hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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the ruminant economy and laudato si’

The first draft of the ‘ruminant economy’ was discussed at a meeting of the committee of the European Social Weeks, as background to our discussion of the theme for the 8th European Social Week. It met with positive appraisal and the members kindly requested me to elaborate further on the theme, especially showing connections with Laudato Si’, the 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis. This encyclical cries out for a change in the way we run our society and especially the way we treat our common home, ‘our sister mother Earth’, to call it by the name Francis of Assisi used.

Relating ‘The ruminant economy’ to Laudato Si’ is a strange exercise. ‘The ruminant economy’ was not written in dialogue with Laudato Si’, nor in reaction to this encyclical. If there are similarities, these are contingent. And to start with a maybe disappointing remark: I did not read much news in Laudato Si’.

Laudato Si’ is a fresh and authentic text, a text which needs to be read and acted upon. Laudato Si’ performs something amazing: it presents the basic insights of Christian social teaching in a fresh and compelling way, without the dogmatic hobbyhorses that might have worked against the reception of earlier writings. In trying to be as simple in his high life as Francis of Assisi wanted it to be, Pope Francis was able to put old wine in new skins – and indeed, ‘the old wine is good’ (see Luke 5:37-39).

For me coming from a Dutch Calvinist tradition I recognize much of what Pope Francis analyzes and writes from what I already learned over the years. When one knows the writings of someone like Bob Goudzwaard, Laudato Si’ is not surprisingly new. That sounds maybe arrogant, but it is what I feel trying to find the bread crumbs on a road I did not travel. So the best I think I can do, is approach the world behind my Ruminant economy and the world behind Laudato Si’ with the idea of warped space in mind: looking for points where both worlds come so close that a jump from the one to the other is possible.

One point that comes to my mind when reading Laudato Si’ is what Henk Geertsema, em. prof of the VU University, once wrote about Psalm 19 (in ‘Higher education as service to the King, Nijenrode/Breukelen, 1984). In the New International Version (and the King James correspondingly) the beginning reads: “The heavens declare the glory of God / the skies proclaim the works of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; / night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language / where their voice is not heard.” (1-3) Stunning: when we do not hear the voices that proclaim the glory of God, there is no language! Those voices are the voices of the creation and not of the systems that we design to pursue our selfish want for individual profit and wealth. That thought comes up when I read in 106 that interventions in nature do not go hand in hand with nature, but are confrontational, repeated with other words in 132. Or later on, 194, when it is said that we need a new definition of growth; as I have argued, economic growth is seriously contaminated, overpowered, by non-productive and non-essential activities. If we do not hear the language of creation, we are the slaves of our unlimited exploitation, as I think Pope Francis says in 11, when he talks about integral ecology.

In 194 Pope Francis also rightly criticizes the idea of balances, in this case between economic growth and the environment. The whole idea of balances is problematic anyway because it often denies the essential and intrinsic value and meaning of the two elements that would have to be balanced. A balance between growth and environment indeed does not make sense.

Buying is a moral act, says 206. In ‘Identity as a pledge’ (Identiteit als belofte, 1998) I argued that how we spend our money tells something about ourselves and is not a superficial act (p. 101). We can refuse to buy something; maybe we also should refuse to sell some goods and services. In 50, Pope Francis challenges the hypocrisy of those who want to limit population growth, but do not want to limit extreme consumerism. In that way, they justify the present distribution where a minority thinks it is entitled to a level of consumption which cannot be universalized. The poor pay the bills (170)!

What probably will make the most impact is how Pope Francis invites and puts his hope in those people of all generations who work towards a better future – see 12, 13, 64, 179-181, 209. I think here he gives a blessing after the fact for those ‘anti-globalists’ who fought the ‘Battle of Seattle’, the protesters who disturbed, and virtually prevented, the meeting of the WTO in 1999.

Then I mention 68 and 93 that voice two thoughts that are also central in my analysis: in 68 the importance of the rest of the 7th day that we saw in the essay on labour and rest comes back. In 93 the universal destination of the goods of the earth is affirmed (and without that affirmation, the whole argument would collapse).

Problematic are, I think, the ideas about a world political authority which 175 asks for, and generically talking about religion in 199. The world government ties in with the problem of power that cannot be dealt with within the paradigm of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is basically hierarchical, with lower and higher levels; human powers, however, need limiting entities. ‘Power corrupts, but absolute power is divine,’ so there is no training in using our power, but only systematically allowing that other powers that limit power exist – in the same way that democracy is not the legitimacy of the power of 50%+1, but about the ways that minorities can become majorities, ad infinitum. The ‘trias politica’ is the basic pattern: three powers that do not balance each other, but are independent of each other and limit each other.

I do not think that ‘religion’ is important in some generic sense, as 62 seems to imply. Religion is too fuzzy a concept to be of any help. It is thought that religion (from Latin: religare, to connect) connects people, but religion divides people. Religions make impossible the most intimate act of sharing our meal. When I am cooking dinner and happen to invite someone at the moment, that person might decline, not because he does not like andouillette or babi pangang, but purely and only because of his or her religion. And it was because of their religion that the priest and the Levite passed by the man who had been robbed on the street to Jericho (Luke 11:29ff). Belief in a better world, a dream of a better world, that is what connects and activates us. It was not Martin Luther King’s religion that inspired thousands, it was his ‘I have a dream!’

It is not that we are sorcerer’s apprentices who do not know the spell to end the brooms pouring water. Our problem is that of the raccoon who is trapped with its fist in a hole: it must have the nut and cannot release its fist and let the nut go. Likewise, is it for us impossible to give up what we have and change our ways that have let us astray. In 45 the privatizing of public spaces is mentioned, be these in the city or in the country. Elsewhere I have indicated how public space is being disciplined as private utility space, thus making impossible what we do on the day of rest: fooling around. Only when we can fool around can we find our companions, our mates,[*] with whom we can put the necessary change in motion. Let us fool around more often and not be led by our ‘needs’ which are in fact our irrational and misguided wants.


[*] Mate = German Gesell, thus: ‘Gesellschaft’; Dutch maat, maatje, thus ‘maatschappij’; French compagnon.

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