PCDForum Column #80 Release Date June 1, 1996
by Bishan Singh
I was struck in a recent international meeting of activist scientists and
intellectuals that some of the Westerners present seemed fearful that if they
were identified by their colleagues as spiritual persons their opinions would be
dismissed as unscientific. Yet in other settings it was evident that some of
them are deeply spiritual persons.
Coming from Asia, where spirituality is a way of life, I found this
contradiction troubling. After a period of reflection I realized that far more
than a personal dilemma was involved. I had witnessed the manifestation of a
deeply-rooted social dilemma-the clash between two distinct approaches to the
way we organize our resources to meet our needs and develop our civilization.
One is the humanistic approach, which is life-centered. The
other is the materialistic approach, which is money-centered.
Economics-the way we organize and use our resources-determines the kind of
civilization we build. It is the bedrock upon which institutions, knowledge
systems, technologies, and livelihood practices unfold. Since resources,
particularly natural ones, are both critical in ensuring our livelihoods and are
also finite in supply, questions relating to the allocation of these resources
are of an inherently ethical nature. In other words, ethics is the soul
of economics. An economics without ethics, inevitably becomes an economics
of greed and avarice.
Unfortunately, in their effort to "elevate" economics into a
science, economists have adopted, like other sciences, a reductionist approach
that divorces it from ethics. This ethically deprived economics became the
foundation of a materialist civilization of infinite growth fueled by the money
culture-the dominant capital-centered approach to development. It makes for an
interesting relationship. The more "developed" the economy, by
prevailing economistic definitions, the greater the loss of spiritual and
Removing ethics from economics also removes social responsibility and
critical awareness. We are left only with consumption and materialism. It is
like disconnecting the functional relationship of the heart (the subjective)
from the head (the objective). It has caused the left brain (objective) to
dominate the right brain (subjective).
This turns people into one dimensional beings whose sole purpose is to work
to consume in support of the wealth creation process. This is what is happening
to all of us. The process of wealth creation needs both fodder and energy to
keep the juggernaut in motion. People can be made fodder by addicting them to
consumption. Once addicted, they will work to provide the energy for the
The only power that can check this process is a heightened spiritual sense
of what is right and wrong flowing from the individual’s innate feeling of unity
with "existence," encompassing humanity, nature, and divinity. All
this propels us to act in a humane way with a deep sense of responsibility for
our actions and of stewardship toward the needs and rights of others.
Spirituality is the enemy of the capital-centered economy. Where materialism has
advanced, spirituality has declined. And where spirituality is high the
capital-centered economy has had difficulty gaining a foothold.
By working to convert all values into monetary values, economists make money
the be-all and end-all of human enterprises and endeavor. Materialism becomes
the living culture, money-making the religion, money the god, banks the temples,
and economists the oracles.
Any God before this god, any Religion before this religion, any Culture
before this culture, and any Spirit before this spirit is the enemy.
Spirituality is anathema to materialism. In a perverse inversion of reality, to
modern materialists spirituality becomes the evil enemy to be destroyed. Thus
framed, the modern economy calls on us to engage ourselves in a negative
spiritual practice that deprives our lives of meaning and alienates us from our
sense of spiritual connection.
This gives great significance to the efforts of communities all over the
world that are struggling to restore ethics to their economic practice, to
become critically aware and socially responsible for the ways in which they
organize, use, consume, and manage their resources. They are advancing the
practice of voluntary simplicity, creating livelihoods for the unemployed,
adopting alternative ways of producing and distributing goods and services to
reduce resource use, recycling waste into reusable resources, undertaking
sustainable agricultural practices, and providing credit for the poor.
The courageous visionaries, social activists, community leaders, and
concerned individuals engaged in this historic process are demonstrating the
possibility of creating economic cultures in which our economic lives become a
part of our ethical and spiritual practice. In our present context, it is a
profoundly revolutionary act.
Bishan Singh is a contributing editor of the PCDForum, president of MINSOC,
and Senior Advisor for Participation, Information and Training, FARM Programme,
FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Maliwan Mansion, 39 Phra Atit
Road, Bangkok 10200, Thailand, Fax (662) 2803240. This column was prepared and
distributed by the PCDForum based on his article in the Fall 1995 Balaton
People-Centered Development Forum columns and articles may
be reproduced and distributed freely without prior permission.