Economics that take into account sustainability

I am not an economist and, today, in our global world governed not only by factual economic imperatives, but also by an ideology in which economic thought frames build the dominant worldview (the idea that, to understand the world and to act in it, we have to think mainly from an economic perspective), I experience that this does not really allow me to do theology to the full. Particularly as I think (and I am under the impression that I am not the only one thinking in this way) that the dominant economic way of thinking and, therefore, the dominant way of organizing our world, puts us on a destructive course. The key issue for me, here, is “sustainability”: how can we order and organize our world in such a way that life be sustainable, not only in our own life-time, but also for future generations of human and living beings. How do we have to think, also very practically, to make that possible?

As I see it now, there are four main and interconnected fields where I think we have to build up some critical thinking – and maybe theologians can help a bit.

(1) How do we measure what is worthwhile to us, in the awareness that, in a kind of perverse feedback, our instruments of measure will determine (become a definition) of what is worthwhile? I have the impression that in many areas financial gain is the main criterion to gauge the success of activities. Money is the stick that helps us to measure what is worthwhile. And, of course, that is true to some extent: I am willing to pay a lot of money for objects or services that are important and worthwhile to me, as I expect to be paid for services I render. However, I also sense two difficulties. — (a) What about those things or services that we value enormously, but that don’t seem to be easily expressed or measured on the scale of money: the care mothers and fathers take for their children, love and friendship, air and water as common goods, the little stone on my desk that I like to take in my hands as it reminds me of an important moment in my life, etc. — (b) What about the observable fact that many of us, sometimes quite unconsciously, begin to take for worthwhile that which costs a lot of money or those activities which make us financially wealthier? The real worthwhile thing seems to have become: how can I earn or obtain as much “money” as possible? — I have been wondering whether we should not also use a more life-true instrument of measurement, “time spent and given“: time cannot be piled up or accumulated, it is a dimension of our life itself and it doesn’t survive us, we have a limited amount of it (although we do not know that amount precisely), … Time is very different from money. Our (personal and societal) fixation on money may mislead us with regard to what is worthwhile. The fact that we can aim at always having more money (which is not the case for time) blurs our understanding of the concept of “sustainability”.

(2) What do we mean when we say “growth”? Some tough discernment (both individually and as a society) is needed here: what do we consider as improvement of our lives? what do we aim at? how do we measure (again the issue of measurement) growth? The question of growth also touches on the relationships between individuals and their societies, between individuals and their environment: what are the consequences of individual growth for others, for societies, for the environment?

(3) Have we learned to think in terms of “scarcity”? One of the first things I was taught about economics is its concern with how we deal with scarce goods. But I have the impression that scarcity, in economic terms, is never understood as absolute, but always as within the relationship between offer and demand … precisely the difference between offer and demand allows for financial gain or loss, and these are the drivers of economic behaviour … and of speculation. Environmental thought indicates that there is also an “absolute” sense to the word scarcity: there may be limits as to the availability of goods. The question I ask myself in such a case is whether the capacity to pay, i.e. wealth, should in such cases be the criterion for obtaining such goods. Certainly, I would ask the question with regard to “absolute scarce good” whether speculation can be allowed. Of course, if the answer is no to that question, we have to wonder what will be the criterion and decision making process concerning that criterion for distribution of the (absolute) scarce good. In my opinion, this requires not economic and financial calculation, but common discernment and, therefore, politics. Absolute scarcity, therefore, requires a reflection on political decision making and discernment processes.

(4) Are we sufficiently aware that today we live in a global context? Economy is about relationships between human beings, their societies or communities, and their environment. We are used to think in terms of “identities” (an individual, a family, a city, a province, a country, a nation, a continent, etc.) and then, once that identity seems to be well defined, we consider the relationships in which that identity stands and that we, from the perspective of the identity to which we belong, deem important. Maybe we should learn to think more in terms of global relationships in the game of which identities are defined and redefined. Does that not change our concept of “actor” in economic relationships? Does it also not emphasize the idea of sustainability out of the relationships that build up identities, instead of an idea of personal gain of identities that then enter into and instrumentalize relationships towards that personal gain?

I have the impression that we have to re-think profoundly — (a) the role we attribute to economics and economy as features of our life together, and — (b) our economical theories, i.e. the way in which we, economically, frame reality in an attempt to partially understand it (e.g. what elements of measurement do we use: the “national gross product” or the “human development index” or …). Theologians can ask some critical questions, but unfortunately they do not in general know enough about economics to give a good appreciation. Is teamwork possible?

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One response to “Economics that take into account sustainability

  1. Als economist ben ik me er zeer van bewust dat de economie ivm het bepalen van waarde bescheiden moet zijn. Er zijn inderdaad een heel aantal zaken die niet of niet gemakkelijk in geld te vertalen zijn.

    Een mooi voorbeeld is de groei van de beveiligingssector. Die vertegenwoordigt economisch een groei van rijkdom, maar is eigenlijk niet meer dan een prijs die betaald wordt voor groeiende onveiligheid (of alleszins dat gevoel). Indien dat laatste er niet was, hadden de middelen elders kunnen ingezet worden (bijv. voor de opvang van ouderen) en aldus een reële verrijking geweest. Dit onderscheid kan de economie niet of moeilijk maken, zeker niet met de huidige concepten. De economische waarde van een spontaan veilige samenleving is dus het geld dat je moet investeren om de zaak leefbaar te houden als ze een stuk verdwijnt.

    Aan de andere kant heb je wel een stuk meting van waarde door de politieke keuzes die mensen via het democratisch proces maken. Goederen die niet “marktbaar” zijn kunnen op die manier toch een stuk waarde toegemeten krijgen. Een goed voorbeeld is ouderschapsverlof. Maar ook dit kan altijd maar gedeeltelijk. Het concept economische waarde is een “reductionistisch” concept. Een te sterke focus hierop leidt – zoals je aangeeft – tot een reductionistisch levensconcept. De oplossing hiervoor is overstijgt de economie.

    Daarbij blijft het wel van belang oog te blijven hebben voor een deugdelijke economische ordening. De behandeling van een patiënt in de geneeskunde is ook meer dan een puur medisch gebeuren, maar je moet de dokter wel zijn medisch ding laten doen volgens de regels van de kunst. Het bewustzijn dat omgaan met een ziekte meer is dan geneeskunde moet niet gaan uitmonden in kwakzalverij. Iets wat met economie nogal eens gebeurt, vooral door autoritaire regimes. Als je bijvoorbeeld wil dat je meer gaat herverdelen, moet je op basis van een democratische besluitvorming de belastingen verhogen. Je moet niet het overheidsdeficitit laten oplopen.

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