Greed, Greenness, Growth, and Goodness

My good friend Alexei Laushkin has written about American idolatry, materialism and its impact on the environment and other nations at the EEN blog, Deep Green Conversation

I agree with him that many people make terrible and damaging choices about money and material possessions.  His point about modern idolatry being a serious and deadly business is a good one.  Idols aren’t just physical objects that people venerated long ago.  As I have affirmed before, the self has become the primary object of adoration.

However, I think Alexei’s cost accounting is flawed. He places too much blame on economic wealth and globalized trade.

The “golden calves” of money, fame, power, sex and prestige do not force us to consume any more today than years past.  Decadence has always existed whenever there has been enough disposable income to support the habit.

Alexei says that for “those…who care about the environment, there is a real and substantial cost [of] these idols.”  I have a few problems with this statement. First, it is a strange claim since the very real, and arguably more serious costs, are spiritual (he discusses this earlier in the post). Second, regardless of your disposition toward the environment, materialistic decadence will have real costs.  Finally, I would disagree that the costs are primarily environmental costs.

His language sounds like the same used by people who believe that economic growth is a threat to the environment (though I think Alexei isn’t one of those people).  The reality is that the wealthier our world has become, the better able we’ve been able to mitigate our impact on the environment (if we take population growth as given).  Only as nations grow wealthier do markets for hybrid cars, organic foods, and extensive recycling programs develop.

Alexei laments China’s economic growth that consumes large amounts of global resources.  Certainly there is much to lament about Chinese policies, but I need not agree with those policies to point out that Chinese demand for imports is the lifeblood of many economies, ranging from wealthy ones like ours to poorer ones like Peru, Sudan, and the Congo.

Do the people of these poor nations suffer ill effects from trade with China?  Absolutely.  Corruption, poorly planned development, and worse things all occur. But we should not ignore the opportunity costs of not trading with China, or any other foreign nation, in our calculus.  For example, consider the costs associated with driving.  Owning a car brings costly insurance and maintenance costs. Many people die in automobile accidents each year.  But despite these real and substantial downsides, some people find the benefit of having a vehicle is still a net positive.

Again, I am not affirming all, or even any part, of Chinese trade policy.  My point is that we should not be so strident or comprehensive in our denouncing of foreign trade in our global economy. 

When Alexei asks, “when will it ever be enough?”—referring to America’s importing of creation’s wonderful bounties—he sees unnecessary consumption and dangerous greed.  I will not dispute that real greed and real waste occur, but condemning our desire for imports so harshly overlooks the fact that billions of people around the world are better off because rich countries demand imports.  Global trade does not damn people to “everlasting spiritual poverty” on its own as Alexei implies.

Alexei believes that we export greed, which he calls a shameful commodity.  I would argue that no nation has the monopoly on greed. All nations, rich or poor, face the decisions that pit virtue against vice, selfishness versus selflessness. 

Seeking to make wise choices about our consumption is a difficult task.  Not only are we driven by selfish desires, but gathering all the relevant information complicates the process.  Determining which economic policies have an acceptable impact on the environment is much more nuanced than simply seeking to limit consumption.  America’s forests today are healthier than they were 100 years ago.  In fact there are more trees in the United States today than there were 100 years ago.  One major cause of this is the forest industry’s replanting efforts that are necessitated by their business model and the growth in demand for paper products.

Unfortunately there is no reliable side on which to default.  Neither unlimited global trade nor dedicated economic localism is a sure path to virtue.

5 Comments

  • Bryan Wandel
    October 21, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Adam, you say “All nations, rich or poor, face the decisions that pit virtue against vice, selfishness versus selflessness.”
    Surely every one, at all times face moral decisions, and there is some similarity to these. But do you think that certain systems can inherently sinful? Or that they can tend toward more or less temptation to evil?
    Let me know how this spins your neutron star: There could be methods of organization that systematically work to exclude, subject, and diminish those involved, or those affected. For example, we know that language is an exclusivizing structure, each word denying many meanings as well as affirming. And we know that it is nearly impossible to think outside of language (thought is a kind of dialogue with yourself). So controlling language would be one way of controlling people; think “Newspeak” from 1984. Similarly, some economic systems might steer people away from or towards certain kinds of moral thinking, simply because people think, act, and reason within a social system.

    I think you have two arguments in this post: America’s economic system is actually morally beneficial, and America’s economic system is not any more evil than others because people have to make moral decisions there too. I am more than willing to debate the former, which is complicated, but I would disagree with arguments based on the latter, which implies that systems and institutions are morally neutral.

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    October 21, 2009

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Your invitation to affirm the existence of various potentially evil structures is far too nebulous for me to engage with fruitfully.

    Please make your case straightforwardly and I’ll be happy to do my best to respond.

    Your last paragraph was the most clear and in response to it I have two points:

    1) This conversation can easily allow for a both/and argument. I could say that America’s economic system is good, but even if you don’t buy that at minimum you must agree that America’s economic system is no more bad than any other nation’s.

    2) Conversations about “America’s economic system” bother me. Why? Because we live in a global economy. There is no “American economic system” per se. There is no theoretical system that is uniquely American. There might be companies headquartered in America, but they play by plenty of other nation’s rules when they engage in global trade or when they have offices in other countries.

  • Bryan Wandel
    October 23, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    2) There doesn’t need to be a theoretical system for there to be a system. The American economic system is the one Americans engage in – it is what Americans do when they engage in economic activity. This is somewhat unclear for multinational corps, but even much of their activity transpires without changing assumptions or practice. As far is this is the case (as it has been increasingly so in recent globalization), it is still within the same framework of acting. More importantly, the vast majority of American economic activity is domestic.

    1) You don’t have to buy that, at a minimum, America’s system is no more bad than others. Depending on your values regarding consumption, production relationships, self-sufficiency, the value of simplicity, etc. it is certainly plausible to say that another way of economic acting is better. We can make a comparison not only to other countries today, but other historical economies, too. Many Christians for many years thought loyalty, order, and social responsibilties between classes were best maintained in more hierarchical systems. Before labor relations (and therefore economic activity) were purposefully changed in our country, we had indeed lost 2 of those through the kind of industrial system we were working through.

    There are moral results of social organization and relation. The results of a complex system are a mixed bag. This is ultimately the reason I think blanket criticisms or our own are unwarranted. And the fact that the parts causing good are so interwoven with parts causing bad as to make wholesale extraction impossible without destroying the fabric, is what makes me conservative.
    But there is enough there to warrant comparison and criticism – not value neutral. And it certainly seems to me that we can try to find a rough aggregate of our plusses and minuses. So again – I’m not telling you how bad America is, but that there is more to the moral analysis than saying that people in other countries or systems have to make moral decisions, too.

  • Adam D'Luzansky
    October 23, 2009

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Bryan, unfortunately I’m still mostly confused.

    Your closing point seems to stress that your beef with me with that there is more to the analysis than saying that people in other countries have to make moral decisions too. Yes. I agree with that statement. But if you read my initial post as resting primarily on the grounds of moral neutrality, then you’re missing my broader point. My broader point is that we can’t sweepingly declare economic activity to be mostly bad because greedy people exist or because environmental damage happens. Our modern economic system isn’t the creator or instigator of greed or waste. Regardless of economic system, regardless of time or place, greed and waste have occurred. They occur because man is inherently selfish and needs no economic system to make him so.

    I believe you are completely wrong when you say that the vast majority of American economic activity is domestic. What evidence do you have of that statement? Globalization isn’t so recent as you imply. Nearly all General Motors vehicles have their engines built in Mexico. Every supermarket sells huge amounts of produce that is grown oversees. Large amount of oil is imported and turned into gasoline. Other than services (i.e. haircuts), I think most things the average American purchases were at one point connected to the global economy.

    The point you labeled as #1 confuses me. I think you misread my earlier statement. In my first reply I said, “I could say that…” as a way of illustrating the possibility of arguing two contradictory points. Regardless, you’ve lost me when you’re talking about the validity of comparing economic systems, present or past. Of course we can compare differing economic systems. I never said we couldn’t.

  • Bryan Wandel
    October 23, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    On globalization – I’m not saying it’s totally recent, but everyone agrees the last 3 decades has seen significant increases. More significant than any, probably, since the wave of globalization in the late 19th century.
    Domestic US economy – I guess I just mean that most of our GDP consists of Americans selling to Americans, and Americans employing Americans. Imports and exports are both much smaller than the total. Beyond this, most of countries we are dealing with have economies that are increasingly like ours, so it’s not much different. MORE importantly, the very fact of bringing in certain products or services is one of the characteristics of the way Americans live economically, and therefore part of what we are talking about. When I say “system,” I mean less something that is closed than something that has definable characteristics, limits, rules, etc.

    But this is secondary. My closing point in the second comment, was merely to reinforce point (2) in the first comment: I think you are making two arguments, and the one is valid while the other is not. I’m against the sweeping generalization of “bad” also, but you fortified your point in two ways. (1) There are actually benefits to globalization. I agree. (2) The negatives of globalization, or any economic system, are reducible to the fact that people are just going to sin. But the contrapositive would also have to be true: if people are good in a system, that would account for the good results. And the only logical conclusion would be either that all systems are inherently the same amount of good or bad, because all humans involved carry the same human nature, or that some economic systems must have humans that are less sinful, which would account for the fact that there is more good coming out of their system.

    I know you mean to make neither of these last two conclusions. But there are ways of acting that produce results we don’t intend. It is possible that a greedy person could have much more devastating effect in one economic system than in another. Or that there might, in another system, be more safeguards against sinfulness causing harm.

    There are positives and negatives to global trade, or an “American economic system.” All I mean to emphasize is that the negatives are not due solely to the fact that men are fallen, but results are funnelled and filtered according to certain systems of acting. And some might be better at that than others.