Economic Aspects of Social and Environmental Violence

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

This lecture was delivered at the Buddhist-Christian Conference in Tacoma, Washington, August 2,000. Used by permission of the author.


Dr. Cobb claims that economism causes social and environmental violence. It does so by creating a society oriented to the increase of economic activity through the market, which tends to concentrate wealth among a few while destroying many small players. For example, the economic policies that drive millions of people off their land and out of their traditional villages are violent ones. Cobb suggest several remedies, including the idea is that when we purchase anything, we should pay the full cost, including all human, social and ecological costs.


When we think of violence, what first comes to mind are violent acts by individuals or groups against individuals. We think of rapes and murders, lynchings and muggings, beatings and armed robberies. We want the police to protect us from this violence. Unfortunately, we know that police are tempted, in turn, to employ their power in violent ways, chiefly against those guilty of crimes, but sometimes against the innocent. The cycle of violence on the part of individuals and groups goes on.

Bad as this violence is, it is worse when the state, instead of restricting it, supports and requires it. Political authorities have always exercised violence against their own people, especially those they suspected of being threats to their power. But in the twentieth century, state violence reached previously unheard of levels. For the sake of building a communist society, Stalin killed millions and imprisoned millions more. The Nazis undertook to purify Germany of Jews, gypsies, and other undesirables through extermination undertaken through bureaucratic processes.

We Americans do not think of ourselves as having employed state power in any such way. We know that national power was used violently to drive Native Americans off their land down through the nineteenth century. We know that southern states used their power to enforce segregation and protect whites who engaged in violent acts against blacks in order to maintain total white domination over them. But we now think of the national government much more as the protector of human rights. This is not entirely false,

We tend not to recognize, however, the amount of violence the national government is exercising in the war against crime and the war against drugs. In order to reduce individual violence as well as drug use, we have created a prison population of two million. One fourth of all the prisoners in the world are in the United States, most of them jailed for non-violent crimes. Although drug use is more or less equally spread among ethnic and economic groups, most of those imprisoned for this crime are poor and ethnic minorities. In the name of law and order, enormous violence is inflicted by the United States against its ghettoized people.

In this same century war also took on new dimensions. It has been waged against entire populations instead of armies. The aim at total destruction came to its fullest expression when the United States twice dropped atomic bombs on Japan.

World War II has conscientized all of us about the horrors of state violence. It has turned us against nationalism. We are appalled as we see nationalism raise its ugly head again in the former Soviet Union and especially in the former Yugoslavia. When ethnic groups undertake to destroy each other, our moral condemnation is unambiguous. Personal, group, and state violence remains a problem, but at least the wrong involved in this is widely understood.

In all civilization there has been another kind of violence -- economic. In much of history it has been closely related to the forms noted above. The rich have been able to impose their will on the poor because they could employ persons to exercise violence for them and they could influence state action. We see this glaringly in the goon squads employed by the wealthy in some Latin American countries to intimidate and kill those who protest their actions. These goon squads often work closely with the military power of the state.

We know that in this country as well, wealth reduces the chance of conviction for crimes. It also buys influence in government. On the whole the United States government throughout history has supported the interests of those with money. Today the power of wealth in the political process is glaringly evident. We recognize that this situation is corrupt, but we do not ordinarily think of it as a form of violence. This is because the violent consequences are indirect, and we are not accustomed to tracing these connections.

Furthermore, many of the policies that have violent consequences are enacted by conscientious people. They promote these policies because the best scholars recommend them. Usually we think of violence as done by vicious people. It is my thesis that throughout history, but especially today, most violence is done by righteous people. This is especially true of economic violence.

The general point that virtue is no insurance against committing violence points to the importance of beliefs. In the Middle Ages, the motivations for the Crusades were undoubtedly mixed, but without the deep conviction of conscientious Christians that they should rescue the Holy Land from the infidel, they would not have occurred. Even the torture of heretics grew out of conscientiously held beliefs. In the modern world, the horrors mentioned above were often committed by Communists and Nazis who were true believers. If nations could not count on the deep loyalty of their citizens, the great wars of recent centuries could not have been fought.


After World War II, nationalism faded in the North Atlantic region. It has been replaced by what I call "economism." Economism is that organization of society that is intentionally in the service of economic growth. All other values, including national sovereignty, are subordinated to this end, with the sincere expectation that sufficient prosperity will enable the world to meet its non-economic needs as well.

The ideology of today’s economism is neo-liberal economics. This does not mean that every neo-liberal economist favors economism. An economist may affirm that the task of economists is to describe the economic order, and that of politicians, to balance economic concerns with others. The decision for economism has been a political one to the effect that the economic order is the most important, not a decision by economists. Nevertheless, understandably, many economists have enjoyed their new status as high priests and theologians of the new order. In general they can be counted on for support.

The global market toward which neo-liberal economic ideology directs us is also strongly favored by the dominant economic players. There is thus a coincidence of the self-interest of those with greatest wealth and the implications of the theories of those who study the economy most dispassionately. This has displaced the coincidence between national governments and those who wrote the histories and songs that celebrated the glory of nations.

How, then, does economism cause social and environmental violence? It does so by creating a society oriented to the increase of economic activity through the market. In the working of the market, there is a tendency to concentrate wealth, since the possession of wealth gives one the advantage. Furthermore, there are economies of scale, which mean that the greater the wealth concentrated in one organization, the easier for it to function well in the market. Accordingly, great wealth is achieved by the absorption or destruction of innumerable small players.

This is particularly dramatic in Third World countries. The products of industrialized countries displace local production, putting the native artisans out of work. Local industries cannot compete with transnational corporations without the governmental support that the economic theory forbids. Indigenous banks and insurance agencies are put out of business as well or bought up by transnational ones. This is one form of violence promoted by the system recommended by neoliberal economics.

The disruption of traditional society is a necessary condition for the emergence of an economistic society. Such a society depends on the willingness of large numbers of people to undertake tedious and unrewarding work at low pay and in very poor conditions. Few members of well-functioning traditional societies are willing to exchange their lives for this kind of labor. But when the presence of the products of industrial societies undercuts the livelihood of traditional workers, they have no choice.

This operates on an especially large scale in agriculture, since most people in traditional societies are farmers. In these societies subsistence agriculture is primary. Of course, farmers also produce food for the village market where they exchange their products for goods produced by others. Such farmers have very little money, but most of the time they can feed and clothe their families and enjoy a respected place in their communities.

Of course, in many traditional societies, peasants worked for landlords who took their entire surplus and kept them near the survival level. In Mexico, these peasants revolted from time to time, sometimes successfully. Unfortunately, the landlord class usually reestablished itself before long. After one such revolution much of the land was divided up among the peasants, and to prevent its re-concentration in the hands of the few, the government passed laws forbidding its sale. This led to the continuation of a society of peasants each with a small farm. A decade ago some ten million Mexicans lived on such farms.

Mexican leaders saw this as an obstacle to economic development. This form of agriculture is labor intensive and it produces little surplus for export. It adds little to the Gross National Product of the nation. Economic progress requires that labor be made more productive by the introduction of machines and chemicals. This requires much larger farms.

One main function of NAFTA was to facilitate this change in Mexican agriculture. Since the land in question was fertile and productive, and since Mexican labor was cheap and governmental restrictions few, U.S. agribusiness was interested in moving in. But first the peasants must be persuaded to sell their land.

The first step was to change the law, giving the peasants the legal right to sell. The second step was to undercut the peasant economy. This was accomplished by reducing tariffs on the importing of competing crops from the U.S. These were cheaper because of agribusiness methods of production that do not count the cost of lost soil, contribution to global warming, the exhaustion of aquifers, or the pollution of waterways.

The economic policies that drive millions of people off their land and out of their traditional villages are violent ones. They are analogous to the enclosure movement that drove peasants off their land in the eighteenth century. They produce a large pool of unemployed people desperate for work. These will accept almost any pay and conditions.


This opens up the possibility of another form of violence -- sweatshops. Technically, in this country at least, sweatshops are defined in terms of their violation of laws. They are manufacturing establishments that fail to comply with health and safety standards and/or pay less than the minimum wage and/or require laborers to work overtime without the required recompense.

Such establishments had largely disappeared in this country, although agricultural labor practices often had a similar character. But with the move from national economies to the global one, sweatshops have returned on a large scale. The largest industry in Los Angeles is garment manufacturing, and most of this is done in sweatshops. Only very recently have objections led to steps to correct this. In the global economy, efforts to correct it in Los Angeles will probably lead to more manufacturers moving across the border to Mexico.

Production in Third World countries does not always violate laws, since there may be few laws to violate. Once their traditional economies are destroyed, these countries are forced, in the global economy, to compete with one another to attract capital investment. They do so by keeping wages low and leaving conditions of work for manufacturers to determine. This brings about the "race to the bottom." The result is often something approximating slave labor. Since employers often favor young women, it is these on whom much of the violence is inflicted.

Indeed, in some respects conditions of today’s workers are sometimes worse than those of slaves. Slaves represented a substantial capital investment, and owners benefited from keeping slaves in condition to work for decades. In contexts where there is an almost unlimited supply of workers, employers can wear them out and discard them. They have no investment in their health or well-being. It is cheaper to replace them than to care for them.

The destruction of the traditional economy leads to other acts of desperation. Many peasants, in order to survive, sell their daughters into prostitution. Prostitution has been a part of traditional as well as modern societies, but it is now operating in some "developing" countries on an entirely new scale. Sex tourism is now a major industry.

Supporters of economism may share in deploring these widespread incidents of violence. They may undertake to moderate them in various ways. But they believe that the gains that come from following economistic policies outweigh the losses and will eventually bring benefits even to those who are now suffering. They tend to depict the conditions of people in traditional societies as extremely miserable, so that the changes that strike me as profound violations of their humanity are viewed as progress, however minimal. They point out that millions of young women are competing for employment in the new sweatshops, and they argue that this means that however bad, their work there is preferred to the alternatives. They treat the alternatives as the product of the traditional society that I have described more positively, rather than as the result of the destruction of the traditional economy by modernity. Since the coming of the sweatshops raises the national GNP, they believe that in due course all will be more prosperous. Hence the violence is temporary, the long run gains will be permanent.

There are many reasons for disputing this perception. The most obvious is environmental. The expansion of production that is central to the economistic program overall adds to the violence done to the environment. It speeds up the exhaustion of resources and the pollution of the environment. It leads to the extinction of species especially by destruction of their habitat. This violence is enormous.

Those who believe that the present violence against peasants and workers is temporary, and that the eventual rewards will make it all worthwhile, suppose that economic growth can continue indefinitely. In their view, eventually goods will be so plentiful and so cheap that all will enjoy them. There will be no misery based on economic want.

Unfortunately for this scenario, our economy is already unsustainable. We can show this in many ways, but because the worst consequences of our current activities lie still some distance in the future, they are easy to ignore. Many live by a faith that technology will solve those future problems when the time comes. Others have little hope but see no alternative but to do what one is expected to do now. Complacency and despair both support continuation of present patterns.

There are parts of the world where the future is already upon us. Many of the most polluted of the world’s cities are in newly industrializing parts of China. There the environmental cost of "development" is immediate. Pollution of the air is so serious that it adds immediately to the cost of healthcare. There have been cities where this added cost exceeded the income from factories, and some of the latter have been closed accordingly.

It is too bad that we cannot act to protect our Earth before the cost of not doing so becomes so immediate and pressing! The fact that it is our children who will pay for much of what we are doing should be sufficient to move us. Indeed, the plight of indigenous peoples and of the nonhuman species with whom we share the planet should touch our consciences as too high a price for us to be paying even in terms of immediate consequences.


Probably today the major obstacle to change is the enormous power of those who profit from the present situation. But that power rests to a considerable extent on the support of the dominant economic theory. Many people of goodwill would resist the take-over of the world by transnational corporations if they were not assured by those they regard as experts that this process is the one route to a good future for all. These experts sincerely believe what they tell us, since the theory they have studied and teach affirms this. Belief systems are immensely important. We see what our systems of belief lead us to see. The rest is anomalous and largely invisible.

For this reason it is important to understand neo-liberal economic theory. I do not mean that we need to study the complex mathematics in which it usually expresses itself. What we need to grasp is much more readily accessible to us in any standard introduction. What is important can be formulated most easily in terms of the values that are omitted. It is predictable that what is not considered in the theory will not be considered in evaluating the outcome of the theory in practice.

No theory in any field is comprehensive. The study of any one set of features of the world or society will concentrate on those concepts most useful for understanding just those features. Hence it is not a serious criticism of economic theory to note that it does not deal with cultural or religious or ethical values. From one point of view it does deal with them in the sense that it considers in an abstract way everything people care enough about to spend money to procure. But it does not value Shakespeare more highly than pornography. Indeed, if the public spends more on pornography than on Shakespeare, then pornography is a greater value as measured by economists. If people happen to be generous or philanthropic, economic theory accepts their expenditure of funds alongside others. But there is nothing in the theory that encourages such generosity. Indeed there are indications that those most formed by the theory are less likely to see reasons for giving to others than are those less influenced by it. The rational behavior encouraged by the theory is not other-regarding.

Points of this kind could be elaborated at length, but I will not do so here. I do believe that the dominance of economistic thinking reduces our tendency to encourage the improvement of taste and our generosity toward one another. But I do not insist on these judgments. There is no necessary connection between the theory and this kind of practice. But there are some omissions that have a dramatic and direct effect upon how an economistic world functions. I will consider three: fairness, community, and nature.


Fairness or justice is a concept that is central to political theory. As long as society is governed by political considerations, with economists simply making one contribution alongside others, the absence of this concept in economics was not of major importance. But we are considering here what happens when the relation of the economic and the political orders is reversed, when the political order redefines itself as in the service of the economic one. Then the absence of justice in the thinking of the now dominant ideology may be expected to have immense consequences for society as a whole.

My point is not the obvious one that economic theory does not discuss justice or fairness in the political, legal, social, or educational spheres. That could hardly be expected. The point is that it does not consider fairness or justice in the economic sphere either. Hence, there is no belief or commitment that can check the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands and the abuse of that power in violence against the weak. There is nothing in the theory to direct our attention to the consequences of economic growth for the poor or to favor a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods. That the rich grow richer without benefiting the poor is acceptable so far as the theory is concerned. It is also accepted in practice in our world.

This by no means implies the absence of economists whose humanitarian and political commitments lead them to be concerned about the distribution of wealth. Many have made studies of distribution, and their personal values are often quite clear. But these concerns fall outside the theory. The theory treats this matter chiefly under the heading of Pareto optimality, and this treatment makes clear that distribution is not the economist’s concern as economist.

Pareto optimality begins by pointing out that none of us are in position to judge the inner states of others. We assume that in general people prefer to have goods and services, and that the more money they have the better off they are. But we cannot say that additional income to one person adds more value than additional income to another. That could be judged only by one who could share the subjective experience of both. Since no such sharing is possible, economists must eschew any valuation other than that of favoring an increase in overall well-being as measured by overall income.

To put this more concretely, the principle of Pareto optimality tells us that we cannot judge whether the addition of $1000 to the income of a family now receiving $10,000 annually is better than the same addition to a family now receiving $100,000 a year. As long as someone benefits and noone loses, there is improvement. Such improvement is the goal of economic policy.

I trust that you understand the importance of this doctrine for a world governed by economic theory. Suppose economists had moved in a different direction, as they might have. Very important to economists is the understanding that the fifteenth sweater or a fifth ice-cream cone is not as valuable to a consumer as the first. Particular wants are satiated, so that once we have enough of one commodity, we prize something else more. They might have concluded that for rational beings something like this applied overall, that the eleventh thousand dollars, needed to supply food, clothing, and shelter for a family, is of greater value than the hundred-and-first-thousand, which would barely be noticed. But economists chose instead to argue for overall insatiability of wants with no possibility of judging among them.

If economic theory had taken the other direction, then in an economistic world there would be concern for the meeting of basic needs of all before adding to the wealth of the few. Policies directed to that end would be very different from those that we have in fact adopted. It is not economism as such, but the particular theories that govern our economistic world, that make us largely indifferent to the vast and ever-growing disparity in the distribution of the world’s goods. There is here, violence against the poor.

I did note that Pareto optimality opposes the enrichment of one group at the expense of another. It requires that no group be harmed. Harm is measured by loss of purchasing power. No other forms of harm count. It is important to those who support the current global market, therefore, to argue that although the poor have not benefited proportionately from the global market, they have benefited a little as measured by per capita income, or, at least, they have not lost. Figures are very difficult to obtain. Much of the claimed gain comes about in the shift from self-sustaining peasant life to dependence on the market, and many are skeptical that the small gains in income mean that those involved are better fed, better clothed, or better housed than before. I share that skepticism. And if we compare the condition of the poor in urban slums with that of the poor on subsistence farms, my own judgment is that there is more loss than gain.

My point here is to illustrate the importance of theory. Since the theory says we should not support policies that worsen the economic condition of the poor for the sake of further enriching the rich, it is important for those operating by the theory to argue that the poor have not been damaged in the process. On the other hand, that they obviously have not benefited much is not important. The growing gap between rich and poor is not a matter of concern.


Let us turn to the second of the three missing concepts that I am highlighting: community. The idea of community is that relationships with other people are important to who we are. Our well-being is affected positively by the well-being of others with whom we are in community. The family is the extreme instance of community. But the same principles apply to relations with neighbors, and in traditional communities, to the whole village. The smooth functioning of the community is important to the well-being of all its members.

Economic theory has no place for this. It is markedly and avowedly individualistic. Homo economicus is an individual human being who rationally seeks to gain as many goods as possible for as little labor as possible. His or her relations with other people are competitive. Sometimes it is recognized that the economic actors are households, so that economists do not attribute to relations with the household the same competition that characterizes relations between households. But nowhere in economic theory is there any recognition that individual households are better off when the community as a whole is better off.

In the first decades after World War II many Westerners went to Third World countries to help them "develop." Many did so idealistically. Most of them took for granted the Western model of development, along with the economic theory that supported it. They were distressed to find considerable resistance among traditional people. They could point out that more money could be earned if some members of a family would go to the city to work in a factory. But both those whom they encouraged to go and those who would stay home disliked the break-up of the family and the larger community entailed in such a change. They did not see the additional goods they might acquire as more valuable than the human relationships that would be damaged. Development experts complained that they could not make progress until they could modernize or rationalize the thinking of these backward people.

Largely, I think, by eroding or undercutting the economic basis of many traditional societies, we have succeeded in breaking this resistance. There are many tales of violence that can be told about this process. Of course, persuasion in the form of advertising and education has also played its role. The application of a theory that places no value on human community has destroyed much.

In our own country we can see the outworking of the theory. At the beginning of the twentieth century we were a rural society with thousands of small towns. Many farms were operated by their family owners. Many families lived fairly well. The little towns were also reasonably healthy in economic and other ways. At the end of the century, we are an urban and suburban society. The countryside has been depopulated except as it provides retreats for city-dwellers. Most of the small towns have disappeared. A few have grown in size as major centers.

There are many causes for this drastic social change. An important one is the economistic judgment that agriculture should become more efficient. It should be industrialized, so that fewer people can produce more food. To take advantage of new machinery, farms had to become much larger. Obviously, if farms grow ten-fold in size, then nine formerly independent farmers either leave farming or take work as employees on the former farms. Since the purpose of enlarging farms is to substitute machines for human labor, most must leave.

Some who are forced off the farm no doubt find good lives in the cities. But others do not. In either case, the quality of rural community declines drastically. What is interesting is that this decline plays no role whatsoever in the evaluation of this change by economists. Lester Thurow is a leading liberal Democratic economist, and I have no doubt about his concern for people and for justice. Indeed, he has even written about the need for community. But socialized as he is into individualistic thinking, he has had no eyes for the destruction of community by the industrialization of agriculture in this country. He has stated that the one area of greatest gain in the American economy has been in agriculture. He means, of course, that there is where production has been continued with the greatest reduction of labor.

I need here to emphasize a point I have made earlier. If economics is understood as one contribution alongside others, such as sociology, political theory, cultural studies, and so forth, then there is no serious problem. Economists could tell us how to increase total production; sociologists could tell us how to improve community life; political theorists could describe policies that promote participation and justice; students of culture could describe the effects of various proposals in that area. It would then be up to the community as a whole how to balance the various values. Concern for the health of the community would play a large role in the resultant decisions.

But we have noted that this is not now the way decisions are made. Economic considerations rule, and all others are subordinated to them. In that context the failure of economists to consider the value of communal life, stemming from their individualistic understanding of human beings, has devastating effects. It is a major source of violence.

The same lack shows up in the positive evaluation of factory closings. Economists strongly support the mobility of capital. Seeking overall growth, they note that capital should be invested where it is most profitable. This enables it to contribute to the largest amount of production of those goods that are most in demand.. If an Indiana factory is less profitable than a comparable factory in South Carolina, then the rational and proper decision for the owner is to close the Indiana factory and produce in South Carolina.

Economists as economists give little thought to the reasons that production in Indiana is more expensive or to the consequences of the closure to the factory town. The reasons are often that the factory is unionized and the workers are well paid, whereas in South Carolina a more docile labor force is willing to work for lower wages. The gains for the workers laboriously won over decades of struggle are quickly erased. A whole community whose economy is based on the factory is wiped out. We know that abuse of alcohol and drugs increases along with physical abuse of women and children. There is a great deal of violence here. But the factory owners would, in economic terms, be irrational to be swayed by such considerations. To consider the human values of a healthy community is not "rational."

Today the factory would be more likely to move to Mexico than to South Carolina. Although the workers in South Carolina are willing to work for less than those in Indiana, they cannot compete with workers in Mexico. And when Mexican workers complain of their low pay, they are reminded that Haitians and Central Americans will work for even less. We are back to the race to the bottom.


Thus far I have emphasized the violence worked on human beings because of the lack of attention to justice and community. Equally important is the violence worked on the nonhuman world because of the virtual absence of nature from economic thinking. I say "virtual absence" because it can be argued that nature has been present in economic thinking under the rubric of land.

In the beginning of modern economics, land played a role as one of the three factors in production. In the earlier physiocratic economics developed in France, land had been central. It was believed that it was land that transformed seeds into plants with far more seeds, thus bringing wealth to the owners of land.

The British founders of modern economics argued that capital and labor are also important factors of production. Although they did not deny the role of land, they focused on the other two as the sources of dynamic growth in the economy. In the struggle for power between landowners and capitalists, they sided with capitalists. Hence they downplayed the role of land.

This process of downplaying continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Marx omitted both land and capital, arguing that labor is the one factor in production. Capitalist economics opposed Marx by insisting on the independent importance of capital, but it increasingly treated land either as a form of capital or as a commodity. Its distinctive capacity to transform seeds into plants played no further role. In other words, the connection of land to living nature was lost.

One might suppose that economists would have a great concern for the natural resources used by industry. Surprisingly, they do not. The reason is that the cost of natural resources is a very small part of the cost of industrial production. Also, in the calculation of that cost, economists point out that most of it is a matter of the capital invested in extracting or producing them combined with the labor. The value of the copper in the ground turns out to be negligible for most purposes. What value it has can be included under capital or treated as a commodity.

Outside the profession of economics there is today a great deal of concern about the exhaustion of resources. We worry that over-fishing and disruption of parts of the ocean eco-system are already reducing the availability of food from the sea. We worry that global forests are disappearing. We worry that arable soil is eroding and that water for irrigation is being used unsustainably. We worry that the supply of oil on which our industrial civilization is based will be largely depleted within twenty or thirty years.

Economists as a group do not share these concerns. They believe that capital is a substitute for natural resources in the sense that it can enable us to use the resources more efficiently, find ways to extract and use lower-grade materials, develop substitutes, and move to quite new modes of production. They point out that technology has repeatedly done this in the past. It will do so again as prices rise and make alternatives profitable. In short, if we behave rationally in increasing production, the market will respond to signals about shortages and evoke the new technologies we need.

You will notice that in this economic model, nature plays no role. No attention is paid to the actual condition of the natural world, just as none is paid to human community. Those who do pay attention to this are far less sanguine about the capacity of technology to solve all problems. It cannot solve the problem of habitat loss. Thus far its applications to agriculture have speeded up the erosion and degradation of soils. The green revolution, the greatest success of technology in increasing yields, has also made agriculture far more dependent on oil and reduced the biodiversity that provides security against devastating pests. The replacement of natural forests with plantations of new, fast-growing trees helps to provide timber and paper but speeds up other losses. Even if technology can provide new sources of energy when oil is exhausted, the market signals supposed to trigger the needed changes will come far too late. Economists have much to contribute on these matters, but when we follow them while ignoring geographers, ecologists, and zoologists, we continue to work devastating violence on the natural world. This devastation is already affecting hundreds of millions of people.


Economic theory allows a somewhat larger place for the consideration of pollution than for natural resources. Pollution can be treated under the heading of "externalities." The terminology points to the fact that this has not been a central concern in the formation of economic theory.

The first discussion of externalities dealt with positive externalities. It was noted that when homeowners beautified their front yard, they benefited all who lived nearby or walked past. But gradually it was acknowledged that there are negative externalities as well. A market transaction will always benefit both parties, but it may have incidental consequences that are deleterious to others.

For example, when one buys gasoline from a filling station, one does so because one wants the gas more than the cash. The owner of the station wants the money more than the gas. The exchange benefits both. However, as one drives on, one contributes to the pollution of the atmosphere. Many people who are not involved in the market transaction are affected.

Acknowledgment of this has led many economists to support Pigovian taxes. The idea is that when we purchase anything, we should pay the full cost. Since some of that cost is now borne by the public at large, we should pay a tax that compensates for that social cost.

If the economic profession would put the weight of its authority behind a thorough system of Pigovian taxes it could lead to directing economic development in much less destructive channels. Unfortunately, this is a far less central concern of most economists than is the free movement of capital and goods. Furthermore, the accurate calculation of Pigovian taxes would be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, to follow up on the important example above, many countries charge high taxes on the purchase of automobiles and fuel. Thus far the United States has resisted serious consideration of this step

The most controversial application of the principle may be with respect to global warming. It is almost certain now that human activities are contributing to a rise in planetary temperatures. It is almost certain that this is already leading to an increase in storms and other destructive weather patterns. In the long run it will cause a rise in ocean levels that will threaten many small islands and deltas. It is likely to speed up the extinction of species and seriously disrupt agricultural production. It may lead to changes in ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, the destructive consequences of which would incalculable.

Thus far few economists have supported proposals for drastic changes in economic policy to slow the rate of rise of temperature. The tendency is to assume that our greatest need in confronting problems of this sort is economic prosperity. Many believe that with sufficient resources we can make the necessary adjustments, build the necessary dikes, and compensate those whose property is destroyed by worsening storms. In short, it is better to accept the growing violence than to derail economic progress.


This essay is written by a Christian as part of a pair of essays, Buddhist and Christian. I have made little explicit reference to the point of view I bring to these matters. I hope that people with a variety of points of view can agree on much that I have written, although I know that those with some other points of view see matters quite differently. Many of those by whom I have been most influenced are not Christian. It is far more important that we work together to counteract the violence in which we are collectively involved than that we emphasize differences in our approach.

However, in concluding, I will comment briefly on how I understand my faith to have influenced me in looking at these questions. First, my faith leads me to care about the world as God’s creation. Every creature has value in itself and for God. This creation is not composed of a set of independent features that can be adequately understood in abstraction from one another. It is concretely a unity.

Within this whole, my faith directs me to be particularly concerned with what happens to the weak and vulnerable. Traditionally this attention has been directed chiefly toward weak and vulnerable human beings. We must evaluate policies and programs first and foremost in terms of their effects on "the least of these."

My tradition emphasizes human responsibility. In our creation story, we are given responsibility for the whole. Recently we have been repenting for having exercised our responsibility as if it were license to exploit. It is our task now to rethink both our heritage and the nature of the world for which we bear so much responsibility. This requires that we analyze especially the most influential patterns of thought and the most powerful actors in today’s world.

The three omissions from economic theory that I have emphasized no doubt express quite clearly my Christian theology. Nothing has been more central to my heritage from the ancient Jews than a concern for justice. It is easier to rally Christians around that slogan than any other. The results of our struggles for justice have often been ambiguous, but we cannot abandon our efforts. Our concern for the weak and poor is largely a concern that they be treated justly.

Concern for community has also been part of our heritage. Protestant thinking, and especially the Enlightenment thinking that arose from it, reacted against the kind of community that restricted the freedom of its members and forced them into conformity. Thus the form of Christianity I have inherited has had a strongly individualistic caste. But this can only go so far for Christians. We know that we are bound together in the community of the church. We are members one of another. And we know also that our mutual participation extends to the whole of humanity, if not to all creatures.

For Christians it is important to recognize both our individuality and our participation with one another in communities. Paul Tillich emphasized the polar relation of these elements in his systematic theology. Many Christians have used the phrase "person-in-community" to affirm this polarity. Communities do not flourish, indeed they are not true communities, if their members are not fully developed persons with distinctive and varied individuality. But individuals cannot become such persons except in community. To Christian eyes, the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individuality is one-sided. Its political and economic theories based on this individualism are unrealistic and destructive. I was led by these considerations to develop with Herman Daly an "economics for community."

Finally, the point at which we Christians have recognized our failure most clearly is in our long ignoring of what we now call "the integrity of creation." We have allowed ourselves to accept the modern dualism of humanity and nature, mind and body. But when confronted with the unbiblical character of this dualism and by its historic consequences, few Christians have defended it. Most of us who have thought about these matters have repented. Whether our repentance has gone far enough is another questions.

But today we readily see in economic theory the error of which we were long guilty ourselves. We see that it locates all intrinsic value in human experience, the satisfying of human wants, and treats everything else as merely instrumental to human ends. We see the terrible consequences to which this leads. And we are ashamed that we have ourselves so often thought in this way and that we share responsibility for its continuing prevalence in Western civilization.

We have been engaged in trying to purge this error from our own formulations. As we do so, we readily note its presence in other formulations of Western thought. What is false for Christian theology is false for these other parts of Western civilization as well. We are not hesitant to identify and criticize, although we should be very hesitant to do so self-righteously. Our own historic errors have much responsibility for the errors of contemporary academic disciplines and humanistic culture generally. But our guilt does not relieve us of the responsibility to name the errors of others.