The Sustaining Economy: Overcoming Poverty and Protecting Biodiversity

By Willis Jenkins

The moral problem with a global economy that permits a fifth of humans to live in abject poverty and annually extinguishes an untold number of species is not that it is unsustainable. The problem is that we do sustain an economy of misery and destruction.

Markets need not be so unjust and indecent. The challenge of our generation is to use the wealth-producing power of markets both to end extreme poverty and defend ecological integrity.

Is that possible? It might appear that social spending on poverty competes with outlays for biological conservation, and that devoting significant resources to either project undermines the wealth creation of markets. It might seem that humanity faces merciless tradeoffs between justice for the poor, protection of ecological systems, and economic productivity. Especially in a period of economic downturn, efforts to overcome poverty and conserve nature look like unaffordable aspirations.

Things seem that way when we lose sight of the real economy that sustains us. Ecumenical Christian witness insists that overcoming poverty and protecting ecological integrity only seem unaffordable if we accept economic growth as its own end. Markets must serve the economy of justice and the economy of creation – not just return riches to investors. Harmonizing those several priorities is not only possible, Christians have said, but is in fact the only way into a future of real wealth, wherein human dignity thrives on a thriving planet. An economy that tramples the poorest and extinguishes life in pursuit of riches is a false economy.

Projects designed to end poverty and projects undertaken to protect ecological integrity only seem competitive if we think of humanity apart from its habitat. If the hope of sustainability – thriving humans in a thriving earth – is to be more than a slogan, we must look to the practical ways in which communities are recovering the ecology of human dignity and turning economic creativity toward the production of real wealth.

Lessons from Ecuador

Every time I visit poor communities that seek to secure dignity against exploitative economies, I am shown in new ways how justice depends on environmental conditions. Most recently that happened in Ecuador, on a visit with students from Yale Divinity School hosted by the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI). Member churches of CLAI have been especially outspoken about what they see as the global economy’s twin impoverishments: entrapping the poor and deracinating the land. Economists, social theorists, theologians, and pastors of CLAI introduced us to community efforts to create economies of sustaining wealth instead.

One community project centers around “food sovereignty.” As commodity agriculture spreads in Ecuador, critics worry that it strips land from poor farmers, and thus strips people of the capacity to provide their own sustenance. Trading food for cash may further impoverish the poor by making them reliant on a distant food distribution system not of their own making, by exhausting their land, and by disrupting their cultures. When communities can retain control over their land and maintain enduring ways of living from it, our hosts said, they resist an impoverishing agricultural economy.

Potatoes, Quinoa, and Memory

To show us how an agrarian alternative can work for the very poor, our host brought us to a self-organized food cooperative. On a side street in Riobamba we found farmers dividing thousands of pounds of fresh produce into shares. A network of quite poor communities worked together to grow and buy large quantities of food, and then distribute it among themselves. More is going on here than a certain quantity of calories obtained at a certain price: dignity for these communities means access to the cultural memory of potatoes and quinoa, prepared in soups made with familiar vegetables and fruits. A sense of being human is sustained by traditions of cultivating and preparing, realized through the practices of being nourished by a land culture. It is no accident that the byproduct is beauty: well-tended, diversely planted farms, a colorful street cornucopia, creative table fare.

We also visited a Christian community of indigenous Qechua people in a high-altitude village. Across the globe, councils of indigenous peoples have raised angry protests against the world’s inaction on climate change. Andean theological voices are no exception. At recent climate gatherings they have made their point in a lexicon both biblical and native by arguing that in climate change all creation groans (Rom 8.23), Pachamama (Mother Earth) groans. The indigenous peoples who understand themselves as creation’s guardians find their bio-regions under stress from invasive outside economies, and with that stress find their cultures of stewardship under threat. The injustice here is especially stark: a worldwide energy economy that benefits the wealthy is taking from some of the poorest people of the world their one most-valued treasure: the dignity of living rightly with the earth. The real wealth of humanity, say these councils, lies in the ecological integrity of home bioregions.

The message in Ecuador was clear: these groups do not want financial offsets, since bioregional and cultural wealth cannot be bought or compensated. They want moral transformation in the cultures of wealth, especially in the cultures of the North, and they want to see from us the will to do something serious about climate change. Overcoming poverty includes changing an energy economy that depletes others of the kind of wealth the industrial North has almost forgotten.

Those two snapshots illustrate how confronting poverty and conserving ecological integrity often converge in human dignity. Indeed, Ecuador’s new constitution recognizes the human right to environmental resources and the legal rights of nature itself. Markets focused exclusively on exchanging commodities without regard to the cultural and environmental relations that sustain human dignity can further impoverish those already poor. Yes, markets also drive economic growth that has lifted many out of financial poverty. The unprecedented economic growth of the twentieth century turned the idealist hope of ending extreme human deprivation into a feasible project. However, ideologies of growth combined with unfair market institutions impoverish both the human poor and the earth.

It is no accident that the byproduct of the Ecuadorans’ land culture is beauty: well-tended planted farms, a colorful street cornucopia, creative table fare.

When markets are just, overcoming extreme poverty and conserving the basic processes of life are feasible economic projects. Christian ethics has no special expertise in technical solutions, but among the practical proposals for making global markets work for the common good are two relatively easy measures. A modest carbon fee would help make our food and energy economies more rational by making consumption pay its true cost. It could also generate a decent global conservation fund, perhaps one focused on protecting endangered species. Second, an infinitesimal tax on stock trades would create disincentives for financial manipulations like high-speed trading, which seem to create nothing of value except paper profit for traders. It could also generate a global development fund finally capable of meeting the basic needs of the very poor.

Real Wealth: Human Dignity and Biodiversity

Support for these measures languishes because market cultures struggle to know how to value the real wealth of human dignity and biological richness. Here Christian ethics may have an important public role to play by emphasizing two key practices:

First, Christian teachings, from ancient to contemporary times, go beyond calling for mere fairness in dealings with the poor, beyond even charity: they consistently hold that God’s justice begins in love for those who are suffering and in need. As Susan Holman has helped us remember, in the early church welcoming the poor was not just an obligatory duty but an opportunity to host the incarnate God.1 For those with food and shelter, welcoming the poor was a chance to dedicate those goods to their final purpose: accepting the friendship of God. Christian ethics still holds that we learn the meaning of wealth by loving our neighbors, especially the poorest, who represent for us the gifts of God.

A market economy that makes the poor invisible and expendable thus dispenses with a central biblical metric for measuring a people’s humanity. Liberation theologians declare that an elemental part of Christian hope is the sense that the poor mediate what really matters in the world. Jon Sobrino put this pointedly in his book No Salvation Outside the Poor.2 On this view, responding to abject human deprivation must not stop at donating, but rather come to understand the economy of life in a certain pattern: we learn the meaning of real wealth in solidarity with the poor.

Second, Christian thought has long held that people learn God’s economy by interpreting the economy of creation. The rest of the living, flying, buzzing, creeping, roaring, growing world does not exist simply to stock grocery stores. Christian teaching has indeed often held that the created world exists “for humanity,” but in a different sense than our greed has made of it. The earth exists for humans to learn what is good and sacred. Thomas Aquinas taught that God created other creatures primarily so that humans would have names and ideas by which to bless God and learn to live into God’s friendship. Real wealth lies in knowing how to use creation to praise God. The upshot is that humans learn their dignity by receiving the earth as sacred. Overcoming poverty includes drawing people into the wealth of the earth.

Respecting the Greed Line

Some aspects of our economic context discomfitingly invite the invective of those biblical prophets who associated injustice to the poor with destruction of the earth. In Isaiah, the land turns barren when the people are unjust; the deserts bloom when they are faithful. Hosea observes that when the people are unfaithful “even the fish of the sea and the birds of the air disappear.” In the prophets, God’s covenant with humanity includes the other creatures as well, and is knit together by justice. When the poor suffer and creatures disappear, it is a sign that a people are losing their way, disoriented by the pursuit of false wealth.

For those with food and shelter, welcoming the poor was a chance to dedicate those goods to their final purpose: accepting the friendship of God.

We need a new culture of prosperity, in which we measure wealth not by increase of GDP or net worth, but by the real value it makes for humans in need and for the earth. The World Council of Churches’ “Wealth, Ecology, and Poverty” project has renewed prophetic criticism of the pursuit of prosperity, its power to make a global community obtuse to the basic claims of the poor and inured to the fantastic destruction of the earth. This project proposes a “greed line,” as counterpart to poverty lines, above which lies not only injustice and shame, but another sort of impoverishment, the poverty of losing a meaningful sense of wealth. The greed line means to remind us of our propensity to sacrifice real wealth in relentless pursuits of money. What lets our generation suppose that mining coal by mountaintop removal is anything like a decent thing to do? Who wants to count for their grandchildren just what that destruction was worth? By what reckoning must a billion people barely cling to life while massive riches accumulate to others?

The WCC greed line reminds us all that we are responsible for the economies in which we participate and are complicit in the ways we do not think about them. Devotion to the pursuit of riches requires certain pieties of indifference to human suffering and ecological destruction. Pious about growth, we look away from human needs and solemnly accept the destruction of biological life. If that is the way of wealth, we cannot afford it. We must deflate pieties of indifference to the disappearance of other creatures and the suffering of other humans. The idea of a greed line suggests that all those seeking justice might look for ways to disinvest from this economy of misery and invest in real wealth. The returns are much better.

Willis Jenkins is the Margaret A. Farley Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at YDS, with a secondary appointment in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The author of Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford University Press, 2008), he has international experience in community development initiatives, co-founded the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps, and served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on World Mission, 2000–2006.


1 Susan Holman, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (Oxford University Press, 2009).

2 Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic Utopian Essays (Orbis, 2008).