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It's time to rethink the world that we want to have

POSTED: April 18, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Robin Gottfried

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Back in 1776, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" pointed out that a competitive market economy would lead to increased wealth due to its great efficiency. But, what is it efficient at doing?

For the most part, modern economics views the environment - when it considers it at all - as a source of raw materials and as a place to put our waste. However, more and more economists and ecologists recognize that the environment serves other critical roles.

Ecosystems act like factories that provide us goods and services free of charge, things like water and air purification, water and fiber, recreation, replenished aquifers and protection from floods and high winds. However, because these "products" are free, the market economy takes them for granted.

We cut down a forest to produce paper, failing to take into account the lost water production and flood protection the forest once provided. So, we gain paper at the hidden cost of increased damages from flooding and of decreased municipal water supplies. In other words, many goods and services have artificially low prices because the market does not include all the costs of producing them.

Modern economics relies on 18th century psychology, which assumes that the more goods and services we consume, the happier people are. This implies that increases in human well-being require an ever expanding economy.

However, psychologists and economists have shown repeatedly that people across all cultures and countries exhibit almost no increase in happiness (as measured in various ways) despite large increases in incomes.

It appears that, once people meet minimum requirements for food, shelter and basic security, increases in their consumption of goods and services don't make them any happier. At the same time, a variety of social scientists and medical researchers are discovering that the natural environment directly affects our physical and mental well-being in a multitude of ways.

Many people say they feel closest to God in the outdoors. Christian theology and spirituality speak of the beauty we perceive in creation, of the way God reveals him/herself to us through the things God has made.

For instance, Paul scolded the Athenians for not knowing God even though they had the witness of all of creation. Creation speaks to us in a mighty way about God and enables God to reach us in a special way. The great saints, therefore, called the environment the great Book of Creation.

So, is our economy so wonderfully efficient after all? What is it efficient at doing? It uses more and more of the earth's resources to produce the same amount of happiness, destroying the ecosystems that have been subsidizing our production of goods and services, and making it more and more difficult to encounter a loving God in creation.

Luckily, we can do better. The growing field of ecological design offers us new ways of organizing ourselves so that we need not despoil creation.

We can co-create the world in a beautiful way. And, growing numbers of people are coming to realize that meaningful relationships provide far more satisfaction than more widescreen TVs.

The Bible says, "Without a vision, the people perish." Maybe it's time we re-envision what sort of world we truly want.

Robin Gottfried, a professor of economics at Sewanee: The University of the South, serves as the executive director of the Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee.


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