Examining questions of growth on the brink of another crisis

Despite initial skepticism, the Rev. Andrew Studdert-Kennedy has come to believe that long-term economic growth is both sustainable and desirable. The Rev. Giles Fraser is not so sure.

Writing for the St. Paul’s Institute, of which Fraser is director, Studdert-Kennedy says:

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.

Writing for the Church Times, Fraser says he is not so sure:

It has become a matter of common sense that the very purpose of an economy is con­tinually 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. ….

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.

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