Probing the Virtues of Economic Growth

by Revd Dr Giles Fraser

Posted: 16 Aug 2011

One thinker about whom it is definitely non-PC to say anything positive is the Revd Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Countering the then-prevailing view that society was embarked on a journey of continual improvement, Malthus published his notorious An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that growth has a natural limit.

At some point, he insisted, population growth comes up against the ability of the world to sustain it. At that point, there will be what we might now call an ecological disaster. Malthus spoke in terms of famine and starvation. The reason why it has become so tricky to befriend Malthus intellectually is that he goes on to argue that famine is divinely ordained to teach human beings virtue. It is, indeed, hard to write about all this while so many people are dying in East Africa.

But what Malthus gets right is being suspicious of the idea of continual growth. Such suspicion would be well worth bringing into discussions about our economy. It has become a matter of common sense that the very purpose of an economy is con-tinually to drive up GDP. When an economy fails to grow, as ours is currently failing to grow, we see this as economic failure.

This is partly because the country uses growth as a way of living on tick - that we borrow money now and pay it off in the (always bright) future, when we will have grown and there will be more money about. Capitalism has to keep running ever faster in order just to stay where it is. Malthus would certainly have seen through all this.

The counter-view to mine is presented by the Revd Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, the Team Rector of Marlborough, in his recent essay series for St Paul's Institute. He has been exploring the roots of the credit crunch (see The Values of Money). On growth, he began where I am, worried about sustainability. But, in the course of conversations with bankers and business people, he has changed his mind, arguing that the economy is potentially unlimited because human creativity is potentially unlimited. "Humans are made in God's image and to put limits on human creativity is by implication to put limits on God" as he puts it.

Yet I would argue that the incarnation is precisely an acceptance of limit. We risk justifying greed by suggesting that the things we want are potentially unlimited. The United States may have sorted out its debt crisis for now, but big questions about sustainability and the virtues (or otherwise) of growth are not going to leave us alone.

About this author

Former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and previous Director of St Paul's Institute.

Terence Stone - Posted: 17 Oct 2011

I'm in Victoria, BC, Canada. I just wanted to know more about the man who supported the presence of the Occupy protesters. After reading your article I understand better your compassion and your courage to let the protesters stay, and ask instead that the police move on. Thank you, Reverend Fraser. I was born into Christianity and am Pagan by choice; but your actions yesterday speak volumes about Christian responsibility that I understood in my childhood wisdom and so rarely saw in practice. You renew my faith I'm proud that you are my brother.

Sarah Nunn - Posted: 23 Oct 2011

Dear Reverend Fraser,
I was so excited last week to see a member of the clergy showing love and compassion to the protesters and I am sure, like me, so many Christians would have rejoiced at your welcome. I can only guess you have been overruled and I am once again saddened by The Church of England which seems to always try and hide the love of God and not be able to stand against the materialism of this world.
From what we know of our Lord Jesus, I think He would more likely to be in the camp than within the closed doors of the Cathedral.

Dr. Jenny Fisken - Posted: 26 Oct 2011

I, too was very pleased to hear Canon Giles Fraser speak up in favour of the stance taken by the protesters on the issue of economic justice and its relevance to the Christian gospel. I felt for the first time for many years that 'the hierarchy' was back in touch with the essence of Jesus's teaching and God's bias to the poor.

It was then very saddening to see the volte -face a few days later and difficult to believe that this was not driven by Mammon. I understand that the protesters have made every effort to keep entrances clear and clean up the site to minimise any hazards. Have the visitors/pilgrims etc shown any discomfort or upset at the camp? The protesters do not seem to be rowdy or disruptive in any way The music of the cathedral services could still be heard, perhaps broadcast to those outside? Could some of the protesters not be accommodated inside the cathedral? (shock horror !)

It seems to be an glaring example of the church missing an opportunity to show its relevance to the world today and its concerns. I will have great difficulty justifying my membership of such a church to those who have read the gospels and seek an organisation which follows the teaching.
Yours sincerely and sadly
Jenny Fisken

Jeremy Ricketts - Posted: 27 Oct 2011

It is essential that our religious leaders have a clear understanding over what is right and what is wrong. It is also essential that they disseminate this information to those that will listen in the best ways they can. Collectively, we all need to revisit those time honoured, recently discarded, understandings to see if they can help resolve those difficult problems that now face us. Well done Canon Fraser! We need more of our leaders to make a stand to help us, the people, decide what is right.

Catherine - Posted: 27 Oct 2011

If there were more Christians like Dr Fraser I would seriously consider denouncing my atheism. Dr Fraser, you are an inspiration. Thank you

Terence Stone - Posted: 27 Oct 2011

Reverend Fraser,

I hope you are able to read this before you leave St.Pauls. After you courageous stand, I am inconsolably saddened and angry that the Church has put you in a position that upholding your principles of justice has given you no alternative but to resign. Please know that in your public actions of the last two weeks you have left an enduring legacy that regretably shames the Church. I sincerely hope that Rowan Williams who has so often stood for principle above polity can step back and redeem the Church at this crucial juncture for global social justice. I fear terrible violence that the Church could have mitigated. Good luck and peace be with you my brother.

Terry Leach - Posted: 27 Oct 2011

Dear Reverend Fraser,
It is sad that no matter how peacefully people protest at social injustice the authorities use one way or another to surpress them. They spend millions of pounds educating us then assume we are stupid enough to believe that the removal of the protesters is because of health and safety concerns.
Our government put so much importance in fighting for the freedom of the Arab nations, they encorage and support the Arab peoples to protest in often violent ways to achieve changes. At the same time condemn their own people for peaceful protest against a new world order that thrives on keeping people in poverty.
I wish I had the courage to join the protesters, but fear the consequence if I did. Is this the way we have to live, in fear of our own government and mistrusting of all authorities.
I thank you for your Christian actions and shame on the clerics that bow to what I believe is a currupt system.
God help us, becuse the politicians will not.
Best wishes to you.

Alison Leonard - Posted: 28 Oct 2011

I too would like to support Giles Fraser. Those occupying space outside St Paul's are trying to find a better way of running the world's finances than the present speculation-driven system, which makes the rich richer while penalising those who struggle to make ends meet. The poor, the weak, the sick - those whom Jesus loved and praised - are suffering for the actions of the rich, who remain rich.

The aim of St Paul's Institute is 'to foster an informed Christian response to the most urgent ethical and spiritual issues of our times: financial integrity, economic theory, and the meaning of the common good'. It seems to me that the current stand-off is a heaven-sent opportunity to live out the words of Jesus - 'Blessed are the poor' - 'You cannot serve God and mammon'. Those who protest that the present financial system is not the right way to run a Christian country need support, not eviction, and it seems to me deeply wrong that the man who said this must resign.

francis verity - Posted: 28 Oct 2011

The effect of the cathedral's actions on Giles Fraser combined with the callous statement by the Bishop of London have put the church back decades in my opinion. Never again can the church pretend to have compassion and sympathy for the poor. If I was ever going to retrieve my ( lost ) faith it is beyond all hope now. Shame!!!

Jesse Lee - Posted: 28 Oct 2011

The actions of Giles Fraser help me to remember the hope and truth that I once believed in Christianity while the actions of the church remind me of why I don't go to church any more.

Alex - Posted: 29 Oct 2011

Dear Rev Fraser,

I would like to express my deepest love and respect for your courage and integrity. If we would all walk our talk in the same way, we would certainly live in a much better world.
Your action speaks louder than a thousand words. Let it be an example to us all.

Best Wishes to you
Alexxandra Ferrari

Dr David Rhodes - Posted: 30 Oct 2011

The protests about capitalism show a healthy Christian and secular concern for our future but, without offering an alternative, are largely nihilistic.

An alternative and serious aim should be the global introduction of the Planet as a stakeholder in the capitalist system. This must be close to what Jesus would recommend had he lived among the current seven billion

The Planet (its proxy in practice) should charge for the use of its resources (oil, minerals etc.) and pay for resources returned to it (recycled and recovered oil, minerals, waste etc.). It could be represented as a stakeholder by something like the IMF. Poverty-stricken countries could enter the global economic system by being paid for recovering resources and selling energy from sunshine and other renewables. Self interest would be served from not pursuing unsustainable growth and profit alone but by doing things sustainably since no-one would welcome paying to the Planet large sums when smaller ones would be more attractive. This change in self interest would provide many jobs and much healthy growth, truly valuable to lead us out of the current financial crisis as well as addressing the longer term issues of overpopulation and climate change. QED.

See also:

"Capitalism, Sustainability and the Big Society", ISBN 978-1-4567-7580-3 (Authorhose), paperback, available from Amazon and other leading book suppliers.

Roger Cotterrell - Posted: 30 Oct 2011

I have not lost my Christian faith through disillusionment with the timidity or hypocrisy so often found when church establishments are put to the test. It is important to focus on Christ, not on the weakness of those who purport to speak in his name as church leaders. Christianity will survive the church hierarchies that so often fail it. Giles Fraser has brightened many of my mornings with his powerful 'Thought for the Day' radio contributions. Fortunately there are always Christians like him who are able to inspire the rest of us with their faith, empathy, clear vision and integrity.

Ann Boldock - Posted: 30 Oct 2011

I am a practicing Christian and I feel that the actions of St. Paul's would not have been felt by Jesus himself. Please don't make Christians look like hypocrites and a laughing stock. I feel that the protestors need to make a stance. But I would say to people who are questioning Christianity I have had some imense love and support from the people that I worship with in the past year. To the staff at St. Paul's turn the other cheek let services go on and to critics don't look at all Christians as the same, be tolerant and open minded. Jesus was a very compassionate man who had great courage and love for the underdog.

Peter Willcox - Posted: 6 Nov 2011

It is extremely important at these times to question growth, for the following reason. My analysis is, I'm afraid, rather simplistic, but I believe it to be the nub of the problem.

Economies can grow when there are plentiful resources, especially energy. Even food production can grow with mechanisation and energy intensive fertilisers and crop treatments. In growing economies, sub-prime mortgages and high levels of borrowing by consumers and business and government is fine. All debt is repaid out of growth. But when cheap energy comes to an end, so does growth, and all our assumptions become invalid.

Peak oil hit in 2008, and food and energy prices rose, and people couldn't afford their mortgages anymore. The whole house of cards fell.

Can I suggest that in the near future the Institute invite Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute ( to debate causes, and Rob Hopkins of the Transition Network ( to debate solutions?

Peter Willcox
Transition Town Letchworth

Sue - Posted: 7 Nov 2011

Dear Rev Fraser

I am writing as a very ordinary Christian. I was very glad when St Paul's offered space to the protestors, and sad and alarmed when it back-tracked on this. Your resignation must have come at a huge personal cost to you but it seems that it has done a lot of good - the cathedral now looks to be back in a place of acting in accordance with Christian values. Thank you for your courage and may I please pray that God will look after you.


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.