The Kingdom of God: A Steady State Economy?

Editor’s Note: the below has been modified and cross-posted from Mission Catalyst, Issue 4, 2014

by Brian Czezh

BrianCzechI’ll never forget the privilege, maybe five years ago, of addressing a small, interdenominational group of faith leaders in Washington, DC. They’d asked me to talk about limits to economic growth and to give a synopsis of the steady state economy as an alternative to growth. We then went around the group, perhaps eight in all, and discussed the issues. One pastor, deep in thought, summarily theologized, “The steady state economy; now that’s the Kingdom of God.” I can hear it like it was yesterday.

The rest of the conversation isn’t quite so vivid. As a long-time advocate of the steady state economy, maybe I got too excited to focus, thinking of the possibilities with God on our side! Also, it’s not like the pastor (Episcopal as I recall) had a full-fledged steady-state theology developed, at least at the time. Macroeconomics is not something he or the rest of the group had thought much about, but they’d definitely taken an interest in protecting the environment, or “caring for Creation” as some like to say.

And yet, if there is a place for common sense in theology, there is plenty to suggest the pastor was right on track. Would anyone be driving a Hummer in the Kingdom of God? Or building a McMansion? Wearing a fur coat? Presumably the trappings of conspicuous consumption would seem more befitting of…you know, that other place.

The pastor knew something was awry with the quest for ever more. Striving for more and more stuff isn’t caring for Creation. Think, for example, what it means to life on earth–all of Creation–with economic growth as the primary policy goal of so many nations. If you were to list the causes of species endangerment, it would read like a Who’s Who of the economy. A proliferation of all such activities is hardly wise husbandry.

But to really assess the relationship or relevance of economic growth to the Kingdom of God, and prior to any thorough theological assessment, we must have a solid grasp of exactly what economic growth is. It’s not enough to make vague references to Hummers or ask, “What would Jesus drive?”

In textbook terms, then, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It requires increasing human population and/or per capita consumption, and almost always entails both. The metric used to measure economic growth is GDP, or gross domestic product.

The phrase “in the aggregate” is actually quite important. Sometimes we hear confusing talk about “green jobs” and even “green growth.” It may well be that replacing oil wells with vast arrays of solar panels and wind towers provides different jobs than we had in the past and doesn’t result in as many carbon emissions. But that one development–replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy–is hardly economic growth. It’s a sectoral readjustment that may or may not accompany economic growth: increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. If we do manage to generate enough power from renewable sources to have even more agriculture, mining, logging, ranching, milling, manufacturing, and service sectors all the way from transportation to entertainment, what happens to all the wildlife habitat?

The fact is, in the push for GDP growth, God’s creatures suffer. To put it in the technical terms of ecological economics, as the human economy grows, natural capital is reallocated out of the economy of nature and is converted into consumer goods and manufactured capital. How is that caring for Creation? The steady state economy–stabilized population and per capita consumption, in simplest terms–means a stable environment for all the other creatures.

A growing number of citizens and activists are taking note that pulling out all the stops for GDP growth isn’t making man any happier. It has even become popular in sustainability circles to discredit GDP, as if it’s a meaningless indicator. However, attacking GDP is like shooting the messenger, or shooting the metric to be more accurate. Yes, it is perfectly true and important to realize that GDP is not a measure of wellbeing, but GDP is a solid indicator of the size of an economy. Despite all the talk of “green growth,” real GDP (“real” meaning adjusted for inflation) cannot increase without more impact on the environment.

“All flesh is grass” in the Kingdom of God – and the human economy. Photo Credit: horizontal.integration

Here is where a bit of theology seems to dovetail nicely with biology. The Bible says, “All flesh is grass” (Isaiah 40:6). While the direct theological implication seems more about the insignificance of man on Earth, relative to God, this verse is more than mere metaphor. The fact is that the foundation of the “economy of nature,” or Creation, is indeed plants, or “grass” in the words of Isaiah. No plants, no animals: no grass, no flesh.

This truth happens to be a central pillar of ecology. Every good ecology textbook will have a thorough discussion of “trophic levels.” Living beings in nature start with the plants at the base, literally and figuratively. Plants are called “producers” because they produce their own food in the process of photosynthesis. All other beings are “consumers” of some type. Primary consumers eat plants directly; secondary consumers eat the primary consumers. Primary consumers are often called herbivores; secondary consumers are “predators.” These are the three basic trophic levels: producers, primary consumers, and secondary consumers.

Meanwhile the book of Genesis says that God created mankind in his own image. It seems fitting, then, that the economy of man is like a microcosm of Creation, or the economy of nature. Man’s economy has producers (agricultural and extractive sectors), primary consumers (manufacturing), and secondary consumers including the purchasers of consumer goods and services in the market.

In order to have increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate, there must be more surplus produced at the base of the trophic structure. In other words, there must be more agricultural and extractive activity to free the hands for the division of labor into manufacturing, services, and “green” jobs. More and more money spent means more and more environmental impact; more erosion of the Creation.

Finally, no discussion of a steady state economy can be complete without the issue of population. Hopefully common sense suffices for understanding how we cannot have perpetual population growth on a finite planet. We humans aren’t like angels on the head of a pin. We have minimum material and energy requirements for survival.

My theology is amateurish at best, but isn’t the Kingdom of God supposed to lead to the final Kingdom of Heaven? It would seem that, at some stage, after life on Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to its fruition of souls. So perhaps our good pastor was thinking ahead–way ahead–on the population front! Meanwhile, doing the best we can at caring for Creation entails serious efforts toward stabilizing our population as well as tempering our consumption.

It’s not easy advancing the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to economic growth. If money is the root of all evil, we have a nasty force working against us: Big Money! The corporate forces in the world don’t want us talking about limits to growth or a steady state economy. They want governments pulling out all the stops for GDP growth.

On the other hand, they don’t exactly have the ultimate Commander in Chief on their side!

Forty Shades of… “Less Brown?”

BrianCzechVarious subjects compete for this week’s Daly News, coming on the heels of the Eastern Economic Association conference in Philadelphia. “Forty Shades of Green” comes to mind, with all that we hear these days about “greening” the economy. Green jobs, green technology, green sectors… even “green growth.”

Sure enough, at the outset of the EEA conference was a talk on “Green Consumerism.” However, I took special note of the subtitle, “A Path to Sustainability?” The most noteworthy part was the question mark. In a political economy seemingly drunk on green beer, the question mark suggested some sobering skepticism.

I wondered if the question mark was just a typo. After all, this was a conference of professional economists, widely known for denying any conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Yet the authors, Paula Cole and Valerie Kepner, described in some detail the inanity of spending our way into a sustainable economy, as well as the shenanigans pulled with the word “green.” They questioned the use of “green” to describe any kind of consumption. They concluded that “greening” an economy really entailed a lessening of consumption.

So maybe it’s time to employ another portion of the color spectrum in reference to economic growth. If green sends the wrong message, perhaps “brown” is the word. Instead of green growth, brown bloating.

Some consumable goods are less brown than others – think Honda vs. Hummer – but even a unicycle requires natural resources for its production. Manufacturing the unicycle entails pollution, too. It just doesn’t square to call an expanding unicycle sector a “green” phenomenon. Even compared to Hummers, unicycles are less brown, not green.

The service sectors fit in with the browning process of economic growth. From driving trucks (quite a brown service) to answering phones (less brown, on the surface), material inputs and pollution are part of the deal. We also have to remind our green beer-drinking friends that much of the phone answering is in service to the trucking sector. In more general terms, the “information economy” is an economy where growing quantities of information feed the already-brown sectors. If we don’t remember this, the Green Sheen Machine will continue to get away with talk of “de-materializing” the economy, lulling citizens and policy makers into leaving environmental concerns for tomorrow, while we experiment with “greening” our growth today.

We shouldn’t be surprised if they start talking about “green population growth” for green jobs and green consumerism. After all, cheaper labor and more consumers is what the corporate marketer wants. So we also have to remind our green-beer guzzlers that Hummer drivers and unicycle riders alike – indeed any producer or consumer of any good or service – must be fed, clothed, and sheltered. Population growth, which is often encouraged or defended for the sake of economic growth, entails the production and consumption of more food, clothing, and shelter. It’s not always and everywhere bad, but it’s never, nowhere green.

What about technological progress? The development of new technology in the brownest sectors might slow the slide toward dirty-coal black, but it doesn’t move us to the green part of the spectrum. That is because of the overlooked, tight linkage of research and development with economic growth at pre-existing, admittedly brown levels of technology. This ballooning, brownward spiral is more fully described here. New technology can be a very good thing, but in the service of economic growth, it does no better than lessen the rate of browning.

From the supply side and the demand side, then, economic growth starts with a tinge of brown and gets browner by the unit. We might call this the principle of increasing marginal brownness. If we must get “green” into the terminology, we may refer to economic growth as exhibiting the principle of diminishing marginal greenness.

But back to the Eastern Economic Association… Although I was right about the intent of Cole and Kepner, I turned out to be wrong about many other authors at the conference. I thought that, aside from a few strays, they would all be pumping their growth fists, “green” or not. Instead, almost all of the economists I spoke with – and I spoke with dozens – agreed that there is in fact a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection! These were professional economists, economics professors, and top-notch grad students in economics. They agreed that in large, wealthy economies, a steady state economy has become a more appropriate goal than economic growth.

“Prove it,” you say? I’ll do just that, next month in The Daly News.