The immorality of our economy

Wendell Berry, America’s farmer/poet and advocate for peace and justice, met with Centre College Professor Eric Mount at the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky May 18 with over 200 people in attendance.

Berry and Mount engaged in a rambling conversation in which Berry explained that when we abstract important concepts that are critical to the real lives of people, we loose their interest in solving real problems that the world faces.

An example of such abstractions is the idea of environmentalism.

People understand their relationship with the air they breathe and the water they drink and the weather events that are destructive.

“Environmentalism” is an abstract concept, something that academics discuss and argue over, but real people want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and weather patterns that one can plan for and live with.

As the conversation progressed, Berry read a prayer from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer entitled, “For Every Man In His Work.” The prayer, in part, reads as follows: “Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men.”

Berry observed that the prayer advocates an economic system that both glorifies God and is for the common benefit of humanity and the creation. He went on to say that the sentiments of the prayer are “utterly alien to our own economy. We have an economy founded foursquare on the Seven Deadly Sins,” Berry said. “Just go down the list.”

Most of us are probably unable to recite the list of those Seven Deadly Sins, so here they are: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.

Much of our economic system is rooted in exploiting our oh-to-human proclivity to desire satisfaction of these deadly desires.

The "Mad Men" of the AMC’s award-winning TV series, and the ad-men and woman of Madison Avenue and their clones across the country and the world play on – and profit from – the arousal of our lusts. Lustful desire is foundational to our modern economic system.

Gluttony is a characteristic of our modern economic activity that reveals itself in the obesity crisis that infects not just the U.S., but the world. Only those societies too poverty stricken to participate in our gluttonous behavior are free from the ravages of over indulging, but their poverty causes other detrimental effects.

Greed, every critical analysis tells us, was the cause of the 2008 financial crisis. And it will be greed that will be responsible for future economic calamities. Having enough in our economic order, it seems, is never enough.

Sloth – a population grown too lazy to think critically about life in the world, and with a desire on the part of many people to simply be perpetually entertained – has become another growing trait of our economic system.

Wrath, and the accompanying angry desire for vengeance, allows the Military Industrial Complex – that former President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation against –to keep the country in perpetually war in order to keep profits increasing for those war-making industries.

Envy, when it is nurtured, reinforces our lusts and leads us into the never-ending occupation of trying to “keep up with the Joneses.” The more we run on that envious treadmill, the more the economy grows. The result is a world overflowing with the material junk of wasted resources and lives.

Finally, pride in our material achievements, rather than a spiritual satisfaction for a life lived that benefits both the creation and her creatures, gives us a false sense of meaningful accomplishment.

The Seven Deadly Sins, which ultimately leads to spiritual death, also will lead to the destruction of human society if these sins continue to be integral to our economic growth. The unbridled consequences of continuous exploitation of the natural world and her resources, and the subsequent pollution of that world, is injurious to our very sustenance.

We can only trust – and hope – the world will heal and, perhaps, that a remnant of our species will survive and evolve to live in a more harmonious and life-sustaining relationship with our natural world. The economy of that hoped-for new world will most likely be centered in the sentiments of that old prayer read in a small church in Kentucky.

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