political process across the globe.

For reasons such as these, we urgently need a new vision of a livable future that can motivate our efforts to bring an end to the era of economism. I propose that such a vision is already emerging and gaining increasing power. I call it Earthism.

III

Nationalism could not have replaced Christianism had it not been richly developed before it was called upon to assume dominance. Economism could not have replaced nationalism had it not been well developed theoretically and practically for a long time, especially since the industrial revolution and the rise of modern economic theory in the late eighteenth century. Earthism can replace economism only as its vision and its theoretical support for that vision are well developed and widely accepted. Also, it requires institutional embodiment.

It is my thesis that these conditions are now being met. As a global movement I date the beginnings of Earthism with the United Nations Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. This does not mean that the official summit was a triumph of Earthism! Quite the contrary. The United States saw to it that economism remained almost unscathed. It was acknowledged that economic development should be sustainable, and this opened the door to fresh discussion. Also, environmental considerations gained a higher profile in some official circles. But no credence was given to the need for a new paradigm or direction.

Nevertheless, during the Rio conference nongovernmental organizations organized a parallel event a few miles away. These NGO's came from all parts of the world and focused on diverse issues. Among these, issues of justice, of overcoming poverty, of true development, and of the environment were prominent. Often in the past environmentalists had seemed to clash with those most concerned about the poor and oppressed. But by 1992, the situation had changed. The representatives of these many groups had come to see that the economistic policies adopted by almost all nations were the common enemy. Their consensus expressed itself in "The People's Earth Declaration: a Proactive Agenda for the Future".

The change accomplished by this event is so important that it deserves restatement in different ways. Prior to Rio there were many criticisms of the effects of economistic policies on the poor, on traditional societies, on indigenous peoples, and on the environment. They sometimes achieved minor adjustments of the policies they opposed, but the situation they bemoaned grew globally worse. The opponents of the dominant system could sometimes be played off against one another. There was no positive unifying vision of an attractive alternative.

At the International NGO Forum near Rio in 1992 that changed. The NGOs articulated a shared critique of the regnant economism and clarified what would be involved in a different ordering of the world. Since then at every United Nations meeting, they have built on that platform and enriched it. It is this growing consensus that I call Earthism.

The term Earthism highlights the attention to the environment that was a major motivating force for holding the UN conference. But the NGO statement balances that emphasis by dealing primarily with how human needs are to be met. The focus on the Earth is not on the planet in separation from its human inhabitants but on the planet as the way of speaking of people and their home together.

Of course, the NGOs call, as I have, for subordinating the economic order to the wider needs of humanity. But their consensus goes far beyond that. They call for decentralization of economic power and activity. Their vision is of "relatively self-contained local economies that control and manage their own productive resources." This would make possible also the decentralization of a considerable amount of political power, without again subordinating the political to the economic.

There is a strongly religious note in this document, and this is clearly acknowledged. "Our thinking," the document states, "has also been enriched by the teachings of the many religious traditions represented among us. We recognize the central place of spiritual values and spiritual development in the societies we seek to create. We commit ourselves to live by the values of simplicity, love, peace, and reverence for life shared by all religious traditions."

It is my judgment that today Earthism is the only movement capable of replacing economism. Obviously, it has not done so. The reign of economism is more complete than ever before. Nevertheless, there are signs of hope.

First, the religious fervor behind economism is eroding. It is now experienced more as the established orthodoxy than as the hope of the world's salvation. Those who once saw it in the latter light are now far more modest in their claims. The argument in its favor is more often that it is a fait accompli, or that the nationalism it replaces was worse, or that a reversal now would lead to chaos and suffering. It is kept alive more by those who benefit from it -- and who control the media and most governments -- rather than by true believers. In short the passionate conviction that once propelled it is fading.

Second, its failures become ever more apparent. The collapse of the Southeast Asia economies that had been hailed as the great success stories of economistic policies has discredited the vision in the eyes of many. The experience of Eastern Europe has hardly supported the claims of those who persuaded it to adopt an undisciplined form of the market economy. Defenders of economism will continue to explain that all of its failures are due to the refusal of the nations of the world to implement economistic policies purely. For them the fault always lies with the limitations still imposed by nations or the corruptions due to continuation of precapitalist patterns. If the market were truly given a free hand, they insist, all would be well.

We Christians know this argument well. In response to those who would discredit Christianity by pointing to the sins and failures of Christendom, we have pointed out that no people or nation has ever embodied Christianity in its fullness and purity. The fault, we have said, lies with these distorting elements and not with our own ideal teaching. But just because we know this argument well, we know not to be taken in by it. Those who have struggled hardest to force society into what they have understood to be the Christian mold have also done great damage. The evidence is that the implementation of the ideals of economism is inherently destructive, not only the distortions.

Third, the theoretical foundations of economism are weak. The model of the human being that undergirds economic theory is obviously abstracted from real human beings. For the purpose of analyzing what happens in the market, such abstraction has considerable justification. But this does not justify ordering society as a whole around Homo economicus. Human beings are poorly understood by this purely individualistic model. They are better understood as persons-in-community. Also the virtual exclusion of the natural world from economic theory renders it highly inappropriate at a time when the fate of that world is crucial for all. People are increasingly recognized that the economy itself is far too important to be left to those who deal with it in such abstract ways and that society as a whole is too rich to be placed in the service of the market.

Fourth, once the idealism that has been captured by the globalization of the market collapses, the issues can be viewed realistically in terms of who gains and who loses. It then becomes obvious that a few gain and that many lose. The many who lose will then be able to ally themselves with those who offer an alternative that will benefit them. Earthists will have a large audience.

I do not mean that bringing an end to the reign of economism will be easy. Even when the idealism associated with it is gone, the power behind it is enormous and becomes greater every day. Those who benefit from it tend to be the best educated, the most articulate, and the most politically active people in society. They are the ones with greatest resources and correspondingly, with greatest power. They control our politicians, our "news", our education, our entertainment, and increasingly our legal system. Even our churches are far from free of their dominance. They will not easily yield their power.

IV

What is the role of Christians in all this? I should first explain that Christians are not limited to Christianists. Christianists are those who work for the dominance of Christianity. There have been many Christianists in the world, and in spite of chastening experiences, there continue to be some now. But these are not the Christians among which I locate myself or to whom I am speaking.

While many Christianists fought one another in order to control and shape the correct Christian society, many Christians were revolted by the resulting slaughter and sought for a way to establish peace and tolerance among Christian groups. They turned to political authority for this purpose. They recognized the danger of idolatry inherent in nationalism, but the best of them opposed that tendency while undertaking to be truly patriotic.

This experiment failed. Just as most Christians during the time of Christianism succumbed to that idolatry, so most Christians during the epoch of nationalism succumbed to that idolatry. We must regretfully confess that we have in general failed to engender that kind of faith in God that relativizes all worldly loyalties. Fortunately, some have understood, and the record is not all one of failure.

A shift of focus from the political order to the economic one has seemed attractive and desirable to many Christians. It offered peace among long-warring nations and cooperation in providing the good things of life to more and more people. It offered interdependence among all the world's peoples. It proposed moving us to the one world of which many Christians dreamed.

Now that dream in its turn has gone sour. Although we no longer fear war between France and Germany, we have redirected our war against the poor. We call it low-intensity conflict. We have greatly expanded the production of goods and services (at considerable expense to the environment), but we have left the poor ever farther behind. The vaunted interdependence of the world's peoples turns out to be the dependence of all on a few centers of an economic power that is wielded with indifference to the fate of the dependent people. It has brought the affluent everywhere to an increasingly homogenized world, while leaving the poor in hopelessness. More and more of us are disillusioned.

We now have an alternative to support. It is an alternative to whose formation we have contributed. It takes seriously the integrity of God's creation. It puts people first, and especially indigenous people and the poor. It seeks to empower them to play a role in shaping their own lives. It subordinates the economic order to larger human ones.

It is difficult for me to understand how we can withhold our support. We know, of course, that the danger of idolatry lurks here as well. But ultimate devotion to the Earth and all its inhabitants is far less dangerous than ultimate devotion to Christianity, to nations, or to economic growth. The Earth is not God, but to point that out is not to discredit Earthism as currently the one positive force available to supersede economism. Our first step as Christians should be to support Earthism in its struggle to stop the destructive course of events under the aegis of economism and to redirect human society.

Once this step is taken, Christians can contribute to the formulation of Earthism. It is still a young movement with many diverse potentials within itself. Some are much more acceptable to Christians than others. Earthists are currently remarkably open to help from Christians. We should bring not only our practical help but also the wisdom we have gained from two millenia of experience.

The reason that the idolatry involved in devotion to the Earth is less dangerous than other idolatries is because the Earth includes far more of God's creation. Most of our actions have little effect on any other part of that creation; so limiting our devotion to this one planet has few negative consequences. Nevertheless, this Earth is in fact a very small part of the whole of creation. The time could come when, as in so much science fiction, Earthlings come in contact with beings from other parts of the universe. Then the idolatry of Earthism would become apparent.

There are subtler and more practical problems with Earthism. It is clear that it involves maintaining and perhaps expanding the planet's carrying capacity for the sake of its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. It is clear that it involves also meeting the basic needs of all people or rather, providing the context in which people can meet their own basic needs. But does it seek a relatively static situation in which the planet as it now is, or recently was, becomes the ideal to be preserved? Or does it hold some ideal for what the Earth should become?

At this stage, when Earthism seeks to articulate and provide an alternative to economism, these and many other questions may not be practically important. But even in its infancy the seeds of future development are laid. And should economism collapse more quickly than any of us anticipate, and Earthism come into power, many questions that now seem "academic" would become practically important. It is not too early to begin reflecting upon them.

Of course, Christians will not speak with one voice on matters of this sort. But I will speak for myself as a Christian. I believe that God works through creatures, especially human ones, that that work is transformative, that we cannot know in advance just where such transformation will lead, but that we can distinguish God's transforming work when it occurs from other kinds of changes. For me to be an Earthist is to seek to shape a world in which God's transforming work can be most effective and to be open to its guidance in shaping and reshaping my own vision of that world. Meanwhile it leads me to expect that others will have insights and wisdom that I lack, so that I am called to listen and learn as well as to share.

I discern God's work in the International NGO Forum where the views of many were enriched in their interaction with one another. The resulting document does not put itself forward as a final and definitive statement. It invites criticism and development. In this whole process there is a minimum of idolatry. It is to be heartily commended. But we all know that what begins in openness and transformation can become congealed into a final word to be defended against those with differing insights. It is my hope that Christians can help Earthists to guard against that human tendency.

We are aided in avoiding idolatry by distinguishing the Spirit that is working in us from the specific results of the work. Thus we will be most faithful to the Earthist movement when we continue to hear and obey the voice of God, not when we defend what has resulted from such hearing in the past. Whether other Earthists can share this understanding with us cannot be determined in advance, but the distinction between God and what God has brought into being may be our greatest contribution.

There are specific doctrinal points at which we may also have contributions to make. Among Earthists there are some who are markedly anthropocentric. For them, as for economistic thinkers, the value of the other creatures is their value to us. There are others who insist that human life is of no greater value than any other form of life, that all are equally to be respected.

Christians who enter that argument must recognize that we have ourselves been anthropocentric for most of our history. Our insistence on the primacy of God has not led us to much concern for God's other creatures. It has been enough to relate God to all human souls. Nevertheless, in recent years we have repented. We have recognized that humanity is one part of a much larger creation for which God cares. We have acknowledged that our anthropocentrism has been a form of idolatry -- a very destructive one.

On the other hand, the fact that God created other creatures and saw that they were good quite independently of their relation to human beings does not mean that each creature is of equal value with every other. Jesus does not deny the value of each sparrow to God, quite the contrary. But Jesus tells us that a human being is of far greater value to God than a sparrow. Even in the Genesis account there is some implicit ranking, and human beings are singled out for special responsibilities and special privileges.

Those who object to a hierarchical ordering of creatures often complain that this is an extension of anthropomorphism. We grade the value of creatures according to their attractiveness to us. For Christians there is, in principle, another possibility. We can grade creatures according to their contribution to the divine life. We can judge that the value lost to God through the death of an earthworm is less than what is lost through the death of a fish, and that that in turn is less than what is lost through the death of a bear. We may be wrong in our judgments, of course, but that does not mean that we should not make them.

Among Earthists there are others who reject this whole process of valuing individual creatures. For them what is important is the health of ecosystems. This health is maintained through an endless cycle of birth and death with creatures feeding upon other creatures. These Earthists view those concerned with the suffering and death of individual animals as sentimental. Those who have focused on reducing animal suffering are equally harsh in their judgments of those who trivialize their concerns.

Christians can bring some reconciliation here as well. Certainly the health of ecosystems is of extreme importance for all of us. The wellbeing of our children and grandchildren depends on sustaining many ecosystems. Without such ecosystems the individual animal about whose suffering we are concerned would not even exist.

But if we ask ultimately why we care about ecosystems, it must be for the sake of the individual creatures who make them up and who will make them up in the future. If these creatures have no value, then the ecosystem has no value. Intrinsic value lies in individuals, not in systems. Belittling of concern about animal suffering is mistaken.

On the other hand, it is obvious that normal life in a healthy ecosystem includes a great deal of suffering as well as a great deal of enjoyment on the part of the creatures that make it up. Any effort on our part to reduce the suffering would probably be counterproductive. The ecologists are right to discourage any intervention for this purpose.

But in fact those who work to reduce animal suffering rarely have such matters in mind. They are not trying to protect prey from predators in the wild. It is the human acts that so greatly increase animal suffering against which they protest. That protest is valid.

Of course, conflicts between these two complementary concerns are inevitable. If ecologists decide that a particular exotic species is disrupting an ecosystem, they may call for its destruction. They may not oppose the use of traps or other particularly cruel methods in this process. This may evoke strong reaction from animal protectionists. But a wider vision can usually do justice to both sides. The destructive species can often be removed in relatively humane ways.

Sometimes Christians can provide deeper grounding for Earthist intuitions. One of these is that biodiversity is good. Earthists are appalled by the decimation of this diversity as habitat is destroyed. Often they argue that some of these species may have great value for human beings, providing some now unknown medicine, for example. But their reasons for opposing the reduction of biodiversity are much deeper.

Christians share that sense of loss. But they can explain it better. The loss of diversity is the loss of the potential for rich experience. A homogenized world cannot contribute to experience the contrasts that give it intensity. This cuts against the loss of known species and of a certain number of unknown ones. But no human being will ever be able to be enriched by the experience of hundreds of thousands of species of beetles. Hence the argument there is weak.

The story of Noah affirms that God cares about biodiverity. We know that the vast variety of species is known by God. God's experience is enriched by this variety. The destruction of species impoverishes the future contribution of the world to the life of God. For God's sake we are to refrain from simplifying the complexity of the created world.

V

My argument in this paper has been that economism, like its predecessors Christianism and nationalism, is proving destructive. The destruction this time is global and in danger of becoming irreversible. It is important that economism come to an end.

The one new movement that has now emerged capable of challenging the hegemony of economism is Earthism. Although it, like all the others, is subject to idolatrous understanding, the conflict between serving the Earth and serving God is far less than the conflicts engendered by serving Christianity, nation states, or economic growth. Christians should rejoice in the rise of this new spiritual force and give their support to it. They can work within this movement to clarify its thinking and help to preserve it from its own idolatry.

 

 


Viewed 11198 times.