chinese religions and economic sustainability

image of Solar Powered Light

A solar-powered light on the road to Maoshan, Jiangsu, China.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Wayne Arnold published a column on the perennial topic “rethinking the measure of growth.” The story concerns attempts by Asian economists to come up with alternatives to GDP growth as the be-all and end-all of development. As is often the case with the New York Times, I found the most important information buried towards the end of the story, as though the editors didn’t actually think it was important!

What is needed instead, some economists say, is a wholesale re-examination of development’s goals. … Beijing, at least, appears to have gotten the message, if its investments in green technology and public transportation are anything to go by. The Communist Party has also revised the promotion criteria for officials so that environmental conditions are included along with gross domestic product.

It’s hard to underestimate the significance of this type of policy measure in China. To gain official promotion in China does not simply result in greater financial  rewards or abstract “prestige” but rather access to powerful social networks that can result in very real financial, social, and personal rewards. To make this privilege conditional upon an official’s meeting environmental targets, is thus a significant way that the Chinese government is demonstrating its serious engagement with climate change. Imagine if a North American firm made its bonuses conditional upon achieving reductions in carbon footprint alongside increased sales!

This is evidence of not just an economic shift in China, but of attempting to effect a deeper cultural shift. As I have argued elsewhere, effective responses to climate change occur when there is a shift in the broader cultural background that can ground and validate policy changes and legal arguments.

Then the column then goes on to note that this involves engaging the most important cultural matrices that shape human values and behaviour, namely religon. Arnold notes:

[S]ome economists say the answer may lie in drawing on Asia’s religious traditions — Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism — with their emphasis on harmony with nature and self-denial.

Although this is a rather gross Orientalist conflation of very different cultural systems that in fact present widely different responses to the natural world, the larger point does, I think remain valid. This larger point—that religious values shape (economic) behaviour—is described by Arnold as a piece of “strange casting,” perhaps indicating that the relationship between religion and economics is not part of the received wisdom of New York Times readers. Yet the relationship between religion (and culture more broadly) and economics is part of the mainstream of social science theory, ever since Max Weber wrote about the affinity between Calvinism and capitalism. Given that the cultural validation of hard work and ascetic living helped to produce the surplus capital that led to the creation of modern financial markets, it is not so hard to imagine that the value of harmony with the natural world will be one of the most important cultural levers in fostering era of sustainability.

The alternative is to accept the inevitability of Weber’s speculation regarding the subordination of humans and nature to the mechanistic processes of production:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.

I doubt that Weber considered that one day Asian economists might engage their own cultural traditions to produce a new version of this “mechanism” but he should be glad that they are doing so.