Fifth World Atheist Conference 2005

The following article was requested by the Atheist Centre, Vijayawada and published in their “Souvenir” and distributed to all delegates at the Conference.


Money and the Environment     

Dick Clifford

Your kind invitation to this world renowned Conference gives the theme as “Atheism and Social Progress” and points out spectacular advances in the fields of science and technology. This is certainly true, world scientists are discovering day by day more details of how our world and our universe works. The result is that there is less and less space for a God to exist either in the microscopic world or at the macroscopic world right out to the edges of the known universe.

            When one thinks of “Social Progress” however, while much has been achieved, it is clear that the world is heading in directions which could spell disaster for the human species. There are two threats to progress, the first is poverty which leads to misery, disease and death and the second is unsustainability, in which overpopulation finds there are insufficient resources to maintain the present population level. Again this leads to disease and death.

            Religious fundamentalists may ignore these threats in the belief that they will bring about Armageddon, which they seek to encourage. Atheists and Humanists have the more difficult problem of reducing poverty without causing an increase in population which would nullify the benefits. How then can poverty be reduced? Some of my friends tell me this is an economic problem, that I am not an economist, that it is not a “core issue” of humanism, and therefore I should keep quiet. However, when I consider the 2nd millennium resolution to reduce world poverty by 50% in 15 years, adopted by the United Nations, and realise that after 4 years little has been done and that due to war the world is worse off, it is time that we all speak out.

            Not that I expect us to find the perfect solution. Even if we did bankers and financiers would pour scorn on it and tell us that their current procedures are the best available. What I do suggest is that we should each give part of our time to contacting bankers and financiers and say to them: “Your system is not working, what reforms can you suggest which provide a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth?”


It has always been with us. Many attempts have been made to alleviate it, many attempts made to hide it away. It is generally agreed that “giving a hand-out” only has a temporary effect, but most charities work on this method. Today many charities report a larger number of people asking for relief and fewer donations being received from the public. Nations are contributing less to refugee camps and available funds have to be spread over the war torn areas of Iraq. Afghanistan is rarely mentioned. It is clear that these effects are caused, and aggravated, by the policies of economic rationalism, insistence on cut throat competition with reduced wages, and insistence on “structural adjustment”. However knowing the cause does not solve the problem.

            Many reasons are given for poverty, most are aimed at blaming the victims. They are “uneducated, bone idle, spend too much on drugs and gambling, being punished by “God” for their sins” etc., etc.. Such “reasons” are the result of poverty, not the cause. While there is poverty in places where natural resources are scarce, poverty is also found in the richest parts of the world. The major cause of poverty is rarely discussed, but consider, we all have one major expense in life, the house we live in. We either buy or we rent. If we buy we need a loan and if you add up your total contributions you find that the loan costs you at least two, three or more times the original value of the house. If you rent you are still paying the loan that the owner paid for the house as well as a contribution to his living costs. Everything that you buy is probably made by a firm that is running on credit, i.e. operating on a bank overdraft and if you are paying with a credit card you will be paying a heavy interest on the amount outstanding. The government has to build infrastructure such as schools and roads that you need, it too borrows money over a period of years for which you pay in your taxes. All this and more represents a huge river of money flowing from the poor and average citizen who has little money, to the rich who have sufficient to make loans. It is for this reason that the rich get richer and the poor get poverty stricken. This is the real cause of poverty.

            But surely interest pays for investment in the development of all those things that make up modern living? Does it not pay for research and create all our transport, schools, libraries, hospitals and household goods so that even the poor of this world can, if careful, live better than royalty of past ages?

            Yes. A lot of wealth is used to create the paraphernalia of modern living, some of which are advantageous to the poor, but this is no excuse for poverty. What is needed is a reform to the economic system which throttles back or puts the brake on the flow of money from poor to rich, gives better employment, and still uses all those processes employed by modern finance. (Because good reform does not entirely uproot a system, it should be slow and gradual.) We should go to our bankers and financiers and say what reform can you recommend which achieves these ends? (I would not trust their answer but at least it puts them on the defensive)

             On the Internet you type in “Alternative Economics” and you will find a multitude of sites giving many possible solutions and while I say that bankers and financiers should pick or create the right one, I will give you an example of one possible solution.

            At the present time (Sept 2004) there is a Bill before the United States 108th Congress known as H.R.4371 entitled “State and Local Governments Economic Empowerment Act” whose purpose is to make non-interest bearing loans available to State, Local government and Indian tribes for the purpose of funding Capital projects including streets, highways, bridges and tunnels, waste water and sewerage systems, infrastructure and other public facilities.

            There are clauses in this Bill which set out a maximum amount limitation (typically $200 per resident in the State or County), assurances that the loan will be used solely for the purpose of funding capital projects, specifying the period to maturity (10 to 30 years), administrative fees (not exceeding 0.25%), terms of repayment and rules for collecting delinquent amounts, etc..

            This remarkable Bill is a blueprint which could be used by any country, large or small with only minor changes. It has many advantages. It is claimed the Bill will:

a) allow projects to be built for one-half to one-third of the normal cost, (because there is no compounding interest bill to pay)

b) allow a greater number of necessary projects to be built, including replacement of infrastructure, drains etc. which are often overlooked.

c) improve employment, so money flows into the local commerce. Those who have opted out of the system and are no longer included in unemployment statistics may be tempted back in.

d) increase taxation revenues due to higher employment levels.

e) improve democracy (There is more for the representatives to fight over)

f) reduced poverty helps charities to cope with people who can not work.

g) allows banking and financial services to continue unchanged (but somewhat reduced as they no longer supply the government with money. It might also be wise to pass legislation making it difficult to privatise public assets.)

h) increase peace and prosperity - the country which spends on infrastructure rather than defence and armed forces will encourage peace and prosperity and reduce aggression. Much needed across the world.

            An impossible dream that would not work? On the contrary it is virtually the same scheme used on the island of Guernsey for about 150 years. (Type "Guernsey Experiment" into Google search) Their government printed money, spent it on infrastructure including sea defences, roads, schools and a market building. They paid back the created money from taxes as in HR 4371 and the result was a very prosperous country with no debt, no inflation and virtually nil unemployment. Sadly Guernsey no longer uses this method. It is now a tax haven. One wonders what pressure was brought to bear on the Guernsey Parliament to make this change which brings in much the same amount of money but uses the immoral method of creaming off other countries resources without contribution.

            The possibility of the US passing HR4371 is remote, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (BOG) is against it on the grounds that there is no such thing as a “free lunch”. Prof L Randall Wray has answered this and other objections pointing out that “if HR 4371 manages to put unemployment resources to work to provide valuable public infrastructure and environmental clean-up, it will indeed have provided the nation with a real “free lunch” regardless of the way the books are kept.” There is an equally low probability of a poor country adopting this policy as they are boxed in with loan regulations but somewhere there may be a country, or a group of countries who could agree to pass such legislation simultaneously. It will only take one country to successfully adopt this policy to attract all others, and to this end Atheists and Humanists should write to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Treasury officials of all countries suggesting the adoption of these policies.

Sustainability is a much more difficult problem. The current world population of 6,377,641,642 (mid 2004 estimate) represents a plague on the earth and is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Our scientists tell us that other species are running out of habitat, that the world’s fish catch is down (fish farming is booming but there are problems). The grain reserve is at a low level, and lack of water is serious with many rivers blocked at their mouths due to excessive irrigation upstream. Reduced water tables due to excessive pumping especially in India. The worlds topsoil is being blown away, deserts are expanding and good agricultural land is being poisoned by salt. The recent price increase in oil reminds us that we have used half the worlds supply. The last half will be more difficult to extract, will be less pure, and the price will rise to prohibitive levels. The atmosphere has increasing levels of carbon dioxide causing global warming and many rivers and seas are being polluted by human wastes. This catalogue of problems should serve as a warning for those who believe we live in a perfect world.

            Our industrialists and financiers keep on preaching the need for growth when it is obvious that we are approaching the limits to growth. Our politicians and trade unionists oppose conservation methods because they fear the loss of jobs which will cause more poverty. A few industrial firms realise the importance of adopting “green” methods. Some examples can be found of individuals and communities trying to make a sustainable living without external inputs from one small piece of land. Many people realise that we must drastically reduce our consumption of polluting fuels, devise ways of living that do not use excessive energy, limit our travel to the absolutely essential and use bicycles.

            The eventual run out of oil will force us to do all of these and more, it will mean the end of globalisation as we know it. World transport will become expensive and the new motto will be “local production for local consumption”. But it would make much more sense if the west were to use less oil now so it could be available later for more essential purposes.

            On the Internet you will find many schemes designed to allow a large number of people to live in this world in a sustainable way, I will not choose any particular one and suspect that you, living in India, could tell me a lot more of the practicalities and problems than I have thought of.

            Atheists realise that this is the only world we have, there are no means of being magically transferred from here to another world or to a heaven, therefore it is essential for us to look after it, to think about and research these problems, so that our children, all peoples in this world and most animals can continue to have a reasonable life, with a few modern conveniences such as a computer, the great new facility we have to help us overcome the many problems we have to face by communicating our questions and answers across the world. Above all Atheists and Humanists should encourage co-operation and peaceful methods. Aggression and belligerence has no part in a reasonable future for this world.


Dick Clifford is President of the Humanist Society of South Australia

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