Watching out for the hole in the fence
The First Commandment : no other gods...
Madonna sang in the middle eighties: 'We are living in a material world and I am a material girl.'
A more pointed description of our stomach as our god is hardly imaginable.
Some twenty years later, just before the elections for the commons in The Netherlands in 2003, the VNO-NCW (Employers Organizations) presented a ten point plan:
Make the economy no 1., was the title.
Three years later, after the Central Planning Agency had worked through the party political programmes for the Elections of 2006, the conservatives warned that a leftist coalition that could hamper economic growth. It was meant to be a scare to worry people enough that they change their vote to a conservative one.
The idea that economic growth and social responsibility must of necessity be at odds with one another is a long held belief by not just the conservative electorate. Many people believe in scarcity, always worry whether there will be enough for everybody, not realizing that scarcity is an economic principle that rules supply and demand.
An economic principle that is important for the economic aspect.
Global organizations have long since discovered that scarcity can be manipulated for economic gain.
Economy and economic growth as idols?
Idolatry is putting your faith in something else than "the only true God" , according to the Heidelberg Catechism.
Past Economics prof. at the Free University of Amsterdam, Bob Goudzwaard, has been pointing for years to the danger of economic growth as idol, with his "Economy of Enough".
Unrestrained materialism and consumption clashes with the biblical call for stewardship and care for the other. Economic practice has to serve, work for our world "household", Goudzwaard emphasizes in his book : "Enough of too much and enough of too little". However western economies often satisfy only the drive to more consumption. It often appears that consumption is the only engine to drive the economy.
It was then also not surprising that after the collapse of the economy as we have known it, in 2008, people were urged to spend more. Spend more even though the western world had been living on credit for many years??
Many Christians struggle with what has been described by the British historian Simon Schama as 'abundance and discomfort'. Where is the borderline between a justified striving for wealth and a consumerist mentality and spending habits? When did money stop being a means and become an end in itself?
The Bible warns against monetary cravings, but shows at the same time that wealth is a gift of the Lord. The people of Israel were led to a land that was overflowing with milk and honey.
Yet the combination of abundance and discomfort is understandable.
Reformer Johannes Calvin, quoting Proverbs 30, warned already more than 4 centuries ago, that a life of affluence can threaten a life with God. Or as a Reformed pastor recently mentioned in a sermon: "Affluence is a hole in the fence through which the sheep can get away".
At the same time it is evident that wealth and economic growth as such is not wrong. Bob Goudzwaard too does not plead for zero growth. Economic growth is inherent in the way in which God has created man:
a creative being after his image. Which enables man to grow in knowledge and ways to produce.
But growth has to go hand in hand with social development, says Graafland, economics prof at University of Tilburg. "Some economists assert that countries have to give priority to economic growth first and that the human development follows automatically. That last part is however not guaranteed. Countries that have, from the start, given social development its due place and attention - good schooling and education, and healthcare- have been more successfull. Asiatic countries like Japan and South Korea managed to realize a very high level of economic growth while limiting chances for inequalities to develop. They actively intervened to limit poverty and inequality and give everybody an equal opportunity and access to education."
Economic growth and social development cannot do without each other. Just as good education and a good healthcare are not possible without economic growth.
Responsible Economic Growth and Human Rights
Professor in International Law in Tilburg, Willem van Geneugten, is of the opinion that a healthy economy in the long term contributes to human rights. Wealth leads to social stability. And in a stable environment human rights can come to fruition.
But that is not how economic growth always develops. Often it is an end in itself that works at the cost of others or of the environment. Think for instance of the way in which the agricultural sector in the rich North often through dumping of excess production destroys whole communities and ways of life in the South. Or of the connection between materialism on the one hand and climate change on the other,and the interference in local economies in the developing countries with as main objective the creation of a cheap source of a commodity for economic gain by a multinational.
We don't even have to go that far afield.
In Canada there are only a few multinationals left that control to a large extent not only farmgate prices of agricultural products but also the margins within farmers have to work through control of fertilizer prices and transportation costs by closing local elevators.
In the 80's and 90's Canada Packers Ltd bought up all the smaller dehydration plants in Alberta ( and subsequently closed them down) to control the market for Alfalfa which is a billion dollar market in the healthfood industry.
The immediate result was a slow death of the local economy and disintegration of the social fabric of small town Canada. All in the name of efficiency and progress. But efficiency is an economic principle and as such should not be the determining factor in the infra structure of a small town.
At present the giant Monsanto Corporation is pushing for world wide use of their Genetically Modified seeds. The socalled GM seeds. The seeds carry a changed gene that makes them resistant against another product by the same company-Round-up- an herbicide to fight weeds (Soybeans) or toxic to another pest, the corn borer.
All done with a total disregard for local situations and at such a great cost that whole communities are being destroyed. The introduction of GM cotton in India for instance has created such devastation that at present India cotton growers are committing suicide at the rated of 1 suicide every 30 minutes.
I think all of us could name a number of issues that should be dealt with from different perspective and a different set of principles.
Because these are certainly not exactly examples of healthy economic growth or development of a healthy world economy. And the sad truth is that these examples are more rule than exception.
"The problem is that economic growth has become a dogma", says emeritus prof Goudzwaard. ''We often don't consume because we need something, but to present ourselves in a certain way through our purchases. In that growth there is a destructive element."
For colleague-economist Graafland it is evident that economic growth has to be a just growth, with justice being done and moral norms being applied.
"Is it about getting a bigger car? or do we invest the extra capital, the added value in the well being of all, and new technologies to save the environment or even repair the damage done? If we progress toward the latter, we can be justified in speaking of good stewardship".
For such a thing to come about we need to become aware of something existing outside ourselves that deserves to be part of the equation. Preferably something that transcends our immediate situation and preferably something that we other people can relate to also. Call it God , call it Jehova or Allah, but something that transcends and at the same time encompasses.
Putting our trust in the one God is a fundamental thing that transcends everything and at the same time encompasses everything. In fact we cannot really not put our trust in God because it all will eventually come apart. As we are at the moment only too painfully becoming aware of.