The Religion of Economics
By John Seed

Four decades ago, Hazel Henderson wrote that she became an economist to find out "where the bodies were buried."

In researching this article, I discovered that the cemetery she was seeking has been well dug over. Though the stink of decay is all pervasive, the facts remain largely hidden from the general public, so I will here attempt to marshal the evidence revealed by a multitude of grave robbing thinkers, and sound the alarm.

The fact that economics, the most pious religion the world has ever known, has managed to audaciously disguise itself as "secular" is the real key to its unprecedented success. Not only secular, but a science. Not just a science but the only one of the social sciences "hard" enough to have its own Nobel prize.

I propose that the first step to killing this false god and freeing the Earth from its thrall is to unmask it.

So here I will tell the story of this strange religion, one whose Sabbath lasts five days out of seven, while for the truly devout, maybe 6 or even 7 days are spent worshipping in huge complexes of temples that scrape the sky, foul the waters and scorch the Earth. When not in their office temples, the pious congregate in "malls" to shop unto exhaustion of the spirit and of the Earth itself.

I have spent 30 years working on the conservation of nature and have long been troubled by the irrationality, indeed insanity, that destroys the biological fabric from which our own lives are woven. Although our actions to protect the Australian rainforests led to a stream of national parks, for every forest protected in those years, worldwide 1000 were lost. It quickly became clear that there was no way to save the planet one forest at a time. Unless we could address the underlying psychological or spiritual disease that allows humankind to imagine that we can profit from the destruction of our own life support systems, tiny piecemeal gains could never amount to a longlasting solution

James Lovelock said that it is as if the brain were to decide that it was the most important organ in the body and started mining the liver.

Paul Ehrlich pointed out, "we are sawing off the branch that we are sitting on."

These clearly point to a psychological problem.

I believe that the best understanding of the psychospiritual dimension of the environmental crisis is in the philosophy of Deep Ecology—the fundamental problem within the illusion of separation between humans and the natural world

This illusion is coupled with anthropocentrism, the idea that human beings are the centre of everything. The strongest root of this anthropocentrism is the Judeo-Christian tradition where only "man" was created in God's image; only humans have a soul, and we are enjoined to subdue and dominate nature.

If we dig at the foundations of classical economics we discover its Judeo-Christian roots: Nothing has any value till humans add labor and intelligence. The Earth itself is just "dirt" till we dig it up and turn it into our toys. :

Just as Christianity and Islam usurped the sacred sites and holy days of the pagan religions, now Christianity has been usurped. A case in point is the transformation Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian saint, into Santa Claus, a modern and postmodern god of consumerism. What used to be the solstice was subsumed by Christmas and this in turn has been swallowed by shopping.

Harvey Cox, professor of divinity at Harvard University, writes that "Disagreements among the tradition religions become picayune in comparison with the fundamental differences they all have with the religion of the Market. Will this lead to a new jihad or crusade? I doubt it. It seems unlikely that traditional religions will rise to the occasion and challenge the doctrines of the new dispensation. Most of them seem content to become its acolytes or to be absorbed into its pantheon, much as the old Nordic deities, after putting up a game fight, eventually settled for a diminished but secure status as Christian saints."

How is it that proposals to protect nature are inevitably "uneconomic"?

The economic cost-benefit analysis invariably decrees that the benefits of laying Nature to waste trump the cost because, in an extraordinary feat of transubstantiation, the only things of real value are deemed to be worthless; while social fictions such as money are pronounced to be real. This is a religious miracle of breathtaking power!

Cox points out that the market religion has maintained the sacrament while reversing it: sacred things (like land, water, air and even the human body) are transformed into profane ones so that they can be commodified and put up for sale (i.e. transubstantiation). Land is transformed from the sacred into mere real estate.

Most students of the religious phenomenon of economics see neo-classical economics as a false theology, but there is also the curious case of economist Robert Nelson of th University of Maryland, who celebrates the religious aspect of his discipline. “Economic efficiency has been the greatest source of social legitimacy in the United States for the past century, and economists have been the priesthood defending this core social value of our era."

David R. Loy, gives us the most compelling of the many critiques of economic religion in his "Religion of the Market," warning us that "Nelson... could be said to have overlooked the market religion's sacrificial aspects of worsening global poverty and environmental degradation," and pointing out that, "In 1960 countries of the North were about twenty times richer than those of the South. In 1990—after vast amounts of aid, trade, loans, and catch-up industrialization by the South—North countries had become fifty times richer. The richest twenty percent of the world's population now have an income about 150 times that of the poorest twenty percent, a gap that continues to grow. According to the UN Development Report for 1996, the world's then 358 billionaires were wealthier than the combined annual income of countries with 45 percent of the world's people. As a result, a quarter million children die of malnutrition or infection every week, while hundreds of millions more survive in a limbo of hunger and deteriorating health." The god of the market's hunger for sacrifice would put the gods of the Aztecs to shame.

The contamination of soul, society and soil by the corruption that is economic thinking is so pernicious, possibly terminal. What are we to do? Yes, some have their hands on bigger triggers, but we are all in this psychotic trance together.

Bringing all the force of metaphor and poetry to this struggle, we will throw the money lenders out of the Temple of the Immaculate Biosphere. We must defrock economics, rescind its Nobel Prize and provoke laughter at the posturings of both the naked emperor and his servile, obsequious courtiers. When we see economics as a religion, then advertising becomes religious education, and I believe that a critique of advertising is a strategic place to begin a campaign to undermine the religion.

In her essay "Small Wonder," Barbara Kingsolver informs us that "puppeteers of globalized commerce... fund their advertising each year with more than 100 dollars spent for this planet's every man, woman and child." No wonder a child in the developed countries has an environmental impact as much as thirty times that of a child in the third world.

The work of exposing and deconstructing the calamitous role of advertising is well underway—Adbusters magazine has been doing a great job of stripping the emperor of the veils of illusion behind which e hides; the Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard provides a very popular online analysis while Reverend Billy of the “Church of Life After Shopping” wittily thumbs his nose at the false god.

But... these are tiny beginnings and the hour is getting late. We need to build these beginnings into a movement that redefines what it means to be abundant.

Fueled by advertising, we dig the Earth up and chop it down to make the "goods" which we can stuff into that great big hole where our soul used to be, each time promising that this time it’s going to work, "buy me and you'll finally feel alright." The more that you feed this addiction, the more addicted you become. We need a kind of social therapy, and a change in the programming. It has long been recognized that that Gross National Product (GNP) is a distorted measure of value—the more motor accidents we have, the more GNP goes up, the more anti-pollution equipment we are forced to manufacture, the stronger the economy, etc.

The New Economics Foundation has come up with a "Happy Planet Index," which shows the relative efficiency with which nations convert natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens. The nations at the top of the index are those achieving long happy lives without overstretching the planet’s resources. Costa Rica come first; nine of the top ten nations are in Latin America. China is 20th, India 35th. I'm proud to announce that Australia (102) beat the USA (114).

It's no use sacrificing our desire for ever more material junk, we have to stop wanting these things. Like with any addiction we must ask: "What is the real underlying problem? What is it we're ignoring and avoiding by our consumption habits?" And for this we need a spiritual movement which replaces the false promises of the church of greed with something which really does feed us. A return to a mystique of the Earth is a primary requirement for establishing a viable rapport between humans and the Earth. Only in this context will we overcome the arrogance that sets us apart from all other components of the planet.

"The Religion of Economics" is based on a chapter from A Handbook of Social Ecology, soon to be published by the University of Western Sydney. A longer version of this essay replete with references and citations may be found at The author adds, "1 am deeply indebted to the work of Richard Foltz. It was discussions with Richard starting in 2003 which sparked my research into this topic."

©2011 John Seed

EarthFirst! Samhain/Yule 2010