Editorial note: What follows is the introduction to Samuel’s new book: Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits, which is the first volume of his collected essays to be published this year. A ink to a free pdf copy of the book will be sent out to subscribers of the Simplicity Institute. Please sign up to the Simplicity Institute here to receive the link. A brief chapter outline of the book is available at the original link.
I sometimes tell my students that I am an ‘apocaloptimist’. While, in truth, I am neither apocalyptic nor optimistic, this neologism serves as a fruitful conversation starter. It allows me to begin stating the case for why we, the human species, are facing overlapping crises of unprecedented magnitude – crises that are threatening the very persistence of our civilisation. At the same time, I explain why all of these problems are of our own making and, indeed, that their solutions already exist and are within our grasp, if only we decide that solving them is seriously what we want. I also maintain that the process of solving or at least responding appropriately to these problems can be both meaningful and fulfilling, if only we are prepared to let go of dominant conceptions of the good life. This means embracing very different ways of living, while also re-structuring our societies to support a very different set of values– especially the values of frugality, moderation, and sufficiency. In short, I argue that the problems we face today are as grave as the solutions are available and attractive, and this tension is reflected in the title of this book – Prosperous Descent – which I use provocatively to signify a paradox whose meaning will be unpacked in the following pages and chapters.
Before outlining the content of the following chapters, let me introduce some of the basic themes which shape all the essays collected in this book (and its companion volume, Sufficiency Economy).To begin with, I take a global perspective, even if my focus is generally on the cultures and economies prevalent in what are called the ‘developed’ nations. One of the normative assumptions underlying the essays is that we, human beings, are not citizens of any particular nation-state, the borders of which are artificial constructs of limited moral relevance. Rather, I contend that we are, as Diogenes claimed long ago, ‘citizens of the cosmos’, members of a global community of life, today more so than ever before. Our moral obligations, therefore – our commitments to justice and sustainability, in particular – cannot and should not stop at the borders of our own communities or our own nations. Justice and sustainability are global, seemingly abstract challenges demanding a global perspective, even if our actions and interventions must inevitably be local and concrete.
In globalising one’s perspective, however, one is inevitability radicalised. As soon as we start asking questions about what a just distribution of the world’s resources would look like, or what material standard of living could be universalised on our already overburdened planet, it immediately becomes clear that justice and sustainability, if these fuzzy notions are to mean anything, require nothing short of a revolution of the existing order of things. As this book will argue, we cannot merely tinker with the systems and cultures of global capitalism and hope that things will magically improve; those systems and cultures are not the symptoms but the causes of our overlapping social, economic, and ecological crises, so ultimately those systems and cultures must be replaced with fundamentally different forms of human interaction and organisation, driven and animated by different values, hopes, and myths. Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face in coming decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal. Together we must write a new future, a task that has already begun as individuals and communities begin to build the new world within the shell of the old. But this new future must look radically different from the past if the crises we face are to be tolerably resolved. There are no prizes, of course, for being the most ‘radical’ theorist or movement, yet if evidence, ethical reflection, and logic all demand a radical position, then as a matter of intellectual integrity, radical we must be – even if it is unclear why a position should be called ‘radical’ if the forces of reason and evidence are on our side. Such is the state of things.
Today there are unfathomable amounts of wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority of super-rich elites, while great multitudes of our fellow human beings live lives of humiliating destitution. Early in 2014, for example, it was reported that the richest 85 people today have as much accumulated wealth as the poorest half of humanity. This is not ‘civilisation’ as I understand the term. Nothing – no amount of fancy theorising – can justify such a skewed distribution of wealth and power, nor can this distribution be passed off as a ‘natural’ outcome of free individuals operating within free markets. It would be more accurate to say it is the natural outcome of unfree individuals operating within unfree markets. The current distribution of wealth and power, both within nations and between them, is a function of decisions human beings have made about how to structure our economies and political systems, and one does not need a fancy moral or political theory to conclude that the existing distribution, shaped by the existing, globalised economy, is shamefully unjust. It is self-evidently, painfully, and hideously unjust, even if usually we divert our eyes from this distasteful reality, it being too difficult to dwell on for long. Nevertheless, the point is that if human beings made these oppressive and destructive systems, so too can we unmake them and remake them into different systems, better systems, more humane systems – if we commit ourselves to that enormous task.
Our challenges, however, go well beyond distributional questions and call on us to rethink contemporary understandings of ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘sustainability’, and even the meaning of ‘civilisation’ itself. What does it mean to be ‘civilised’ today? What is it that we want sustained? How will we sustain those things? At what cost? And for whom? Sustainability must not be conceived of as the project of sustaining anything resembling the status quo, although that is a common assumption and, indeed, it currently defines the international development agenda. The high consumption way of life which is enjoyed by the richest one or two billion people on Earth, and which is widely celebrated as the peak of civilisation, simply cannot, due to ecological limits, be universalised to the world’s seven billion people, let alone the eight, or nine, or ten billion people that are expected to inhabit the planet in coming decades. What are the implications of this ecological impossibility? When we ask ourselves what way of life would be consistent with a ‘fair share’ of the world’s finite resources, it quickly becomes evident that a just and sustainable civilisation must not seek to universalise the high impact consumer way of life. That would be ecologically catastrophic – a catastrophe that is, however, in the process of unfolding as conventional modes of ‘sustainable development’ are pursued tragically into the future.
If the global population is to live safely within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet, we must be prepared – especially those of us in the developed regions of the world – to reimagine the good life by embracing ‘simpler ways’ of living based on notions of moderation, frugality, appropriate technology, and sufficiency. These notions are rarely discussed in mainstream environmental literature, and they are unspeakable by our politicians, yet I hope to show that they are indispensable to the proper understanding of our predicament and signify our only way out of it. If once it was thought that technology would ‘save the day’, producing efficiencies that would allow a growing global population to live high consumption lifestyles while remaining within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet, today it is increasingly clear that such techno-optimism lacks all evidential credibility. Universal affluence is nice in theory, perhaps, or perhaps not even nice in theory. But empirically, the promise of technological salvation has failed us. Despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, the ecological burdens humanity places on nature continue to increase. The face of Gaia is vanishing. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.
Although there is a demonstrable ecological imperative to embrace simpler lifestyles of moderate consumption, there are, fortunately, many reasons to think that such lifestyles would actually be in our immediate self-interest. As will be seen, evidence indicates that even those who have attained the consumerist ideal so often find that it does not satisfy them, suggesting that human beings just do not find consumption a source of much fulfillment – despite what the advertisements insist. Most people living in consumer cultures today are materially richer than at any other time in history, yet too many of us also tend to be poor in time, poor in community engagement, and lack an intimate connection with nature. Our wealth is dubious. It has come at too high a price.
Human beings all have basic biophysical needs, of course, that must be met in order for us to flourish, but not far beyond those basic needs it seems that consumption has fast diminishing marginal returns. The never-ending pursuit of affluence is like a treadmill on which we keep running without advancing, eventually becoming a zero-sum game of ‘status competition’ which degrades the planet while distracting us from more worthy pursuits. And so the logic of sufficiency is clear: we must step off that consumerist treadmill for ecological reasons, and we should step off it for social justice reasons, but we should want to step off it because if we transcend consumer culture we will discover that there are simply more fulfilling ways to live. Consumerism is a tragic failure of the human imagination. Certainly, we can do much better.
This book holds up ‘simple living’ or ‘voluntary simplicity’ as the most coherent alternative to consumerism. I use these terms not to imply crudely regressing to old ways of living but instead to imply post-consumerist ways of living. These ways of living would weave together the best human innovations and traditions but use these knowledges and practices to create low-impact lifestyles of moderate consumption, which are nevertheless rich in their non-material dimensions. Although this way of life defies simplistic definition, practically it can mean growing organic food in backyards or urban farms, or supporting local farmers’ markets; it can mean wearing second-hand clothes or mending existing items, and creating or making necessary goods out of recycled materials rather than always acquiring them new; it can mean purchasing solar panels or supporting renewable energy initiatives, while also radically reducing household energy consumption by riding a bike, taking public transport, co-housing, or simply using a washing line instead of a dryer. A process not a destination, the practical implications of voluntary simplicity are endless, which presents us with an immensely creative challenge, especially in consumer cultures. It implies the general attempt to minimise wasteful and superfluous consumption, sharing what we have, and knowing how much is ‘enough’, all the while redirecting life’s vital energies toward non-materialist sources of meaning and fulfillment, such as friends and family, social engagement, creative activity, home production, meeting our civic duties, or exploring whatever one’s private passions might be. The fundamental premise of this book – of all my work – is that a simple life can be a good life.
Nevertheless, although I argue that true sustainability certainly implies living more simply in a material sense, the following essays also maintain that we must simultaneously build structures and institutions that reflect, embody, and foster the same ethics of sufficiency. This means moving away from macroeconomic systems that have an inbuilt imperative to ‘grow or die’, toward post-growth systems that provide for the material needs of all but which do not seek to provide people with ever-higher levels of affluence. These would be highly localised, zero-growth economies based on permaculture principles, which use mostly local resources to meet mostly local needs. (I tried to describe such an economy – a sufficiency economy – in my last book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, which was inspired by the likes of Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, Serge Latouche, David Holmgren, and Ted Trainer.)
For social and ecological reasons, the problem of population growth must also be confronted (somehow) with dedication and equity, since population is obviously a multiplier of everything, including ecological impact. Nevertheless, the population problem must not be used as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from the more fundamental problems: consumerist aspirations shaping the dominant myth of progress and structures of growth locking us into that myth.
If our civilisation does not embrace an ethics of sufficiency –and if we persist in the fantasy of globalising affluence and hoping technology and ‘free markets’ will solve our social and ecological problems – we will meet the same fate as the snake that eats its own tail. Before this century is out, our civilisation will have collapsed; will have consumed itself to death.
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At this stage the paradox of PROSPEROUS DESCENT – the paradox that less can be more – should appear somewhat less paradoxical. The phrase is intended to signify the ‘upside of down’, a positive response to the impending limits to growth which necessitate post-consumerist ways of living. One way or another, for better or for worse, the descent of industrial civilisation is approaching us – in fact, it would seem that the descent is already underway. But currently, the unfolding descent is unplanned and far from prosperous, because most efforts are directed, consciously or unconsciously, toward sustaining the existing civilisation rather than creating something new. Resource limits – especially oil constraints – are beginning to squeeze the life-force out of economies that are dependent on cheap energy inputs to grow, and the reckless burning of fossil energy has begun to destabilise our climate. This is industrial civilisation. It is grossly unsustainable. It is not serving the vast majority of humankind. It has no future.
In order to make the best of the overlapping crises we face – in order to turn those crises into opportunities – the following essays argue that we need to develop cultures that reject consumerism and create far less energy and resource intensive ways of living. To support this cultural revolution in consciousness, we must also build economic and political structures that support and promote the practice of sufficiency. In the most developed regions of the world, this means radically downshifting away from high consumption ways of living and embracing far simpler ways of reduced and restrained consumption. This is the ‘descent’ – the descent away from growth and consumerism – that I argue can be ‘prosperous’, if we negotiate the transition wisely and take to the task with vigour, creativity, and urgency. This book and its companion volume, SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY, attempt to unpack and defend this bold vision, as well as explore the thorny question of how to realise it.
Before proceeding I should briefly anticipate an objection that will no doubt arise even from this preliminary overview. Let me be clear: the notion of ‘prosperous descent’ is not a prediction. I am not arguing that human beings are going to create a global village of thriving, sufficiency economies, nor do I even suggest that this is likely. And I am certainly not arguing that an unplanned, chaotic civilisational collapse into poverty is going to be ‘prosperous’ (so please do not accuse me of that). My argument is simply that economies of sufficiency, in which the entire community of life can flourish, are the only way to respond effectively to the overlapping crises of industrial civilisation. To oppose Margaret Thatcher with her own words: ‘there is no alternative’.
If this can be established, as I believe it can, it would follow that we should try to create sufficiency economies, here and now, even if our chances of success do not look good. We may never realise the ideal of a sufficiency economy, but having a coherent ideal functions as a compass to guide action. Without a compass, our energies and efforts would lack direction and thus could easily be misdirected with the best of intentions. Indeed, I worry that dominant strains of the environmental movement today can be understood primarily as misdirected good intentions, efforts which tend to be mistaken in attempting to ‘green’ a growth-orientated mode of production that can never be green. Others oppose the existing order without having any conception of what should replace it. Even those who reject the growth economy sometimes fail to understand the radical implications of such a proposal; fail to understand that we cannot give up growth while other aspects of life more or less go on as usual. Sufficiency, I contend, is a revolutionary project.
While I believe the practical question of ‘strategy’ – the question of how to realise a sufficiency economy – should remain open and dependent on context, the ‘theory of change’ that informs these essays is one grounded in grassroots, community-based action and initiatives. That is to say, I contend that until we have a culture or social consciousness that embraces sufficiency, our politicians are not going to be driven to create the necessary structures of sufficiency, nor, in the absence of such a culture, are we going to build new structures ourselves. In fact, even if such a culture of sufficiency emerged, our politicians are likely to be sluggish and non-responsive in supporting it. This means that the primary (although not necessarily the exclusive) forces of societal change must come ‘from below’, from people like you and me, working in our local communities, at the grassroots level. Before all else, we need to create the social conditions for deep transformation. There is a huge amount our governments could do, of course, to create just and sustainable economies of sufficiency, and in certain chapters I explore some available policy options. This can help us imagine alternative forms of human society and organisation. But we must not wait for governments to act, or we will still be waiting while the ship of civilisation sails over the cliff and crashes into the dark abyss below.
In any case, we should not want our governments to impose justice and sustainability upon us, and perhaps that would not be possible even if they wanted to. Instead, we must become politically mature enough to govern ourselves toward a better world and shape our own fates. To the extent that governments can assist us, I argue that they should be aiming to deconstruct the barriers to a sufficiency economy, and provide us with the freedom to choose it. Currently that freedom is disastrously constrained, which sadly seems to be part of the design of Empire.