Religion: A Practical Solution to Environmental Crises?

Photo Credit: Pixbay

Sometimes we may think that the religious dimension of the environment amounts to romantic tree-hugging, while what we really need to address environmental issues are practical, on-the-ground solutions. I think, rather, that approaching environmental issues from a spiritual perspective in many ways offers us the greatest hope because it directly affects the economic system. Here’s why.

Religious values and consumers

As more and more people come to encounter the sacred in creation, they grow increasingly sensitive to the impacts of their actions on it. Once they realize that God dwells in all things, including the mountains themselves and the forests that blanket them, they become more interested in their well-being. This motivates some to explore why mountaintop removal occurs, for instance, and what its impacts on the environment and local people are. News media then disseminate the information and heavy consumers of electricity now realize and care about the impacts of their energy use and do all they can to reduce their use of electricity. They change their lifestyle over time and clamor for products that will further reduce their impact.

When I go into our local Piggly Wiggly grocery (a decidedly down-home store), I can get organic produce, something unheard of ten years ago. How did this happen? By exactly the process I outlined above. Demand has increased for organic produce, raising its price and encouraging producers to provide it. As this trend continues, all other things equal, the price of organic food will rise relative to industrially produced food, thereby motivating farmers and agricultural processors to respond accordingly. The effect of changing people’s tastes and thereby affecting demand resembles that of placing taxes on the sale of noxious products and providing consumers subsidies for the purchase of benign goods.

Religious values and business

People run businesses. As these people come to recognize God’s presence in the materials they use and the streams, land and air into which they discharge waste, they, too, want to reduce their impact or eliminate it entirely. Accordingly, they seek ways to minimize their waste and to substitute less toxic materials for more toxic inputs in their products. Businesspeople increase the recycling/reuse of their inputs and products and let consumers know about their actions. Consumers seeking greener products gravitate toward these producers and provide them a larger market. Interface Carpet, the largest producer of commercial carpet in the world and arguably a world leader in sustainable business, offers a wonderful case study in this process. Ray Anderson, a devout Methodist and its founder, loved to talk about how his company prospered by doing good. Firms like Interface provide a market for entrepreneurs who devise processes and products that cooperate with the environment via ecological design. As businesspeople come to recognize the sacredness of creation, they are motivated morally and economically and production changes accordingly. Supply of environmentally benign products increases and that for toxic products decreases.

The market, the Invisible Hand, and the Holy Spirit

All this comes down to good old demand and supply. Economists like to talk about the need for “full-cost pricing,” whereby prices reflect all the costs and benefits incurred or received by society from the goods the economic system provides. Adam Smith famously said that (here’s a paraphrase), “Individuals following their own self-interest will be guided as if by an invisible hand to do that which is best for society.” When full-cost pricing is in effect, the Invisible Hand, demand and supply, allocates resources to those uses that best reflect the desires of society (given the way that income is distributed among the members of that society).

I once had a priest colleague who equated the Holy Spirit of God with the Invisible Hand. While I think my friend was confused theologically, he had a point. The Invisible Hand that guides markets to allocate resources does so quietly without the intervention of any government, working through the everyday interactions of people buying and selling. Just as God dwells in people and trees, so the Spirit dwells in market interactions. Just as God’s presence can be intuited from the orderliness and relationships between the stars and planets, so can God be intuited from the order and interrelationships of the economic system. While the Holy Spirit isn’t the market anymore than God is you or I, God moves through the market by moving through and between the people participating in it.

Redeeming Economies

Just as we are not perfect though the God who dwells in us is, neither is the market perfect. When consumers fail to account for the negative impact of the goods they purchase or firms neglect the costs they impose on the environment and communities surrounding their plants, the market’s Invisible Hand fails to allocate resources properly. For instance when we fail to consider that others are less likely to fall ill if we get vaccinated against measles (or fail to care about it), we are willing to pay less for a vaccination than otherwise. In addition, when coal producers fail to include the costs mountaintop removal imposes on the health of surrounding communities and mountain ecosystems, the market’s Invisible Hand produces too few vaccinations and too much coal. Yet, if people start caring about others, whether human or nonhuman, they start including these formerly ignored costs and benefits in their consuming and producing and move the market toward full-cost pricing. Demand and supply change, so the Invisible Hand provides fewer and fewer goods that harm the environment and its people and more of those that benefit them. The process resembles, though on a far more comprehensive scale, a gradually increasing carbon tax, a much-discussed policy proposal to address climate change. Spiritual health and socioeconomic health inextricably intertwine. That’s why Pope Francis includes discussions of spirituality alongside economics in his encyclical on climate change.

As individuals learn to recognize the sacred in all things, they act in more loving, nurturing ways towards others, whether human or nonhuman. Isn’t it interesting that this happens to markets and economic systems, too? As consumers and entrepreneurs grow, so the Invisible Hand starts to allocate resources in ways that nurture all of creation. By God’s becoming a human to transform the cosmos, God not only made it possible for individuals to reflect God’s love and mercy, but for the economic system to do so also. God enables the market’s Invisible Hand to more closely resemble the Holy Spirit. Maybe my friend wasn’t so far off after all.

Center for Religion and Environment

Certificate Program in Contemplation and Care for Creation



Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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