It’s Ideas Day here at Taking it to the Streets
I promised you more about Judith Schor’s thought-provoking book, “Plenitude” and though a day later than I had hoped, here I am.
The book’s premise is that we’ve turned a corner economically and ecologically (not in a good way) and we need to find a new way of being if we are to survive. As the book jacket proclaims “Our usual way back to growth – a debt-financed consumer boom – is no long an option our households, or planet, can afford. Responding to our current moment, Plentitude argues that through a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies and different ways of living, individuals and the country as a whole can actually be better off and more economically secure. Sustainability is at its core, but it not a paradigm of sacrifice.”
As regular readers of this blog know, I embrace many of the principles of Buddhism, with one that particularly appeals being “the Middle Way”. As someone very prone to black and white thinking, it’s nice for me to always remember that there is a third way. This book presents just such a sensible solution.
The first part of the book outlines in a manner both academically dry (why ARE economists so very dry?) and simultaneously enormously alarming that the sky is indeed falling. It’s filled with charts and numbers and footnotes about all the things those who stand to gain by what Schor calls the BAU economy (Business As Usual) don’t want you to think about. What we’re doing is NOT sustainable. Not even close. This bus is headed off a cliff and picking up speed fast.
Just when you are beyond the “oh, shit!” moment she switches gears and in Chapter Four, “Living Rich on a Troubled Planet” begins to lay out her plenitude plan: “It is time to reclaim hours, build skills, invest in people, save more and perfect the art of self-provisioning.”
If you read the types of blogs and books that I do – on simple living, minimalism, sustainability, economics – these themes are familiar. What’s unique is that Schor, a former Econ professor at Harvard, now at Boston College, has a clear understanding of the laws of economics, economic history – and she has a very broad worldview. Her reasoning seems very sound and her argument is compelling:
BAU is not going to work (or, as Bruce Springsteen puts it “they say these jobs are going, boy, and they ain’t coming back, to my home town….”). The alternatives presented (pretend that it will work and thus accelerate the apocalypse OR living a life that feels penitential in it’s ‘hair shirt’ denial) are unappealing. But there is this third way of plenitude. And we can all do it. And we can start now.
I used to tell my colleague Marc, in our cut-throat corporate culture “act or be acted upon!” and I think of that now. Schor’s first dictum – time wealth – is another way of looking at underemployment and unemployment. She argues that working less not only makes for happier people, but frees up time to do the other things she suggests: improve your “social capital” (non economists might use the words “friendships”), “self-provision” (i.e., gasp! cook your own meals, fix your own house, maybe grow your own food).
But this isn’t the hippie back-to-the-land movement of my era. It’s back-to-the-land marries technogeek as I said in my last post. As she says “Self-providing is great, but it needs advanced technology to be liberating.”
I like how she advocates a quilt approach (my words, not hers) to life – a bit of a mainstream job, patched to a bit of self-provisioning, patched to a bit of an entrepreneurial enterprise.
She also takes on big banks (I love that about her!) and argues that by having more small enterprise and less debt, we can self-fund and not have to be backed into a corner by “too big to fail” (and i might add, seemingly too big to jail, though not if I ran the joint).
In her discussions of social connections and sustainability she touches on cohousing, near and dear to my heart.
In fact, this whole book seemed to codify and give academic credence to a way of life many of us are already embracing. I remember back in the insane 80s and 90s I had a few colleagues from My Fancy Corporate Job over to my wee hippie house. Seeing my tiny house, my old, modest car and knowing my “rank” at work I could see their heads spinning (“where DOES her money go? Up her nose? Is she just DUMB?”). I am grateful for my wise father from whom I learned so much about money and life for helping give me a headstart.
Like so much of life, I think if people try to force-fit life to go back to BAU Economics there will be a lot of stress and negative emotions – a sense of lack, of unfairness, of missing out.
That’s so not how I see it. I agree with Schor when she says that the time from 1980-2008 was the true aberration. A lot of what she proposes would not have seemed innovative or radical to my grandparents – much of it was the norm WAY back in the day. Think of it as a return to sanity but with better coffee and the Internet – I mean, really? That sounds delightful to me.
She questions the economic “physophilia” (Love of growth – ah, these academics – where DO they come up with these things!) and cites all sorts of writers and thinkers to say “this is NOT a given, folks, that growth is good.”
The whole book was thought-provoking, but Chapter Four “Living Rich on a Troubled Planet” is, I think the best. I’m already plotting how I can move more quickly into my OWN life of plenitude. So maybe not back to my grandma’s time, but “going back to the ways of my youth, I’m gonna go back and be how I want to be” (Jethro Tull) – hang out with friends, live simply, do things on our own. Be our own bankers. But with good coffee. And the Internet. I’m there! — You?
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