Monday, September 30, 2013

Economic Growth: Blessing or Burden?

When we speak of economic growth, do we think of human flourishing, or of devastating poverty and environmental degradation? Can economic growth improve the lives of individuals without eroding local communities? These were some of the questions that arose during last week's discussion of a newly published book, Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing, by Dr. Stephen L.S Smith and Dr. Bruce Webb, professors of economics and business at Gordon College.

This conversation, sponsored by the Center for Faith and Inquiry’s own Jerusalem and Athens Forum, brought together faculty and students to discuss ethical concerns associated with economic growth. Reflecting this topic’s the many dimensions, the discussion panel gave voice to a wide array of opinions and pressing questions. It featured a commentary from the authors and responses from Dean of Christian Life Dr. Greg Carmer  and Dr. Dorothy Boorse, professor of biology. Dr. Tal Howard, professor of history and director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum, moderated the discussion. 

According to Dr. Smith, whose scholarship specializes in international economics and economic development, Economic Growth was crafted as an accessible, approachable study, easily read and enjoyed by college students in one sitting. Part of a series of books addressing matters of economic policy, Economic Growth argues that economic growth is an essentially good thing that should be harnessed to bring about human flourishing. Growth equals progress. As Christians, he suggested, we should “celebrate growth,” and focus on sustaining and promoting growth in developing countries. The virtues of economic growth are manifold, Smith posited during his remarks; they include the reduction of poverty and (contrary to popular belief) a net benefit to the environment. Higher incomes in developing countries lead to the implementation of better systems to care for the environment, and households with more financial flexibility are better equipped to address problems of pollution through their own purchasing power. Economic growth also allows for progress in the research and development of renewable energy sources.

Dr. Smith's co-author, Dr. Bruce Webb, whose expertise ranges from macroeconomics to environmental and Christian perspectives on economics, addressed a second component to the pro- economic growth argument. Dr. Webb focused on growth in developed countries such as the United States, where it is actually still very necessary to healthy employment rates and debt reduction. Flourishing, in any place, is God’s design. “God is a generous God… who wants us to flourish in the sense of prospering,” explained Dr. Webb. “We have been endowed with potential for creativity.” While we are not the ultimate creators, we are sub-creators with God, given the resources for human improvement.

The second half of the discussion was particularly animated. Although mostly agreeing with the correlation between economic growth and societal progress, Dr. Carmer and Dr. Boorse reminded the audience of economic growth’s potentially detrimental effects.

Dr. Carmer endorsed the book, commending its “patient teaching.” He reminded the audience, however, that our moral imperative as Christians is to “seek righteousness,” and as such we must consider the means of progress as well as its end result. Human flourishing, Dr. Carmer explained, happens primarily in communities, and unfortunately, economic growth often comes at a high cost—the loss of local culture, languages and character brought on by globalization; as well as human rights concerns such as the exploitation and enslavement of some industrializing communities. There are also environmental concerns such as deforestation, depletion of natural resources and loss of species. These drawbacks, Dr. Carmer posited, are not the inherent outcomes of economic growth, but they are part of its history. Growth, he concluded, must never come at the expense of an individual’s rights.

Dr. Boorse enthusiastically agreed with much of the book’s observations, but voiced her reservations about its conclusions regarding economic development’s positive environmental impact. She contended that, historically, the push for environmental stewardship has typically happened through the actions of people who protested and took a stand—often against economic and industrial powers. Human flourishing, Dr. Boorse reminded, should always be the primary aim of any economic growth, not just a byproduct.

The authors were then able to provide their response to these comments, acknowledging the concerns raised by Dr. Carmer and Dr. Boorse. Although faculty and students undoubtedly maintain differing opinions on the ethics of economic development, this thought-provoking discussion was effective in motivating individuals to reassess what it means to be Christians in the modern world. How does our Christian worldview shape our perspective on all issues, including economic development? How do we apply Scriptural truth, compassion and justice when approaching solutions to societal concerns? Thanks in part to events like last week's conversation, these are questions students and faculty at Gordon will continue to explore together.

Photo: Dr. Stephen Smith, professor of economics, speaks on his newly published book, Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing, which he co-authored with Professor Bruce Webb.

Nora Kirkham ’16 is a sophomore history major at Gordon College and a writer in the Office of College Communications. She is a 'Third Culture Kid' raised in four continents and currently claims her home in Moscow, Russia. Her interests include history, international relations, literature and sustainable development. 

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