Reading Chapter 4 (Part 1)

The Context of Planetary Theology


As we move on in Life Abundant, we will consider two economic worldviews, two interpretations of how the world works.  Each interpretation is based on the assumptions of a different historical period.


  • The first economic worldview arose in the 18th century, but the structures of our western society – our assumptions, institutions and laws – still rest on this worldview.  It pictures our planet as a collection of individuals, each striving to benefit from the world’s natural resources.  In this worldview, humans dominate the system and the planet operates like a machine, with all its parts externally related to each other. 


  • The second economic worldview arose in the 20th century.  It pictures our planet as a community – human and nonhuman – that survives and prospers through the interrelationship of its many parts, which are internally related to each other.  In this worldview, the planet operates like an organism, and humans are the conscious part of the body. 

Life Abundant argues that the first economic worldview hurts the poor and the natural world, while the second worldview would be healthier for the planet and all its inhabitants.   However, it will be difficult for us to see the problems of our current worldview; it feels so ‘natural’ to us.  It will also be difficult for us to appreciate the dire circumstances of our deteriorating planet (as well as the desperate situation of so many human beings) unless we adopt a new worldview.




Neo-classical economics and its worldview


Economics:  Fundamentally, economics is about dividing up whatever is scarce between competing users and uses.  Economic systems operate wherever scarcity exists.    


Becoming conscious of our worldview is the first step when thinking about economics.  We can then decide whether we want to embrace this view of ourselves and our world.


Neo-classical economics:  Neo-classical economics* is market capitalism as conceived in the 18th century (and still practiced, in a modified form, by the major economies of our time).  Its key feature is the allocation of scarce resources through decentralized markets. The so-called ‘invisible hand’ of classical economic theory assumes that if individuals act in their own interests, all will eventually benefit. 


The central value of neo-classical economics:  The gratification of individuals is the goal of this economic system, and gratification is understood entirely in monetary terms.  Neo-classical economics does not ask who benefits from the system, or whether the planet can bear the system’s burden.


Anthropology, the study of human beings:  At the base of neo-classical economics is an anthropology* in which every human being is motivated by self-interest.  This anthropology rests on the central insight of the Enlightenment, and the Protestant Reformation before that: the importance of the individual. 


The world as a machine:  Behind neo-classical economics’ anthropology lies a view of the world as a machine with many parts.  Medieval culture had seen human society as an organism with interrelated members, but by the 18th century society was seen as a collection of individuals.  All these individuals were believed to operate separately, motivated by self-interest but coming together like the parts of a smoothly operating machine. 


LA 4

Clockwork system: In the early 18th century, orreries*  were built to  show the relative positions and motions of the planets and moons in the solar system.  The mechanism depicted an ever-predictable solar system, but scientists now know the real solar system is more random. For instance, one astronomer says that moving a pencil across your desk today  can shift Jupiter halfway around its orbit a billion years from now.
*An early mechanism was presented to the Earl of Orrery in 1704 – hence the name.  

 Economic growth:  Growth is another goal of neo-classical economics, and it recognizes no limits for individuals or the planet’s resources.   But  there are other possible goals one might imagine for an economy, such as sustainability.   (North Americans have obviously preferred growth.  We are the world’s privileged people, and we owe it to growth.  While human population has grown four times the level of 100 years ago, the world economy is 17 times larger.)


We now know that unlimited growth is impossible. We would need four more Earths for everyone now alive to enjoy the western middle-class lifestyle.  The GDP (the gross domestic product,* the sum of all financial exchanges within a country) leaves out other activities: unpaid housework, child and eldercare, volunteer work, etc.  The GDP factor does not in the depletion of natural resources or the deterioration of air, water and soil, or count the ‘planet’s economy’, the large household in which we all live.


Discussion continues on Reading Chapter 4 (Part 2) …

3 thoughts on “Reading Chapter 4 (Part 1)

  1. Although my desire to accomplish (read: consume) a long To-Do list makes me impatient about reading through her historical development and thoughtful analysis, it helps me place these ideas in context. That’s especially helpful in trying to think outside my own 21st-century North American box. She provides the logical and philosophic underpinnings for argument to examine the system that has become so pervasive it is difficult to imagine alternatives. It’s worth making the way through the background material. I’m glad she had organized this material and put it into a single, dense book. I’ll come back to this in future as I make the case for change.

  2. Sallie McFague writes in chapter 4:

    “The neo-classical economic worldview arose in the 18th century, but it still provides the foundation for the structures of western society – our assumptions, institutions and laws. This worldview pictures the world as a collection of individuals, each striving to benefit from the planet’s natural resources. In this worldview, humans dominate the system, and the system operates like a machine, with all its parts externally related to each other. The ecological economic worldview arose in the 20th century. This worldview sees the world as a community – human and nonhuman – that survives and prospers through the interrelationship of its many parts, which are internally related to each other. In this worldview, the planet operates like an organism, and humans are the conscious part of the body.”

    Here is my response:

    What McFague calls the “neo-classical” and “ecological” economic worldviews are both as old as civilization.

    We in Western society may have lost touch with the ecological view until recently, but we find it as an ancient and central view of the native Americans in our midst. This communitarian view usually exists only within small groups, such as an extended family or a tribe.

    Market economics–which McFague calls neo-classical economics–arose more than 10,000 years ago, probably when different communities started trading with one another. Intellectual developments in the 18th century provided a description and rationale for long-established economic practice, but they did not create it.

    Adam Smith, generally regarded as founding the field of economics in 1776, is often cited by political conservatives in arguing for an uncontrolled market economy. However, he personally was a strong advocate of the use of government to assure that markets are fair and to protect the poor and powerless. Don’t blame current economists, either. Most economists deplore the destruction of our environment and the increase in income inequality, and many of them have made proposing solutions to these problems their life-work. It is politicians, not economists, who set policy. (An important exception is the Federal Open Market Committee, the policy-setting committee within the Fed, whose members are economists.)

    Most of us actually have both ‘worldviews’ (organic-communitarian-ecological vs mechanistic-market-neoclassical) because we see the world as divided between ‘my community’ and ‘others.’ We relate personally to people we know – family, friends, neighbors, co-workers – and we see them as part of ‘my community.’ We relate impersonally to people we don’t know – who belong to races, classes, nations, institutions , classes, institutions other than ours – as ‘others’.

    Market vs. communitarian economics is not an either-or proposition. Both can and should exist side-by-side. The challenges are to expand the number of economic decisions we make based on communitarian values, and for more of us to view the whole world as our community.

    A few among us consistently view the whole world as their community; these are the saints. Another few among us view only themselves as their community; these are the sociopaths. We need to aspire to sainthood.

  3. Good historical perspectives, Rob. Transitioning from a barter economy to a money economy brings with it many changes in perspective as well. I feel that there is some role for the artist and the artisan as well here, but I’m not sure how to articulate it. Creating beauty and taking pride in our work as we honor God through craft expertise and aesthetic expressions somehow add value in the marketplace while enriching our individual lives and enhancing community life.

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