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Synopsis of new book "Plenitude"
Juliet Schor, website
I. THE ECONOMIC CHALLENGES WE FACE
Schor argues that a continuation of the “business as usual” (BAU) economy—the current economic rules, practices, growth trajectory, and ecological consequences of production and consumption—is no longer a viable option during this time of economic and ecological challenge. …
II. THE PLENITUDE SOLUTION …
- SHIFT OUT OF THE WORK-AND-SPEND-CYCLE: Schor, who pioneered the concept of the work-and-spend-cycle, finds that households are less attracted to the high-spending lifestyles of the past, and that jobs have become more demanding, less secure, and less lucrative. She argues that the savvy response to this new situation is for households to begin a shift out of the BAU market and into undervalued sources of wealth: time, creativity (especially ecological knowledge) and social relationships.
- DIVERSIFY: A key economic principle is not relying on a single source of income, such as the labor market. Households should diversify their sources of income and ways of meeting their consumption needs, by reducing time spent in the BAU economy. New ways to provide livelihood include self-reliance (making and doing for yourself), small businesses, sharing assets, and trading services within communities. These trends are already emerging around the country.
- SMALL SCALE: Innovation, dynamism, and employment is being generated by the small-scale sector. The vibrancy in our economy is now in small businesses and self-employment. Information technologies and on-line networking have eroded many of the advantages of big firms. Schor calls for a small-scale, de-centralized, ecologically oriented sector of entrepreneurial individuals and households.
III. IDENTIFYING ALTERNATIVE SOURCES OF WEALTH: PLENITUDE’S FOUR PILLARS …
- 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.
(accessed 15 August 2010)
Articles by and interviews with Julet Schor:
In Defense of Consumer Critique: Re-visiting the Consumption Debates of the 20th Century,” (PDF) – scholarly article in the journal “The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science"
Prices and quantitites: Unsustainable consumption and the global economy (PDF) – scholarly article in the journal "Ecological Economics"
But Will It Make You Happy?
Stephanie Rosenbloom, New York Times
… Inspired by books and blog entries about living simply, Ms. Strobel and her husband, Logan Smith, both 31, began donating some of their belongings to charity. As the months passed, out went stacks of sweaters, shoes, books, pots and pans, even the television after a trial separation during which it was relegated to a closet. Eventually, they got rid of their cars, too. Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number.
Her mother called her crazy.
Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.
Ms. Strobel’s mother is impressed.
… While Ms. Strobel and her husband overhauled their spending habits before the recession, legions of other consumers have since had to reconsider their own lifestyles, bringing a major shift in the nation’s consumption patterns.
… Amid weak job and housing markets, consumers are saving more and spending less than they have in decades, and industry professionals expect that trend to continue.
… On the bright side, the practices that consumers have adopted in response to the economic crisis ultimately could — as a raft of new research suggests — make them happier. New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.
(7 August 2010)
Long article. I was excited about it at first — it’s not often that the New York Times looks critically at consumerism. Unfortunately, the journalist spins this drop in spending on possessions as an opportunity to increase spending on experiences. Marketeers are quoted as to how corporations can take advantage of this shift in attitudes. Mmm, NY Times, you aren’t quite getting the message! -BA
Ted Trainer’s ‘Abandon affluence’ — 25 years on
Simon Butler, Green Left Weekly
In his influential 1985 book Abandon Affluence, radical Australian sociologist Ted Trainer made the argument that the capitalist economies of the rich world, and the wasteful consumer culture they spawned, were unsustainable and the ecological limits of capitalist growth were fast approaching.
Trainer will speak at the November 5-7 Climate Change Social Change conference in Melbourne. Visit for details. Trainer’s new book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, will be published by Envirobooks late this year.
Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler asked Trainer how relevant the ideas in his book were now, 25 years after it was published.
How do the “limits to growth” arguments you put forward in Abandon Affluence stand up today?
Today the case is much stronger on all accounts. We’ve got clear evidence now about the coming of peak oil. In 1985, we had no idea of the peak oil thesis. Now, it’s pretty widely agreed that peak oil is upon us and that we may have gone through the peak.
… Another problem is that there is a feeling that we can run everything on renewables. But there is a very strong case that we can’t.
So, we’re not just a little bit unsustainable. Those figures indicate we’re miles past any sort of level [of consumption that] could be extended to everybody. A big reason why these things are not so transparent is, of course, because the rich countries are hogging all the resources. We don’t feel the scarcity, but that’s because we are getting far more than our fair share of resources.
Our critique now has to have two main aspects. One is sustainability and the other is global justice. On one count we’ve got a society that is just outrageously unequal and unacceptable.
On the second count, we’ve got a way of life that is plundering the planet to supply the corporations and the supermarket shoppers in rich countries with comfort and goods…
… Could you explain more about your concept of the “simpler way”?
It can be summarised in a few principles.
First, lifestyles cannot be affluent. This doesn’t mean deprivation at all. It means having perfectly adequate food, clothing and shelter — a better lifestyle than most of us around the world have now — but without the wasteful gadgets and jet-away holidays. We’d have to provide ways of life that provide us with alternative satisfactions.
The second principle is localism — mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t still have big economies, but they’d be much less important. So most of what you’d need would come from the neighbourhood and the region.
(15 August 2010)
The Self-Storage Self
Jon Mooallem, New York Times
… “Human laziness has always been a big friend of self-storage operators,” Derek Naylor, president of the consultant group Storage Marketing Solutions, told me. “Because once they’re in, nobody likes to spend all day moving their stuff out of storage. As long as they can afford it, and feel psychologically that they can afford it, they’ll leave that stuff in there forever.” Now, though, “there are people who are watching their credit-card bills closer than before,” he said. “They’re really paying attention to the stuff they’re storing and realizing that it’s probably not worth $100 a month to keep. So they just get rid of it.”
After a monumental building boom, the United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. (The Self Storage Association notes that, with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”) According to the Self Storage Association, one out of every 10 households in the country rents a unit, making facilities like Statewide among our last national commons — places where nearly every conceivable kind of American still goes.
But the collapsing economy created an opportunity, and in some cases an ultimatum, for Americans to reassess the raft of obligations and the loads of stuff we accumulated before things went wrong. We’ve been making difficult decisions, and for a lot of us, that has involved rolling up the door of a storage unit and carting property in or out. The storage industry’s expansion in the first flush years of this decade was both enabled by, and helped enable, the extreme consumption that defined America then. The people coming through the gates now are defining who we will be when this turmoil is over.
… The truth is, there is no typical storage customer. As facilities crowded into the landscape, storage units became incubators for small businesses and artisans; warehouses for pharmaceutical reps, eBay merchants or landscapers. One unit at Statewide, the Doparts told me, functions as a kind of regional distribution center for Little Debbie cakes. I met a few homeless renters, who sometimes choose to pay to put a roof over their possessions instead of their own heads (living in units is not allowed); I met working-class renters using units as closets and safe-deposit boxes while serially couch-surfing or living in multifamily homes.
Jon Mooallem, a contributing writer, last wrote for the magazine about the Transition movement.
(September 2, 2009 )
Fascinating article with many human stories. -BA
The Solution to Jobless Growth
Hans Noeldner, Entropic Journal
The solution to Jobless Growth is:
Growthless Jobs! Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Reverse the words and Presto! The solution to all of our problems.
Really, it makes sense. Consider what we have right now in our economy. Lots of businessmen (and women) who set out with the explicit intention to sell toasters, cars, corn chips, open-heart surgery – stuff like that. Lots of investors with a laser-beam focus on getting Higher Returns. And darn near every consumer bound and determined to get More Stuff for Less.
Given these intentions, what have we got to show for it? Exactly what one would expect: lots of toaster manufacturing; profits on toaster sales; toasters in our basements, in our attics and storage lockers, on our garage sale tables. More toasters than we need…and unemployed people who have good reason to worry about not being needed.
Hmm…no need for so many toasters…not enough need for people who need to be needed. Could it be that our intentions are the problem? More precisely, a LACK of intent? A BIG lack? A black hole, in fact?
Amidst all our intentions to make and sell and profit on and acquire more toasters than we need (along with more than enough other stuff), where is our intention to need people?
Could this have something to do with passing the buck? OK, we all love to blame Government whenever unemployment rears its ugly head. Business executives with factories run by automated machines don’t even blink when they scream bloody murder about how Government is preventing them from creating jobs. Even the candidates play along, making all kinds of promises about the jobs THEY are going to “create”…after (of course!) they blame the opposition party for unemployment…and every other ill in the world.
But what if the whole thing was a ruse, a huge lie we tell ourselves in order to avoid yet another Inconvenient Truth? Forget outsourcing toaster-manufacturing, what happens in an economy when darn near everyone "outsources" responsibility for making sure that people who need to be needed…are needed?
The thing that makes it really tough is this: we can get More Stuff for Less – and Higher Returns to boot! – when we outsource employment to fossil fuels, machines, and automation. Year after year, more Productivity, more “saving” labor. What the heck, who needs other human beings these days?
Oops, we still need them to consume the stuff our machines are making. So…is there some way to make machines that consume? THAT would be sweet! Cars that drive themselves to McDonalds and order high-fructose corn syrup (straight up) from serving-robots. That’s right, skip the distillery, skip turning most of the corn into cow-manure (another disposal problem!), we’re talking about hyper-mobile, perpetually-hungry consumers that wanna LiveGreen GoYellow, baby.
Ye-ha! Kick back and watch the DOW soar! Who knows, with the ethanol subsidy AND “smart” cars ordering corn syrup for themselves at every drive-thru in America, maybe the corn surplus would take care of itself…
Anyway, is a bit of Luddism in order here? As in, enough to make sure that we need one-another? And how about choosing to need our own labor once in a while? Instead of using our legs mostly to press accelerator and brake pedals, what if we used them more often for (Gasp!) self-locomotion? Getting from “a” to “b”?
I got a lot more to say. You want it?
(12 August 2010)