Another Economy

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The tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is just around the corner. The last decade has been one of war and economic crisis. It has also been one of ideological polarization and political paralysis.  A historically significant achievement of governance—health care reform intended to increase access and social justice—has not been cause for collective celebration and affirmation. A globally significant challenge—slowing and reversing the deadly process of climate change—has not united us in common effort and common purpose. A pervasive atmosphere of distrust has arisen from which even scientists are not immune. Business as usual, politics as usual, and even reason as usual seem to have become derailed and unhinged.  Ways of coping with instability that have served our society in the past—such as government fiscal stimulus, regulatory reform, international negotiation and coordination, appeals to personal conscience, philanthropy, and responsibility—seem unavailing. What have we wrought? What kind of world are we squeezing into (or out of) shape?

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that we are losing our grip on something fundamental, yet it is also difficult to say what—our optimism? our resilience? Our Republic is thickening into Empire, as Robinson Jeffers put it. Incremental reforms and tinkering with the plumbing of our political economy will not suffice, yet that is all our leaders and institutions are capable of achieving at the moment, if even that. What may be imperative now is a cultural revolution, a transvaluation of values of the kind that has punctuated our history from time to time but always occupies a vexed and dangerous intersection—the corner of church and state. I am talking about an alteration of metaphysics and meaning into a new story about ourselves, our duties, and our destinies.

When it comes to rethinking assumptions and values, there is no better or more fundamental place to begin than with the ideas of scarcity, affluence, and economic growth. Today we live with an ever-present awareness of scarcity. There are not enough jobs. There is not enough money to keep pace with rising prices and taxes. Necessary services are often not available. We are running out of credit. We are running out of oil, gas, and affordable sources of energy. We are running out . . . We are running . . .

This scarcity is paradoxical. Scarcity sits side by side with material affluence. Indeed, our great stock of possessions may even reinforce our sense of scarcity. The key to this paradox is the realization that scarcity and affluence are not primarily economic issues, they are moral and religious ones. They are not primarily about how much we have, but about how we relate to others and how we live. Scarcity is not the same thing as frugality, just as affluence is not the same thing as abundance. Frugality can bring people together in closer connection. Scarcity drives people apart and makes us anxious and insecure, and so does affluence. Frugality, as in the times of rationing and hardship during World War II, actually brought about a sense of solidarity and connectedness; everyone had to help one another because they were all in the same boat. Abundance can have similar community and solidarity building effects. But neither scarcity nor affluence today are conditions of society or spirit that we genuinely share; they are merely ways of living that affect (or afflict) all of us. The recognition is dawning that both affluence and scarcity are ways of living that are at once humanly unsatisfying and naturally unsustainable. 

Scarcity and affluence are two sides of the same coin. They preside over a culture of competitive advantage; a culture of beggar thy neighbor.  Children are taught the lessons of scarcity and affluence at an early stage, as with the kindergarten game Musical Chairs. Chairs for each child are arranged in a line and while the players are dancing around, one chair is taken away. When the music stops the children must scramble to get seats, which have now become scarce. Someone—the slow, the polite, the gentle—will be left out. Our economy today is Musical Chairs writ large and played on a global scale.

The great religious traditions of the world speak of another economy, an economy of being that is abundant. As an alternative to the economy of scarcity/affluence, religion offers an economy of frugality/ abundance. This is a counterentropic economy where chairs are added, not taken away; an economy of life, justice, and love as an alternative to the economy of appropriation.  Precisely because we are so enmeshed in the economy of scarcity/affluence and getting, it is very challenging and complex for us to see the economy of frugality/abundance and giving.

Above all, it is difficult for us to focus on how authentically we connect rather than on how successfully we acquire and consume. Frugality/abundance is not primarily about having or not having, it is about connecting, caring, and sharing. Abundance does not replace few things with many things; frugality is not about how few things we have but about how carefully they are used. The other economy named by religion is where making a living in an earth household becomes, not an activity that sets us apart, but one that heals us and makes us whole even within our mortality, our finitude, our vulnerability, and our insufficiency. Sharing makes small portions filling. Selfishness, grasping, makes large portions unsatisfying. The abundance that does not diminish the more it is shared is what transforms even scarcity into plenty. The abundance that makes possible a community of compassion and caring even in the worldly condition of scarcity is the exact opposite of our society’s extended game of Musical Chairs.

Secular philosophy and ethics ask us to refocus our economic and political imaginations in these ways, but perhaps these appeals are ultimately incomplete without an underlying metaphysical and religious orientation, to undergird but not to supersede them.

The articles in this issue of Minding Nature struggle with the place of religious and metaphysical thought in human society generally and in modern, secular society in particular. They converge on two themes. First, if we are going to have to change our doing, for the sake of justice as well as ecological survival, will we also have to change our thinking about being? Second, should fundamental beliefs about nature and the nature of our being be permitted to inform public policy and law? Are such beliefs a matter of “science” upon which rational public rules must be based, or should such beliefs and discourse be seen as “religion” and hence as out of bounds in the domain of public rules in a free pluralistic society?

In an article of remarkable breadth ranging across several fields, Robert Nadeau provides an update on recent theoretical and research work in physics and cosmology, neurology, evolutionary psychology, and comparative religion. In science he finds the discovery of processes of ontological convergence and an underlying unity of being. In evolution and religion he finds the development of an imagination and a sensibility that is both cross-cultural and trans-historical. He argues that it makes sense from an evolutionary and neurological point of view and that it shapes our moral response and action in powerful ways. He calls upon us to wage “the moral equivalent of war” on behalf of an ecological worldview of justice and harmony between humans and nature.

Bill Vitek explores a similar terrain of ideas as he narrates a tradition of environmental religion and philosophy based on essentially a spiritual apprehension of the unity of being. Like Nadeau, he believes that in this kind of spirituality or religious imagination, much more so than in secular materialism, we can find the touchstone to motivate and direct urgently needed social changes.

Greg Kaebnick’s article focuses more specifically on human biotechnology and enhancement, but in this domain, as well as in a broader ecological ethics and politics, the question of strong metaphysical and religious viewpoints arise to divide the proponents of human biotechnology and its critics. Reviewing work in recent bioethics on this question, Kaebnick argues for the adequacy and desirability of what might be called a “weak” rather than a “strong” ontology as a basis for ethical and policy argument in a liberal society.

Standing behind the challenge and resonance of the positions these articles provide is the legal and political principle of the separation of church and state in the liberal democracies of the West. In my reflection and review essay, I explore the history of this liberal orientation. I also note its continuing power in the contemporary polemical works that pit science and religion against one another, in precisely the fashion that Nadeau and Vitek are trying to overcome, and that Kaebnick also is seeking to avoid. One way to think about this issue is to ask what is real and what is true? Another way is to ask what use and distribution of power will be reinforced by a given worldview? In this sense, the clash between the individualism of Thomas Hobbes and the communitarianism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the latter’s notion of a “civil religion,” takes on a contemporary interest.

Curt Meine’s Last Word column captures much that is simmering in the preceding pages, as only he can do, with a little help from Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, and Lake Superior.

In the end we are left asking what worldview or what ecological ethos will guide the way to another economy, beyond the dead ends of scarcity/affluence and into a more sustainable and resilient way of living in the way of frugality/abundance? As we struggle with these questions, we could do worse than revisit from time to time the intimation of being larger than ourselves that Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey” evoked as well as (or better than) any theologian or philosopher.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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