A few months ago, I had the privilege of hearing from (and, later, speaking with) a reasonably well-known Australian economist. This economist, who happens to be a Christian, was speaking to a room full of Christian pastors/leaders about the importance of economics. This is something he tries to do on a regular basis, in the same way that he seeks to speak to economists about the importance of the rest of life (suggesting that economics is not ‘everything’). I really appreciate this dual strategy, and that he would take the time out of his busy schedule to speak to us.
I did, however, find a number of problems with what he said and sought to challenge a few of the points he put forward. To cut a long story short, I felt that, whether he meant to or not, he seemed to only leave room for a pastoral response to the way our economic systems work, leaving not much room at all for any prophetic engagement. By that, I mean that he spent quite a bit of time outlining a ‘this is just how it is’ type scenario (at least, this is how I saw it). In discussing changes underway in the Australian economy, for example, his response in regards to the role of the Church was to get alongside those who wouldn’t necessarily do well out of these transitions. That’s fine, in one sense (and I think we definitely should be responding pastorally to these situations), but he seemed incapable of seeing the Church taking any sort of prophetic stance on speaking to the elements of our current system which lead inevitably to exploitation and the treatment of human beings as something more like automatons rather than people created in the image of the Creator. The way I see it, there is an opportunity to challenge some of these elements of our system at their source—pointing to the fact that they inevitably lead to people being used and abused—rather than just dealing with the fallout. I’m encouraged, therefore, by Pope Francis’ recent ‘apostolic exhortation’, calling unfettered capitalism a ‘new tyranny’ (see here).
What really troubled me, though, was my economist friend’s response to questions about climate change.
As he discussed the opportunities for the Australian economy in exporting natural gas for the next few decades (as part of the transition from the first stage of the mining boom), I began asking questions about environmental impact of such industry and the effect on climate change (noting both that the impact of coal seam gas extraction on our land and water supplies could be, potentially, devastating and that, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, the large majority of fossil fuels must remain in the ground).
His response was really quite interesting.
In a nutshell, his response was that, in time, someone would come up with some sort of amazing new invention which would make all this worry about climate change seem quaint in years to come. He pointed to some examples from history as evidence for this assertion and, when pressed, seemed to indicate that the best way to proceed was, in fact, to do nothing, so that the sense of heightened urgency might speed up the process.
I have a few problems with this.
Firstly, it is, I would argue, totally reckless to go about business as usual and leave everything to chance. It’s a terribly high-risk gamble! I do understand that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’—I really do—but we already have ‘necessity’ in spades. To forget about trying to put any structure in place that helps move us towards a renewable energy future and to go all in on the off-chance that someone comes up with…who knows what(!) is not just ignorance, it’s criminal negligence. I grant that there have been times in history when there have been game-changing inventions or new ways of doing things, but that is no guarantee that it will happen the same way this time.
And this leads to the second point.
We’ve never had to deal with something as huge as this before. Quite simply, there has been no time previously in human history where the stakes have been so high. Sure, we’ve had things like ‘The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’ but, with all due respect, trying to compare the two situations is, well, horse shit. What we are arguing about here is the possibility of catastrophic global climate change. I believe in human ingenuity, but I don’t believe that the free market (which, in truth, is anything but ‘free’) can be trusted to be left alone in this process while we wait patiently for a solution. Vested interests are just too powerful a force on these markets, and I fear that what we will see instead is future generations lumped with the burden of mopping up the damage left by the current generation’s greed.
And this leads into the third and final point.
All of this ignores the fact that changes in the climate affect the world’s poor in a disproportionate manner. It is the poorest, and most powerless, communities in the world who are already dealing with the impact of environmental changes, and they will continue to bear the brunt into the future. Part of the problem is that the powerful so often live their lives away from where the impact is already being felt, and thus fail to see the necessity of the situation already. Leaving action on climate change until it is acutely felt by the powerful will mean catastrophe for those voice is already being largely ignored in current negotiations. Let’s call this for what it is: a monumental moral failure.
As human beings, we have a responsibility to seek the best interests of one another; current systems prioritise self-interest over everything else. The deck is stacked against the poor, and therefore they will always lose most heavily from this sort of gamble.
As such, I respectfully suggest to my economist friend that his suggestion is hopelessly flawed. I also want to suggest that this is precisely the type of situation where the Church could—and should—have a prophetic voice. If we truly believe that God is creator, and that God’s creation is ‘good’, and if we truly believe that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore invested with an inherent dignity, then we simply cannot leave it all to chance.
I am not an economist, or the son of an economist—that much is clear. But I don’t think one needs to be an economist to recognise that this is not an acceptable way forward.