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These are interesting times for economics. Just as growth is returning to the UK economy, more and more people are daring to question whether economic growth is a good thing.
Climate change is already hurting the world’s poorest people – and today's UN report on climate change warns that no one will be spared its effects – yet governments are at a loss about how to cut the rich world’s consumption of fossil fuels as deeply as scientists are demanding – in fact worldwide carbon emissions are still on the rise.
Meanwhile through the availability of cheap credit, sanctioned by the Government, household debt is rising again and threatening yet another crash and more misery. The Children’s Society, with its 2009 Good Childhood Inquiry report, is just one respected organisation that has shown how consumerism is stoking mental illness among adolescents.
Is this really the world we want? On any evidence-based assessment of our predicament, our economic model is broken; we have got ourselves into a kind of collective trance. How else could economics, an endeavour so fundamental to human flourishing, have been dubbed “the dismal science” in Victorian times?
I have noticed, however, that if you dare question economic growth, people wake up. Often they say, “Yes, I know it’s a problem, but what can I do?” I’ll come to that. Others say, “It’s precisely to sort problems out that we need more growth.” If that’s so, why, after all the growth we’ve had over recent decades, and all the efforts to mitigate its ill-effects, are all the trends of inequality, environmental loss and mental health heading the wrong way?
From the early Desert saints, through Francis of Assisi to the Fairtrade movement today, the Church has an honourable tradition of promoting ethical consumption. It has always taught that greed is a vice, and restraint of the appetites is a prerequisite for human fulfilment. But that witness must now go beyond individualistic piety and sticking-plaster gestures, however prophetic they may appear. Consumerism has created a predicament so acute and overwhelming that it is time for systemic change.
What about solutions? In fact some there are respected economists thinking about and planning an alternative economic strategy – but you never hear their thinking in the mainstream media. Now Christian Ecology Link has launched Joy in Enough, a long-term project to give these alternatives airtime in our Christian formation and help ordinary people take charge of the choices about our lives that our economic system makes for us. Crucially, it will examine the theological imperatives for an economics which can serve both human and ecological wellbeing, now and in the future.
For a system which secures justice, peace and the integrity of creation, we can learn, for instance, from the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), a school of thought associated with economist Herman Daley’s For the Common Good, which takes issue with conventional economic models. Prof Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth, and London’s New Economics Foundation have also gained an attentive hearing in many churches. CASSE’s chief economist, Dr Dan O’Neill, was the keynote speaker at our first Joy in Enough conference, which took place in Birmingham on Saturday.
It is time for Christians to wake up to the damage growth is causing, break the silence on the alternatives, and become advocates of a new economic order in scale with this finite, fragile earth.
Paul Bodenham is Chair of Christian Ecology Link (www.greenchristian.org.uk) For further details of Joy in Enough visit www.greenchristian.org.uk/joy-in-enough