Economism as Idolatry

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 article was written for Religion Online March 3, 1998.


Economism is leading us into catastrophes even worse that the religious wars of the early seventeenth century and the Second World War in our own. Christians emphasize the positive value of human community, the principle of subsidiarity, preferential option for the poor, and the integrity of creation and the human use of the environment should be sustainable. The policies implementing economism, such as the globalization of the economy through free trade, are diametrically opposed to all of these Christian principles.


From the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century nationalism was the dominant force in Western history. It took over from Christianity when Christian fanaticism plunged Europe into appalling and intolerable conflicts. The era of nationalism came to an end when it, in turn, plunged Europe and the whole world into appalling and intolerable conflicts.

After World War II the institutions that rose to dominance were economic ones: The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Although the United Nations is a partial exception, it also devotes much of its attention to the global economy. When the heads of the most powerful nations gather, they call their meetings Economic Summits. Western Europe reorganized itself as the European Economic Community.

There are many advantages in having shifted from nationalism to economism. War among the Western powers soon became unthinkable. The economic power of the West played a major role in undermining the Soviet Empire, so that now the danger of major international conflict has drastically receded. The focus on the economy has led to a vast increase it total global production.

Unfortunately, the methods employed in this great success story do not bring wealth to all. On the contrary, they increase the gap between the rich and the poor and render many of the poor more powerless and more destitute than ever before. Everywhere traditional communities are destroyed and new communities are prevented from putting down roots. Social alienation, violence, and self-destruction accelerate.

Our leaders, fully committed to economism, assure us that the solution of these problems lies in pursuing even more singlemindedly the neoliberal economic policies that have produced them. Astonishingly, this myth is widely accepted. Many of those who know it is false see no alternatives. They propose meliorative responses to the worst of the evils.

The absurdity of this approach is even more apparent in regard to the environment. The size of the economy in relation to the biosphere and geosphere is already excessive. The natural environment cannot sustain the current rate of resource use and pollution. To increase the size of the economy five to ten fold, as proposed by the Brundtland report will prove impossible. This is so, even if all the excellent proposals of that report to use resources more efficiently and to pollute less were implemented.

Economism is leading us into catastrophes even worse that the religious wars of the early seventeenth century and the Second World War in our own. The number of people who recognize this is increasing, and their passionate protests in the name of the Earth have gained some hearing. In the United States, however, the critique of economism by Earthists has not yet had political impact. The alternatives have not been publicly debated.

Nevertheless, some change has occurred. Although the Reagan and Bush administrations were not anti-environment per se (Bush claimed he would be our environmental president!), environmental issues were extremely peripheral to their consciousness. They saw reality in almost exclusively economistic terms. Those who complained about what this did to the environment were always outsiders who seemed to be putting obstacles in the way of economic progress. They were willing to act for the environment as long as this did not inhibit economic growth in any way. But for practical purposes this meant that they normally opposed environmental concerns.

The Democratic administration that succeeded Bush was elected on a program to improve the economy. "Its the economy, stupid" was the reminder to the candidates, should they stray off on other topics. Environmental concerns played a very minor role in the campaign. Nevertheless, everyone knew that the new administration would pay more attention to environmental issues.

The deep assumption of the Clinton/Gore administration is that we can follow the economistic policies carried out so consistently by their Republican predecessors but do so with sensitivity to the environment. The rhetoric of sustainable development is meaningful to them as it was not Reagan and Bush, who followed the traditional economic theory that the increase of capital enables humanity to deal with problems of resource exhaustion and pollution. Clinton and Gore know that unrestricted abuse of the environment is too costly to be compensated by indiscriminate economic growth. They want the growth to take place in ways that does not add so drastically to environmental stress.

Whereas for Reagan and Bush economistic goals were the goals, for Clinton and Gore they continue to be the dominant goals but environmental health is also an important goal that may require limitations to the pursuit of economic gain. Whereas Bush sided with the lumber industry in the Pacific Northwest, Clinton and Gore sought a compromise between the interests of industry and the preservation of some of the old growth forests of the Northwest. They paid attention to the best scientific studies of what is required for the maintenance of eco-systems, even if they did not entirely follow the resultant recommendations. In short they are prepared for trade-offs between short-term economistic goals and environmental ones.

Nevertheless, there is no sign that they have understood the incompatibility of the economistic goal of unlimited economic growth with the Earthist one of preserving the planet for future generations of both humans and other creatures. Hence they gave themselves wholeheartedly to pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) basically in the form it had been negotiated by Bush. The argument for NAFTA is, of course, that it will promote economic growth. That what promotes general growth is good, however destructive of communities and however inequitable the distribution of wealth, is not questioned any more by this administration that by its predecessors.

The difference between the present administration and the previous one is expressed in the negotiation of side agreements. This administration does care about the suffering that results for workers who lose their jobs and it does care about the weakening of environmental protection that is entailed in free trade. Hence, it insisted on structures that would consider issues of this sort alongside the dominant structure whose function it is to promote trade.

The side agreement on labor will have trivial effects unless the United States government decided to use it as a platform for bringing pressure on Mexico. This is unlikely. The side agreement on the environment also lacks teeth, and the speed with which it was negotiated indicates that the signatories did not expect it to have much effect on their main goals. Nevertheless, the symbolic expression of concern embodied in this side-agreement, and the existence of a new type of institution may provide a context from bringing environmental issues into trade considerations in new ways. Because the present U.S. administration includes so many who care about these matters, there is certainly a chance that this will occur.

The possibility that this side agreement can be a vehicle of significant progress in integrating environmental considerations into issues of international trade led to a deep split within the environmental community. Those with specific and more limited goals, which are prepared to accept the basic economistic character of our civilization and work within it, supported the administration in pushing NAFTA through a reluctant Congress. Others who recognize that this whole economistic program is inherently destructive of the environmental, those whom I call Earthists, continued to work with labor to oppose NAFTA.

The passage of NAFTA strengthens North America in its competition with East Asia and Europe. It secures the already developing pattern of combining U.S. capital with cheap Mexican labor and still healthy Mexican soils so as to produce goods cheaply for international consumption. The downward pressure on wages in the United States and Canada will be accompanied by a downward pressure on wages in those regions with which North America is in economic competition. There will be downward pressure also on workplace conditions and environmental standards. More seriously the increased production will speed up the exhaustion of nonrenewable resources and make more difficult the attainment of sustainable use of renewable ones. Economic power will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and it will be less affected by political power. From the point of view of Earthism, all of this is movement in just the wrong direction.

In this respect there is a convergence of Earthism with standard Christian teaching. Christians emphasize the positive value of human community. We advocate the principle of subsidiarity. We hold to the preferential option for the poor. And we affirm the integrity of creation and the human use of the environment should be sustainable. The effects of the policies implementing economism, such as the globalization of the economy through free trade, are diametrically opposed to all of these Christian principles. Perhaps more environmentalists will come to recognize the need to be Earthists in a more fundamental way, and perhaps more Christians will recognize that economism is a form of idolatry every bit as pernicious as nationalism. If so, there is a chance that we may in this country generate a debate about fundamental national goals that is not limited to how to make the economy grow faster. Since there are those in high places in our administration who are both sincere Christians and sincere environmentalist, such a debate could affect national policy. To date this has not happened.