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Doing nothing is not an option

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Part Three of The Sufficiency Economy

A recent item on Naked Capitalism under their links section, deserves being highlighted.  It was a reference to a recent report on OilPrice under the heading of Why Current Methods to Combat Climate Change Don’t Work  Let me offer a taster:

World leaders seem to have their minds made up regarding what will fix world CO2 emissions problems. Their list includes taxes on gasoline consumption, more general carbon taxes, cap and trade programs, increased efficiency in automobiles, greater focus on renewables, and more natural gas usage.

Unfortunately, we live in a world economy with constrained oil supply. Because of this, the chosen approaches have a tendency to backfire if some countries fail to adopt them. But even if everyone adopted them, it is not at all clear that they would provide the promised benefits.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. If emissions had risen at the average rate that they did during the 1987 to 1997 period (about 1% per year), emissions in 2011 would be 18% lower than they actually were. While there were many other things going on at the same time, the much higher rise in emissions in recent years is not an encouraging sign.

The standard fixes don’t work for several reasons ….

Not going any further because the author, Gail Tverberg has given me permission to reproduce her article and I shall be doing that next Monday.  If you can’t wait until then the article may be read on Gail’s website.

So yesterday, Dr. Alexander set out a series of aspects that showed just how challenging is the present global predicament.  The fundamental argument being that growth is now utterly inappropriate for where mankind now is at the end of 2012.  Part three of the essay examines how, whether we like it or not, change is on its way.

oooOOOooo

THE SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY
ENVISIONING A PROSPEROUS WAY DOWN
Samuel Alexander
Simplicity Institute Report 12s, 2012

Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

3. Embracing Life After Growth (Before it Embraces Us)

Earlier I mentioned that eventually we are likely to have a sufficiency economy whether we choose it or not. It should now be clearer why this is so. The growth paradigm has reached, more or less, the ‘limits to growth,’ and this means that we must move away from growth-based economies if we are to avoid exacerbating existing ecological crises to the point of catastrophe. Billions of lives are at stake, as are the biodiversity and climatic balance of our planet. But even if we do not choose to give up on growth, energy and resource constraints are in the process of bringing growth to an end all the same, and no amount of ‘quantitative easing’ or technological advances are going to provide an escape from this biophysical reality. When, in the foreseeable future, the world reaches the ‘end of growth,’ we will have a form of ‘sufficiency economy’ imposed upon us, in the sense at least that we will have to make do, as best we can, without further growth. This may well imply radically reduced consumption, compared to levels prevalent in consumer societies today, because when growth-based economies do not grow, debts cannot be repaid, and economic contraction, not merely stagnation, tends to ensue. If this situation is not well managed – for example, if we persist blindly with expectations of limitless growth and continue to structure our economies accordingly – then this phase in history is probably going to mark the beginning of civilisational collapse, although it is impossible to be sure whether this would be a rapid breakdown of the existing order (Korowics, 2012) or a slow deterioration over many decades (Greer, 2008).

Nevertheless, the fact that there are biophysical limits to growth from which we cannot escape sometimes obscures the fact that living within those limits is something that we should want to do, simply to be good stewards of Earth. It is obviously in our self-interest to preserve the life-support systems upon which all life depends, a point that is too often overlooked. Furthermore, the social and psychological evidence noted immediately above implies that ‘the good life’ does not actually consist in the consumption of material things, contrary to the promises of advertisements, and this means that denying ourselves consumer lifestyles need not be considered a hardship, as the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement, for example, already understands (Alexander and Ussher, 2012). Certainly, consumer culture must not be accepted as the peak of civilisation. We must explore alternative ways to flourish without relying on material abundance, and I will argue that embracing a sufficiency economy is one means of doing so, and probably a necessary means. I will now briefly elaborate on some of the values underlying the sufficiency economy then proceed to unpack their practical implications in some detail.

3.1. The Principle of Sufficiency – ‘Enough, for Everyone, Forever’

The fundamental aim of a sufficiency economy, as I define it, is to create an economy that provides ‘enough, for everyone, forever.’ In other words, economies should seek to universalise a material standard of living that is sufficient for a good life but which is ecologically sustainable into the deep future. Once that is achieved, further growth in material wealth would not be an economic priority. As noted above, for individuals and economies that are already overconsuming, the attainment of sufficiency implies not merely resisting further growth, but first entering a phase of planned economic contraction. Once sustainable sufficiency has been attained, prosperity should be sought in various low-impact, non-materialistic forms of well being, such as enjoying social relationships, experiencing connection with nature, engaging in meaningful work or spiritual practice, or exploring various forms of peaceful, creative activity. There are no limits to the scale or diversity of qualitative improvement of life in a sufficiency economy, but to achieve sustainability in a world of seven billion people (and counting), material standards of living must not aim for consumer affluence but only for what is minimally sufficient for a good life. The basic economic reasoning here is that once basic material needs are met, human beings are not so strictly bound by materialistic concerns and are thus free to dedicate more of their energy and attention to things other than increasing material living standards. ‘As wealth increases,’ John Hicks (1959: xiii) once wrote, ‘wealth itself becomes (or should become) less important,’ a dynamic that Hicks mischievously called ‘the diminishing marginal significance of economics.’

These broad comments obviously require (and will receive below) more concrete expression, but they nevertheless provide a normative starting point that contrasts sharply with the materialistic ‘more is better’ ethos underpinning existing growth economies. The sufficiency economy is based on an alternative economic perspective that accepts that ‘just enough is plenty,’ and this alternative perspective implies that producing more than is sufficient is not required for an individual or society to flourish. In the words of Henry Thoreau (1982: 568): ‘Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.’ Furthermore, we have already seen that the growth paradigm has produced high-impact economic systems that are grossly unsustainable and certainly not universalisable, so the sufficiency economy treats consumer lifestyles, and the growth economies that are required to support them, as neither desirable nor sustainable.

Determining exactly what level of material provision is ‘sufficient’ cannot be defined with any analytical precision, and will always be context and culturally specific (Sen, 1998). But material sufficiency can be broadly understood to include meeting basic biophysical needs for food and water, shelter, and clothing, as well as having access to basic medical services and some minimal level of social education. Access to extra energy supplies for heating will also be required in certain climates, and since energy is required to sustain any level of social complexity, some indeterminate level of energy supply, beyond food, fire, and labour, should also be considered a basic requirement for a full, human life. (Only those anarcho-primitivists, I presume, who think hunter-gathering is the only acceptable form of social organisation, would object to there being a basic need for energy beyond food, fire, and labour.) Sustainability may not necessarily mean living like the Amish – I am sure people will creatively salvage the wastes of industrial civilisation to live in ways that lie beyond the Amish lifestyles for some time. But using the Amish as a rough touchstone or benchmark may not be so far from the truth. At least this evokes a serious image of what low-consumption ‘simple living’ could look like in an energy descent context, a scenario that is entirely absent from mainstream sustainability discourse (perhaps because such simplicity of life is politically unpalatable). The most important point to understand is that nothing much resembling consumer lifestyles today are sustainable or universalisable.

Although these comments on sufficiency remain highly indeterminate – especially with respect to the amount of energy required – my position is that the concept of sufficiency is so important to sustainability discourse that its indeterminacy must not be a reason to reject it. I contend that universal sufficiency, like justice, is a fuzzy goal towards which humanity should be moving, and the most important thing is that there is a debate over the meaning of sufficiency and an attempt to practice our theory as best we can (Princen, 2005). Currently, in the developed nations, at least, sufficiency does not enter our economic or political vocabulary, which is why so few are asking the question, ‘How much is enough?’, and why fewer still are trying to answer it.

In an age that has done so much to link ‘the good life’ with material abundance, some will think the pursuit of sufficiency means giving up happy and fulfilling lives, but such an objection is based on a particular conception of human beings that the sufficiency perspective I am outlining rejects (Alexander, 2012d). If it were true that happiness and fulfilment consisted in the consumption and accumulation of ever more material things, then, admittedly, a sufficiency economy would seem to be inconsistent with ‘the good life.’ But that is far too narrow a conception of the good life and it is based on a misunderstanding of human beings. It may be that affluence can produce well being, but that does not prove that well being depends on affluence. Indeed, the conception of human beings upon which the sufficiency economy is based is one in which there are an infinite variety of fulfilling lives that can be lived while consuming no more than an equitable share of nature. Put more directly, the sufficiency economy is based on the premise that ‘a simple life’ can be ‘a good life,’ a truth that is obscured only to those who have not sufficiently explored their imaginations. Since consumerist conceptions of ‘the good life’ are causing devastating social and ecological problems, it follows that our economies should promote conceptions of the good life based on far lower resource and energy consumption, and that is the defining characteristic of the sufficiency economy.

3.2. The Macro-Economic and Lifestyle Implications of Energy Descent

The necessity of highly reduced energy consumption is perhaps the critical issue (Odum and Odum, 2001). Such a reduction will arise whether it is enforced by declining oil supplies or voluntarily embraced as a response to climate change. However, even the most progressive ecological economists who argue for decarbonising the economy do not seem to realise quite how revolutionary this proposal is – which is not to say the proposal is misconceived (Hansen et al, 2008), only that its economic implications may be misunderstood. If the global economy managed to wean itself off fossil fuels over the next few decades in response to climate change, then a ‘steady state’ economy would be impossible, if a steady state is meant to imply maintaining anything like existing levels of affluence. It would be impossible because fossil fuels currently make up around 80% of global energy supply (IEA, 2010b: 6), and given the close relationship between energy and economics, nothing like existing production or distribution could be maintained when we are talking about that level of energy reduction. Without fossil fuels, the world just would not have the energy supply to maintain a steady state of economic output; the economy would have to contract significantly. This is not a consequence many people seem to understand or dare to acknowledge, but it is a reality that we must not shy away from if a post-carbon world is indeed what we seek.

The implications of drastically reduced energy consumption primarily means two things for economies. First, it means significantly reduced production and consumption, commensurate with the available energy supply. In order to meet basic needs for all, this will require much more efficient use of energy and a radical reassessment of how best to use what limited energy is available (Alexander 2012b). Secondly, energy descent will mean an inevitable transition to highly localised forms of economic activity, for the reason that trade over large distances would be simply too energy-intensive and costly to afford, especially in an era of stagnating or declining oil supplies and rising prices (Rubin, 2009).

In short, a sufficiency economy is an economy that has low energy and resource requirements (relative to developed economies) but which sufficiently provides for mostly local needs using mostly local resources. These defining features of a sufficiency economy may receive some vague support in certain areas of the ‘deep green’ literature on sustainability, but to date almost no attention has been given to describing in any detail what economic life would be like if such an economy were ever to arise (but see Morris, 2004; Trainer, 2010; Burch, 2012a). Accordingly, the remainder of this essay is dedicated to providing some of those details, in the hope of advancing the debate on what real sustainability actually means for daily life. Until we have some clearer vision of the alternative society, it is very difficult to work effectively and prosperously toward its realisation.

(The full set of references will be included in the concluding Part Five to be published on Friday.)

Part Four – Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down will be published on Learning from Dogs tomorrow.

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7 Responses

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  1. “Without fossil fuels, the world just would not have the energy supply to maintain a steady state of economic output; the economy would have to contract significantly. This is not a consequence many people seem to understand or dare to acknowledge, but it is a reality that we must not shy away from if a post-carbon world is indeed what we seek.”
    Here is exposed the flaw in Alexander’s thesis: As is evidenced by the UK government’s new Energy Bill, our politicians are simply not prepared even to begin to take significant action to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. They are determined to have it both ways – to continue to prioritise economic growth and to burn all the Earth’s unconventional hydrocarbons – and are thus gambling the future of this Goldilocks Planet on our being able to make Carbon Capture and Storage work…

    Martin Lack

    November 28, 2012 at 03:21

    • Can’t say anything other than I totally agree with that pessimistic analysis.

      Paul Handover

      November 28, 2012 at 08:40

  2. [...] One: Where less is so much more Part Two: The simpler life (the global predicament?) Part Three: Doing nothing is not an option Part Four: Down is the new up Part Five: Looking out to the [...]

    Less is more | Wibble

    December 3, 2012 at 00:28

  3. I found this part harder going than the previous two. The message I get from it is ‘greed isn’t good’. Perhaps we need to move away from congratulating our family, friends and neighbours on their latest acquisitions, and instead try to suggest that, perhaps, they are striving towards the wrong goals. It’s not a way to win friends and influence people, I can vouch for that. I’ve been told that it’s ‘human nature’ to want ever more: if that is indeed true, we are truly lost.

    pendantry

    December 6, 2012 at 12:44

    • We all seem to have been incalculated with the idea that ‘growth is good’. Maybe for Europe in those pre-war years it was good. But the idea of ‘growth’ within the finite limits of the planet is, on the face of it, the height of absurdity. Unless this way of seeing our lives is shown to be an utterly broken philosophy, and soon, then I fear, as you say, we are truly lost.

      Paul Handover

      December 6, 2012 at 16:22

      • I do hope you know me well enough by now that it’s just a bit of pendantry when I say “inculcated, yes” :)

        If I were king of the planet I’d impose a forfeit (probably ten minutes in the nearest stocks) for every reference to ‘a return to growth’ made on the goggle box. Politicians such as that right idiot george osborne and that camoron bloke (the pri’minister) would be in and out like the clueless yo-yos they are.

        pendantry

        December 6, 2012 at 17:47

      • Well said! P.

        Paul Handover

        December 6, 2012 at 19:12


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