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.