A holistic approach, however, asserts that humans are human beings, not simply human “havings” and “doings.”23 If it is true that complete fulfillment is only found in the unlimited reality of God (whether approached in personal or supra-personal terms), as all the world’s major religions assert, then it follows that to seek the Infinite in finite goods can only result in profound disappointment, pain, and even despair. Accumulating wealth for its own sake converts the joy and blessings of wealth into a sort of envious misery, because somebody else will always have more. Indeed, a misdirected search for the Infinite has stoked appetites that now insatiably devour the beauty of the natural world. Bereft of the traditional worldview of their ancestors, large segments of humanity have strayed from paths that lead to a sense of the sacred or transcendent, to the Beauty that satisfied humans grounded in living religious traditions for millennia.
We can only find the path again by understanding that our soul's unconditional happiness can be achieved by finding and expressing Beauty within itself. But to fill the void created by the absence of inward beauty24 with heedless consumption can be likened to drinking saltwater—it will only make us thirstier. Schumacher describes this cycle in the context of modern economies:
The basic aim of modern industrialism is not to make work satisfying but to raise productivity; its proudest achievement is labor saving, whereby labor is stamped with the mark of undesirability. But what is undesirable cannot confer dignity; so the working life of a laborer is a life without dignity. The result, not surprisingly, is a spirit of sullen irresponsibility which refuses to be mollified by higher wage awards but is often only stimulated by them.25
It is precisely such a cycle—the endless need for more—that is destroying our natural world.
Can Our Economics Be Ethical?
The central question about the adverse relationship between nature and the economy is whether we are in need of institutional transformation or simply moderate reform. The Catholic ethicist John Sniegocki notes that free trade economists overwhelmingly believe only more economic growth through capitalism can solve pressing social ills. For the environment, many reference the “Kuznets curve,” a theory that asserts that growth first generates pollution, but eventually, as wealth increases, better technologies, increased efficiencies, and mitigation efforts begin to resolve ecological degradation. These theorists, writes Sniegocki, generally have deep “faith in human ingenuity, science, and technology to save humanity from any possible human caused ecological disasters.”26 Other mainstream economists may believe in government regulations and international agreements to solve problems, but they also fail to acknowledge the need for a change in worldview, which a holistic solution demands.
Economists are partly correct in viewing the environmental crisis in terms of “market failures,” as results of the overuse (or underuse) of goods relative to their “true” costs—and most particularly the fact that natural resources that should have a “price” are considered “free,” or are drastically underpriced. A classic example is a factory polluting a nearby neighborhood: it imposes costs on its neighbors, but the costs are “external” to the polluter insofar as it is not required to concern itself with social and environmental responsibility. In situations involving negative externalities27 like polluted air, economists maintain that some goods—clean air in this case—are “underpriced.” Market failure is the cumulative effect: it is the overuse of clean air relative to its true value (or the cost of its pollution) that leads to the inefficient use of resources.
Accordingly, market failures can account for myriad environmental threats, including marine losses, deforestation, desertification, freshwater system decline, loss of biodiversity, proliferation of toxic pollutants, acid rain, nitrogen excess in fertilization, and so forth.28 The increasing scarcity of unpolluted natural resources, used or damaged by their use in production processes without costs to the exploiting enterprise, reverses the claim that an invisible hand promotes societal interests when individuals pursue their own interests. This naturally puts a blinding spotlight on the need for reasonable regulation of markets and commerce, but the political process responsible for such regulations often fails due to the corrupting influence of special interests, raising the question of Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guardians?).29
Alternatively, one might think that a socioeconomic system based on central command explicitly appealing to cooperative ideals, or the “visible” hand of the state rather than the invisible hand of the market, would be better equipped to neutralize negative effects of growth. But in fact the opposite is true, as evidenced by the dismal environmental record of communist countries, which some observers even blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union.30 Communism attempted to achieve economy-wide cooperation through central planning, but it undermined the basis for such cooperation by its systematic deskilling of work. Like other mechanized economies, communism ignores the intrinsic connections between meaningful work and spiritually productive cooperation (Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work). Special interests, moreover, can take on even more corrupt and dysfunctional forms in industrial communism than in capitalism, because bureaucrats often conflate the interests of bureaucracy with the interests of society.31 The absence of a spiritual dimension in communist political theory means that communism attempts to achieve a sort “Christian” charity without relying on the inspiration of Christ, or any other revelation.32 But, explains Schumacher, charity without a spiritual grounding is often fatal: “There is no supportable middle position. Those who want the Good Society, without believing in God, cannot face the temptations of Machiavellianism.”33
In an industrialized world, communism and capitalism therefore have much more in common than their proponents admit: both neglect Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work, and the resulting loss of intrinsic meaning in production and exchange promotes conflict rather than cooperation between workers, owners (whether individuals, corporations, or the state), and consumers.34 Although communism opposes spiritual values much more directly than capitalism, both systems undermine spiritual values. Without a change in the philosophical understanding of work, personal reform within a system is rendered powerless to reform the system itself. Schumacher writes:
This is of decisive importance. It shows that appeals for good behavior and the teaching of ethical or spiritual principles, necessary as they always are, invariably stay, as it were, inside the system and are powerless to alter it: unless and until the preaching leads to significant new types of work in the physical world.35
Indeed, there is an increasingly urgent debate over whether the secular paradigm that has indirectly created the industrial economic system can generate new technologies quickly enough to solve the accompanying crises related to the environment. Whether technological “fixes” are possible depends on whether or not our worldview corresponds to the nature of reality. If it does not, attempting to find a fix within the current paradigm can lead to a vicious downward cycle of technologies, with each “cure” often leading to more and more adverse (and even catastrophic) “side effects.” If science and technology are based on philosophical presuppositions that ignore higher levels of reality above observable phenomena, and this does not correspond to the nature of reality, then both man and nature suffer unintended adverse consequences.
Unfortunately, the current analytical tools of mainstream economic theory, imported into economics from Newtonian mechanics, suppress the need for substantive philosophical debate by claiming to be ethically neutral.36 This application of materialism ultimately promotes technical (market or incentive-based regulatory) solutions for moral problems, reinforcing the “separate domain” argument and leaving no higher orders of reality to which to appeal about the spiritual significance of production and exchange processes. This is a crucial point that theologians, philosophers, and other intellectuals must keep in mind when carrying out dialogue with economists on the environmental crisis, for such interconnections between economic theory, practice, and worldview are not made explicit in mainstream economic texts. In short, the worldview that understands work in purely mechanical terms is responsible not only for economic production that generates violence against man and nature, but also for the analytical tools that express and promote the same values and theories that caused the environmental crisis to begin with.
Towards a Sacred Science
The Abrahamic elevation of humanity as the crown of creation is criticized by many environmentalists as forwarding an “anthropocentric” view similar to that of mainstream economic theory, and hence they blame both for the current environmental crisis.37 Deep ecology, for example, espouses the equality of man and other creatures, or an “eco-centric” or “bio-centric” approach in place of an “anthropocentric” one.38 But such a critique misunderstands Abrahamic teachings, which instill a theocentric, rather than purely anthropocentric, approach. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions conceive of humans not as owners of the earth, but in the dual role of God’s servants and vicegerents on earth. Nasr writes:
[As a servant, one] must be passive towards God and receptive to the grace that flows from the world above. [As a vicegerent, one] must be active in the world, sustaining cosmic harmony and disseminating the grace for which [one] is the channel as a result of… being the central creature in the terrestrial order.39
In this sense, the status of vicegerent is not simply a privilege, but a responsibility and a trial, and failure to realize one’s spiritual potential leads to disequilibrium.40 For faith traditions, nature is harmed when the vicegerent of God no longer considers himself or herself the servant of God, a mistake that leads to the belief that humans are accidental beings not created for a higher purpose.41 Anthropocentrism is dangerous because it usurps theocentrism, not because biocentrism is a better alternative. Denying the centrality of humans only introduces further disequilibrium.
Fortunately, the intellectual and spiritual roots of the environmental crisis are receiving renewed attention. Discoveries in physics during the last century challenge the notion of a strictly mechanistic universe, and fierce debate has ensued about interpreting the new physics and about what should replace pre-quantum materialism.42 As one scholar puts it, we are in a reality marketplace.43 The Catholic scientist and theologian Wolfgang Smith (who carried out extensive correspondence with Muslim scholars such as Nasr) has attempted to integrate the findings of physics into higher orders of knowledge.44 Remarkably, Muslim philosopher-scientists such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037 CE), ‘Umar Khayyām (d. 1131 CE), and Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274 CE) anticipated this solution centuries earlier in their holistic philosophies of nature. Mullā Śadrā (d. 1640) developed their thought into a grand synthesis of Islamic theology, philosophy, and mysticism to provide the metaphysical foundation for a contemporary science capable of interpreting all natural phenomena through a spiritual perspective that responds to the limitations of modern science without denying its factual discoveries.45 As the astronomer Robert Jastrow put it, albeit in a non-Islamic context:
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; and as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.46
Indeed, it is ironic that René Descartes, who established the philosophical foundation for secular science by denying any qualitative dimension to nature and creating an inseparable gulf between the subject who knows and the object that is known, was a contemporary of Mullā Śadrā.
G.N. Tyrell illustrates the difference between such secular and sacred approaches to nature by comparing nature to a text. He points out that a book, for example, is merely a colored shape to an animal, and any “higher significance a book may hold lies above the level of its thought.”47 The animal is not wrong, since the book is a colored shape, but this does not exhaust its meaning. Tyrell carries the analogy further:
A book, we will suppose, has fallen into the hands of intelligent beings who know nothing of what writing and printing mean, but they are accustomed to dealing with the external relationships of things. They try to find out the “laws” of the book, which for them mean the principles governing the order in which the letters are arranged…. They will think they have discovered the laws of the book when they have formulated certain rules governing the external relationships of the letters. That each word and each sentence expresses a meaning will never dawn on them because their background of thought is made up of concepts which deal only with external relationships, and explanation to them means solving the puzzle of these external relationships…. Their methods will never reach the grade [of significance] which contains the idea of meanings.48
From the point of view of sacred science, the book of nature corresponds to sacred scripture, each page of which reveals a truth, namely the “vestiges of God.”
From the point of view of sacred science, the book of nature corresponds to sacred scripture, each page of which reveals a truth, namely the “vestiges of God” — vestigia Dei in traditional Christian thought, āyāt Allāh in Islamic thought, and analogous concepts in other religious traditions.
When we apply this understanding to economics, we see that a sacred economics requires both a faith-based approach to law, which can set the conditions for production, and also a set of sacred intellectual sciences, which, because they are based on an integral vision of humanity’s place in the cosmos, can inform the heart of production with a coherent vision of humanity’s hierarchy of spiritual and other needs.
On the one hand, a religious approach to law would establish a minimum division of labor to provide necessary and useful goods and services, asserting that some members of the community must practice each profession to fulfill the needs of society. The division of labor is thus analogous to other collective duties, such as building orphanages and hospitals. If no members in the community fulfill these needs, each member of the community is held spiritually accountable. The division of labor is thus conceived of as a duty, not simply a pragmatic possibility.
On the other hand, a sacred approach to intellectual, productive, and artistic sciences would also be necessary, because the norms and principles of art, which are also derived from the heart of revelation, would govern the making of things in a sacred economy.49 From this point of view, human arts and crafts should communicate a spiritual truth and presence analogous to nature, or God’s art. “The ethical aspect of work in this case embraces also the aesthetic,” writes Nasr.50 Thus, the production process is conceived as a spiritual discipline in which what one makes is not only a means of livelihood but also a product of devotion. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”51
This approach to the making of things has always been closely wed to the spiritual practices of a given religious tradition, because the necessary condition for this approach is consciousness of one’s mortality and complete dependence on the Absolute, or “spiritual poverty” (faqr).52 Metaphysics and a sacred understanding of the sciences of nature apply to everything in the productive sciences—from architecture and urban planning to the art of dress and personal living space. The same applies to the practical sciences investigating everything from social organization to the treatment of the environment. This link between work, spiritual education, and the character of our surroundings forged by the sacred intellectual sciences is crucial to fulfilling the hierarchy of people’s spiritual and other needs.53 Sacred economics therefore depends on sacred science and is fatally incomplete without it. The most promising areas of the economy in which to begin developing or applying such sciences are arguably holistic agriculture, medicine, architecture, and textiles, as well as carpet and utensil production.
Moreover, for equilibrium, sacred economics relies on the fact that all contingent beings are interconnected in light of their common Source. In the traditional conception of society, there is a “corrective function of others, and of collectivities and communities as embodiments of ‘the neighbor’—and in a more profound way as representatives of the Divine ‘Other’…”54 If traditional metaphysics and natural sciences correspond to the nature of reality, then the individualism of mainstream economic theory is inconsistent with social and economic equilibrium.
The community, in this traditional understanding, transmits doctrines and practices on the division of labor, production, and market exchange that allow each member to live in harmony with themselves, their fellow community members, and nature. The Cartesian denial of the intrinsic interconnectedness of all things in modern science is once again at the root of individualism in economic theory on one hand, and, on the other, the mechanized production and exchange processes that produce the negative externalities harming nature.
Accordingly, we must recover the sacred intellectual heritages of the world’s great religious traditions if we would bring forth holistic science and technology that can change our economic paradigm.55 It is important to point out that sacred economics does not only apply to economies informed by spiritual principles; it also spells out the consequences of violating these principles in secular economies, both at the individual and structural levels, including the aesthetic aspect of work. If such spiritual principles are necessary for equilibrium—because injustice towards man and nature leads to instability—then spiritual principles are the necessary starting point of economic analysis, because disequilibrium is unintelligible in its own terms. Economics is therefore continuous with other practical sciences ranging from ethics to politics and is not an independent domain separated from the rest of social life, as the “separate domain” approach of modern economic theory claims. Sacred economics thus critiques both modern mainstream economic theory and practice.56