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?
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?
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.