Concepts for a radical change towards sustainability? (ISEE 2010)

Development Policy25 Aug 2010Diego Murguía

The ISEE 2010 Tuesday sessions by Tim Jackson and Juliet Schor hit on the heart of the economic model (accumulation, growth and consumerism) by proposing innovative visions of how to reform capitalism towards human well-being.

Before the talk started, I was feeling interested and curious about new visions to overcome the so widely used, controversial and manipulated concept of ‘sustainability’ in search of new notions. However, at the same time, frankly, I was not expecting to listen to anything out of the typical policy reforms or market-driven incentives to deal with the interrelated economic, ecological and governance crises. To my surprise, I did. And though the talks were interesting by proposing new ideas, the public didn’t seem to be as inspired as with the passionate presentation by Clive Spash on Monday on carbon trading. Passion, particularly in scientific events, does not seem to be the rule but it does look like a pre-condition to motivate people. We need it urgently if we want to help change processes.

The session started with Tim Jackson’s approach arguing that, in order to bring about social well-being in developed countries, new policy implications are required to build a sustainable macro-economy respecting ecological limits. What seems new in this idea is that it emphasizes prosperity, a notion implying having material needs satisfied and feeling a meaningful participation in society. It also strikes that this state could be reached by deterring growth, namely, production and consumption without loosing stability of the economic system. We can assume that escaping from the ‘growth imperative’, even getting into de-growth, will surely bring about social and environmental relief, but this process will not happen by itself, brave policies and campaigns are required to make it happen. Key questions that come to my mind are: how do we escape from a culture of consumerism? How to change lifestyles? Are rationale messages enough? How do we make people feel that they don’t need to fly to a beach resort for holidays when plane tickets are so cheap? How do we help enforce such policies which probably will go against powerful interests used to go beyond ecological limits?

The second talk presented Schor’s Plenitude approach which comes handy to complement policy reforms proposed by Jackson. This path argues that besides systemic changes in economic structures, changes in social and cultural norms are a must to leave behind growth and profit-seeking corporations as the creators of socio-cultural patterns and, we might add, discover another type of doing, as John Holloway calls it in its last book Crack Capitalism. Jackson and Schor’s approaches agree on the importance of attacking conventional labour and productivity schemes by proposing a reduction in the working hours; this is great since it would prevent rising unemployment and reducing ecological impact. However, what can we do with the remaining 11 million unemployed in the US? What if we elevated the US case for the rest of the world? I believe there is a consensus that more income, more jobs and more consumption will make matters worse. But a change in perspective shows that instead of considering unemployment a problem, it becomes an opportunity for change since this mass of unemployed people have a chance to stop being victims of a system and become active, people innovating, co-learning and co-supporting themselves in creative alternative ways of self-providing and reducing risk aversion stemming from crises.

Global inequalities and eco-crises make it clear everyday that we need to change now, not tomorrow, our daily life activities and re-direct our time and energy to another-type-of-doing, stop reproducing everyday the system of which we complain. To do that, Schor proposes alternatives for the US with communitarian self-providing experiences of energy, food and technical support (i.e. with fab-labs, as named by MIT), profiting from changes in economies of scales, causing low footprints, developing skills and, we might add, getting back in contact with Nature. This sounds wonderful, but how do we manage to implement such solutions in huge megacities, centers of population growth? How do we fund it? Will powerful organizations allow for people’s empowerment to become more independent by escaping the market-dependency?

Plenitude seems to be not just another interpretation of sustainability but a radical shift in how we think, feel, live, produce, consume and interrelate with each other and Nature. This makes the shift indeed powerful, even radical, but most challenging within a scenario of a hegemonic flexible capitalist system. Discussions at scientific conferences like ISEE are greatly needed and so are discussions outside of scientific events. In this, we, ecological economists scientists and practitioners have a great job now.