The Values of Money: Endless Growth?
by The Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy
Posted: 29 Jul 2011
One of the most striking things about the economic down turn that followed the banking crisis was the uncertainty surrounding us when economic growth runs out. There seemed to be a vacuum of meaning - as if we are not sure what our purpose is once economic growth stops and the promise of increasing prosperity loses credibility.
The only policy that gained a voice was the call to get growth going again - even though it was the urge for unrealistic growth that had contributed to the mess in the first place.
I started these explorations with a sceptical attitude towards growth, thinking it was unduly materialistic as well as unsustainable.
In the course of the conversations I have had as well as the reading I have done, I have changed my mind and rather than being a sceptic about it have come to believe that sustainable growth can be achieved and should be encouraged.
Whilst I have no doubt that the consumerism of our society is excessive and that the materialistic love of the new has not made people happy, I don't think it is a credible policy to say that growth should slow or stop. We have a growing population which requires a growing economy. Nor does it strike me as moral for a satiated, developed economy to suggest to developing economies that there should be limits to their growth.
The key, of course, is for growth to be sustainable economically and environmentally. I believe that this is achievable and that to doubt this is to doubt human creativity. Evidence and theology encourage this optimism.
First, the evidence. Just think of the different ways people now earn their living from say thirty years ago and you see some of the ingenuity and creativity of the human spirit. The staggering variety of services that people offer and use is not to be decried, not least because a predominance of services rather than manufacturing is what is expected in an advanced economy. Renewable energy will surely become more widespread and affordable. Limits to growth suggest limits to human creativity - and history suggests this caution is misplaced. Theology suggests the same.
Humans are made in God's image and to put limits on human creativity is by implication to put limits on God. The incarnation celebrates God taking human form and most of our attention is on what this tells us about God - the depth of God's love and the identification with the human condition . Perhaps we should consider as well what the incarnation tells us about humans - namely that the incarnation is possible because there are attributes which humans have in common with God. 'Human nature is a state in which God can be himself', as Bishop John Baker has put it.
One theologian who I think would share such an approach towards growth is Thomas Traherne, the 17th century priest and poet. Traherne delights in the natural world and suggests that desiring such delights is a primary route for humans to find God:
"You must want like a God you that may be satisfied like God," he asserts, "He is from eternity full of want. . . He made us want like Gods."
Whilst Traherne can indeed be seen as an advocate for growth, he comes, too, with a warning. Precisely because he sees us all as inter connected, my desires and needs are answered when yours, too, are addressed. Everything has its proper place but when we love things in the wrong way this natural order of things is usurped and we lose the right sense of value.
Traherne's advice seems tailor made for today. "We are to grow Rich, not by seeking what we Want, but by Enjoying what we have" , he says; "Be not a Bubble; be solid like God, and let all thy Worth be within" could have been uttered with our financial crisis in mind.
This makes me wonder about how we achieve solid growth and why so much of our financial activity seems to be like a bubble.
This piece is part of a series by Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy exploring the role of the financial sector and how we might come to understand it better.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.