Belief in progress is more or less today's mainstream religion. The Enlightenment has successfully replaced ‘real’ religion by a belief that material progress is the holy grail, the purpose, in life. Its main symbol in economics is economic progress, which on a very basic level translates into economic growth. Always aiming for more and better.
Economic laws are largely based on our own social construct. Our institutions, the rules that we have made about property and our belief in the monetary system and in creditworthiness, are what make the economy work as it does. So it is also our own construct that profit and growth are essential in a capitalist system. This is the religion of our time, which has indeed also brought a great deal of material progress.
But that religion makes it tricky to solve sustainability problems. Because within this religion, sustainability problems are seen as ‘negative external effects’. And the problem is that they do not have a price on the market. If we were to take them into account, consumption might become more expensive. Or worse, it might force us to consider reducing our consumption. This means that solutions to sustainability problems, ranging from energy transitions to a circular economy, can only work if they are profitable. And if becoming more sustainable is always seen as less profitable because it is more expensive, it will never be a promising alternative. Anything else than profit is simply not compatible with this paradigm. In everything, economic growth is and remains an unsubvertible precondition.
And that is the crux of the matter. Of course can we make our world more sustainable. But not if we stick to our current religion. Time to switch religions: from material progress to a sustainable future.
First, by showing that the gospel currently being told is no longer true. That, for instance, the relationship between inflation and unemployment is non-existent more often than not. That the policies of central banks undermine the credibility of the monetary system, rather than ensure financial stability. That a market economy does not cause wealth to trickle down at all, but instead creates a huge mountain at the top. And that most of all, the negative impact on our environment exceeds the benefits if we take all the costs, also for future generations, properly into account.
And second, by coming up with a new gospel. A gospel that does provide solutions to the problems of our time. A gospel in which growth is an instrument and not a goal. In which it is only logical that a society operates within the limits of our planet.
There is no reason why this should be difficult. We have switched religions before. We have first to un-believe the importance of the growth fairy-tale. If we then start to trans-believe that the only thing that counts is that future generations can also live a pleasant life, then we will act accordingly. If we believe that cutting down too many trees causes hell and damnation, then we will stop doing that.
Maybe, as has happened so many times before in history, hanging on to a religion for too long is our biggest problem.
This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in Het Financieele Dagblad, published January 25th, 2022.
Also read Hans' previous column 'Gender deaf'.