Thinking Aloud: Climate Change, Capitalism and Religion in Public Life

A screenshot from the 1930 first Hebrew edition of Capital, by Karl Marx, for sale now on ebay! If someone wants to buy this for me I won’t be mad about it. Marx, the grandson of a rabbi, famously called religion the opiate of the masses, but articulated a theory that many would adopt as an all-encompassing ideology.

I’m trying something new here, which is writing up some thoughts more or less as they are occurring to me. I find that I often have an idea, write down some notes with the intention of coming back to it later, and then…well, it languishes in my Google Drive purgatory. I find that I can get stuck in a loop of analyzing and thinking about whether I have anything meaningful to say, and never actually end up following through. So this is a new challenge I am posing for myself, to share a bite-size reflection in formation. I might make this an ongoing series or type of post under the “Thinking Aloud” framework.

I was listening to a recent episode of “The Climate Pod” podcast while I was taking a walk around the neighborhood today. The podcast features an interview with ecological economist Tim Jackson, discussing his recent book “Post Growth: Life After Capitalism.” It was a fascinating conversation, and the book, as well as his previous book “Prosperity Without Growth” are definitely on my (ever-growing) reading list.

Jackson’s work meshes very well with the broad questions I have been exploring recently about the relationship between climate and ecology, economics, ideology, and human flourishing. I could probably talk about all of the above for days, but for now I want to focus on a small piece that is mentioned in the interview.

Jackson refers to the theory of Thomas Robert Malthus, an English clergyman of the late 18th- early 19th century whose essay on population growth became incredibly influential on later thinking, including the work of Charles Darwin. Jackson describes Malthus as an early economist. Malthus believed that population growth would quickly overtake resources, leading to starvation. Only the strong who were able to outcompete others and secure resources for themselves would survive.

Without getting into the details of Malthusian thought and where that has led (answer: to a dog-eat-dog view of human nature that has influenced economic thought to this day), I am fascinated by the fact that a member of the clergy in that area could have published an essay that would have become so widely influential and have been a part of the establishment of economics as a new area of inquiry. This kind of cross-disciplinary traversing seems rarer today, although I could be wrong about that. It seems that as we have moved in the direction of a firmer separation between religion and state and increasing specialization and professionalization in many fields, the chances that someone trained as a clergy person of any faith would be taken seriously as a thinker or theorist in society at large today seem slim.

There are certainly examples of religious leaders who have had a profound impact on American public life (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example). In general though, secular institutions that drive public discourse do not engage much with religious leaders as participants in the conversation about the big questions facing us today. Skepticism of religious leaders is understandable – I don’t particularly want to give more of a platform to the likes of Joel Osteen, for example, in the national conversation. But I’m also wondering whether there could be more of a space for discussion of religious traditions and ideas in the public sphere. Speaking from a Jewish perspective, there is profound wisdom to be found in our texts and teachings that bear directly on contemporary questions. What is our responsibility is to our fellow human beings and to the planet? What is needed for human wellbeing and flourishing? What can our history teach us about the human and ecological impact of our political, social, and economic systems?

Whether we call them religious or not, all of us operate from within some kind ideology or system of beliefs. Some of those approaches or frameworks – those considered to be “secular” – are included in the marketplace of ideas. Others have been placed in this separate category called “religion.” This dichotomy is becoming less and less of a useful distinction in my opinion, and actually mischaracterizes entire cultures, practices, and philosophical traditions (including Judaism). It also fails to account for the ways that Christian beliefs have been secularized and enshrined in political and social systems, as Western nations have shifted from established churches toward official separation of church and state. We might as well be honest: religious ideas are a part of the public discourse whether we admit it or not. What would it look like to bring religious voices into the center of important public conversations?

(Nota bene: I have also been influenced in my thinking recently by the NPR history podcast, Throughline, in its three-part series on capitalism. It’s definitely worth checking out!)