Friday, May 21, 2010

Welcome to Plenitude

Welcome to Plenitude | Juliet Schor

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Welcome to Plenitude: the blog and my new website. I’m here to plant a stake in the heart of the Business-As-Usual economy and its bankrupt politics. As I write, oil is spewing out into the Gulf of Mexico, at the rate of perhaps 70,000 barrels a day, and a deadlocked Congress has produced an energy bill that calls for expanded offshore drilling. It’s true madness.

It’s one more example that the Business-as-Usual economy (to borrow a term from the climate discourse) has become profoundly dysfunctional. That conclusion is becoming widely accepted. But we’re having trouble moving beyond it. Plenitude is a vision for doing just that—getting us on a path that reverses the rampant destruction of the planet caused by BAU and restoring true well-being to people and communities. With the political system unable to reign in the corporations that drive emissions and economic activity, Plenitude starts in another place: with people. Its strategy is to say let’s get going on the path of reconstruction now. And it explains why it’s not only what we need to do for survival, but it embodies a savvy economic calculus.

It’s based on an idea that’s novel to the sustainability discourse, but is has been around in standard economics since the 1960s: when the returns from one activity fall, shift one’s energy and time into others. This is the theory of time allocation pioneered by Chicago economist Gary Becker. It’s also just plain common sense.

In the year 2010 this approach counsels shifting out of BAU jobs, to local, small-scale activity that helps reduce dependence on the market system and lowers ecological footprint. Why is this attractive? One reason is that the BAU market has less to offer. It is failing to provide adequate jobs on a staggering scale. An estimated 26 million Americans are either unemployed, under-employed or have gotten discouraged and stopped looking for work. That problem won’t go away even if the recovery continues. Incomes have fallen and government services are being cut. Wall Street and the wealthy have protected their outsized share of society’s production, but for the vast majority the prognosis is austerity.

Even if the recovery continues, wages and incomes are not likely to recover their pre-crash trajectory, in part because ecological constraints are closing in on us. As the global economy grows, rising prices for energy and food on the world market will erode the incomes offered by BAU. That’s what the standard discourse has to offer. You’ll be hearing more and more about belt-tightening, the need to sacrifice, and what we can’t afford. It’s a mantra that is coming from corporations to their employees, from government to their citizens, and from economists to anyone who will listen. It’ll dominate the debate about the deficit.

But trade-off economics is wrong. If we abandon BAU, we can transcend many of the no-win options currently on offer, discover new sources of wealth and re-invigorate old, but neglected ones. In future posts, I’ll get into detail on what these are.

Plenty of people have already started down this path. They’re growing vegetables, raising chickens and keeping bees. They’re going off the grid with solar and wind. They’re building their own homes, often with the help of friends and neighbors, using earth-friendly materials like straw, stone and compressed earth. They’re using open-source software to share newly acquired know-how about this alternative production paradigm. It’s a way of life that’s rich in creativity and autonomy. This movement is taking place in cities, small-towns and in rural areas. It’s not back-to-the land, it’s forward to a technologically advanced, knowledge-intensive way of life that is providing not only food, shelter and power, but also security, community and true well-being.

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University for 17 years, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Schor received her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Massachusetts.

Her most recent book is Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (The Penguin Press 2010). She is also author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (Basic Books, 1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (Basic Books, 1998). The Overworked American appeared on the best-seller lists of The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe as well as the annual best books list for The New York Times, Business Week and other publications. The book is widely credited for influencing the national debate on work and family. The Overspent American was also made into a video of the same name, by the Media Education Foundation (September 2003).

Schor also wrote Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner 2004). She is the author of Do Americans Shop Too Much? (Beacon Press 2000), co-editor of Consumer Society: A Reader (The New Press 2000) and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press 2002). An essay collection, Consumerism and Its Discontents is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2011. She has also co-edited a number of academic collections.

Schor is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans’ lifestyles and the economy and the emergence of a conscious consumption movement. She is a co-founder and co-chair of the Board of the Center for a New American Dream, a national sustainability organization.

She was a fellow at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1995-1996 for a project entitled “New Analyses of Consumer Society.” In 2006 she received the Leontief Prize from the Global Development and Economics Institute at Tufts University for expanding the frontiers of economic thought. In 1998 Schor received the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language from the National Council of Teachers of English. Schor’s scholarly articles have appeared in the Economic Journal, The Review of Economics and Statistics, World Development, Industrial Relations, The Journal of Economic Psychology, Ecological Economics, The Journal of Industrial Ecology, Social Problems and other journals. Schor has served as a consultant to the United Nations, at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, and to the United Nations Development Program.

In addition to the foregoing, Schor is a co-founder of the South End Press and the Center for Popular Economics. She is a former Trustee of Wesleyan University, an occasional faculty member at Schumacher College, and a former fellow of the Brookings Institution. Schor has lectured widely throughout the United States, Europe and Japan to a variety of civic, business, labor and academic groups. She appears frequently on national and international media, and profiles on her and her work have appeared in scores of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and People magazine. She has appeared on 60 Minutes, the Today Show, Good Morning America, The Early Show on CBS, numerous stories on network news, as well as many other national and local television news programs.

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