As a teacher, a preacher, and a writer, I have been called many things. An expert. A content provider (that in the world of textbook publishing). A repository of information. An entertainer. But the one thing I refuse to be called is a human resource. And likewise, I refuse to regard our mother earth as a natural resource.
Both terms reduce the glory and complexity of life to its usefulness. I don’t mind being useful, and I appreciate the usefulness of nature in providing me with light and dark, food and water, warmth and cold., But the reductionism that has overtaken my original profession of economics has no eye for beauty, no heart for compassion, no soul for soaring. It has escaped its boundaries of addressing only the material side of life to proclaim that materialism is the highest purpose. The servant of our needs has become the master.
Economic materialism means that if something—a person, an acre of land, a forest, oil beneath the soil, the oceans, then it should be put to use to serve whatever human purpose we may choose. People, likewise, are measured by their value added to the GDP. An unemployed person is a wasted resource. When a person is killed by the negligence of others, compensation is offered by measuring how much that person would have earned had he or she lived out their natural lifespan. The value of a human life is the discounted present value of expected future earnings.
Charles Dickens captured the barrenness of what has been called the dismal science in his novel, Hard Times. The central character was Professor Gradgrind, a soulless utilitarian who subjected everything to a calculus of cost and benefit. He was baffled when his grown children forsook him and his careful instructions about how to live, choosing lives that were more filled with meaning and joy than pursuit of material success.
Economics was born as a descriptive social science that has over time evolved into a prescriptive one about how to live and where in life we are to seek for utility, satisfaction, meaning. It is grounded in an individualism that ignores the joy and meaning that comes in connectedness, in companionship, in relationships not only to one another but to the earth on which we dwell as our homeland, not just a package of natural resources awaiting our exploitation.
I love my profession. It is rich in insights about the material side of life. It has taught me to avoid absolutes, to seek changes in increments, When it is joined with its sister social sciences, especially those that focus on relationships and collaboration rather than individualism and autonomy , it can make useful contributions to our common life, our government, our communities, our grounding to the natural world. But like the Minotaur, like nuclear weapons, it needs to have its boundaries patrolled lest it encroach too far on the important things in life—purpose and meaning, joy and companionship, and a world in which all life can be nurtured and flourish.
And now I’ve gone to preachin’, wayward human resource that I am. May it be so.