Plenty of Questions for Plenitude Author

First of all, do you all like me posting also?  Or do you prefer this to be “your” blog?

Juliet Schorr, in her lecture on Thursday night, was very clear at the outset that she wanted to connect the conversations about the state of our economy and its relationship to the “big” issues of Gaia-centric sustainability (Gaia- Greek personification of Earth).  If saving the Earth and ending unemployment are often,or even predominantly, are seen as zero sum games, like moving away from coal will make the air cleaner but also cost Joe Coal Miner his job, then Schorr is trying to break that frame.

We can have our cake- a healthier planet- and eat it too- happiness.

I found she spent so much time showing the link become economic activity and Gaia impacts that she had very little left for solutions (even though her books spends many chapters on this).  She mostly addressed that it is possible to get Americans to work less for the same pay, thereby easing unemployment and producing a large surplus of time in households that can be used in many ways (from gardening, to caring for loved ones, to community work, to other sources of revenue).  She tried to make the case that working less is a way to spread prosperity, shift away from over-growth economics, and also to lower the overall economic activity such that our impact on the Earth is lessened.

I care about the core concerns Schorr mentions and that also are embedded in sustainability as a social, policy, political, organizational, managerial, and personal goal.  In a (renewable resource) nutshell, it is to promote the opportunity for a good life for all people (and to insure a compassionate minimum) within an economic-ecologic system that can perpetuate itself.  Easier said than done.

My biggest concern with Schorr’s talk and the book is about power.  What are the levers and mechanisms of power?  In short, how do we get from here to there?  In general, there seem to be four possible routes.  Firstly, government is able to change laws to change markets, labor conditions, environmental regulations, and so on.  Secondly, sustainability goals become culturally legitimate and powerful enough such that powerful professions, such as accounting, engineering, education, health, the military (hey, they love a solar-powered tank if it works), and religion work to socialize their members and to change practices such that sustainability emerges. Notice I left management out in deference to this week’s reading about its weakness as a profession.  Thirdly, individuals, one at a time, experience epiphanies that change their value systems, their own ethical codes.  Finally, a social movement emerges that is able to muster the frames, the resources, the people, and the power ultimately to change the other three.

As a student of people and history, I am not convinced any one of these is how change always happens.  But I keep collecting data.

Schorr can see better outcomes as practices and policies, like the practice of households producing more and policies like encouraging fewer work hours.  But she doesn’t specify how these changes will happen.

David Orr, who we read earlier, seemed to suggest that the challenges of sustainability are so great that the solution(s) would be as sweeping.  Do we need a sustainability revolution?  Or evolution?  Does revolution never fulfill its promise?  Does evolution fail to make radical changes?

If I imagine a world that looks like Schorr’s world in plenitude, it would require much greater global governance authority, sweeping changes in professions, masses of people changing their personal ethics, and probably a global social movement.  On the one hand, to imagine such sweeping change seems foolish.  On the other, if one compares feudalism to capitalism, we should be humbled at the scope and breadth of how human existence, material and social, can change.  Putting aside such sweeping questions, let me return to the economic implication of Schorr’s work.

At the heart of Schorr’s argument is that we need a way to get away “business as usual.”  BAU’s biggest problem may be that growth is assumed to be the goal of economics.  Hence, while she is not an anti-growth advocate,given that it is unclear how to get to her Plentiful society without changing growth, or lowering it in raw terms, it is worthwhile to consider a criticism of anti-growth economics.  Roger Pielke, (I found him through some focused google searching as a quick search of plenitude critiques was not getting anywhere), points out that questions about growth amounts often mask deeper debates about values.  Most projected growth over the next twenty years (he cites 82% of growth)will come from the great bulk of the world’s population living at very low levels of material wealth.  In rough terms, a billion people shifting from $1 a day to $11 in consumption would add $30,650,000,000 ($31 billion) (right?  $10/day * 1 billion * 365)?  His point is that to be anti-growth is to really be anti-poor because any meaningful slow down in growth for the sake of Gaia will come from that growth source, not from rich people eating less sushi or drinking fewer lattes.

Unless, of course, we change what we measure…  can we change what growth means in technical and also practical terms?  That is where my second vector of change comes in- the professions.  Can well-being replace economic output as the measure of well-being?  Maybe the accountants will be our salvation…


PS- featured image is Gaia. 


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