A Jewish Message to Davos

January 19, 2023

4 min read

Pretty much everything in life has limits. There are limits to how long we will live, the height of a skyscraper, the size of a home, even how many refugees a compassionate America can welcome at its borders. Everything can grow, in other words, but up to a point.

Traditionally, the one exception to this truism has been the economy. We almost take it for granted that the key metrics of our economies will continue to grow, from GDP to consumption to production to revenues. As Federica Urso and Mark John have written in Reuters, “The idea that a finite planet cannot sustain ever-increasing consumption is about the closest you can get to a heresy in economics, where growth is widely held as the best route to prosperity.”

In recent years, however, a movement has gained traction arguing that we are entering an era of “limits” to growth. This movement, also known as “degrowth,” has its origin in a 1970 study by an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the implications of continued worldwide growth. In a subsequent book titled, Limits to Growth, the researchers argued, “The earth’s interlocking resources—the global system of nature in which we all live—probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.”

Today, as climate change accelerates and supply chain disruptions have introduced to many consumers a taste of scarcity, the degrowth movement has gotten a second wind. In the Reuters report, Tim Jackson, author of the 2009 book Prosperity Without Growth, argues that “the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and this year’s Western sanctions on Russia have both challenged consumption with other priorities, namely health safety or geopolitical goals.”

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, if the degrowth movement has infiltrated that ultimate bastion of capitalism, the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland, which is being held this week. In fact, the WEF published an article in June on the impacts of degrowth, suggesting “it might mean people in rich countries changing their diets, living in smaller houses and driving and travelling less.”

It’s hard to imagine billionaires who fly into Davos on their private jets buying into personal downsizing, but it’s easier to imagine them discussing the subject earnestly at the conference.

When they do discuss it, they will confront a complicated problem with many dimensions and no easy answers. Notwithstanding these complexities, however, it is possible to lay out how the Jewish tradition can help guide the discussions.

Judaism has a lot to say about both “limits” and “growth.”

First, downsizing from never-ending economic growth doesn’t mean we can’t grow in more essential and creative ways. The Jewish tradition sees “limits” as opportunities, not as limitations.

Writing about freedom, Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes, “From a Jewish perspective, to speak only of the ideal of freedom—while ignoring its necessary partner of responsibility—is to pervert its true meaning.”

Commenting on Passover, the festival of freedom, he adds that it is actually “only half a holiday. From the very moment we celebrate liberation we count the days to the holiday of Shavuot, when the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. The two festivals are inextricably linked. The first speaks of freedom from; the second freedom to. We were freed from physical servitude in order to voluntarily place ourselves under the restrictions of moral rectitude.”

What does this mean for the captains of industry gathered at Davos? For one thing, it means liberating ourselves from the “slavery” of our predispositions, and opening our minds to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world.

Perhaps the ultimate ritual that captures a new way of looking at the world is the weekly Jewish Sabbath, a time when we disconnect in order to reconnect, when we slow down in order to reenergize. Someone once remarked that if the whole world observed the Sabbath, avoiding the use of cars and technology for one day a week, the planet would heal within a few years.

This is in keeping with what some have coined the “Dayenu Principle,” which uses a word from the Passover liturgy to convey the idea of sufficiency and productive limits. Rabbi Ari Kahn calls this delicate balance “working and guarding” the garden, “the mandate for all human endeavor.”

Because we are partners with our Creator in this endeavor, the rabbi adds, “there is holiness in productivity as well as holiness in sustainability. ‘To work’ and ‘to protect’ are both expressions of our ongoing involvement in the partnership with the Divine.”

There is a Jewish custom of affixing a mezuzah at our doorposts, both at home and in our offices. Rabbi Kahn explains that the deepest value of the mezuzah is to remind us to say “enough”—dai—of practicing self-control. “The restraint that we learn from the very act of Creation,” he writes, “should be a guiding principle for our lives, an organizing principle that can help us perfect all our relationships.”

When the thousands of leaders and influencers return home from Davos, they might want to take on this mezuzah custom, which is meaningful for everyone. In the meantime, this coming Friday night, they will have a chance to taste for themselves the sacred power of the Sabbath.

During the conference, they will have the opportunity to use the Dayenu Principle to focus on what I see as two meta questions for our time:

In what ways can we grow our companies and institutions responsibly to satisfy shareholders, employees and humanity?

How do the “limits” of our new world offer creative opportunities to reimagine what we do and how we do it?

In a nutshell, instead of looking at a future of either growth, no growth or degrowth, perhaps we can all rally around a “Dayenu” future of creative and responsible growth. The virtues of creativity and responsibility are two areas that have no limits.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate

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