The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap. - Novalis

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Juliet Schor on Plenitude

 In 1972 Gregory Bateson wrote this in Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

"If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature, and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite."

I might quibble a bit with his theological analysis since there are theists who do not think this way (and I would point out that Henry Corbin objected very much to the idea that Creation is radically outside the Creator for something like these reasons.). But taken as a general statement of much of mainstream Western consciousness, he does get it about right. If we imagine an extraterrestrial intelligence (or a bemused God, perhaps) looking down on earth to see how we conduct ourselves, it's hard to see how anyone could conclude otherwise than that we see ourselves as masters of nature - and not very bright ones at that.

The fact that economic activity takes place on a finite planet is almost never mentioned in any discussions of economics in any of the mainstream media. You almost never hear about ecological economics in the tradition of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly. I am happy to point out Juliet Schor's book Plenitude: the new economics of true wealth and her blog on economics and society. Schor is currently professor of  sociology at Boston College. She argues, as have many before her (Wendell Berry may come to mind for readers of this blog) that the current economic model is a catastrophe and that we will have to change the way we think about economic development. The lifestyles of most people in the industrialized world cannot be sustained. This seems a harsh fact to many in America in particular. I remember Dick Cheney's scorn and derision for those who suggested conservation as a viable strategy for energy independence. But as Schor points out, the real values of human life are not those of unconstrained consumerism, and the "good life" can, and in fact must, be attained by other means than the current economic system. We are not really talking about sacrifice, but a recognition of the true nature of human happiness.

Here is the publisher's description:

"In Plenitude economist and bestselling author Juliet Schor offers a groundbreaking intellectual statement about the economics and sociology of ecological decline, suggesting a radical change in how we think about consumer goods, value, and ways to live.

Humans are degrading the planet far faster than they are regenerating it. As we travel along this shutdown path, food, energy, transport and consumer goods are becoming increasingly expensive. The economic downturn that has accompanied the ecological crisis has led to another type of scarcity: incomes, jobs, and credit are also in short supply. Our usual way back to growth — a debt-financed consumer boom — is no longer an option our households, or planet, can afford.

Responding to our current moment, Plenitude puts sustainability at its core, but it is not a paradigm of sacrifice. Instead it's an argument that through a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies, and different ways of living, individuals and the country as a whole can actually be better off and more economically secure.

And as Schor observes, Plenitude is already emerging. In pockets around the country and the world, people are busy creating lifestyles that offer a way out of the work and spend cycle. These pioneers' lives are scarce in conventional consumer goods and rich in the newly abundant resources of time, information, creativity and community. Urban farmers, D.I.Y renovators, Craig's List users, cob builders — all are spreading their risk and establishing novel sources of income and outlets for procuring consumer goods. Taken together, these trends represent a movement away from the conventional market and offer a way toward an efficient, rewarding life in an era of high prices and traditional resource scarcity.

Based on recent developments in economic theory, social analysis, and ecological design, as well as evidence from the cutting edge people and places putting these ideas into practice, Plenitude is a road map for the next two decades. In encouraging us to value our gifts — nature, community, intelligence, and time — Schor offers the opportunity to participate in creating a world of wealth and well-being."

And this from Schor's webpage:


Humans are degrading the planet far faster than they are regenerating it. Food, energy, transport, and consumer goods are becoming increasingly scarce and over the long term will be more expensive. The economic downturn that has accompanied the ecological decline has led to another type of scarcity: incomes, jobs, and credit. We can start addressing both economic and ecological deficits by tapping into neglected assets.

TIME: For decades Americans have been devoting more and more time to the labor market. Plenitude practitioners reverse that trend, using their newfound time affluence to invest in other sources of wealth. They make, rather than buy, share, rather than spend, and build social relationships. These individual solutions also create balance in the labor market: hours of work in jobs fall which allows companies to hire more employees. Right now, productivity is growing too rapidly and hours per job are too high to absorb all the people who need work.

HIGH-TECH SELF-PROVISIONING: We can reduce reliance on the market by meeting basic needs (income, food, housing, consumer goods, energy) through a series of creative, smart, high productivity technologies: growing food (using permaculture and vertical gardens), creating energy on a small scale (convert a Prius to a plug-in and double gas mileage), building homes with free labor and local, natural materials and using new Fab-Lab technologies (small, smart machines that make almost anything). Schor looks at examples of people already practicing self-provisioning and converting their skills into money-making ventures.

CONSUMING DIFFERENTLY: Plenitude is a strategy for living that gives people more time, more creativity, and more social connection, while also lowering ecological footprints and avoiding consumer debt. It yields a high satisfaction style of life, although not necessarily a high spending lifestyle. So how does it meet our desires to shop, buy, and enjoy the fruits of a consumer society? It’s a combination of accessing “new to you” products, sharing expensive items such as cars and appliances, and making careful purchases of long-lasting goods.

CONNECTION: As more and more labor time went into the market, time for community disappeared. Social ties frayed and neighborhoods hollowed out. But social relationships are a potent form of economic wealth, which people can turn to during financial instability or adverse climate events. People who have strong social connections, or what’s called social capital, fare much better when times get rough. Plenitude involves re-building local economic interdependence by trading services, sharing assets, and relying on each other in good, as well as hard times.

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