Part Four of The Sufficiency Economy
I am delighted to find that this essay by Dr. Alexander has been extremely well-received by you. On Monday, there were 1,458 viewings, Tuesday there were 1,546 viewings and today (Wednesday – the day I am writing this) already over 700 viewings at 9.20am local time (PST).
The wealth of evidence that is surfacing just now as to the seriousness of our present global predicament is mind-blowing. Indeed, a couple of the more important articles that have ‘crossed my screen’ this week will be published next week on Learning from Dogs.
In the third part of Dr. Alexander’s essay that was published yesterday, Doing nothing is not an option, the primary theme was predicated as follows:
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.
Today’s essay offers a strong, positive framework for how humanity has to change – let me repeat that for emphasis – how humanity HAS to change!
THE SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY
ENVISIONING A PROSPEROUS WAY DOWN
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.
4. Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down
The following exposition of the sufficiency economy is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation. It is utopian (or at least optimistic) in the sense that I present a picture of the sufficiency economy that depends upon human beings working relatively well together to meet the challenges ahead, rather than degenerating into a war of all against all at the first signs of trouble. I also assume that a culture of consumption has arisen in which sufficiency rather than affluence is widely considered the path to human flourishing. I believe these are necessary elements to any ‘prosperous way down’ (Odum and Odum, 2001). What follows is dystopian in the limited sense that the analysis accepts that there will be no smooth transition beyond the growth economy, and that consumer lifestyles will be taken from many people against their will – although perhaps ‘realistic’ is a better word than ‘dystopian’ here. Focused broadly on urban contexts in the developed world, the following analysis is structured by considering various aspects of the sufficiency economy, for the purpose of presenting a vision of the alternative way of life it implies.
However the future plays out – and let’s face it, no one really knows – what is certain is that the same events will be much less difficult and cause much less suffering if they are anticipated to some extent and prepared for (Alexander, 2012e; Burch, 2012b). I hope the following analysis might assist in both these regards.
I will begin with the issue of water security, this being one of the most essential biophysical needs. The first point to note is that in most urban (including suburban) contexts, the amount of roof space available to collect water would be insufficient to secure the necessary water supplies for such dense populations.(2) What this means is that urban contexts require the water mains to exist, for if they failed for more than a day or so, most people would quickly perish. Given that most people now live in urban contexts, it is fair to say that the first thing a sufficiency economy must do is ensure that the water mains continues to function. This may sound like a trite observation, and it is, but since our present exploration is considering the economic foundations of a very different way of life, the foundations are where we must start. Accordingly, a sufficiency economy must at least have the energy supply and stability to maintain the water mains at a sufficiently high level of regularity and safety, something resembling the existing model, but hopefully more efficient.(3) The alternative is mass population die-off and probably significant re-ruralisation (where there would be more room for large water tanks).
Despite the mains system in a sufficiency economy remaining something close to what we have today, attitudes to water consumption and collection would undergo a revolution. To provide some hard numbers, average household water consumption in the United States is around 370 litres(4); in Australia it is around 230 litres per day(5); and in Britain it is about 150 litres(6). At the other end of the spectrum, institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation hold that 20 litres per person, per day, is close to the minimum needed for bare subsistence(7), and that figure is sometimes used as a baseline in refugee camps. In a sufficiency economy, I propose that domestic water consumption per person would need to fall to somewhere between 50-70 litres per person, per day, which is enough to live a dignified existence without leaving much room for waste.
Reduced water consumption should occur partly out of the desire for ecological preservation – for example, a desire to preserve river systems – but I should expect economic incentives to play a large part too. Assuming fresh water becomes increasing scarce as populations increase and the climate warms (Brown, 2011), the price of water must inevitably rise, and rise significantly(8). Currently, water is grossly underpriced(9). In itself, expensive water will provide a strong incentive for people to reduce their wasteful consumption, and much of this can occur with very little hardship at all. Government or community regulation of some sort may have to provide further incentives, in certain contexts, at least, as well as some baseline supply guarantees, irrespective of ability to pay.
In order to reduce water consumption (for either ecological or economic reasons, or both), various steps would be taken. First of all, every household would maximise its roof water collection via water tanks. Those households that prepare first will easily be able to purchase water tanks and pipes from hardware stores, but as times get tougher (e.g. plastics and concrete become harder to produce, source, or afford), more people will have to creatively use whatever containers and pipes they can salvage or make themselves. We will all become proficient in creating and connecting systems of water collection and reuse. Greywater systems, for example, will become the household norm, including the use of tank water to flush the toilet or simply collecting water when showering to flush the toilet. Eventually, composting toilets will be widely used (at least in suburbia), with huge implications on water consumption.
In order to reduce charges from the increasingly expensive mains supply, tank water will be used whenever possible, especially for watering productive gardens (more on food below). In those times when people are required to draw from the mains, there is much room for conservation. Being conscientious of water consumption when preparing food and cleaning dishes is one space for conservation, and never watering (or even having) lawns is another. But perhaps the largest savings in the domestic sphere can come from how we wash ourselves and our clothes. Showers could easily be reduced to a minute or two without interfering with their primary goal of keeping us clean and hygienic. In fact, if required we could remain sufficiently hygienic by cleaning ourselves with a bucket of water and some soap. It may be a requirement of a dignified life to be able to wash oneself regularly – achievable with a bucket of water and some soap – but we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion. Clothes would probably be washed less regularly, which might bring some balance to a culture that is arguably excessively concerned with cleanliness.
Innumerable other water-saving strategies could easily demonstrate that high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness, such that great reductions would not take away from us anything that is actually necessary for a good life. The critical point to note, which applies to all aspects of life discussed below, is that the same reductions in consumption (whether voluntary or enforced) would be experienced in totally different ways, depending on the mindset that was brought to experience. Fortunately, that mindset is within our control, even if the circumstances may not always be.
A foundational issue for any economy is how it sources and produces its food, and this issue sits next to water on the list of essential needs. The globalised, industrial food production system currently in existence is highly unsustainable for various reasons. Not only are industrial farming techniques causing the severe and widespread erosion of nutrient-rich topsoil (which takes many hundreds of years to rejuvenate), but also the industrialised system is extremely fossil fuel dependent. Natural gas is needed to produce commercial fertilisers, and oil is needed to produce commercial pesticides, to fuel farm machinery, and to create the plastics used in packaging. Most importantly, however, are the extremely long supply chains that reach all around the world and which are dependent therefore on oil for transport. In Australia, for example, a basket of food from the supermarket typically travels 70,000 kilometres from producer to consumer (if the distance each item travels is aggregated)(10). With respect to the UK, one study has the figure at 241,000 kilometres(11). This fossil fuel dependency is highly problematic not only due to its link to climate change, but also because it will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.
In a sufficiency economy, food production would be highly localised and organic, and based on permaculture or ‘biointensive’ principles (Holmgren, 2002; Jeavons, 2012). Ideally this transition would be voluntarily embraced at once, but more likely is that it will be ushered in by the pressures of declining oil supplies and increasing prices. Cuba, during its ‘special period,’ provides a real world example of some such transition (Percy et al, 2010; Friedrichs, 2010). When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba almost over night found itself with drastically reduced oil supplies, and this necessitated an immediate shift away from energy-intensive, industrialised food production, toward a system of local and organic production. Notably, the government played a large role in facilitating this transition, but the driving force for change came from the grassroots level, as people realised they had to produce their own food or starve. The Cuban experience has some parallels with the ‘relief gardens’ that arose during the Great Depression and the ‘victory gardens’ during World War II. Necessity has always been a great motivator to grow food.
One of the most significant implications of the transition away from industrial food production is the increased labour needed for organic production. Environmentalists too often overlook this issue. While it widely accepted that organic production can be more productive per acre than industrial food production (Jeavons, 2012), organic production is also vastly more labour intensive. The increased labour requirements arise primarily from the absence of mechanised farm machinery, but organic fertiliser production and pest control are also typically more time intensive than industrialised techniques (although permaculture practices can reduce or negate this disparity through things like companion planting). What this means is that organic food production is entirely capable of feeding the world, but do so it will require a huge increase in the provision of agricultural labour. This must be accepted as an implication of the transition to a sufficiency economy, however it is one that has a large silver lining. Not only will it reconnect communities with the local land base upon which they depend for subsistence, but many health benefits will flow from moving away from sedentary office or factory work toward the more active and outdoor work of farming. Governments must do everything they can to support localised, organic agriculture, starting by putting a price on carbon.
As well as a proliferation of organic farms on the urban periphery, a sufficiency economy would also aim to maximise organic food production within the urban boundary. This would involve digging up lawns and turning them into productive vegetable gardens, and planting fruit trees in all available spaces. Nature strips would be cultivated; parks would be turned into small farms or community gardens; suitable roofs would become productive, herbs would grow on balconies and windowsills, and generally all food producing potential would be realised. Most suburban backyards would keep chickens for eggs, and perhaps even small livestock, such as goats for milk and cheese. Animals are also a great source of manure for compost, and many permaculturalists build animals into their organic systems. While it will probably be far too energy intensive to dig up tar-sealed roads, there is still great potential for building raised beds on driveways, some footpaths or roads, and car parks. Mushrooms could be cultivated on the shady side of the house, and household or neighbourhood aquaculture systems could provide urban centres with some of their fish supply.
Even in a sufficiency economy, however, we can expect our households to ‘import’ various foods in various forms, if not from around the world, then certainly from rural contexts. This, in fact, would be an absolute necessity in urban contexts, because growing space simply does not permit anywhere near strict self-sufficiency. A recent study of Toronto, Canada, for example, concluded that the city could possibly produce 10% of its own fruit and vegetables, if available growing space within the city’s boundaries were converted to agriculture (MacRae et al, 2010). This implies that even if urban agriculture were enthusiastically embraced, the city would still need to import 90% of its fruit and vegetables, to say nothing of its meat, minerals, and other goods. While some cities may be able to do somewhat better (e.g. Havana), the Toronto study clearly shows that urbanites around the world are extremely dependent on functioning food production and distribution systems.
Food consumption, not just production, would change drastically in a sufficiency economy. As already implied, the consumption of food would be organic and highly localised, and this also means that people would eat ‘in season’ in order to avoid having to import non-seasonal foods from the other side of the world. Preserving foods in season would be the most appropriate way to access those foods out of season. Generally, food would be unprocessed and require no disposable packaging, and people would eat much less meat (especially red meat) or become vegetarian, due to the intolerable environmental impacts of excessive meat and fish consumption. This reduction in meat consumption could also open up huge tracts of land for human food production that are currently used to produce grain for animals. People would also eat less meat and fish because the sufficiency economy would internalise all externalities, therefore greatly increasing their relative price and thus their relative demand.
Finally, as well as composting human waste for ‘humanure’ via composting toilets (Jenkins, 2005), a sufficiency economy would vigilantly compost all its organic food wastes in order to supply the growing need for organic fertilisers, and this would also vastly reduce the amount of so-called ‘waste’ that is currently ‘wasted’ by being sent to landfill. One might even say that in a sufficiency economy a good bag of compost will typically be more valuable than a bag of gold, and if readers cannot understand that, perhaps they will not understand much about the sufficiency economy.