by Pastor Doug Kings

According to the UN, this coming Tuesday a baby will be born somewhere in the world who will be the 8 billionth living person on the planet. Just fifty years ago the world had half as many people. While global population growth has been slowing, it is not expected to peak until the 2080s at 10.4 billion people.

Presumably we’ll be able to squeeze in another 2 or 3 billion of us in that time. In and of itself, population growth isn’t a problem. In fact, in recent years, global poverty has been declining and life expectancy has been increasing (though it’s taken another dip with the Covid-19 pandemic).

Yet it is a problem precisely because of that improvement. More people, living better, use up more of what our planet has to offer, and create more waste as a result. But the earth isn’t getting any bigger to accommodate us. This is not a sustainable situation, yet we’ve been trying to hide from this reality for a long time.

One man who worked to bring the foolishness of humanity’s current path to light was the ecological economist, Herman Daly. Daly, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland, died two weeks ago at age 84. The author of numerous books, Daly taught first at LSU and also spent six years at the World Bank.

In 1996 Daly was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, which is sometimes called an alternative Nobel Prize. Daly viewed his career as an economist as a means to bring about a fairer world. One of his books (1989) was co-written with theologian John Cobb and is titled, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future.

Daly’s crusade was to show that growth need not and should not be the measure of a healthy economy. One of Daly’s colleagues neatly summarized his message as, “More isn’t always better.” As his New York Times’ obituary says, it was a hard notion to sell but he never relented.

Dr. Daly’s economic beliefs were grounded in hard sciences like the laws of thermodynamics, but also in ethical ideals, like the fair distribution of wealth, and in his faith as a Methodist who saw the Earth as the handiwork of an almighty creator. Even as his theories gained currency in recent years, they remained outside economic thinking’s mainstream. He did not seem to mind. “My duty is to do the best I can and put out some ideas. Whether the seed that I plant is going to grow is not up to me. It’s just up to me to plant it and water it.”

“Growth” is the idol of economics, but Daly believed this was both false and unnecessary. It is false because its typical measurements, like GDP, fail to account for the costs of growth, such as depleted resources, pollution, and environmental degradation. It is unnecessary because, as his research demonstrated, a “steady-state” economy is entirely feasible. The necessity of growth is a self-serving lie by the business and political interests promoting it.

Economic improvement through development was entirely possible, Daly believed, without growth.

In ecological economics, we’ve tried to make a distinction between development and growth. When something grows, it gets bigger physically…. When something develops, it gets better in a qualitative sense. It doesn’t have to get bigger…. And the art of living is not synonymous with “more stuff.” People occasionally glimpse this, and then we fall back into more, more, more.

Daly goes on to say that his ideas were rarely attacked on their merit but rather because they were unrealistic or simply because people didn’t like them. He understood that moving from growth to sustainability would take more than ideas but a human transformation.

This has been one of the themes of the book of our just concluded discussion series: You Are the Happiness You Seek. Just as GDP hides the true costs of economic growth, author Rupert Spira says we hide from our shared being with all people and all things. Thus, we miss how our personal wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of the world around us. The consequences of this today, Spira says in the book’s conclusion, are pointing us towards disaster.

There are essentially two models for civilization. The first is one in which the ideas and attitudes of individuals are informed by an understanding of their relationship to the whole, and their activities and relationships are the means by which this understanding is expressed in society.

The second model is one in which individuals overlook their relationship to the whole and, as a result, believe and feel themselves to be discrete, independently existing entities. This is a paradigm of separation that inevitably leads to unhappiness on the inside, conflict on the outside between individuals, communities and nations, and the exploitation and degradation of the earth.

History has repeatedly shown that a civilization in which individuals neglect their relationship with the whole will collapse. Our own civilization is showing all the signs of this disintegration but has as yet failed to embrace the understanding required to remedy it. We are like a patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness but refuses to take the medicine.

Jesus in three of the gospels, and Paul in Romans, say that the commandments are summarized in the words “love your neighbor as yourself.” Today we are discovering that the meaning of “as yourself” is more literal than we previously imagined. We are not, Spira says, all independent selves but we share our being with everyone and everything.

What affects one, affects all. Paul says in Acts, “God is the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” And in his letters, Paul asserts that all human differences have been dissolved because we are one in Christ. What we once may have seen as lofty ideals are now our path to survival.

Blessings in your life and ministry.