True Wealth

Author: Juliet Schor (2011, Penguin Group; titled Plenitude in hardcover, which was published by the Center for a New American Dream in 2010)

Reviewed by Theresa Forsman

                   Change or die. It’s one of the laws of evolution that got the human species where it is today and one that will determine our future, including how much future we have. Today we have to adapt to our environment not biologically, but economically. Our economy is killing us in the form of unsustainable stress to our ecosystem, including the Earth’s atmosphere, waterways, agricultural lands, forests and mines. The ArcticSea is melting and the world’s oceans are rising faster than scientists’ models predicted. In fact, the biggest scientific news of this young century is the pace of climate destabilization, triggered by the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Worldwide, farmland is turning to desert and oceans contain growing numbers of dead zones. Blame not just greenhouse gas emissions, but over-foresting, irresponsible mining, and destructive megafarms on both land and sea.

                Still, most of the developed world’s leaders say the solution to our economic troubles is to get people back to buying cars, McMansions and all manner of stuff imported from China so we can spur “growth.” Typical discussions of economic growth vs. environmental degradation assume that stemming damage to the Earth’s ecosystem means a level of sacrifice that the developed world is not prepared to endure, that giving the environment its due will come at the expense of the economy.

                Juliet Schor, who is not a typical economist, sees another answer. The way forward, she says, is not business as usual, but neither is it deep deprivation. In her book True Wealth, Schor prescribes a four-point plan for generating both a vibrant economy and restoring our damaged ecosystem that can be summarized as work less, spend less, connect more and create more. Under this model, called plenitude, the author argues that both people and the planet will be better off.  Schor, the Boston University economist who wrote The Overworked American and The Overspent American in the 1990s, says how we work and how we spend are no longer lifestyle choices, but life and death choices. Climate change is upon us and some of its economic effects, in the form of higher food prices and higher fuel prices, have already taken hold, she points out.

                Individuals will lead the way: Don’t expect the G7 or the International Monetary Fund, who have been slow to include ecological data in their world views, to push Schor’s model anytime soon. Some individuals and communities have adopted plenitude behaviors and more of us will do so as the world is forced to include environmental costs in the price of goods and services it consumes. These individuals and communities, not the presidents and premiers, will lead the change, Schor believes. “Anyone can get started, and many are,” she says, referring to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) groups, a growing craft movement, the popularity of re-using and recycling goods via Internet sales, community gardens, car-sharing businesses, the Post Carbon Cities Network, and communities that have established local currencies. Don’t discount these activities because of their current scale, Schor says. “As individuals take up the principles of plenitude, they are not merely adopting a private response to what is perforce a collective problem. Rather, they are pioneers of the micro activity that is necessary to create the macro equilibrium, to correct an economy that is badly out of balance.”

                The four components of plenitude—less working, less spending, more creating and more connecting—are intertwined. Practicing one means you are likely practicing all four to some extent: Under plenitude, life for most Americans would have a different rhythm. Reducing the standard workweek would reduce the unemployment rate and shift the way the average worker allocates her time. As many of the unemployed know, working less means spending less. But it doesn’t have to mean doing without. Many people who are working less—voluntarily or not—use their extra hours for what Schor calls “self-provisioning,” perhaps growing and canning their own vegetables, making some of their own clothes, learning a new skill or resurrecting a long-neglected one—woodworking, carpentry, knitting. Right now this looks like a craft movement, but Schor says it can grow into something economically significant. Not only do the self-provisioners reap the rewards of working creatively, but they have diversified economically.

                “Parallel system of exchange”: Spending less time in the office cubicle also frees time for getting to know the neighbors and thus reaping the personal satisfaction and economic payoff of solid social relationships. “Especially in times of distress, people survive and thrive by doing for one another,” Schor points out, adding that “interpersonal flows of money, goods, and labor are a parallel system of exchange and savings.” The way back from the ecological brink is also a way back from Bowling Alone, the 1995 chronicle of Americans’ weak social ties. In making her case for spending less time at work and more hours with a social community, Schor cites happiness studies that prove the disconnect, for all but the poorest people, between higher levels of income and higher levels of satisfaction.

                Schor’s argument for spending less money isn’t so much a move away from materialism but a route to what she called “true materialism,” defined as an environmentally aware approach to consumption. This approach has no room for sprawling homes, gas-guzzling vehicles and impulsive plane trips to island resorts. But it doesn’t mean we can’t live well, Schor says, pointing to the Slow Food Movement as a model for true materialism. This way of growing, distributing, preparing and eating food “respects the earth, nourishes the body, brings people together, fosters creativity, tastes sublime, and satisfies cravings,” she said. “We should, and can, have all that for our houses, vehicles . . . and other consumer goods. It adds up to moderate, ecologically aware consumption, in a way that fosters satisfaction,” Schor says.

                This is not voluntary simplicity or an argument for a return to the pre-industrial way of life, but for growing the economy the right way, which means using our finite resources with greater efficiency.  This type of growth will not rest on the typical components of the industrial economy—labor, finance, or natural resources, but on knowledge, she says. The rapid development and widespread diffusion of knowledge, including know-how about sustainable farming, harnessing non-carbon forms of energy, and making products without heavy metals or other toxic materials, is crucial. Accomplishing this will mean a move away from proprietary models of product development and intellectual property to an open-source model, which has worked well in the Internet-technology field.

                An economy based on extracting resources from nature, which blew up in 2008, will not recover, nor should it, Schor says.  “The economy is broken in fundamental ways, as are the local and global ecosystems on which it depends. Creating a truly sustainable system will require ecological restoration and technological innovation over a period of many years.” The principles of plenitude show the way to get from here to there and to thrive during the process.

Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.

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