Economics and Environmentalism: Belief Systems at Odds

By Nelson, Robert H. | Independent Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Economics and Environmentalism: Belief Systems at Odds


Nelson, Robert H., Independent Review


Economics and environmentalism are belief systems that shape their adherents' way of thinking about the world. We might just as accurately characterize them as secular religions, which most theologians count as real religions (see, for example, Tillich 1963), but many people prefer to regard them as competing belief systems. Many (not all) economists and environmentalists thus function in the world as advocates for their belief systems and associated values, albeit often more implicitly than explicitly (Nelson 1991, 2001, 2010).

This view admittedly is not the usual understanding of the social sciences and ecological science, which have long professed to seek "value neutrality." Depending on the audience, however, people often agree to a surprising extent that economics and environmentalism are actually religions. When the subject comes up informally in conversations with economists (and with policy analysts, if perhaps less predictably), I find little disagreement with the idea that environmentalism is a religion--to most economists, the claim seems fairly obvious. Environmentalists often react similarly, but the other way around: economics, for most environmentalists, is a religion. Neither group, however, is comfortable with the characterization of their own thinking as religious (and the economists are more uncomfortable with it than the environmentalists).

Economics and environmentalism are not always religious. Economics can be turned into a pure exercise of mathematical or other formalism; other things being equal, it is not a religious statement to say that having more goods and services is better than having fewer. Likewise, other things being equal, having less risk of cancer is better than having greater risk. The religious dimension becomes much clearer, however, where economics and environmentalism intersect with public policymaking. Here most people's policy positions reflect in significant part the core convictions of economic religion and environmental religion. Economists and environmentalists obviously can also have supplemental noneconomic and nonenvironmental beliefs about strictly private aspects of life or matters such as life after death.

Economic Religion

Economists believe in economic progress as an end in itself. Or, more accurately, they view economic progress not as the ultimate end, but as the correct path to the ultimate end: elimination of material deprivation as an important aspect of human existence, freeing human beings to realize their higher and better selves. As in many other areas, John Maynard Keynes was more articulate about this idea than other economists. In 1930, in an essay titled "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," Keynes wrote that rapid economic growth will soon "lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight" as a result of "the greatest change that has ever occurred in the material environment for human beings in the aggregate." Thus relieved of the pressures of economic scarcity, we will finally be "able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us" throughout all previous human history (1963, 371-72).

Enthusiasm for economic progress reached its apex at the end of the nineteenth century, and in the years leading up to World War I many in the West believed that economic progress was paving the path to a new heaven on earth. Richard Ely, who helped to found the American Economic Association in 1885, believed that economics would provide the scientific knowledge to sustain "a never-ceasing attack on every wrong institution, until the earth becomes a new earth, and all its cities, cities of God" (1889, 73). Historians have described the Progressive movement of those years as seeking to advance a "gospel of efficiency," amounting to a "secular Great Awakening" (Haber 1964, ix). Leading political scientist Dwight Waldo once wrote that "it is yet amazing what a position of dominance 'efficiency' assumed [in the Progressive Era], how it waxed until it had assimilated or over-shadowed other values, how men and events came to be degraded or exalted according to its dictate" ([1948] 1984, 19-20). …

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