Economics is about more than money, math and markets: A Christian argument for climate justice

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty makes a Christian argument for climate justice.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

In the article “How do we know climate change is real?”, NASA reports the current rapid pace of climate change is “unequivocally the result of human activity since the mid-20th century.” The earth’s surface temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s. Hotter surface temperatures mean that we lose sea ice, sea levels rise, experience longer and more intense heat waves, and plant and animal habitats change significantly, with the greatest impact in the Global South.

By 2050, nearly 216 million people worldwide could be forced out of their homes and on the move due to climate change, according to The World Bank’s “Groundswell” report. Many scientists, philosophers, theologians and ethicists now refer to the current geological time in which we are living as the Anthropocene because of the tremendous impact of human activity on the planet earth, our home.

Care for creation and climate justice have been central to ecumenical and interfaith movements since the 1970s. Their efforts call for sustainable development and to identify the root causes of climate change, and the adoption of simpler more environmentally responsible lifestyles. In June 2022, the World Council of Churches and International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD) co-hosted a hybrid event at Stockholm+50, an international meeting convened by the United Nations. Their event aimed to carry forward a faithful reflection on what they call the “triple ‘pandemic’ of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution.” The goal of the statement issued from this event is to identify the root causes of the triple planetary crises. Their statement suggests the origins are found in the “structural greed and apathy that underpin our current economic systems.”

Prior to their merger into the PC(USA) in 1981, the then-independent Presbyterian Church in the U.S. and United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. both adopted the first public policy statement on energy prior, “The Power to Speak Truth to Power.” The policy called for the world to develop a “means of meeting energy needs for sources that are sustainable over a long term, essentially renewable resources.” Ethical norms of justice, sustainable sufficiency and participation in decisions that affect one’s life emerging from the biblical narrative gave shape to a prophetic call for alternative, renewable and sustainable energy choices.

This year, the 225th General Assembly reaffirmed its commitment to sustainability. A clear statement was made connecting our current dominant forms of wealth creation to climate justice by placing Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy on the General Assembly Divestment/Proscription List until their actions comply with the denomination’s environmental policies. This action represents significant progress and years of faithful reflection and corporate engagement done by Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee (MRTI).

We all know that our human activities occur within a larger planetary context. Educational campaigns, increases in recycled products, advances in environmental science, and eco-justice movements such as the Christian Food Movement have led us to think about our patterns of consumption, the distance our food travels from farm to table and our carbon footprints. However, we may not always think about how our understanding of the economy and current dominant forms of wealth creation contribute to climate change.

Wealth creation in our capitalist society is based upon the model of a competitive market ruled by the laws of supply and demand. The competitive model was first introduced in 1838 by a French mathematician named Antoine-Augustin Cournot. By the late 19th century, supply and demand curves became a dominant feature of economics education. There is little doubt about the authority of economics in our society and the use of economics as a powerful tool to explain social and political problems and human behavior within markets.

Competing views of wealth creation emerged during the Great Depression and advanced by economists such as John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Their arguments identified with two dominant approaches to wealth creation, social developmentalism and neoliberalism, which held differing views of the role and responsibility of the state, emphasis on growth and profit making, and progress. By the 1980s, economic policies informed by Hayek’s approach prevailed, introducing a form of turbo-capitalism that accelerated the heating up, drying and browning of the planet earth.

There are, however, alternative approaches. Traditional economics is primarily limited to mathematical specification and statistical quantification of economic contexts and deals with the allocation of resources, not apportionment or scale. Herman Daly, a World Bank economist now considered the parent of ecological economics, thought economics should be about more than money, math and markets. He suggested the problem with neoclassical economics begins with its assumptions about growth as the primary solution to modern economic problems. He argues in “Steady-State Economics: A New Paradigm,” “the growth of the economy in its physical dimensions is limited by the fact that the economy is a subsystem of the ecosystem. The ecosystem is finite, non-growing, and materially closed.”

So, we need to know much more about the scale of an economy that would permanently disrupt our ecosystem. We also need to understand when the extra ecosystem disruptions cost us more to clean up or in terms of sacrifice than the benefits given to us in terms of extra production. What Daly recognized was that the things we accumulate as wealth are also “dissipative structures.” Natural resources such as fossil fuels, water, trees, fish and animal life contribute to human life and wealth as they are transformed by production and through consumption within the economy, but, in the end, they go back as wastes to the environment. Things like cars, houses, shirts and electronic devices, among others, all require maintenance or to be replaced at a certain point.

Daly’s plan is to transform the economy to be sustainable in the long run by limiting the use of all resources to levels that can be absorbed by the ecosystem. He also suggests exploiting renewable resources at rates that don’t prevent their regeneration within the ecosystem and deplete non-renewable resources. More importantly, Daly believes well-being and happiness are equally important as markets and the things we can produce. Well-being and happiness come from experiences, not just things. As experiences, well-being and happiness “can increase forever if based on qualitative improvements (development) rather than on quantitative increase (growth).”

What is the ministry of the church in the Anthropocene period? Denominational, ecumenical and interfaith movements for climate justice suggest ways to move forward. Consider the relationship between your consumption and the way you increase your own well-being to a larger web of life. Challenge faith communities to read sacred texts through an ecological lens as opposed to an anthropocentric one. Educate your congregation about communities most vulnerable to climate change, climate migration and environmental racism. Work within your local community for just and sustainable energy sources, and get politically engaged. Our votes matter a lot in advancing this cause.