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The Flaw of Western Economies

cob house: Photo, Gerry Thomasencob house: Photo, Gerry Thomasen Let’s imagine a green and responsible consumer. Let’s call him George. George lives in a sleepy town, near the center and the park where he often goes for a walk with his dog. George built his house with his friends two years ago. It is a very small house, only 320 square feet and it was made with cob – clay mixed with straw and aggregate. The clay for construction was extracted from George’s land behind the house - now you can see a nice pond there with water lilies. George was fortunate enough to find some recycled timber for the roof from the old garage that his neighbors were demolishing. He considered making a turf roof with wild flowers and herbs, but eventually he decided that a slate roof will be more practical because he will be able to collect rainwater from it and use it for watering his garden during warm summer days.

George buys his food at a local farmers’ market. All food that is sold there is organic and comes from farms within a 50 mile radius and George is happy to know that very little fuel is used to transport the food he purchases. Furthermore, he buys only raw, unpackaged food, which he brings home in his own bag. He doesn’t eat meat or fish. He knows that it takes a lot of land to feed the animals, and “after all” he tells his mom smiling “a cow is a human being too”. He drinks milk, however, and enjoys scrambled eggs on a Sunday morning. Well, not exactly all his food comes from the market. He buys bread and rolls in the nearby bakery. He tried baking bread on his own, but eventually he concluded that it takes too much energy to bake a single loaf of bread for him alone and that it would be more energy-efficient to buy it from the bakery. Nevertheless, it was his New Year’s resolution to buy local produce only. George is concerned about the amount of fuel that is used for transporting food and he decided to go radical on this one. It was tough at the beginning as he likes to drink tea and coffee, and he loves bananas. He substituted regular coffee with a barley and rye “coffee” and instead of tea he drinks mint or chamomile infusions. Unfortunately, bananas are gone from his table for good, but he discovered new vegetables such as yacon and salsify, so he doesn’t miss them that much.

George doesn’t have a car. He goes to work on a bicycle and if it’s too far for a bicycle he takes a bus or a train. Even when he is going abroad, which was three times in his life, he prefers to take a train rather than an airplane. His electric energy consumption is very low. In his home he installed a solar PV module for 140 Watts and batteries. That’s not much, but sufficient to power 3 lamps, a radio and a small fridge. George doesn’t have a TV, dishwasher or a computer. Some of his friends say that his lifestyle is a bit primitive, but he doesn’t mind.

George has many books on his shelves, but when he discovered that many of them were available in a public library he stopped buying them. Once a month he buys his favorite magazine, but recently he even began reading newspapers in the library. His house contains very little furniture, just a simple, wooden table with chairs and a wardrobe. His sleeping mattress is laid directly on the clay floor. Inside his wardrobe there are only a few worn out shirts and new pair of trousers he got for Christmas. George has only two pairs of shoes and some rubber boots for working in a garden.

George doesn’t have a bath tub, only a shower. He has a smart shower head that reduces the usage of water by almost 60%. But George is most proud of his compost toilet that he designed himself. It fits nicely in the corner of his bathroom and is not smelly at all! The compost is used to fertilize a small elephant grass plantation that he shares with his friends. The elephant grass is cut every year and is used to heat their homes in winter.

George works in a small shop that makes artisan cheese. They make cheddar, gouda and valdeon cheese wrapped in Sycamore leaves. All their produce is sold in two local shops. George doesn’t earn a lot of money, but it is enough for his modest needs. He pays his medical and dental care insurance and he can easily afford going to the movies every Saturday. He meets with his friends after work (he works only 6 hours a day), they play guitar and sing. He goes hiking in the summer and rides a bicycle along the river. George lives a happy and stress-free life.

What if We All Lived Like George?

Now, let’s take this a step further. Let’s imagine that all people in North America, Europe and Japan decided to reduce their levels of consumption and consume only as much as George. What happens?

The massive destruction of the Amazon rainforest stopped. The market for soya and timber shrunk so much that it was no longer profitable to cut down vast areas of the forest. The existing soya farms were forced to compete for the remaining customers in China and India. In Canada and Scandinavia the number of trees cut down within a year has decreased significantly. In Democratic Republic of Congo, however, the rainforest is still cut down to make way for roads to mines sponsored by China which had no intention of abandoning its consumer lifestyle. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world the pressure on the natural forest was reduced enough to remove some birds and mammals from the red list of endangered species.

Positive change was quickly noted in the oceans. The population of fish species started to grow. Cod numbers increased in Baltic Sea and at the coasts of Canada. Also, with adoption of organic farming methods, water in the rivers became less polluted and more fish were able to live there. Life even came back to the Louisiana coast were agricultural runoff borne by the Mississippi River had created a 7000 square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The levels of air pollution in the cities has changed so much that the air is almost as clean as in the countryside. The level of carbon dioxide has decreased for the first time since the 19th century and scientist began to be more optimistic about human impact on climate change. Oil consumption was reduced so much that one barrel costs only 18 USD.

Now let’s go back to George. How is he?

George lost his job. The artisan cheese turned out to be too expensive for the new consumers and his boss decided to cut personnel. Everyday George cues in a long line waiting for warm soup and 2 slices of bread distributed by the government aid agency. He sold his bike, guitar and solar panels to buy food. He eats the soup and shares the bread with his dog. George’s friends lost their jobs too. His parents don’t have a job, his aunt lost her job. Actually almost everyone that George knows lost their jobs. He meets them all waiting in the long, long line to get warm soup.

How did it happen?

People stopped buying cars and decided to use public transport, so within one year all car factories were closed. Hundreds of thousands of workers were fired in Europe, USA and Japan. All car repair shops, tire making companies, car washing facilities and almost all gas stations were closed. Bicycle making companies recorded record profits but they couldn’t offer new jobs for the workers from the car factories, because they invested in new technologies and now all bicycle parts are made by machines.

Book publishers declared bankruptcy. With people reading books mostly in libraries they were not able to make enough profit. The quantity of books they were able to sell was too low. Along with publishers, bookstores were also forced to close their businesses. Ethical consumers understood that a million daily copies of a newspaper had a tremendous impact on forests. So, people quit buying them as well. As a consequence, journalists and editors lost their jobs. Printers lost their jobs. Producers of ink and printing equipment also lost their jobs. Producers of paper lost their jobs.

Hard times came for the construction industry. People are building small homes, which means that the producers of concrete, paints, windows, doors and roof tiles sell less products. With lower sales they were forced to cut down jobs. Millions of jobs for unqualified workers were no longer available.

The same happened in the clothes industry. Cotton farmers lost their jobs, factory workers in China, Bangladesh and India lost their jobs as well. Small farmers growing coffee, tea and cocoa in the tropics were shocked when the importers told them that they cannot afford to buy their produce. Millions of them lost their source of income.

The stock markets experienced a crisis that was never seen in their history. “The Great Depression Was a Joke” read the headlines. “Record Losses on Wall Street”, “Another Bank Goes Down”, “Sustainability is Killing Us”. But that was only in the first few weeks. Later on the newspapers went bankrupt. The repercussions were felt around the whole world. From Brazil and Argentina to Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. The credit crunch was now a pleasant memory of the past - a ‘crisis’ the bankers only wished to experience.

At a government level the situation was equally dramatic. The national budget’s revenue decreased by more than a half! There was not enough money for salaries for school teachers, for doctors, for nurses, for policemen, for the administration and for the army. Not only was construction of new roads stopped, but there was also not enough funds to maintain the existing roads.

At first workers went on strike and protested loudly in front of the president’s office. They burned tires and waved flags of their unions. But soon they understood. There was not enough money in the budget to pay them. The protests were in vain.

The heads of all EU countries, the president of USA and the prime minister of Japan appeared everyday on TV and in the radio. They begged their citizens to consume more. “Please” they said “please, you must go shopping or our countries will perish.”

Our Economic System Relies on Consumption

The point is that the economic model of Western societies relies on consumption. Excessive consumption provides economic development, it provides jobs. The more people consume, the more jobs are created. When people consume less, jobs are lost. There is a famous quote from the retail analyst Victor Lebow who helped to create a vision for the economic reform in the US after World War II:

Our enormously productive economy (…) demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption (…) we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

Think about disposable Gillette razors. Would it be such a good business if you could sharpen the blade once a while, rather than buy the whole new product over and over again?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reduce our levels on consumption. We must. The natural resources on our planet are used at an unsustainable rate. Too many forests are cut down, too many fish caught, too many soils are degraded, too many species are endangered with extinction - and too many people are appearing on our planet every year. My point is that if we wish to provide a livelihood for every person on this planet, it won’t be enough to promote sustainable levels of consumption. Our current economic model was designed for excessive consumption. Consumption is its engine. Honestly speaking, greed is its engine. If we wish to have a sustainable future we must change the whole economic model, culture and introduce true democratic political systems - or else we will be waiting with George for food handouts.

So, what can we do?

Certainly, it is completely unrealistic that all citizens change their consumption patterns at once in the way that George did. But with a predicted population of 9.2 billion people in 2050 we cannot expect that it will be possible for everyone to have a car, a two-storey house in the suburbs and a large piece of meat for breakfast and lunch. Solutions like zero-waste production, recycling, renewable energy, water and energy efficiency, organic agriculture, preventive medicine and many others are the foundations of sustainability. But where will the jobs come from?

To answer this, let’s look into a something different for a while. Have you ever wondered if there is a country where people enjoy a good life and they keep their consumption within the limits of their local environment? According to the "Happy Planet Index", published by the New Economics Foundation, the no. 1 place like this is Vanuatu - an archipelago of islands on the western Pacific. What makes life so good there? People live in traditional communities with close social ties. They fish, and grow food in their gardens. Some of the food is also gathered from the wild. The land is fertile and a close spiritual contact with the land is a vital part of local culture. The life is slow-paced and people are content with what they have. Andrew Harding, a BBC reporter, came to the remote Pentecost Island to investigate their lives. “There is no hunger here, no unemployment, no tax, no police, no crime or conflict to speak of,” he says. “It may not be a paradise, but you can see why people here want to keep the outside world at arm’s length.”

Norman Shackley, chair of the British Friends of Vanuatu and a former resident of the islands, recalls meeting a young man who had just returned to his home island after studying at Nottingham University. "I asked him what he was going to do with his life now” says Norman Shackley, “He just pointed at his fishing rod and said ‘this’. He could have been one of the top earners in Vanuatu if he wanted, but he was contented with his simple life and didn’t want anything else.”

Happiness is not dependent on geography, however. We can live a happy life in Poland, USA, Japan or Ukraine. We can live a happy life - and one that doesn’t destroy the natural environment that supports us. What we need for this are: good community relations, secure livelihoods and close contact with nature. As David Korten points out “We (all) want tasty nutritious food uncontaminated with toxins. We want healthy, happy children, loving families, and a caring community with a beautiful healthy natural environment. We want meaningful work, a living wage, and security in our old age.” Since we know all this then are our governments working hard to achieve this aim? No. They are working hard to increase the gross domestic product (GDP). And what that has got to do with anything? According to the International Monetary Fund Vanuatu is on their list of countries sorted by GDP - and is ranked at 170. That’s below Zimbabwe….

Money is a practical thing. It can be used to facilitate exchange of goods. On the Vanuatu islands people use pig tusks for this purpose. There are even 14 banks storing pig tusks in their vaults. However, their livelihoods are not dependent on money. As Jean Pierre John from the Metoma island in the north of Vanuatu answered when asked what is the secret of their happiness: "Not having to worry about money."

People tend to forget that money is not a real good. You cannot satisfy hunger eating a 100 USD bill or even a pound of coins. The true value is in the goods for which it can be exchanged: in vegetables, fruits, clothes, building materials, tools etc. We can have these things without the use of money. We can grow food, gather wood in the forest, dig clay and make pots, weave fabrics and sow clothes. We can even make our own ketchup.

In traditional local economies people can be independent and self-sufficient. Their livelihoods are not dependent on distant stock exchange markets, on unaccountable governments, on the European Commission in Brussels (an undemocratically elected institution, superior to member countries, often imposing policies that do not have social approval). These local economies existed also in Europe, not that long ago. We can still create local economies where people will be able to live off the land with a very little or no need for money.

Let’s go back to George. He has just finished eating his bean soup and now he is able to think more clearly. “Why wait for someone to give us job?” he says to his friend Lucy. “We will grow our own food!”

“Where?” asks Lucy. “In your backyard? There is not enough space. Maybe enough for basil and thyme, but forget maize or wheat.”

“There is plenty of land near the river.” George replies. “There are hundreds of acres of grasslands, I was riding there on my bicycle.”

“Possibly, but do you have money to buy it?”

“We don’t need to own it. We will use it and care for it. Come on Lucy,” George gets up. “We need seeds and tools, and a wheelbarrow. Let’s go and find some.”

A year later the grasslands by the river were transformed into rich vegetable gardens and vast fields of wheat, barley, rye, maize and oats. George has a right to use 2 acres of land were he planted pumpkins, squash, eggplants, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, potatoes, lettuce, broad beans, sunflower, currants, strawberries as well as fruit trees and nuts. He hopes to have a small forest garden there too. The project that he started was not about owning the land, but about land stewardship. They were very fortunate that the grasslands belonged to the county, or, in other words, to them. So, George organized a meeting in the city hall where people of his community decided how to provide access to this land in a just way. They set up a composting co-operative and a seeds exchange network. To extend the growing season they needed materials to build the greenhouses, so they decided to sell an old warehouse that belonged to the county. The city mayor was hesitant at first about the new way of arranging things, but he checked the constitution and it was expressed clearly, that people govern the state either directly or by their representatives. “So now they are governing it directly,” he concluded.

The food crisis it the city was over. People were able to satisfy their basic needs on their own and in autumn they were celebrating a bumper harvest. George still doesn’t have enough money to buy the solar panels he had before, but he has got an olive oil lamp. With his friends he built an oil press and they don’t need to worry about the lighting. George is also back in cheese manufacturing. He is back working in the shop part-time. People cannot afford to buy a lot of cheese, so the owner decided to accept vegetables and herbs in exchange for the cheddars they make. In winter they plan to launch a local currency to facilitate exchange of locally produced goods and services.

It may seem backward to suggest that people should farm instead of working in a space station. Nevertheless, in the world where resources are scarce and populations climb fast it is a time-tested solution (thousands of years of practice in all parts of the world) which will enable them to become economically independent and to have a meaningful life.

In the Western culture progress is defined as going from vinyl records to CDs, then to DVDs and finally to Blue-ray Discs. We used to have black and white TV-sets, now we’ve got High Definition television. That’s called progress. People get used to new technologies so fast that they think about them as indispensable parts of their lives. Can you believe that people could actually live without the internet? But that was only 20 years ago! Life must have been so hard back then… Oh no! 20 years ago? There were no cell phones either! To get out of this technological race is considered backward. Or perhaps… this is progress?

When governments try to tackle unemployment they encourage new investments, construction of new factories and generally they do their best to maximize the growth of GDP. More roads, more cars, more consumer goods, more services. In the Western economy, to create new jobs you must increase consumption. New technologies must be constantly invented, fashion changed, cars replaced, office equipment broken down and new needs created. But if the consumption slows down, this will no longer be the option. People will be out of a job for good, with very little hope for change.

The global economy can be more green, use less water and use much less energy. There is no doubt about it, the technologies are ready to be implemented. However, if we consume less then for some people there will be no jobs within the global economic system. Yet, there are opportunities waiting for them in the locally self-sufficient economies.

To create sustainable local economies we should start with ethics. Bad values got us into this mess in the first place. It is not a lack of technology that caused pollution of the rivers. Chevron Texaco used to dump 163 millions liters of toxic wastewater per day directly into the streams of the Ecuadorian Amazon. There was technology available to re-inject the wastewater deep underground. But they wanted to save 3 USD per barrel. Now the whole area of Lago Agrio is poisoned and people are suffering from contamination related diseases. It would have never happened if the values of corporate executives were those of caring for nature, helping one another and interconnectedness with the land.

The ethics for an environmentally-friendly lifestyle are simply exemplified in permaculture. They are: care of the earth, care of people and setting limits to consumption. Permaculture gives emphasis to working with nature, rather than against it, cooperation, caring for soil, water, plants and animals. Based upon these values we can use principles and techniques of permaculture to design gardens, villages or urban communities.

However, even the most appropriate ecological techniques will not do much help if we don’t have the land to start with. Access to land can be provided by land trusts, by local communities directly or in other ways that people find practical. In the land stewardship project that George started the right to use the land was granted in exchange for the care for soil and environment. No pesticides usage was allowed, neither use of industrial farming systems. His community is like the administrator of the land rather than the owner. It grants its members the right to use a certain piece of land, on the condition that it will not become eroded or poisoned. The right to use this land can be passed to the next generation, but if the farmer degrades the land, he or she can lose the right to use it.

In Madagascar the government introduced an innovative program of reforestation where a community that plants trees and cares for them for 3 years can become the owner of reforested land. In Madagascar there are hundreds of thousands of hectares of abandoned lands which can be restored and used by the growing population. The restored lands can be used as a sustainable source of food, fuelwood and timber. Even the most severely degraded lands can be restored, as Geoff Lawton proved by establishing a garden in a desert in Jordan.

Then, if we really think about creating sustainable livelihoods for all people on our planet, not just for our closest relatives or people who happen to live within the borders of the same country, we should allow migration to the places where the land is available. There are countries which are already overpopulated to the extent that they can no longer feed themselves and must rely on imported food. A prime example of this is Japan, which now imports 70 percent of its grain. There are also countries where land in unequally distributed. In Paraguay, for example, 1 percent of the population owns around 70 percent of the agricultural land. In this case farmlands should be re-allocated, in a democratic way.

Our political systems need some improvements as well. True democracy means that people can make decisions regarding their own lives. However, in most cases decisions are made by people’s representatives and too often they don’t keep their promises, lack skills, vision, they represent interests of their parties or business elites rather than the people and they are not accountable. We can organize the political system in a different way. It all starts on the local level, in the municipality. Citizens meet to discuss the daily issues affecting their lives and take decision regarding the budget, local taxation, land use permits etc. The mayor and local administration are employed to put their decisions into practice. In other words, people are like stakeholders of a company and the mayor is like a CEO. When the CEO of a private company doesn’t perform his duties well, he gets fired. In the same way citizens should be able to change the mayor or any other member of local administration. It is the citizens who pay their salaries. Administration must be accountable! Their job is to serve people, not the other way around.

One of the pioneers of the modern participatory democracy is the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Since 1989 the citizenry hold meetings where they decide on the priorities that decide how the public money is spent. Gianpaolo Baiocchi writes: “Citizens took over many functions usually reserved for bureaucrats: setting city-wide spending priorities, planning investments, and reviewing payrolls, not to mention setting the rules for the participatory budgeting process itself and monitoring its outcomes. Because since the 1990s Brazilian cities have assumed responsibility for most social-service provision and infrastructure investments, citizens are able to exert significant control over transportation, education, public health, and public works.” Among the benefits of direct participation in decision making are improved community ties and stronger involvement in the city life. Citizens are often able to choose projects to be funded better than officials as they know what they need, be it sanitation, water supply or a new housing. Research shows that participatory budgeting leads to lower poverty rates and improved education. And above all - community empowerment.

Don’t you think it’s a little odd that people cannot decide on what their tax money is spent on? The concept of taxation in democratic countries is to collect money that will be used to improve the quality of life of the communities. Yet, taxpayers have almost no say in the allocation of their money. True, they can choose the representative who will spend the money for them, and, if he or she turns out to be irresponsible, they can wait 4 years for another election and choose someone different. Well, it doesn’t seem very effective. Imagine a company where a manager must wait 4 years to dismiss an employee. It’s even worse - the manger must pay salary and benefits for all these years and do what his employee tells him to do. Isn’t it strange?

Consequently, people at the local level should be able to decide on nationwide issues. Why not? They meet, discuss, consult with experts, then vote in their own municipalities. Then votes in the whole country are counted and a decision is made. It’s called democracy.

The Transition initiatives that are spreading across the UK and other parts of the world is democracy in action. Participatory democracy doesn’t need a special law to be enforced. Formal regulations may be useful, but they are not obligatory. All it takes is that the mayor of the city accepts the recommendations decided upon by the local community. And when the mayor doesn’t want to listen? Than the local community can dismiss him or her and choose somebody else. The important benefit of the Transition initiatives is that thanks to regular meetings they provide a rich social life and stronger social ties. People living in one city can get to know each other better and work together in many ways.

Our current global economy was not designed to enhance community life. Its aim is to maximize profits. It depends on excessive consumption to provide jobs. We can make it greener, we can improve resource efficiency, energy efficiency, water productivity, we can recycle materials, use biodegradable plastics etc. But still, we need the consumer lifestyle to power it. Yet, the consumer lifestyle is not the way of the human being.… We don’t need all that stuff to be happy. Life can be simple, fun and meaningful with less gadgets, less cars, less stuff. To achieve that we need to create locally self-sufficient economies and to renew democracy.

Editorial Notes: Marcin graduated with a Ph.D. in political studies, from the University of Gdansk, Poland, with his thesis: “The idea and practice of sustainable development in the context of global challenges”.

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