The premise of Living Lent

“It’s the economy stupid”

Bill Clinton campaign slogan 1992

The premise of Living Lent is that God’s creation, at least in its current form, is under threat because of our actions in destabilising the earth’s climate and ecosystems. We have been aware of our damaging effect on the environment for a long time but the UN report saying we have only 12 years to avert a climate catastrophe should shock us into action. Its clear message is that we can avert disaster, but it requires ourselves and our nations to undertake radical change.

Growing the economy

Economic growth has been the central, unchallengeable aim of economic policy since the Second World War. It’s opposite, “recession”, is a by-word for disaster.

And we have been successful. In the last 65 years, global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has increased 8-fold, and is predicted be 17 times bigger than today – a 14,600% increase inside a couple of generations.

The size of the economy as measured by GDP is merely the sum of all the goods and services bought and sold each year. Therefore, chasing after economic growth encourages those with enough to consume more and more no matter what is consumed. An extra £1 spent on petrol or on prostitution will contribute to economic growth just as much as spending that money on food or medicine.

It also means that human activities that aren’t bought and sold – such as caring for family or neighbours in need – are simply not counted. A caring society will not be one optimised for economic growth.

“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”

Kenneth Boulding, Quaker economist.

The current economic system views the environment not as a home to be nurtured but as an exploitable and inexhaustible resource. However, over recent years we have belatedly realised that we need a home, and its resources are not inexhaustible.

The global economic machine is needs to be redesigned in the light of these simple truths. It may seem counterintuitive given what I have said but I am deeply optimistic about this happening. For the first time in my life, we are asking the right questions and there is a growing determination to take responsibility and act.

The answers are not all obvious and we must recognise that almost any change will have both positive and negative consequences. For example, I am giving up meat this Lent because western levels of meat consumption are damaging to the environment. However, as was pointed out by the moderator of the Church of Scotland, it needs to be recognised that some people’s livelihoods are dependent on meat production.

If we are to live within the bounds of the planet while ensuring that everyone has sufficient resources, there will be countless such circles to square. It will require new thinking and new ideas. We will no longer be able to simply offload our decisions to the “invisible hand” of the market.

But there are huge opportunities to redefine fulfilled living as something more profound than more and more consumption. So if you ask me what it is we are called to change in order to flourish on this glorious planet that we will wake up to on Easter Day – I will reply “It’s the economy stupid”.

Paul Morrison is the policy advisor with particular responsibility for issues around the economy including poverty and inequality. Prior to working for the Methodist Church he was a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College studying viral disease and vaccine design.