Please Build Back Better!
A vision for putting the economy in its place
(adapted from a webinar talk on ‘Regenerative Economies’)
In 2017, I spoke in Hong Kong on: ‘Can we have abundant life without trashing the planet?’ I began with popular definitions of human flourishing: Health, Wealth, Possessions, Security, Freedom, Mobility. How things have changed in 2020. Our mobility, freedom and security have been put on hold. Our health and, for the most vulnerable, our lives have been threatened. Our wealth, if invested in stock markets, has plummeted. Our temples of consumerism have closed. All because of an almost invisible virus.
Amidst very real fear and grief, this gives us an opportunity to rethink ‘flourishing’, and how our economic systems can be regenerative and restorative rather than unstable, unjust, and unsustainable. We’ve seen a resetting of values: a new appreciation of neighbours and low-paid keyworkers; an awareness of birdsong and blue skies; for some, existential questions about prayer, purpose, and priorities. Very few of these contribute to economic growth or Gross Domestic Product. Alongside many hardships, perhaps we’re learning how to flourish in new ways. More than 50 years ago, Bobby Kennedy said this:
“We seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product … counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl … Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures … everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
So, what kind of economy will allow us to truly flourish?
1. We need an economy that takes nature seriously. COVID-19 is a crisis for human health and economies, but its causes are environmental. It began with the transmission of pathogens from animals to humans … like SARS. MERS, Ebola and many others. Currently we measure deforestation, destruction of natural habitats and even the illegal trade in wildlife parts as economic growth! It is not just bizarre but dangerous to treat the environment as an externality. We need an economy that properly accounts for environmental damage and risks, that penalizes whatever damages nature’s flourishing, or else more and worse global pathogens will emerge.
2. We need an economy that works for people and planet. Those who prioritise economic growth over environmental sustainability are making false and dangerous choices. They confuse what works for people with what works for the market. The market failed to anticipate or remediate COVID-19. Globalised travel and trade led directly to it spreading rapidly and globally. An economic system that pollutes skies, oceans and soil, destroys the possibility of both human and natural flourishing. In our work in A Rocha, we’ve experience over nearly 40 years and across six continents of practical projects that work for people and for biodiversity. We know it really works!
3. We need an economy that learns from natural systems. In nature, there is no pollution; everything gets reused and recycled. Waste is a product of linear economies: we take, we use, we discard. We ignore natural rhythms at our peril. The earth is reminding us of that now with an enforced rest, a season of jubilee, a pause for thought and renewal. A restorative economy needs to be a circular economy, where everything is recyclable or biodegradable. We need to move urgently away from extractive and exploitative industries that take without putting back. The current crisis reminds us we’re all in this together, citizens of our ‘common home’.[*]
4. We need a vision of the good life, where economies serve people and planet without exploiting, dividing, polluting or destroying. So far, I haven’t mentioned God or the Bible, but all I’ve said is rooted in a biblical vision of Shalom, not just peace but well-being, restored and harmonious relationships with God, ourselves, our human neighbours, and God’s creation. It’s a vision underlying the most quoted Bible verse on social media: Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” This vision of ‘prospering’ in Biblical terms is not narrowly economic but relational. In Jeremiah 29:5-7, an integrated vision of prospering or ‘flourishing’ is detailed that includes the ecological (planting gardens and eating their produce), the social (investing in family life), the political and economic (working for the well-being of the city), and the spiritual (praying for its welfare). As we seek to learn from the plague of COVID-19, may this be our vision too: a world of Shalom for people and planet as we learn to flourish in our common home.
[*] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home, 2015