If You Build It, They Might Come


Juliet Schor is ambitious.  Or hopeful.  Or both.

In May 2010, Juliet Schor delivered a lecture entitled “A New Understanding of True Wealth” at the Town Hall talk series in Seattle.  In roughly one hour, Schor discussed the radical ideas of her latest book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.  In her quest to find alternatives to the business-as-usual economy that eventually collapsed in late 2008, Schor calls for a refreshed, greener socio-economic lifestyle.  During the Great Recession, the U.S. lost 26 million employed people who worked longer hours than at any other time in history.  She estimates that, in May 2010, corporations will need to hire 500,000 workers per month for 21 consecutive months to fully replenish jobs.  But wait – corporate profitability has fallen since the 1980s and is projected to remain squeezed in the near future.  With scant jobs, lagging profitability and a desperate need for recovery in productivity, Schor beckons Americans to actually work less hours and instead engage in do-it-yourself home projects.  This decentralized, de-marketized form of living requires people to befriend local community members, build their own homes and carpool to tee-ball practice in energy-efficient vehicles.  Sounds simple, right?

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Schor argues that the rise in average hours worked in America has resulted in increased materialization, which has jumped 66% since 1980. However, 70% of U.S. GDP relies on consumption.

I agree that we are overusing the Earth’s ecological offerings (by 121% according to Schor).  I agree that corporate behemoths like General Electric, Apple and BP command billions of dollars of consumers’ money globally.  I even agree that Americans are overworked at 1,750 hours per year.  However, is it possible to shift the dynamics of the traditional economy so radically from efficient markets to regional green spaces overnight?  Even if we cut average working hours 1/3, from 60 hours per week to 40 hours per week, how can we incentivize people to productively utilize their time based on Schor’s ideas?

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Sustainable architecture is a hot topic these days. Homebuilders will focus on recycled materials, solar panels and heat pumps in “green homes.”

My central critique is concerned with creating compelling incentives.  With more time away from office cubicles, we are even more exposed to media influences to purchase goods and services.  Billboards, television advertisements, social media advertising and so forth.  While paychecks will be cut with less hours worked, is it prudent to trust Americans to spend less and instead grow gardens with fellow neighbors?  Schor employs buzz-words like “creative out-pour,” “self-reliance,” “green production,” and “skill diffusion.”  I consider myself an optimist, but I ‘m not sure I trust that the town plumber, school librarian and corporate executive will band together on free Wednesday afternoons in the spirit of permaculture.  My bet is that the town plumber guzzles some more beers with his buddies, the librarian will knit with her friends (Schor may not object) and the corporate executive will spend more informal work hours on her Blackberry emails.  Not without specific incentives will these ideas transform into action.  How about tax advantages?  Industry professionals instructing local communities on how to build homes?

I believe Schor has built a sky-high, progressive idea.  But it needs a fundamental base for it to spring into action.

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7 thoughts on “If You Build It, They Might Come

  1. I like the way you made your argument here. I think that Schor’s argument for working fewer hours and using that time for productive DIY activities is a great idea. However, I agree with you that people need something more. Especially in the beginning, people will use their extra free time in the same way they always have – relaxing, doing normal household chores, or maybe just working off the clock. However, if strategic incentives and regulations can be put in place, people will be much more likely to comply to Schor’s ideas. Incentives for community gardens or taxes on gasoline are just a couple ideas. There is a possibility for change here, it just needs to be done right.

  2. I really enjoyed how you phrase Schor’s ideal Wednesday afternoon. I agree as well. Human beings are simply interest-driven. It is just way to hard to ask people to be less greedy and enjoy the nature more. I believe that everyone is competing each other on quality of lives. Seeing others have more advanced technology gadgets usually drive me to work more hours at Tech Desk, and I believe that is just how most people are. “The more you work, the more you get,” has been promoted so much that rooted most people’s living philosophy. I think it is even related to our education system, which believes hardworking is always a good practice.

  3. I think you make a lot of great points here. In thought all of these ideas sound great, but actually convincing people to live this way is a whole other challenge. Like Michaela, i agree that if we want to see this change in peoples lifestyles there will need to be some type of incentives to help encourage them to change. I also feel the strong influence social media has on today’s youth is causing the opposite effect to happen here. Today more than ever social media has allowed us to see all of the new products the world has to offer. This encourages us to work longer hours to be able to purchase more of these new products. With that being said if social media were to promote this type of lifestyle change do you think it could have a similar effect causing some people to change the way they live.

  4. Yuck. Incentivize people’s free time? Sounds like the demon spawn of a cruise ship liner and a Stalin-esque dictator. 🙂

    You are right in some ways. If people had more free time they may do “dumb stuff.” Scratch. Will do. In the BU lecture Schorr even dug into men saying we tend to just watch more TV with more free time ( as opposed to teaching the local cub scouts how to build solar panels out of used gum wrappers).

    Still, for every hour “wasted” playing cnady crush, maybe an hour will go to family, community, self-provisioning?

    Do you think it is normal to have 60 hour work weeks? Healthy?

  5. As I said in my blog post, I think she has the right intentions for creating an environmentally sustainable society; however, her ideas are fairly lofty at the moment. It is one thing to analyze data and provide society with solutions through her writing, but it’s a whole other beast to actually initiate this change. In your post, you bring up great points with regards to her lack of proper incentives. If we are to truly become sustainable, we must take action now.

  6. I think you bring up some great points here. In order for Schorr’s ideas to actually amount to something, Americans need to want to change our lifestyle. Our culture is extremely materialistic, and as long as this is the case, I find it hard to believe that people will agree to work less hours. People love money, that is just how it works. I think if we are able to change our lifestyles by making ourselves less dependent on consumer products, I can see her ideas being effective as a guide to how to live life more sustainably. But, until this happens, I agree with you that her ideas seem “sky-high” and a little out of our current culture’s reach.

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