Can We Be Good Stewards of the Economy and the Environment?

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Living simply usually does not entail spending less money, but instead spending money on different things.

Scriptures and tradition clearly teach us that our neighbors’ well-being should be a primary concern and also that we have an obligation to care for the non-human world. Sometimes, though, it seems like these priorities are in conflict. Efforts to live more simply by consuming less and re-using things are certainly good for the environment in the long run. On the other hand, some argue, such “simple living” results in less consumer spending and hurts the economy.

So what are we supposed to do? Do we care for our human or our non-human neighbors? Do we focus on those who are suffering now or on future generations?

Fortunately, we need not be paralyzed by this apparent conflict. While immediate economic concerns do warrant our attention, developing faithful habits of consumption can lead to a healthier ecosystem and help spur the economy in a good direction. Honoring God in the economy requires two things: first, that we understand which economic concerns are real and which are illusory, and second, that we direct the economy toward true flourishing and peace.

Changing the Way We Live

When the economy affords few opportunities and our neighbors are losing their jobs, we are told that the neighborly thing to do is to keep spending money. Consumer confidence, goes the theory, drives the economy and creates jobs. And it is true that in the near term, if everyone stopped spending money altogether, much suffering would result.

This does not mean, however, that trying to live more simply is bad for the economy. To the contrary, living simply usually does not entail spending less money, but instead spending money on different things, and perhaps giving more to the church. Moreover, saving money—and carefully investing in enterprises and ministries that are God-honoring—is good for the economy over the long term. By thoughtfully directing our spending, we not only can sustain economic life; we also can help steer the economy toward a more ecologically sustainable model.

Consider three lifestyle choices that affect our spending decisions: transportation, diet, and home. These are the three areas where our choices have the most significant environmental impact. Every dollar we spend is a vote in favor of a particular kind of economy, and, in turn, a particular ecology.

So, for example, choosing to use public transportation or commute by bicycle, when practical, will usually result in less pollution and will often save money. A choice like this, however, is not bad for the economy because that money can be put to other good uses if spent wisely. Similarly, choosing to eat less meat dramatically reduces the amount of water, land, and fossil fuels needed to support your diet, but it will not hurt the economy. Eating more fruits and vegetables simply encourages more development of plant-based foods over meat production. Finally, choosing to live in a smaller home that is closer to work and church will not hurt the economy if the money saved is used to support other good enterprises.

We can choose to buy things that do not fill up landfills or rely on excessive fossil fuels while still supporting the good, productive activity of our neighbors. Moreover, our spending habits dictate the types of economic opportunities available to our neighbors. In a strongly interconnected economy, we must be conscious of the ways in which our own actions limit or enable businesspeople to do good and to fulfill their own calling. We cannot justifiably demand that firms be environmentally responsible and consider long-term ecological effects if we are not willing to purchase goods from companies with good environmental records and avoid those that harm the environment.

It’s true that if everyone in North America were to change their transportation and eating habits overnight, the transition to a different economy would be painful. Many gasoline sellers, automobile workers, farmers, and food processors would be out of work, even as jobs are created in other areas. A rapid transition, however, is unlikely to occur. So the fear of hurting the economy should not prevent people from thoughtfully supporting the types of economic activity that are more ecologically sustainable. In fact, a gradual consumer-driven transition to a sustainable economy is likely the least painful way to bring about real environmental and economic progress.

Our theological tradition and church community can provide us with great guidance on these issues. We who are in communion with our brothers and sisters in the developing world are better equipped to distinguish between real human needs and manufactured desires. Because we know what real flourishing looks like, we can resist the temptation to spend our resources on trivial goods or unhealthy habits. We know how to live in community and can act in concert, building habits together instead of relying solely on individual willpower and conscience.

Changing Public Policy

When it comes to public policy, the conflict between our economic and ecological priorities can be more serious. There is little doubt, for instance, that imposing a tax on gasoline would induce people to choose cleaner forms of transportation and buy goods with a smaller carbon footprint. Goods that require more gasoline for production and transportation would end up costing more than comparable goods that use less gasoline. Similarly, using public transportation and living closer to work would become more attractive if gas prices were higher.

However, a large gasoline tax, if imposed quickly, could also have a negative impact on the economy. If the goal of such a policy is to encourage people to change their behavior, it makes sense to impose the policy gradually, at a time when the economy is strong, to avoid causing undue hardship. Moreover, it is possible to shape these environmental policies to minimize the human cost. For example, if revenues from a gasoline tax were used to fund reductions in income taxes, the higher transportation costs could be offset while still encouraging people to change their behavior.

Our end goal should always be to live in an economy that supports life-affirming activities and allows all God’s creatures to flourish. Our current system falls far short in many ways, and it is clear that part of the ecological problem we face is connected to our lifestyle.

If economy-wide lifestyle changes are necessary, however, then individual changes in our habits of consumption are important, but ultimately insufficient. For this reason, we cannot escape the hard policy choices that sometimes pit short-term economic interests against long-term concerns. Some significant tax on fossil fuels or a carbon-trading system may be necessary to prevent the worst possible effects of climate change. International cooperation and regulation will be necessary to sustain ocean ecosystems. Government regulatory action will probably be necessary to create a food system that limits animal exploitation.

In all these areas, Christians should be the first to willingly sacrifice for long-term gain, and also the first to demand that we shape the economy as humanely and carefully as possible.

Achieving More, Arguing Less

Within the church, it’s easy to find disagreements about economic and environmental issues. But there should also be some areas of broad agreement. For instance, we should be able to agree to help each other avoid the excesses of our culture and limit our waste of resources. In the midst of fallenness, we should testify to the intrinsic goodness of all of God’s creation. And we should all be willing to make pragmatic compromises with each other to pursue common goals. If we take seriously these common starting points and grant each other a charitable hearing, we will better be able to faithfully discern together how to respond to some of the difficult economic and environmental challenges facing us today.

Recommended Reading

Matthew Halteman, Compassionate Eating as Care of Creation, The Humane Society of the United States, http://www.humanesociety.org

Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, Three Rivers Press, 1999.

About the Author

Steven McMullen is an assistant professor of economics at Calvin College, where he specializes in education policy and ethics in economics. He is a member at Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.

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