In her first week as FaithInvest CEO, Dr Lorna Gold issues a passionate call for a radical reassessment of the values underpinning all our economic decisions. To do that we need to recognise that the prevailing vision of the economy has become impoverished and narrow, she says. We need an economy more attuned to the planet and human well-being – one that will unleash the power of faith as a dynamic force for good.
'It is only when the last tree dies that we will realise you can’t eat money'
– Native American saying
Around a decade ago, I was at an event in Dublin, Ireland when the then secretary of the International Federation of Trade Unions, Sharon Burrow, stated: ‘There are no jobs on a dead planet’. At that time her statement, coming from the trade union movement, seemed quite radical – you mean to say environmentalism has something to do with the economy? With jobs?
It sparked a heated conversation amongst those present, discussing the merits and demerits of more stringent environmental policy and the implications on industrial sectors and livelihoods. In many respects, it was the start of the debate we now call ‘just transition’.
Now various versions of that phrase she coined pop up everywhere – ‘no healthcare on a dead planet’, ‘no sport on a dead planet’. In other words, ‘no future on a dead planet’.
Fast forward to 2023 and the dots between economics and the accelerating ecological disaster are clear to see. Environmental science tells us that the ecological crisis is multi-faceted – but has its common root in our globalised economic system.
Eminent earth scientists have identified nine verifiable planetary boundaries which we collectively face. At present we are breaching at least two of these life support systems (chemical pollution and biosphere integrity) and hurtling towards the others, including climate change, with terrifying speed.
What we also know is that each of these limits are dependent on interconnected systems: breach one, and you risk tipping others too. We may have in fact already implicitly crossed several thresholds.
In terms of knowledge on the crisis we are facing, and the changes we need to make, we are now very well advanced. Real solutions to the ecological crisis abound – and what seemed unfeasible in terms of energy transition just a few years ago, is now widely accepted as possible.
*** UPDATE *** Just days after we published this article, a new, even more alarming warning was issued that six out of the nine planetary boundaries – essentially the Earth’s life support systems – have been so badly damaged that the planet is 'well outside safe operating space for humanity'.
Solving the crisis
Major international initiatives such as Project Drawdown, provide open source, readily available information on pretty much every climate solution available. It is an astonishing enterprise in humanity’s capacity for ‘hive thinking’ to solve the crisis. Professor Jeff Sachs and colleagues, moreover, have come up with six major transformations that need to take place to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals within this decade. Many dots have been joined in terms of research and public policy.
Yet a decade on from Sharon Burrow’s speech in Dublin, in practice we are still facing an uphill battle in uniting behind a new vision of the economy that can shift us towards a more sustainable future.
Deadly delays are now costing countless lives across the world. Despite massive public campaigns, the weight of science and the phenomenal work of many committed people, there is shocking disregard for the tragedy that is staring us in the face. One fact says it all: since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry have increased from US $4.7 trillion to a record $7 trillion. This is despite a commitment in the Paris Agreement to align finances to the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius, and despite clean energy alternatives being readily available and primed for accelerated dissemination.
It is clear that the same governments that are recognising climate emergencies are underwriting the ongoing delays in transition and facilitating investments in climate destruction. Moreover, it does not stop with governments. The sheer scale of these subsidies means that our economies are still systematically underwriting the fossil fuel industry, whether through consumption, taxes or our pension funds.
Collectively, therefore, we are all still deeply invested in the kind of economy that is driving our own destruction.
Joining the dots
While the proximate cause of climate destruction is our persistent reliance on fossil fuels, breaching our planetary limits is, in fact, is much bigger than that. The destabilisation of the climate is but one symptom of the way human economic action has overshot our planetary limits. This means that piecemeal solutions that do not address the underlying issues at best only tackle the symptoms, not the causes. Radical solutions are needed – in the truest sense of the word. ‘Radical’, after all, means ‘root’.
To get to the root of the ecological crisis we face, we need to join a few more dots. It is essential to revisit the deep philosophical and values foundation of all our economic decisions. If we agree that our economic choices are driving us systematically towards destruction, then surely we need to examine the foundation on which key choices are made? This is particularly true when it comes to how we choose to make investments.
We need to be constantly asking how these choices are framed, what factors are taken into account, which are systematically ignored, who makes the key decisions?
We live in a world where the rationale of self-interested action and the need to turn a quick profit prevails in almost all of the economic decisions we make. The connection between a given economic action, particularly in the investment sphere, and consequence, has been virtually severed. One of the many things I have learned in my time in FaithInvest is the complexity and unfathomable scale of the finance and investment world. This scale and complexity, now with the added component of AI, has almost removed the very idea of action-consequences. It is seen by many as the pinnacle of human achievement – the ability to move vast resources round the world in lightning speed at the click of a mouse – and turning a profit in the process.
Yet in the absence of a shared ethics and moral code across the planet, this expression of hyper-mobile financial capitalism has developed its own shared moral code and rules. It is a moral code that presents itself as common sense – an amoral, purely benign market logic. It is epitomised in the theoretical, yet very real, ‘rational economic man’ that emerged from Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment. It is also rooted in a mechanistic vision of the world – one in which nature is purely seen as something limitless, to be used for human benefit. A mere utility.
The implication of that prevailing logic is that everything else that cannot be delivered via profit and the pursuit of self-interest becomes secondary, even voluntary – a matter of personal taste or risk appetite. Such issues may still be important, but when faced with a choice, ‘non-financial considerations’ are someone else’s issue. In some instances, as the backlash against economic, social and governance factors (ESG) in the US shows, considering these issues in the context of financial decisions can be verging on illegal as they could breach fiduciary responsibility. This prevailing order, moreover, is copper-fastened in our global governance systems of law, finance and international trade.
No money on a dead planet
Yet whether you care about the future of the planet and all its inhabitants is not simply a matter of personal taste. This is not a modern ‘woke’ agenda. It is about shared responsibility and the common good. It is about human decency, about shared desire to protect all that is beautiful and good and cannot be easily quantified. It is about the ancient and enduring truth that money, no matter how alluring, cannot be eaten. There is no money on a dead planet.
Money and financial power always exists within a bigger sphere of being. No matter how disembodied money may appear on a computer screen, it is always embedded somewhere at some time. This is as old as time itself. We now need eyes to see it.
The challenge is that to construct a future economy that integrates such principles and values, there is no ‘one size fits all’. In an economy that thrives on scale and efficiencies, that is a challenge. Such an economy has to be creatively re-constructed. It requires a multi-pronged approach, and critical dialogue between different spheres of being and knowing is essential. Economic choices have to become re-embedded in decision-making and cultures within institutions at all levels, but especially from the middle level – up, down and outwards – rather than left to the market alone.
This is not about abandoning a decentralised, dynamic, open economy – but restoring the foundations of a more just and sustainable future where an open economy can thrive. There are no markets on a dead planet either.
To do this, we need to first recognise that the prevailing vision of the economy has become impoverished. It is too narrow or uni-dimensional. It systematically excludes other ways of relating with an economic logic based on an array of values and principles: care, gift, sacrifice, frugality, collaboration, creativity, sharing, to name a few. Many such relational logics are the antithesis of consumer-based market economics and yet they still exist in abundance in many cultures, especially those with deep spiritual worldviews.
A different kind of economy
I was first exposed to these alternative perspectives when studying for my PhD on the Sharing Economy in Glasgow University. I was looking at different theological and cultural perspectives on economics and came across many wonderful examples of individuals and institutions who throughout history had invested in a different kind of economy more attuned to the planet and human well-being.
Ernest Schumacher’s Buddhist economics – outlined in his book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered was my first insight into the deep roots of alternative ways of seeing the economy. His approach to this problem has stuck with me throughout my professional life: “No one seems to think that a Buddhist way of life would call for Buddhist economics, just as the modern materialist way of life has brought forth modern economics”. (Schumacher, 1973: 44).
His basic assertion was that different faiths, including Buddhism, give rise to rich and diverse perspectives on economic life.
To me it seemed obvious since, as a Christian, I was familiar with Jesus’ teaching on many economic matters. In the case of Buddhism, he focused on the prioritisation of local needs and a focus on moderation. Such ‘meta-economics’, he argued, exist in all faith traditions since money is always mediated via a cultural matrix which includes faith and religion.
Examples of this kind of economy date back to ancient times – to the first Christian communities who shared everything in common and ‘nobody was in need’; or the Kibutz movement; or the pioneers of Quaker businesses. They were brought into the market economy via businesses such as Mondragon in Spain, or movements such as the Economy of Communion and the Economy of Francesco. How the boundaries of religion, money and economic behaviour were defined, in fact, was perhaps one of the most important defining ideas of modernity.
Religious beliefs have always had a significant normative influence over what is acceptable use of money: property, service, work, tithing, alms giving, bans on usury, etc, were all important theological debates with economic relevance.
More broadly speaking, perspectives on salvation – and whether it had to be earned or not – have had a significant impact on the rise of capitalism. Yet in the quest to harness a unified globalised financial system, much of the nuance of individual faiths and their role in shaping economic decisions has been largely lost, at least in the mainstream discourse. In some circles, economic progress would be defined in terms of how the shackles of religion which put bounds on the market have been lifted.
Despite the fact that the deep connections between religion and economy have been largely written out of the mainstream economics and finance world, the ongoing influence of religion on economic decisions remains. Finance based on Islamic principles, for example, grew to USD$ 4 trillion in 2021 and is expected to reach USD $5.9 trillion in 2026. Finding greater alignments between Catholic investments and environmental and social concerns, moreover, have been high on the agenda during Pope Francis' pontificate.
This can also be quite challenging territory. Religion can be used and abused to justify nefarious ends and tout many agendas which sit uncomfortably alongside liberal Western values. Many religions have been slow to wake up to the ecological and humanitarian crises – and some have played a part in forming holy cover for those who do not wish to change.
While recognising this, we also need to acknowledge that in the West in particular, the exclusion of religion from much mainstream policy is marked by ignorance of religions themselves – and fear that emerges from that unknowning. In other instances, it comes from an open rejection of the value of religion to have a seat at the table, seeing religious thinking as the antithesis of modern progress. Baby and bath water come to mind. In its quest to break free from the shackles of religion, we must ask if the capitalist economy has become a religion in itself.
Re-visiting core values
We urgently need to construct a multi-polar, perspectivist approach which harnesses the power of higher level thinking – whether spiritual, religious or consciousness – and the scale of faith institutions. Such an approach allows a wide range of factors to be brought into the room in a meaningful way when making decision about how to make critical investment decisions.
It starts with individual faiths stepping forward and re-visiting their core values and how these are expressed in their investment and financial choices.
FaithInvest was set up to support this process and has the privilege of seeing many faith groups rediscover their deepest purpose through having the courage to reshape their investments. The English Sanga Trust, for example, was able to re-frame its pension fund based on Buddhist principles.
However, that perspectivist approach advocated by Schumacher, which is rooted in faith narratives and traditions, also needs to be in dialogue with science, and the numerous initiatives to shift the economy towards protecting and sustaining life on the planet. Faith and science may seem, by some, to be unlikely bedfellows, but when it comes to generating a new economic and financial system fit for the planet, there is much potential in work together for common goals. This was underscored in the multi-faith and science commitment made in 2021 at the Vatican (pictured below).
Faith-consistent investing is all about joining dots. The rise in faith-consistent investing in the past decade has demonstrated the significant potential for positive action at scale when faith groups and financial actors are brought together in creative, engaging and deeply respectful ways.
When this happens the power of faith as a dynamic force for good is unleashed – whether underwriting the vast potential to safeguard ‘sacred forests’ or mandating thousands of parishes to switch to clean energy. Based on their deepest values, faith institutions can become a creative force for a sustainable world which adds colour and vibrancy to the existing initiatives such as ESG that often lack deeply rooted commitment.
Faith consistent investing does not replace such initiatives but provides a deep answer to the why as well as the how.
Dr Lorna Gold, 11 September 2023
How can we help?
If you've been inspired by Dr Lorna Gold's call for urgent action, and would like to explore how your faith organisation's investments can be more faith-aligned, FaithInvest can help.
Contact us for a complimentary evaluation of your existing Investment Policies & Guidelines (IP&G) to consider the extent to which your faith values are reflected in them.
If you are at the start of this journey, ask us about our introductory training course on faith-consistent investing.
Join our Subscriber Network to keep up to date with FCI news and to become eligible to join our Faith-Consistent Investing (FCI) Interest Group, which meets quarterly to discuss FCI-related issues and share knowledge and experience.
Talk to us about how we can:
Help you go through a process of expressing your beliefs, teachings and values in your IP&G statements
Redesign your Investment Mandates and Strategies
This graphic from the Stockholm Resilience Centre illustrates how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded areas represent the safe operating space. (Source: Steffen et al. 2015)
For more information visit www.stockholmresilience.org.