Circles and Lines: Building an Ethical, Efficient Economy

Can our economy become an ethical one without waste? According to Mike Schut, Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer for the Episcopal Church, it's like bending a line into a circle.

Those were the images that Shut used to describe the differences between our human economy (line) and nature's economy (circle) during an online webcast last week.

According to Schut, the circle represents the self-regenerating qualities of the natural ecosystem, the "waste" of which is actually food or substance that "provides life for somebody else."

Conversely, the human economy, he explained, is focused on production, the waste of which become harmful "externalities" that are often detrimental to the environment and human beings.

Schut continued by saying that in the "linear" economy, human beings are defined as mere consumers, while in the "circular" one they are defined as "persons created to be in communities," or in Christian language, "the body of Christ."

Schut's presentation was broadcast on live streaming website as a planned follow up to the recent "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace" held at Trinity Wall Street Church.

The Trinity conference, attended by nearly 400 people, featured lectures from Chicago Divinity School Professor Kathryn Tanner, Cambridge University Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, with discussion centering around the topic of building an ethical – or "compassionate and just," as Schut put it – economy.

Referencing Dasgupta's lecture on the value of "natural wealth" and "shadow pricing," Schut noted that one of the larger moves we can make towards a "circular" economy is having prices that reflect real costs.

Schut gave the example of a factory that produces a 99 cent product but dumps chemical waste into a nearby river, explaining that a more accurate price of the product would include the costs of cleaning up the water source.

"Price is one thing that we react to, if we get prices more accurate, externalities would begin to decrease," he said

Schut also spoke about the work of Oakland-based group Redefining Progress, who have created a economic device called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) to measure growth in place of the GDP.

He explained that while GDP only measures in terms of transactions, the GPI would take into account social and ecological factors such as the value of volunteer work or the costs of CO2 and its impacts on climate change.

Speaking on a more personal level, Schut said that choices about transportation, food, and home maintenance are some of the most important we can make in our impact on the environment.

In response to a question of whether or not spirituality is important to building an ethical economy, Schut described it as being more of a long term solution while economic and political measures can bring more immediate results.

"We can change people's hearts through our spirituality…through a conversion to compassion and justice, and people also change in response to these larger mechanisms we've been talking about as well," Schut said, noting the changes in driving behavior people have had in response to rising gas prices.

Schut made note, however, that spirituality is "crucial" for developing an "internal freedom to move in a direction different from that of our current economy" and for resisting temptations such as greed.

"If we're going to challenge the greed within our economic system, we need to be able to speak out of positions of strength from our faith traditions," Schut said, adding that the recent economic crisis has made people more "willing to question some of the fundamentals of our economic systems."

Lastly, Schut noted compassion as an important trait for combating an often "violent economy" that sometimes marginalizes those seen as "others."

Quoting Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner, Schut called compassion that "sometimes fatal capacity of knowing what it's like to live inside the shoes of another, but then going on knowing that there can never peace and joy for any until finally there is peace and joy for all."

"Compassion embodied as justice, felt as empathy, but embodied as justice," he concluded.

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