Faith-Based Economics: The Corporate World and the Survival of Civilization

Anne H. Ehrlich, Paul R. Ehrlich | December 8, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

 In 1966 distinguished economist Kenneth Boulding wrote: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”  Well, the madmen and most economists are still at it.  Even Paul Krugman, smarter than most economists, usually ends up looking to the disease of growth as if it were a cure (which it can be for unemployment in a dysfunctional society like ours).  We won’t reiterate here the existential environmental threat to civilization,[1] but rather examine the common assumption that our innovative business community can save us from collapse.

Innovative businesses may be, but where they focus their efforts in the face of the human predicament seems unlikely to have any ameliorative effects.  A look at the world view of the business community as a whole shows that they have at best grasped that there may be some opportunities in the human predicament, but most corporation executives clearly haven’t assimilated the nature or the scale of the threat.  For example, in a book discussing business’ response to such easily predictable trends as rapid urbanization and aging of populations, by Richard Dobbs and his colleagues,[2] the main message seemed to be how to take advantage of the prospects for new sales.  The tone is growth boosterism: “In emerging markets alone, we project that this new army of urban consumers…will spend $30 trillion a year by 2030, up from $12 trillion in 2010. They will account for half of the world’s spending.”  The book’s Chapter 5 is entitled The next three billion: Tapping the Power of the New Consuming Class.

Other business books place great emphasis on the financial advantages of being more efficient in the use of resources or developing novel approaches to “sustainability,” such as mass production of hybrid cars [3] or highly planned and efficient recycling – some imagining a physically impossible “circular economy.”[4]  Many of these can be helpful, but will be insufficient to reach anything remotely resembling sustainability.  The discussions do not include analyses of such conundrums as whether the impacts of greatly increased consumption will overwhelm any positive effects of some industries’ efforts to embrace sustainability.  For instance, will we just continue population growth, as President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren put it, “crowding out the rest of creation,” and wrecking civilization’s life support system?

Of course these are simply the acts of reasonable people doing what their culture tells them is smart (and legal).  An entirely different situation is represented by determinedly anti-environmental industrial operations, like Volkswagen’s pollution-control cheating or the corporate pimps of climate deniers.  These corporations may eventually help kill hundreds of thousands or even millions of people.  One might take a lesson from Supreme Court injustice Antonin Scalia and the Citizens United decision.  Corporations are putatively just citizens like the rest of us, and when we kill people Antonin thinks we should be executed.  So it should be for corporations like VW and Exxon.

But how do you kill a corporation?  It’s a topic that needs investigation.  The one thing we do know is that fines, even big ones, do little to modify corporate behavior.  Perhaps the top executives of VW and selected others who knew of its murderous plot should be thrown in jail for life, VW’s assets sold off (investors do take risks) and put into a UN fund to aid the efforts of poor nations to adapt to climate disruption.   Another company needing the death penalty is Exxon-Mobil.  As Dave Johnson put it in the Huffington Post: “The charge is that Exxon scientists and management knew since the late 1970s that the company’s product was helping cause our planet to warm ‘catastrophically,’ but management responded by covering this up and disseminating disinformation –joining with other companies to commit an enormous fraud on the public for profit.”[5]  But the problem here is more complex, since there are many co-conspirators that ought to be put down.  Then there are the “legal” but insanely immoral like those of “Murder Incorporated” –the small arms industry and their lobbying arm, the NRA.  We’ll leave solutions to your imagination, but there are clearly many assets that need to be stranded, and the immoral actions of those like the Koch brothers strongly curtailed.

There is no question that the business community, especially giant international corporations, must be involved in any attempt to avoid a collapse of civilization.  Corporations are now globalized, and a network of large corporations is perhaps becoming the closest thing there is to a global government, along with population growth increasingly reducing representative democracy.[6]  Corporations are the most organized segment of society that actually believes the message of faith-based economics, although cracks have appeared in the façade.  For example two business professors, Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, have just published a book, (Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction [7]) that provides a detailed and well-documented account of how corporations are destroying civilization by keeping that faith: the standard business-school/Wall Street message that climate disruption, a result of market success in turning natural resources into stuff and waste, can only be cured by business as usual.  Faith-based economics requires continued exploitation of natural resources and continued growth of the global economy. As Wright and Nyberg say:

…corporate capitalism frames business and markets as the only means of dealing with the crisis, rejecting the need for state regulation and more local democratic options. In essence, the prevailing corporate view is that capitalism should be seen not as a cause of climate change but as an answer to it. A problem brought about by overconsumption, the logic goes, should be addressed through more consumption.

As Clive Hamilton put it in the introduction to the book, “The hard truth is that these corporations would sooner see the world destroyed than relinquish their power.”

This discussion of industry and climate by business professors comes to roughly the same conclusion as John Harte and Paul did in their examination of the world’s food prospects [8].  A revolutionary change in society is required, changing many of peoples’ basic assumptions, especially those of faith-based economics.  In our view it must be a world society that not only lives well within ecological limits, but also ends the horrendous inequities that are ubiquitous but largely out of sight for those of us lucky enough to be in the small privileged minority.  How to achieve such a society is a gigantic challenge for a small-group animal struggling to survive in mobs of billions.  It’s a challenge we hope the MAHB ( will help to meet.  But watching the Republican candidates debate without ever mentioning a significant problem, and seeing China’s new attempt to stimulate population growth, we find it difficult to be optimistic.

[1] Harvey D. 2007. Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610:21-44.

[2]  Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, Jonathan Woetzel. 2015. No Ordinary Disruption: The Four Global Forces Breaking All the Trends. Public Affairs.

[3] Williams EF. 2015. Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses. American Managment Association.

[4] Lacy P, Rutqvist J. 2015. Waste to Wealth: The Circular Economy Advantage. Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] David Johnson. October 22, 2015. Exxon’s Funding of Climate Denial Turned Americans Against Their Own Government for Profit. Huffington Post.

[6] Barley SR. 2007. Corporations, Democracy, and the Public Good. Journal of Management Inquiry 16:201-215.

[7] Wright C, Nyberg D. 2015. Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Ehrlich PR, Harte J. 2015. Food security requires a new revolution. International Journal of Environmental Studies .

The above theme is also explored in an academic article by Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich —Population, Resources, and the Faith-Based Economy: the Situation in 2016— which appeared in the August 2016 issue of BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality. The article is available through the MAHB Library.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.

    Paul and Anne Ehrlich have clearly summarized what is possibly the greatest threat
    that human civilization has ever faced: the globalized corporate
    world “… becoming the closest thing there is to a global
    government …”. Driven to grow exponentially, guided by “…faith
    based economics…” assuming that capitalism can solve all
    problems, the existing world power system believes that the solution
    to civilization’s existential crisis is to perpetuate the very cause
    of the crisis itself. For civilization to have any chance of survival
    will require “… revolutionary change… [of] many of people’s
    basic assumptions …”. Every revolution has its genesis in ideas
    that are put into action. There is an abundance of ideas about how a
    sustainable civilization might look. What is needed is a world
    encompassing action that has the influence to persuade humanity to
    change the course of civilization(s) in the direction of

    The revolution of which we speak is of the order of the agricultural revolution 10,000
    years ago or the industrial revolution 200 years ago in its impact on
    humanity but this time the revolution must be accomplished much
    faster and on a worldwide scale. No small task, no small challenge
    but it must start sometime and somewhere. The Ehrlichs say “It’s a
    challenge we hope the MAHB … will help to meet.”

    Agreed! The MAHB has the intellectual depth, the network reach, the access to many of the
    world’s best minds and the credibility that if brought together just
    might spark a revolution. Yes, “… we find it difficult to be
    optimistic.” But, it’s worth a try!

    The Qualicum Institute (a Node of the MAHB) has previously made such a proposal to
    the MAHB and we continue to encourage them to take up this challenge.

    Richard Hampton,
    Director, The Qualicum Institute

  • Stefan Thiesen

    I agree 100%: Really existing Capitalism is a belief system. It is based upon scientifically disproven assumptions of neoclassical theory and it is presented as if all the claims of underlying “theory” (that wouldn’t be allowed to bear that name in a serious scientific discipline) were factual and resting on empirically sound foundations. The opposite is true. The only reason why we continue with business as usual is because the power elite keeps benefitting from it, even in crisis, often especially during and from crisis. Crisis brings about tremendous business opportunities, be it by means of financial speculation, re-building contracts, defense contracts, political manipulation or a mix of all. Neoclassical arguments also are continuously used to politically control the majority, by keeping people in precarious conditions, devaluing people who have no money, applying divide and rule tactics on many interlocked levels. Most people are so caught in their world view and daily activities to “make” enough money to survive (or pay their mortgage and medical bills) that they neither have the time nor the mental energy to think much beyond their front yards. How many people are able to think in complexities? To grasp at least the general behavior of dynamic systems? And to transcend their own little life and think on a planetary scale? How many of the soon to be 8 billion?

    On another level: What currently is happening in the European Union shows how people tend to react in crisis – be it perceived or real. The “refugee crisis”, ultimately caused by US led wars in the middle east, is nothing all that uncommon, historically speaking. Large migratory movements have always been part of Europe’s history and actually are a major cause of the cultural strength and diversity of the continent. What dominates now, however, is fear, largely driven by conspiracy theories and very noisy internet based racist hate propaganda. Fear leads people to locking themselves in to close the doors. The result is a massive rise of new nationalism and white supremacism in Europe that even threatens the stability of the Union. In short: where cooperation and concerted action on a continental scale would be required to solve the problems at hand in a constructive and humane way the opposite is happening, and, strangely, the more Christian a nation is the more likely it is to turn their back to those in need (think Poland, think Hungary etc.). In my part of Germany (Westphalia) Immigration has been commonplace for 200 years, and there are next to zero problems with the masses of refugees arriving here. We did have one problem: a Neonazi attacking the Mayor elect of the City of Cologne with a knife, almost murdering her, for her open welcome and integration policy. In short: the problem often is not the crisis, but the reaction to crisis. Likewise the problem is not necessarily economic growth, but forced quantitative economic growth. When I look around, I have to say that here in North-Western Europe the living standard did not grow much in the past 30 years, despite the GDP more than tripling in that time. We have more fancy gadgets. More toys. More stuff in general. Incredibly more stuff actually. Our houses are bursting with basically useless things. That has nothing to do with living standards. Social services have been reduced over that same period. Public pools are closed. Schools are falling apart, roads are full of potholes, damaged road bridges closed, and yet public debt is sky rocketing. GDP keeps rising and rising, and yet there is no real improvement of life. People are as desperate as ever, have to work more than ever to stay afloat. Where did that “growth” go to in the first place? If we look at the huge glass towers in downtown Frankfurt (and elsewhere), we might get an idea.

  • Capitalism and Consumerism are incompatible with the continued existence of intelligent life on earth. The problem is that we are living in a Capitalist world. If we stop economic growth and consumerism there is going to be a grave period of financial indigestion. We know financial panics are sometimes followed by a rise in right wing polarizing politics. We have to be prepared for this because these financial crisis are virtually inevitable.

    We can consider that there are two main trends right now. Religious extremists, Conservatives, and Fascists that want to see the return of State embrace of religion and even theocracies. Opposing these apocalyptic visions is modern liberal Pluralism. This requires a free press; high standards for objectivity in science, academia, and the news; a general respect for diverse views; a political system that is not run by money; and widespread participation in civic actions such as voting, and policy making. I believe that it is possible to pull this off if enough people see the value of a liberal polity.

    Right wing economic and political theory is for strong religious controls on sexual behaviour and no controls on economic behaviour, hence their denial of global warming and hostility to abortion and contraception. Unfortunately, the more frequent and prolonged our economic crisis the stronger the political power of the right wing. There are lots of negative effects of downsizing (losing economies of scale, for instance) and we have prepare for them and offer something better.

    • Your analysis is based in values existing today. A new order will just destroy them. And, we better fight to improve the values we believe important because nothing is guaranteed. Besides religious extreme views another nightmare is at site. We can see strong signs of it in Europe. Ghettos are being formed to exclude masses of people of the so called market in a try to maintain status quo in parts of the world.

      • The right wing are advocating solutions and analysis like small government and no regulation, privatizing education and prisons, these will lead to an acceleration in the de-construction of society. We can fight back by demonstrating a vision of plurality and equality, respect for human rights, and the responsible use of scientific knowledge to solve global problems. When we abandon these values we abandon civilization as we know it.

        • Stefan Thiesen

          Well said in a nutshell. I have nothing to add here.

      • Stefan Thiesen

        I just took a course on History of Economic Thought with Oxford University, and it is interesting to see that the right wing vs. left wing, religious vs. scientific, control vs. liberal etc. discussions are as old as civilization itslef and have been passed on in various guises throughout the past 5 millenia. Values are not easily destroyed. They shift, or the predominant values might change, but the values do not just disappear. Which can be bad, but good as well. I don’t think that values are the problem, but perceptions. Christian Conservatives for example often are well meaning people as well, but do not realize that a laissez faire economics lead to extremely unfair conditions and a social situation that is extremely undesirable from the point of view of Christian ethics. The entire alliance of hardcore freewheeling capitalism and conservative Christianity strikes me as deeply diseased. The current pope surely is a social justice type of guy, while the Christian Democratic Parties in Europe betray their voters by sleeping withthe Banks.

  • It’s not about good or bad faith based economics, but just arguments
    to maintain capitalism at all costs. This economic system does not
    support any other primary intention than profit and this, in turn,
    need exponential growth.

    Environmental protection, social justice and well-being do not live
    with profits first. Therefore the argument that “free
    enterprise” brings those benefits is just a smoke screen to hide
    that either with or without such benefits what is really wanted is

    And, there is no need to be optimistic or pessimistic about the
    future of civilization. The climate and social crisis is growing
    gradually and at some point will impose change. History shows that
    this kind of change means a necessarily profound revolution that have
    a high human cost but a new order will impose itself, hopefully with
    minimum human suffering.

    In short, I believe that we are experiencing a period in which
    humanity is, more and more, being forced to impose an end to
    capitalism creating at the same time another way to orient the
    economic activity, this time directly in favour of human well being.

  • Barry Boulton

    I think the article is exactly correct and it leads us straight away into the big dilemma – by any objective analysis, it looks as if human behavior will certainly destroy civilization as we know it; but if we don’t hope and work for change, then total collapse is inevitable.That, as I see it is the role of MAHB – keep alive both the hope and the questioning.
    But, if we want to keep hope and possibilities alive, given that there are no silver bullets in sight, what do we say and to whom?

    We can, and do, talk a lot about the science of climate change and sustainability, about corporate greed, and about the craziness of the climate-deniers etc, yet COP21 will (almost certainly) not hold to a 2 degC rise in temperature, still less 1.5degC in reality, and a Republican climate-denier candidate for President of the United States will obtain close to 50% of the votes cast in November of 2016. Despite almost unanimous agreement among climate scientists about the certainty of the dangers we face – which is astonishingly agreed in some ill-defined way by worldwide political leaders (at least, they’re all trooping off to Paris to say good things) – that all sounds like unmitigated disaster.

    Now, that doesn’t say that we should slacken off the scientific and morality-driven economics and politics, but we should understand both that it isn’t sufficient, and that we need to work on the human behavior aspects that drive this apparent insanity (it actually isn’t insane, and that’s why it may be amenable to solutions).
    I don’t want this post to get too long but, rather, I want to provoke the possibilities of thinking and speaking outside the box that currently encircles and constrains the whole topic of sustainability; it’s solution can ultimately be only behavioral and therefore we must work on that element. Science is the justification, not the core where the work must begin.

  • stashgal

    I think collapse is inevitable, we are simply too far into population overshoot & many of our critical resources are in decline.
    Rising C02 & methane are warming the planet disrupting the climate which in turn will have an negative effect on our food supply.
    Growing droughts, rising temperatures, erractic weather, dwindling water availability & crop failures will lead to migration, starvation & resource wars.
    I do not think the human population can reach 9 billion, we will have collapsed before reaching that number.
    There is no high tech “green, renewable” energy, solar panels & wind turbines are just as dependent upon OIL as is our cars, trains, trucks & aircraft & neither can they replace the millions of products & raw materials we get from fossil resources.
    We are a clever species by our actions, but we are far from wise.
    Whats so “wise” about feeding economic & population growth with a temporary resource?
    The journey down the other side of Hubert’s curve will be very difficult, messy & painful .

    • hugho

      Nicely put stashgal and Barry. You two show both sides. The one”,we have to fight and try to turn this ship around” and the other “It’s too late. It’s baked into the cake.” For a variety of reasons I am hanging with stash. I am reading a great and old book by MIchael Grant”The fall of the Roman Empire” which lays out the real factors of that fall. By the second century AD, there was no turning that collapse around as the factors were well advanced and IMO, so are we. My strategy is just to try to manage the collapse which is inevitable.

      • stashgal

        I don’t see us “giving up”, I think most of us will continue to try to turn this ship around even though, like the Titanic, it’s side will be zipped open.
        Our “Titanic” is different of course, can we be 100% certain that it’s hopeless?
        It will be 100% hopeless if we just give up, don’t, reduce your carbon foot print as best as you can, I know we are in a trap & must use some FF, most of us could use a lot less, especially PLASTIC!
        Bring your own bag, save a whale!