A friend of mine started a blog about the question whether a zero-growth economy could be a possiblity in our contemporary economic system. He wants to research whether the presupposed law that companies and countries HAVE to grow really is such a necessity to make them 'economically healthy'.
I am of course no economist but a theologian. Yet theologians don't live on an abandoned island or in a mythical Shangri-la. Just like anybody else they live in the society. Admittedly their expertise is not economics, but from their own expertise they can perhaps bring a new dimension into certain societal debates. Simply put: one should of course never block a discussion with it, but it never hurts to pull God into it once in a while.
To mingle myself in this economic debat then, explicitly as a theologian, it probably makes sense to start with discussing the initial question because someone who mostly tries to figure out the spiritual dimension of existence, tends to get a bit surprised when he hears the basic premise.
When I read that many people presuppose that economy MUST grown, then I silently think to myself that apparently after three thousand years of Hinduism (or more) we haven't grasped a rather obvious truth. For, whether we're Hindu or not, a certain truth that has been expounded by Hinduism for many centuries should have become common place by now: 'everything comes and goes'.
According to Hindu cosmology the universe follows a cyclical pattern. It is created and destroyed again and again. Some Vedic texts describe how the God Brahma takes care of this. Brahma himself lives about a hundred years – but then years that consist of Brahma days and those Brahma days last 4 billion human years. In such a Brahma day he creates 14 Manu's which regulate the existence of the world and the universe. When a Manu dies, the next one is created and when the last one dies, the universe as well perishes. After such an exhausting Brahma-day there is a restfull Brahma night that lasts another 4 billion years. The next morning Brahma simply starts another day, a new series of Manu's and a corresponding universe. After a 100 Brahama years (which is about 311 trillion 40 billion human years) Brahma dies as well and a 100 Brahma years of emptiness follow. After that a new Brahma originates and everything restarts.
It is put rather grand and bombastic, but eventually it proposes a rather small and simple truth: if even the seemingly eternal gods will come and go, how much more then will everthing in this world? The inconceivable numbers show that our world is but an invisble dot in the history of many universes and as such can not be attributed any eternalness whatsoever. This is how the Hindus in a mythological-cosmological way describe what is true for everything in the world: it originates and disappears.
The one who doesn't understand that truly everything has a time to grow and a time to wither, shows an absolute lack of acquaintance with the stream of life. Plants, humans, ideas, economies, states as well as entire societies all come and go.
The idea that many economists seem to carry in their mind – i.e. that the economy MUST grow – is, spiritualy speaking, totaly bogus. It really is not a matter of 'must', it's a matter of simply seeing that it just WON'T happen. Everything will come as it came, and that also applies to richess and power – and the capitalistc is no exception.
The real question, in my opinion, therefore doesn't seem to be: "Is a zero-economy possible?" but rather: "How will our economy deal with it when not only zero-growth but even diminishment occurs?" It is of course difficult for western economists to think in such terms. Maybe the linear alfa-and-omega-thinking of Christianity has someting to do with that. In the East the coming and going of things, the eternal waves of existence and the principle of circularity are taken a bit more as a basic premisse. In the West people seem to live a bit more with the idea of a growth towards a final and blissfull end – towards some sort of 'Godpromise' in other words.
But let us not reduce the underlying thought process to something vague like 'the Christian culture', because if the godimage of Christianity is partly the cause of the necessary-growth-idea, then I immediatly have to point out the fact that they used a very distorted godimage. When you take the Christian Godpromise and put into some sort of economic necessity, then you really twist it around.
Of course one cannot blame economists any theological mistakes. That's why perhaps some spiritual explanation about the Christian finality idea might be in order. The peaceful omega Christianity speaks about is not one of eternal expansion untill 'everybody has all the possible luxury', but a point where society will be strong enough to properly deal with the inevitable coming and going of things. The omega is one of Love, Truth and Justice, not of continuing economic growth and fulfilment of everybodies selfintrest.
Some economists seem to forget that economy should serve a peaceful society. Some seem to turn it around and think that society should serve the economy (read: richess). Of course that brings them to the idea that the economy and welfare (read: luxury) MUST grow. Yet we only MUST grow toward Love, Truth and Justice.
Let us therefore be spiritualy frank and put it very clear: economy doesn't HAVE TO grow at all. Even more so, it is doomed to stagnate and wither just like anything else in this world. The question is not how we can continue our economic pattern or how we can make it 'different' so that we can maintain our present lifestyles. The question is how we can deal as lovingly and as just as we can with the changes that inevitably present themselves to us.