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WHYS AND HUMAN WHEREFORES – THINKING AGAIN ABOUT MARKETS, POLITICS AND PEOPLE.
Dr David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham
Published 2000 (new edition 2004) by Continuum Books,
What fascinates me about this prescient book is that it pre-dates debate about the grave dangers of global warming, the peaking of oil production, soaring petrol prices and sub-prime lending. Those, however, are symptoms. Dr Jenkins argues that faith in the Free Market, and the behaviour of the wealthy (are we readers of his book among the comparatively wealthy?) is the root cause of many preventable ills and inequalities of humanity. Although blind belief in the benign influence of ‘the invisible hand’ has been increasingly criticised recently, it remains part of a culture that we and our political representatives take for granted. If only the sum total of all our ‘rational’ self-interested actions led to the best of all possible worlds! Dr Jenkins shows convincingly that it just ain’t so – after 2000 years, attempting to serve God and Mammon remains dodgy. (Dr Jenkins puts it much more eruditely.)
So how can a book written in anticipation of the new Millennium help us confront climate change? Bishop Jenkins, even in retirement can be relied upon to raise disturbing questions. The $64,000 question, as we used to say before Chris Tarrant, is whether the free market could deliver us from the worst effects of global warming?
Like me, have you wondered about the efficacy of religiously forgoing overseas trips, the convenience of the car (and maybe even the indulgence of Big Macs) while transnational moguls metaphorically rub their hands in glee at the prospect of exploiting tar sands, drilling under the Arctic, clearing the rain-forests for palm-oil (picking up some carbon credits) and generally boosting the bottom line? The corporate greenwash made me think that the leopard might change his spots until Royal Dutch Shell dropped out of the London Array wind-farm (possibly because the USA offered better incentives).
Taking the role of the ‘anxious idiot’, Dr Jenkins patiently and ruthlessly deconstructs the writings of the proponents of the free market to raise serious questions about the market’s power (even eventually) to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number. The problem is not so much the market (which has demonstrably been far more effective in lifting millions out of poverty than have rigid command economies) but the ‘absolutism’ of the market. The providence of God in the seventeenth century has been replaced by the providence of ‘the invisible hand’. TINA, there is no alternative.
David Jenkins persistently exposes the aberrations of the free market and of associated globalisation: such as the way in which companies and the very rich avoid taxation. It’s worse: taxpayers in the real world will have to bail out financial institutions that engage in speculation – and this was written in A.D. 2000. More fundamentally, the market ‘tends to create wants but fails to satisfy needs’. There are three confidence tricks: prosperity for all, freedom for all and endless growth that in the end will ensure that even those at the bottom will enjoy a comfortable income.
There is, of course, no conspiracy, but the end result is as if there were. The proponents of the free market are undoubtedly honourable if self-interested, but the effect is as if they are lairs. The shocking truth, although we are left to discover this for ourselves rather than having it rammed down our throats, is that our stability and prosperity (and this remains relatively true even with recession threatening) is built on injustice. Jenkins has in mind primarily injustice to the poor – of underdeveloped countries and of our own country – but we might add injustice to the rest of Creation that shares this planet.
The final chapter provides an outline of an agenda for change, but no simple answers. Capitalism has brought great wealth but it has now taken off in the impossible pursuit of perpetual growth, which ignores the limits of the planet and of the limits of adaptability of cohesive human communities. We have to take the risks of far reaching change like regulating capital flows and protecting economies (pages 268, 269). These exemplars will doubtless prove contentious, but the issues have to be thought through. Bishop Jenkins’ faith prevents him believing that the outcome of centuries of endeavour and progress ‘has reduced us human beings to competitive pursuers of ever-increasing consumption.’
If one follows David Jenkins, the unregenerate free market offers no hope of sustainable wealth-creation and therefore no hope of containing global warming. Whether or not one is offended by the concept of the rich trading the right to pollute the atmosphere, developed nations and transnationals must themselves operate well within the environmental limits of the earth. The book concludes that there is no need to collude with the free market in its present form – it is a human construct and can and must be changed. We may deduce that drastically reducing our own carbon footprints is a literally vital step towards an humane, sustainable economic system.
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