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A strategy to reverse overshoot and achieve sustainable well-being

Introduction to strategy

In a previous article I stated that, in order for humankind to resolve its ecological predicament, capitalism must be historically superseded. People who are aware of the system’s growth compulsion and the environmental destruction that results may well suspect that this statement is true. But carrying this train of thought forward is difficult. Why? Because currently the only well-known model for moving beyond capitalism is that of the socialist tradition. This model, however, arose in the context of class struggles rather than overshoot, and in my view it incorporates several grave errors. I therefore believe that an alternative model for the post-capitalist transition must be developed. The strategy below is intended as a contribution to this process.

NOTE: The text is intentionally terse in order to focus attention on the strategy’s assertions and logical flow. The paragraphs have been numbered for ease of reference. If you have comments, please email me at frank_rotering AT yahoo DOT com .

[The author's website is Needs and Limits. -BA]

A. OVERSHOOT

  1. To date, humankind has behaved much like any other species: it has appropriated all available natural resources in order to increase its numbers and to satisfy its wants. Under previous conditions of ecological plenitude this behavior helped us succeed in the struggle for life. Under current conditions of ecological scarcity it threatens both the integrity of the biosphere and the depletion of nonrenewable resources.

  2. Our impact on nature increased gradually until about 1500. It then exploded, driving us into overshoot within 500 years. This hyper-expansion is associated with capitalism, an economic system based on the separation of society into two main classes: the owners of productive assets and those who sell their labor power to these owners. Ecological expansion is thus inherent in humankind as a biological species, whereas hyper-expansion is the greatly intensified expression of this attribute under capitalist conditions. Although both imperil our future, hyper-expansion is the short-term threat we must immediately address.

  3. The Soviet Union arose in the 20th century as a socialist alternative to capitalism, but it adopted the unsustainable practices of its ideological rivals. Today China is the primary example of growth-obsessed socialism. These economies demonstrate that it is not the pattern of ownership - private, public, or mixed - that is decisive for sustainable well-being, but rather the economic principles applied by those in control. The present strategy restricts itself to the capitalist economies. Thinkers in China and other non-capitalist countries are urged to develop comparable strategies based on their specific conditions.

  4. Given the inescapable link between economic activities and ecological impact, these activities must be rapidly and significantly reduced for humankind as a whole. Given the disparity in consumption between rich and poor countries, this reduction must occur primarily in the rich countries.

  5. Overshoot and injustice are both massive global problems. However, overshoot has a special status in that it threatens not only the present generation of humankind, but also future generations and the biosphere itself. What is required, and what this strategy attempts to provide, is a change process that sharply decreases our ecological impact while increasing global equity and overall well-being.

  6. Global overshoot is unprecedented in human experience. For the first time in its history, our species as a whole must reduce its planetary presence. We therefore face not just another historical change, but a fundamental shift in our relationship with the earth: the redirection of humankind’s ecological trajectory from an expansionary to a contractionary path. This implies that we cannot rely on existing economic ideas and arrangements, all of which were developed during our expansionary past. Instead we must think boldly and imaginatively to create a viable future.


B. ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION

  1. In order to achieve ecological contraction, our economies must be radically transformed. It is therefore critical that capitalism be addressed correctly. The key idea here is that the enemy is not capitalism as a whole, but rather the specific factor within the system that is responsible for hyper-expansion. Our task is not to replace capitalism with a known alternative such as socialism, but to find combinations of capitalist, socialist, and novel economic elements that can reverse overshoot and achieve sustainable well-being.

  2. Some features of capitalist economies are rooted in human nature. Others address core economic requirements, and would be useful in most systemic settings. All such features, to the extent that they are consistent with the strategy’s goals, should be retained. To facilitate the selective rejection and retention of capitalism’s features, the system can be conceptually split into its two main components: its economic logic and its institutions.

  3. The term “economic logic” refers to the factors that guide an economy’s activities and thus determine its main outcomes. These include the outputs produced and their quantities, resource utilization rates, waste flow rates, habitat destruction patterns, and the population level. (Although governments can modify these outcomes, they cannot alter them significantly without destroying the system’s integrity.) The term “institutions” refers to the economy’s remaining features, which help implement this logic. These include markets, monetary systems, property relations, and the system’s legal infrastructure.

  4. Capitalism’s economic logic derives from the system’s historical role, which is to rapidly increase production. It is expressed through the market interactions of two incentives: profit-maximization by firms and the manipulated wants of consumers. Because this logic is the factor responsible for hyper-expansion and overshoot, it must be categorically rejected for the purpose of economic guidance.

  5. Although this rejection is necessary, it is not sufficient. In most cases, and certainly in the rich countries with their complex economies, a logic of some kind is required to establish economic outcomes. The only alternative is for an individual or group to fill this role, which is an open invitation to the abuse of power. Thus, for the purpose of economic guidance, the logic of capitalism must be replaced with a new logic that reflects the long-term interests of humankind. This is referred to in this strategy as the logic of sustainable well-being.[1]

  6. “Replacing” capitalism’s logic means that the populace, instead of acceding to the results of capitalist markets, applies the new logic to determine economic outcomes directly, and then strives to achieve them. For example, output quantities for trucks, lumber, and houses will be set according to human needs and natural limits, not the profit-maximizing manipulation of consumer desires. Similarly, labor productivity will be carefully optimized, not increased without limit; the population level will rise only if this permits a society to flourish, and never beyond the area’s carrying capacity.

  7. Unlike capitalism’s logic, the system’s institutions should not be summarily rejected. Instead they should be vigorously tested for their usefulness in implementing the new logic. Those that pass this test should remain, likely in modified form. Those that fail should be eliminated. In other words, existing institutions should evolve under pressure from the logic of sustainable well-being, much as biological organisms evolve under pressure from the natural environment. The combination of logic replacement and institutional evolution, plus the introduction of any novel institutions that may be required, is called organic change.

  8. Organic change embraces technological neutrality - the principle that sustainable well-being can be achieved at many technical levels, and that increasing an economy’s technological complexity is therefore a social choice, not a development imperative. Technological neutrality counters the ethnocentric assumption, particularly among the rich, that economic progress is synonymous with rising scientific and technological sophistication.

  9. Although capitalism’s logic must be rejected for the purpose of economic guidance, it may still prove to be useful, albeit in modified form. Once key economic objectives are rationally set, the incentives of profits and genuine (unmanipulated) wants should be considered as one way to achieve them. In this restricted sense, “business” and “markets” could continue to play important roles in a revolutionized economy.

  10. Organic change will at times require measures that conflict with human nature. To maximize the social acceptance of such measures and to minimize abuses in their implementation, two principles should be adopted: transparency and democracy. Transparency means that the economic principles used to formulate objectives are widely understood, and that the analysis behind economic decisions is publicly disseminated. Democracy means that those making these decisions are elected, and possibly subject to recall if they violate transparency. Where social coercion is required - for example to expropriate property or to enforce new laws - the dignity and security of the individual must be ensured.

  11. Capitalism cannot exist without its guiding logic. Thus, although capitalism’s demise is not the aim of this strategy, its successful implementation means that the system will be historically superseded. Stated differently, the strategy’s orientation is post-capitalism, but not anti-capitalism.


C. POLITICAL STRUGGLE

  1. Because the proposed changes imply the revolutionary restructuring of the prevailing order, they will threaten entrenched interests and encounter intense opposition. Organic change thus entails a sharp political struggle. Although this struggle will be complex, in essence it will pit those who support capitalism’s economic logic against those who support the logic of sustainable well-being.

  2. To permit broad analysis of this struggle, humankind can be divided into three groups: capitalists, rich, and poor. Capitalists are a social reality: they form a class that exercises political power and thus economic control. The rich are defined as non-capitalists who consume more than the global average, whereas the poor are defined as non-capitalists who consume less than the global average.

  3. For these three groups, the following are likely to be the key factors in determining their support for an economic logic:

    1. Capitalists are highly class-conscious and will fiercely defend their dominant position. Without significant exceptions, they will support the logic of capitalism.

    2. The rich will see their consumption fall as economic transformation proceeds. Some will perceive this as a blow to their material interests, and will cast their support with the logic of capitalism. Others will understand that their well-being will be stable or even improve in a rational economy, and will support the logic of sustainable well-being. Moreover, this group is increasingly aware that overshoot imperils the future of humankind, thus necessitating rapid ecological contraction. This species-consciousness will push them towards the logic of sustainable well-being.

    3. The poor will see their consumption rise as economic transformation proceeds. Their material interests will therefore lead them to support the logic of sustainable well-being. This support will be strengthened by their species-consciousness.


  4. Based on this division, the struggle will be between two camps: the capitalists and non-species-conscious rich on one hand, and the poor and species-conscious rich on the other. To the extent that the poor and species-conscious rich are politically active, they are called contractionists. To the extent that the capitalists and non-species-conscious rich are politically active, they are called expansionists.

  5. It is important to distinguish between this contractionary struggle and a class struggle. In a class struggle the fundamental issue is class oppression, and workers seek control of an expansionary economy. In a contractionary struggle the fundamental issue is overshoot, and contractionists seek to transform an expansionary economy into a contractionary economy. What the two have in common is that the capitalist class is the primary obstacle to the end being sought.

  6. In the poor countries there are few non-capitalist rich, so the contractionary struggle will largely be between the capitalists and the poor. Because there is a significant overlap between the poor and the working class, a contractionary struggle will closely resemble a class struggle. In the rich countries there are few poor, so the contractionary struggle will largely be between the capitalists and non-species-conscious rich on one hand, and the species-conscious rich on the other.

  7. Revolutionary change is impossible without “revolutionizing practice” - activities that transform both society and the political actors themselves.[2] In a class struggle this practice consists of strikes, demonstrations, etc. by the workers. In a contractionary struggle it consists of efforts by contractionists to implement organic change within a capitalist economy. This could be attempted in specific economic sectors such as food and transportation, or for the economy as a whole over a limited geographical area. In the latter case, the possibility of political secession should be seriously considered.[3]

  8. Revolutionizing practice is intended to achieve the following:

    1. Engage the populace, thereby transforming them into an active political force;

    2. Produce reforms, thereby demonstrating the concrete meaning of organic change;

    3. Persistently fail to produce reforms, thereby exposing the limitations of capitalist logic;

    4. Give contractionists practical experience, allowing them to adjust their strategic approach;

    5. Shift legitimacy (social acceptance) away from the logic of capitalism and towards the logic of sustainable well-being;

    6. Reveal how expansionists respond to the contractionist challenge.


  9. The full implementation of organic change requires economic control, which in turn necessitates political power. How this is achieved will depend largely on the reaction of expansionists once legitimacy has moved decisively to the new logic. Where they are willing to relinquish power in accordance with the popular will, legal methods should be used. Where they refuse, the forcible seizure of power will be necessary and justified.


D. POLITICAL ORGANIZATION

  1. Successful political struggle requires effective leadership. A contractionary political organization (CPO) should therefore be established wherever the potential for economic transformation exists.

  2. Numerous socialist organizations have been formed in the past to lead class struggles, and in some respects these provide useful examples for CPOs. However, they have committed serious errors that must not be repeated. The key errors are the following:

    1. Ignoring human nature. Capitalism has accentuated certain attributes of human nature, such as self-interest and aggression, and suppressed others, such as altruism and cooperation. However, it is a gross overreaction to conclude from these distortions that human nature itself does not exist - in other words, that certain patterns of thought and behavior are not rooted in our genetic make-up.[4 ] Ignoring these core patterns can lead to the conclusion that human beings are infinitely malleable, which can result in unjustified and self-defeating coercion.

    2. Seeking open-ended economic control. Socialists want economic control so that workers can reorganize the economy based on their class perspective. Such control is open-ended because it is not restricted by an explicit economic logic. Economic decision-makers cannot be permitted the liberty of interpreting and implementing a vaguely defined worldview; instead they must be tightly constrained by a set of transparent economic principles.

    3. Aiming for a specific economic structure. Socialists aim for an economy where the means of production are publicly owned. However, there is no way for them or anyone else to know what ownership pattern will support a contractionary trajectory. This is a new project for humankind, and new solutions will be required. The structure of future economies cannot be pre-ordained, but must evolve organically based on the logic of sustainable well-being.


  3. The purpose of a CPO is to provide the coordination and leadership required by contractionists to win the struggle for economic transformation. A CPO must therefore understand the political issues surrounding legitimacy, economic control, and political power in its area. It must also develop a comprehensive social program to permit the effective governance of a region or country. If more than one CPO arises in an area based on differences in their social programs or other factors, they will have to contend for contractionist support.

  4. A CPO does not necessarily engage in elections, or seek victory if it does. Although elections can under exceptional circumstances result in economic control, the electoral process should in most cases be used to disseminate contractionary ideas and to gauge the ecological maturity of the populace.

  5. A CPO must be politically sophisticated enough to understand that expansionists will use whatever means are necessary to maintain the current trajectory. These include not just the organs of the visible state - military, police, justice system, etc. - but also the hidden forces that sabotage capitalist democracy, pervert the mainstream media, assassinate threatening figures, and manufacture events such as 9/11 to shape the public psyche and intensify social control. [5] A CPO must try to prevent such onslaughts, and must react with clarity and determination should they occur.


E. ECONOMIC PRIORITIES

When contractionists gain control of an economy, they will initiate organic change. The details of this process will vary according to circumstances, but its broad outlines can be anticipated. This is especially true if we confine ourselves to the rich countries, which bear primary responsibility for economic transformation. Measures and policies such as the following will likely be among the initial priorities for a contractionary regime:

  1. To end the dominant role of profits in determining economic outcomes, the legal status of firms will be modified, their political influence curtailed, and their commercial freedom circumscribed.

  2. To end the relentless manipulation of consumers and the ecocidal overproduction that results, advertising will be tightly restricted.

  3. To mitigate climate change, production will be severely curtailed for outputs that cause high greenhouse gas emissions and do not contribute significantly to well-being.

  4. To decrease the use and depletion of natural resources, production will be severely curtailed for outputs that require substantial resources and do not contribute significantly to well-being.

  5. To eliminate unemployment and enhance work, the work-week will be immediately shortened. It will be shortened further as production declines.

  6. To eliminate unnecessary transportation and strengthen economic autonomy, trade will be minimized.

  7. To satisfy unmet needs, production will be increased for outputs where quantities are currently inadequate. Examples include child care, public transportation, and assistance for the elderly and disabled.

  8. To reduce inequality, restrictions will be placed on high incomes, and taxes will be levied on excessive wealth.

  9. To meet the economy’s conceptual requirements, universities will shift their economics instruction away from expansionary thought and towards contractionary thought.[6] Instruction in other fields, and at all educational levels, will be made compatible with the goals of overshoot reversal and sustainable well-being.


Notes

[1] My analytical framework, the Economics of Needs and Limits (ENL), is intended as the starting point for this non-capitalist logic. ENL is based on the underlying realities of humankind and nature. It defines value, the central concept in economic thought, as the satisfaction of objective needs rather than subjective wants. Using this and other reformulated concepts, the framework addresses production, consumption, ecological constraints, resource utilization, population, and trade. It also redefines efficiency and labor productivity, both for its own purposes and to counter the ideological influence of standard interpretations. ENL allows analysts to set economic objectives that balance human needs and natural limits so as to achieve global equity, well-being, and sustainability. For details, see the book Needs and Limits: A New Economics for Sustainable Well-being (3rd edition). This is available free of charge at Needs and Limits website. Also available on the website are videos on ENL and a summary document.

[2] The quoted term is from Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (#3): “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice.” (Emphasis added.)

[3] The secession theme is insightfully explored in Ernest Callenbach’s novels Ecotopia (1975) and Ecotopia Emerging (1981), where the limited geographical area is the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Note that secession should be seen not as an isolated event, but as part of a cascading global process. If one or more ecologically mature regions assert their economic independence and initiate organic change, this would inspire other regions to do likewise, and would provide practical examples for them to follow.

[4] According to Marx, “... the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” (Theses on Feuerbach - #6) This focus on social relations was an understandable response to the religious and philosophical idealism of the period (1845), but it ignores the biological underpinnings of our species. Marxists have never corrected this one-sidedness.

[5] For a useful overview of the ethical and scientific issues surrounding 9/11, see:
http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/09/24/ethical-reflections-on-th...

[6] For my proposed changes to the discipline of economics, see the video “Revolutionizing Economic Thought” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04GzSjrm_7M.

Editorial Notes: The author's website is Needs and Limits. Previously published by Frank Rotering at Energy Bulletin: From Suzuki to revolution: my road to the barricades. -BA

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