Hope for a just economy that enables the flourishing of all life (part 2)
St Luke 12:15-21
And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
If you could have more of something, what would you choose? In our consumer society, the answer we are often pushed to is: stuff. Media and advertising continually urge us to get more things, upgrade, and buy the latest technologies or brands. Shopping is the nation’s favourite leisure pastime, and our possessions have become markers of social status.
Our current economic system relies upon stimulating this drive for more. An ever-increasing volume of goods and services needs to be produced and consumed to accumulate capital and generate profit. Economic growth is seen as an unqualified good, and has long been a central policy aim of governments around the world.
The warning of the parable today is that an obsession with accumulation not only risks missing the point of life – as Jesus says, “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” – but may ultimately prove destructive.
This is certainly true for the environment. Industrialisation and the huge surge in economic growth that accompanied it was tightly coupled with rapid increases in the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere, beyond the ability of natural processes to constrain them. The result has been global temperature rises, and the devastating and widening impacts of climate change. Ever-increasing levels of production and consumption are also affecting many other ecological systems, and threaten to damage the Earth irreparably.
“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist,” observed the American academic Kenneth Boulding (an economist).
A bigger issue is whether such growth is even desirable, given that once a minimum level of national wealth is reached, economic growth has a patchy record of delivering improvements in measures of human welfare such as health, education and life expectancy.
Setting growth as an objective is simply aiming for ’more’, without asking the important question ‘more of what?’ And will having more of it help us to be rich towards God?
Loving God, we pray for more – not more of the things that destroy the Earth and distance us from you and other people but more of the treasures of heaven, more love for you and our neighbours, more of what really matters. Amen.
Simeon Mitchell is the URC’s Secretary for Church and Society and Team Leader of the Joint Public Issues Team