Churches, along with other non-government organisations, have an important role in demonstrating that there are greater values than consumerism.
This was one of the challenging propositions to come out of a workshop organised by the University of Divinity Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy.
Keynote speaker, the renowned economist and public policy analyst Professor Ross Garnaut, argued that while a decentralised market is necessary, “the only sustainable democracy in the developed world is social democracy” because political legitimacy can only be achieved by gaining greater equity sharing.
Social democrats, however, face the challenge of a declining share of taxation being collected from corporations in developed countries, which undermines the welfare state.
Prof Garnaut proposed reforms to eliminate some of the common means that corporations use to avoid tax.
He also advocated implementing more effective and enforced anti-corruption legislation to minimise rent-earning opportunities for the wealthy.
Another necessary, but not sufficient, step towards ensuring governments sought the common good was putting tight limits on corporate political donations.
In terms of global inequality, Prof Garnaut recommended maintaining open economies that encourage large transfers of all forms of capital from developed to developing countries (including generous development assistance).
In combination with good governance, the evidence from the growing economies of Asia and now Africa is that these factors increase average incomes and reduce internal inequality.
Prof Garnaut also spoke about environmental issues, praising Pope Francis’ ‘magnificent’ encyclical Laudato Si for applying authoritative climate science and economic policy to current ethical issues.
The letter is based on the canticle of Saint Francis of Assisi “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
Prof Garnaut said a positive trend is that renewable solar and wind energy are rapidly becoming less costly than fossil fuel but the speed of transfer towards them depends on policy choices such as introduction of a carbon tax.
Following Prof Garnaut’s address Dr Tim Thornton from La Trobe University discussed neo-liberalism and its alternatives, including ‘green-growth social democracy’.
He said that a social democratic system makes the role of the market more subservient to democratic processes and the common good because it includes effective social protection, promoting work for all as well as economic redistribution.
He emphasised that in a social democratic system the economy serves the society rather than the other way around.
The aim of a green growth social democracy is that environmental sustainability and economic growth complement one another.
Production costs are lowered by achieving a greater efficiency with environmental inputs, recycling and waste reduction.
Expanding accessibility and quality of services, building up intellectual capital rather than physical assets, and producing more goods are all characteristic of green growth.
Whilst green growth presumes we can achieve a decoupling of economic expansion and environmental impact, this is a central and contested question.
Dr Thornton said that “steady-state economics” was another, less politically palatable, alternative to neoliberalism.
Workshop participants voiced a broad support for replacing the GDP, which is an aggregate measure of production, as the standard indicator of national economic success.
The suggested alternative would be a composite index that measures Australia’s progress in ways that are not purely material and amoral, such as the Australian National Development Index. Another underutilised measure is the UN General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals.
I came away from the workshop convinced that we need to develop an ethic of responsibility for the rights of nature and of future generations.
As part of this we must support constraining global population growth by enabling all families to have access to birth control.
Young people need to be engaged in caring for ecology, something that churches can do at a local level by becoming part of the Transition Network and promoting projects that increase self-sustainability.
What is clear is that socially democratic evolutionary change is an important stepping stone towards a just and environmentally responsible society.
John Langmore is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Mark the Evangelist Uniting Church in North Melbourne.