More on the Common Good: What are the Biggest Problems?

“I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world.” – Socrates

“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and to be a good citizen.” – Aristotle

At the heart of Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of community lay the idea of the common good.  Aquinas had learned from Aristotle that the good life is a life in common.  Aristotle had written, for example, that “the good of the city is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and to safeguard.  The attainment of the good for one person alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for cities is nobler and more divine” (Nicomachean Ethics 1094b).  Commenting on Thomas’ vision, theologian and ethicist Timothy Gorringe remarks that “Justice and the Common Good, both of which derive from the Holy Spirit, are the heart of his vision.  Under good government the countryside feeds the town and the town rewards the country; under bad government the crops rot and the people starve.  Justice and the common good are at the heart of sustainability” (Gorringe, Living Toward a Vision: Cities, the Common Good, and the Christian Imagination.  Anglican Theological Review, 2010).

Gorringe goes on to explain that the church is the primary community entrusted with living out this vision of hope for the world.  The church has the responsibility of relating the visioning of Scripture to every area of life, such that there is no sharp division between the sacred and the secular.  This idea is supported by the Hebrew Prophets and their holistic depiction of reality which “saw human behavior as bound up with the flourishing or failing of the natural world: ‘Because there is no knowledge of God,’ says Hosea, ‘therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; . . . even the fish of the sea are perishing’ (Hos. 4:3)” (Gorringe, 524).

Continuing to address the issues of the relationship between the church, society and the environment, Gorringe asks the following three questions:

  1.  How do we build a relationship with the Earth and with one another wisely, justly, and in ways that are sustainable and in balance with the web of life on the planet?
  2. How do we understand the interdependence of rural and urban?
  3. How do our cities, in their infrastructures, residential spaces, architectures, and overall economy of life, need to change in order to meet this goal?

Instead of merely summarizing Gorringe’s response to these questions – which is not my main concern here – we first have to see some of the problems themselves in more concrete terms.  Here’s what he says on this front:

“We all know that we are exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity, living in bio-deficit.  For everyone to live like a Londoner we need three planets; like a citizen of Los Angeles, five planets; like a citizen of Dubai, ten planets.  We have unsustainable buildings like the Sears Tower in Chicago, which uses more energy in 24 hours than an average American city of 150,000 or an Indian city of more than 1 million.[i]  We have a situation where New York City uses as much electrical energy as the whole continent of Africa . . . the world we have constructed and that has given us so much is dependent on cheap energy, more specifically on oil.  A growing body of independent oil experts and oil geologists have calculated that oil production either has peaked or is about to.  They are saying that technological advances in oil extraction and prospecting will have only a minor effect on depletion rates.  Peak oil does not mean that the world is suddenly going to run out of oil, as your car runs out of petrol if you do not fill it up.  What it does mean is that we will reach the point where sources of cheap, easy-to-get oil are exhausted.  When that happens, then every successive year will see an ever-diminishing flow of oil, as well as an increasing risk of interruptions to supply” (Gorringe, 525).

Gorringe then discusses the problem of climate change, which is directly related and obviously very important, but I’m not going to address that now.  The point is, the dominant orthodox economic assumptions based on a consumer-capitalist society of perpetual growth and a non-zero sum game understanding of wealth, are quite simply incompatible with the limitations, inequality and unsustainability of our current global situation – and this is not even to mention the present and potential geopolitical consequences that are continuing and beginning to be a felt as a result (e.g., violence, militarism and overall instability and insecurity in the Middle East and increasingly other parts of the world).

There is another dimension to the contemporary world order that I do want to underscore, however, which is dependent on energy as well but that deserves its own category (this was touched on in a previous post, but it should be mentioned again).  Orthodox economic theory in the developed Western world is not only about growth, but also trade, and specifically trade governed by the theory of comparative advantage.  Trade under this logic is thought to secure prosperity by encouraging all countries to specialize, by doing what they do best, and then trading with countries that have a comparative advantage in other sectors and industries.  The Bretton Woods institutions – the IMF and the World Bank in particular – were set up in part to make this happen.  The somewhat obvious oversight of this theory, however, is that not all countries have any comparative advantage – not even close.  Nonetheless, in order to be eligible for loans that could help poorer countries develop their infant industries, these international institutions decided to require that underdeveloped countries — in order to be elligible for assistance — adopt “free” trade practices by lowering any barriers to entry for foreign transnational corporate competitors to invest in their (the third world) local economies, so as to expose industries to international competition early on and thereby “help” their development at the global level.  This is kind of like forcing parents to let their children play on the big-kid playground long before they are trained to fend for themselves.

The question for our purposes at this point though is one that pertains to U.S. politics, and U.S. politics from a specifically Christian outlook.  So why is all of this relevant then?  Well, because the United States for the greater part of the latter half of the twentieth century has been the forerunner and chief architect of this international deregulatory project, as evidenced close to home by the case of Mexico and NAFTA under Bill Clinton’s leadership – to give just one relatively recent and familiar example (there are many others).  The United State and the EU have had their histories of high protectionism, some of which remains today.  The EU, for example, excludes metals, agricultural products, and textiles from free-trade schemes, such that discrimination against basic commodities is one of the biggest roadblocks for poor countries – probably even more so than debt.

Thirdly, in addition to energy and trade, there is the financialization of the market and therefore the global economy in general.  Case in point, for instance, is the Great Recession of 2008.  The shift from industry-based markets to financial capital has enabled the speculation on stocks (or sectors like the housing market) all around almost instantaneously.  There is trade in interest rates, the buying of bonds or currencies on one exchange to sell them at a profit on another, and other financial instruments and derivative like swaps, options, forwards and futures.  In many cases investors are essentially gambling on the prosperity of nations themselves.  Increases and decreases in the market indexes correspond less and less to real changes in the material world but nonetheless impact it profoundly due to variations in currency stability and other virtual or hyper-real factors.

Lastly, global capitalism trivializes culture and disintegrates value.  It’s been said that healthy ecologies (and perhaps societies) abhor monoculture, but the proliferation of market preferences and economic imperialism insists on hegemony, and a very adaptive one at that – so much so that we see McDonalds assimilating quite a bit to its different international environments.  And yet, it’s still the same fast food.

Here’s what Graham Ward in his book The Politics of Discipleship says about globalization in general and global capitalism in particular with respect to its impact on culture:

Capitalism in its expanded global form is a participatory system.  I may choose a postmaterialist option and not buy sportswear from Nike bcause of the charges of sweatshop exploitation, but my index-linked pension, the investments made by my mortgage company and my bank, my credit and debit cards, and online shopping all situate me firmly in the global economy.  Globalization is not simply the effects of free-market economic policy adopted by this country or that, or even the ideology of international operations driven by multinational corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank; it is an environment, an atmosphere.  It implicitly possesses and promotes a cosmology.  Like a religion, it generates its own mythology, and however much it deals with empirical goods, metrics, positivist facts, and processes that are entirely focused on the concrete, immanent logics of this world, its ethos and ethics are utopian and transcendental (Ward, 2009, 97).

This is why it’s so important for the church to tell a better story about reality and therefore God’s will through the person and work of Jesus.  It has the mandate of cultivating a different and more life-giving environment among its members, as well as commissioning them to let this rub off on others who are being sucked into the madness of the consumerism, the global market, of militarism, and recently especially the fear and personality-driven, corporate-purchased and controlled process of electoral politics.

Considered solely from a global and international perspective, however, we might overlook just how much these disparities and unsustainabilities are hurting people at the national level as well. In the next post, then, I will try to zero-in on domestic poverty and the shrinking of the middle class as a result of several key changes sine the late 1970s. 


[i] Gorringe is taking this information from Graham Haughton and Colin Hunter, Sustainable Cities (London: Regional Studies Association, 1994), 14.

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