Excerpt: Introduction

The following excerpt is from Chapter One of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth bu Juliet B. Schor.

Chapter One

Global capitalism shattered in 2008. The financial system came frighteningly close to a total collapse and was saved only by government guarantees and massive injections of cash. An astounding $50 trillion of wealth was erased globally. Economic pain drove people into the streets around the world, from Iceland to Greece, Egypt to China.

Since then, the global economy has been rescued, but it hasn’t been fixed. That will require fundamental changes. Climate destabilization, economic meltdown, and the escalation of food and energy prices are warning signs from a highly stressed planet. Ecologists have defined a number of safe operating zones for the earth’s complex systems and are finding that human activities have already led us outside a number of them. But the mainstream conversation has been stalled by fatalism. We’re better at identifying what can’t be done than what we need to accomplish.

There is a way forward, and I call it plenitude. The word calls attention to the inherent bounty of nature that we need to recover. It directs us to the chance to be rich in the things that matter to us most, and the wealth that is available in our relations with one another. Plenitude involves very different ways of living than those encouraged by the maxims that have dominated the discourse for the last twenty-five years. It puts ecological and social functioning at its core, but it is not a paradigm of sacrifice. To the contrary, it involves a way of life that will yield more well-being than sticking to business as usual, which has led both the natural and economic environments into decline.
Like most of the sustainability visions that have been offered in recent years, plenitude requires that we adopt cutting-edge green technologies. Without them we cannot ensure the survival of what humans have constructed, and we risk plunging into a hellish future. But it’s not a techno-fix. Solving our problems in the time we have available is not possible if all we do is change our technology. We will not arrest ecological decline or regain financial health without also introducing a different rhythm of work, consumption, and daily life, as well as alterations in a number of system-wide structures. We need an alternative economy, not just an alternative energy system.

A body of research, writing, and practice on economic alternatives has been developing. It is part of the larger movement for sustainability that began in earnest in the 1980s. At first, these perspectives had a hard time piercing the bubble surrounding the growth economy. Today, there’s new-found receptivity as people recognize that a true recovery will require more than lifelines and bailouts.

The logic driving plenitude is largely economic, focusing on efficiency and well-being. I’m betting that the intelligent way to act, for both individuals and society, is the one that will make humans, nonhuman species, and the planet better off. Plenitude promises smarter economic arrangements, not just technological improvements. It’s a way forward that emphasizes innovation, macroeconomic balance, and careful attention to multiple sources of wealth. In this way, it departs from messages of voluntary simplicity and critiques of consumer culture that contend that less is more, that income and consumption are overrated. Research has shown that outside of poverty they are, but that realization doesn’t take us far enough. The bigger prize, true affluence, comes through changes that yield new efficiencies: getting more from less.

The version of plenitude that I describe here is addressed in large part to inhabitants of wealthy countries and wealthy inhabitants of poor ones. But most, although not all, of the principles of plenitude and the economics underlying it are also relevant for lower-income households in poor countries. In its general outlines, if not specifics, it’s a widely applicable vision of economic life.

Plenitude is also about transition. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Creating a sustainable economy will take decades, and this is a strategy for prospering during that shift. The beauty of the approach is that it is available right now. It does not require waiting for the clean-tech paradigm to triumph. It doesn’t require getting government on board immediately. Anyone can get started, and many are. It was the right way to go before the economic collapse, in part because it predicted a worsening landscape. It makes even more sense in a period of slow growth or stagnation. 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 (individual-level) activity that is necessary to create the macro (system-wide) equilibrium, to correct an economy that is badly out of balance.

That balance won’t develop automatically. All large-scale transformation requires collective arrangements to succeed. We need environmental accounting, a mechanism to reduce carbon emissions, and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. We need new labor-market policies. We need to reform our health care, education, and retirement security systems. But while we work for those changes, here’s a vision for a way to live that respects the awesome place we call earth and all who live upon it.

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