Planetary Economics

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news, according to John the Baptist calling people out into the wilderness of Nature (Gospel of Mark 1:1-8).

“We must change,” he cries. Only a 180 degree turn can deliver us from the consequences of the actions that have led us here. He sounds like Bill McKibbon.

For John the Baptist the system at issue was Roman imperialism, an economic-political system centered in Rome expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, buffered by generous religious tolerance so long as the religious practices did not interfere with Roman prerogatives.

One could repeat the sentence in 2015 with little change: “the system at issue is [American] imperialism, an economic system centered in [Washington] expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, and religious tolerance so long as the local religious practice does not interfere with [American] prerogatives.”

It is this spiritual, moral, economic, cultural and political captivity to a global system that cannot satisfy our real needs or the world’s that produces a longing in our hearts, a readiness to make the trip to the wilderness. We are being called to abandon the house built on the quicksands of greed, manifest destiny, national exceptionalism, and the illusion of unsustainable growth.

We’re a weary people in 2015. Wearied and still disheartened 14 years after “Shock and Awe” took down Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened us and the Bush Administration’s persistent mis-association of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein. We’re wearied of lies and 11 years of un-budgeted military expenses, the loss of thousands of American soldiers’ lives and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a military venture undertaken on the assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome our presence as the onset of a new representative democracy and “free market” economy.

That belief in the goodness of American intentions hit the rocks almost as quickly as Saddam’s statue hit the pavement in Baghdad. All the while we were wearied by the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, whose original justification was a quick elimination of Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaida untempered by realistic knowledge of the long history of the military interventions that mired the invaders in quagmires such as the Soviet Union found itself before leaving in defeat. To the Afghans it didn’t matter whether the troops were Soviet or American. They were the same. They were the occupation forces of an imperial power destined to fail.

In the midst of the weariness about what was happening abroad, the financial system at home took the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008. Occupy Wall Street rose to the top of the news cycles. Although the movement fizzled over time, as such movements inevitably do, it caught the attention of television viewers, internet surfers, and newspaper and magazine readers. Occupy Wall Street and the spot light it placed on “crony capitalism” became a hot topic around water coolers at work and the table in the coffee shops.

For the first time in recent memory, capitalism was no longer sacred, no longer off limits. Time’s front cover asked the question whether Capitalism was dead. But, as with Occupy, public attention is short-lived. Amnesia sets in when people are weary. How soon we forget…until some new John the Baptist issues the cry for a 180 degree turn for the sake of something better.

Maybe Naomi Klein is a new kind of John the Baptist. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, reviewed here by the New York Times, places the over-riding systemic issue squarely before the general public again. Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist Senator who names climate action as among his four top priorities, is gaining attention as a presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s strongest voice on holding Wall Street accountable, is a bulldog who won’t let go. Put them with Bill McKibbon and 350.org and you begin to hear the echo of John’s recognition of the prophetic hard truth-telling that is the forerunner of good news.

The hard truth that precedes good news is the discovery of the myth that couples democracy with capitalism while viewing socialism as democracy’s opposite. Ideological myopia is to nations and cultures what horse blinders are to horses on a race track: they limit vision to the narrow path of the track they’re on. They prevent their adherents from seeing beyond the track.

When the climate is changing in ways that have begun to compel our attention, and when we ask how we will make it through the changes together, the bigger question of the economic system (the track itself) comes into view by virtue of necessity. It calls us off the track of species supremacy and “man over nature” into the wilderness of Nature itself.

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ derive from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘the management of the household’. Their real subject is not about markets, free or otherwise. The issue is what and how the managers manage and why we let them. Economics is every citizen’s business because we all live together in the one house. No exceptions. Economics in the original sense is a spiritual-ethical perspective before it creates systems that support (or contradict) its premise of shared life and responsibility for the planet.

John the Baptist with his axe laid to the root of the tree, reminds us that economics is a spiritual matter of the first order. It is what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Day of the Lord” and John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom [i.e. Society] of God”. Economics is not an academic discipline, or the exclusive province of Wall Street traders who understand how the free market works. Genuine economics begins and ends with the philosophical commitment to the wellbeing of the entire household of Nature and its inhabitants.

The planet — this home within Nature without which no person, society or form of life exists — requires different management. The economy for which our hearts long is the one house imagined by the psalmist and announced by John in the wilderness beyond the track of the Pax Romana: the good news waiting for longing hearts to embrace it, an economy where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10) and wars will be no more.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 16, 2015

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