Tag: Sufficiency economy

Looking out to the horizon

The concluding Part Five of The Sufficiency Economy

So here we are.  Friday and the last part of this stimulating essay by Dr. Samuel Alexander.  I do hope you have found all five chapters not only of interest but also that they have stimulated new ways of thinking.  Because the only way humanity is going to pull itself into a new, sustainable way of living is by thinking ‘outside the box’.

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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.

5. The Ambiguous Charge of Utopiansim

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it. – R.W. Emerson

With the notion of a sufficiency economy now broadly sketched out, and some issues about the transition raised for consideration, it may be worthwhile stepping back from the analysis to consider the vision as a whole. This should provide a new perspective and perhaps raise new issues that deserve attention. One objection that can be easily anticipated is that the notion of a sufficiency economy, as I have described it, is fundamentally utopian in its outlook, and in this section I will respond to this objection briefly.

5.1. Four Responses

The charge of utopianism can be dealt with in at least the following four ways. First, if the charge is meant to imply that the goal of economic sufficiency, as opposed to economic growth, is unrealistic, then there is a sense in which that charge must be turned on its head. It is limitless growth on a finite planet that is unrealistic. After all, what could be more utopian, in the pejorative sense, than the neoclassical growth model which takes as ‘given’ certain non-physical parameters (e.g. market price, preferences, technology, wealth distribution, etc.) but on that basis purports to be independent of the biophysical laws of nature? Recognising the biophysical (and other) limits to growth may indeed require a radical new approach to how economies are structured, as I have argued it does; but this would be in recognition of certain realities, not in any attempt to transcend them.

In a second sense, however, the charge of utopianism should be embraced, not as an indictment, but as a defence. ‘Without the hypothesis that a different world is possible,’ Genevieve Decrop has recently stated, ‘there can be no politics, but only the administrative management of men [sic] and things’ (as quoted in Latouche, 2009: 32). In this sense, the sufficiency economy is indeed a utopian vision, arising out of a defiant faith that a different world is possible. But as Serge Latouche (2009: 32) has aptly explained with respect to the degrowth movement, ‘Far from representing a flight of fancy, it is an attempt to explore the objective possibility of its implementation.’ With a nod to Latouche, the sufficiency economy described above should be understood in similar terms. Imagining the alternative is the first step toward its realisation.

But there is a third sense in which the sufficiency economy is not utopian at all – not if ‘utopia’ refers to that which does not and could never exist. Granted, there is no economy that resembles closely the one described above, which is of a growth economy that has gone through the transition to sufficiency. Nevertheless, almost all the features of the sufficiency economy do find reflection in existing economies in the developed world (and elsewhere). Indeed, real-world examples of sufficiency in practice are everywhere bubbling beneath the surface, threatening to expand into the mainstream; some are in the process of doing so, albeit slowly. For example, there are nascent movements based on notions such as voluntary simplicity, eco-villages, permaculture, transition towns, slow food, degrowth, steady-state economics, etc., all of which can be understood to be exemplifying the practice of sufficiency in disparate but overlapping ways. What this indicates is that a sufficiency economy is not at all a utopian fantasy, but rather an embryonic, fragmented reality struggling away beneath the existing economy, trying to replace that economy with something fundamentally different. It is easy to forget that social movements constantly surprise us, often moving from tiny subcultures to the cultural mainstream with startling speed. Rather than despair, we should proceed on the assumption that more surprises could still lie in store of us.

Finally, some might claim that the sufficiency economy is utopian – again, in the pejorative sense – for the reason that it posits a transformation of economy that relies on a cultural embrace of low-consumption lifestyles of sufficiency, or rather lifestyles of ‘voluntary simplicity,’ as the phrase is more widely known. Human beings are essentially consumers with insatiable material desires, the objection might run, and the sufficiency economy will never voluntarily emerge because voluntary simplicity asks people to act against their personal interests. Any response to this point should begin with the social critique of consumer culture, which would be based on the large and robust body of hedonics research ratifying what many people, perhaps, know intuitively, namely, that ‘beyond a certain threshold, more material wealth is a poor substitute for community cohesion, healthy relationships, a sense of purpose, connection with nature, and other dimensions of human happiness’ (Talberth, 2008: 21). Since the evidence suggests that many people in affluent societies are above such a ‘threshold,’ there are strong grounds for thinking that reducing consumption in such cases would actually increase personal happiness. Relying on the expansion of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement would be more problematic, of course, if voluntary simplicity were a living strategy founded solely upon altruism, or if it implied sacrificing personal well-being for the sake of ecological health. But plainly its foundations are less demanding. Although many in the Voluntary Simplicity Movement are indeed motivated by humanitarian and ecological concerns, the most promising sign for the expansion of the movement lies in the fact that almost all those who practise simplicity report being happier in their lifestyle choice, despite a voluntary reduction or restraint in income and consumption (Alexander and Ussher, 2012). A utopian theory of economic transformation seems much less utopian, I would suggest – as would any theory of social reorganisation – when it is based upon a living strategy that is demonstrably in people’s best interests, including their own happiness.

For all these reasons, I contend that the sufficiency economy is not utopian in any problematic sense. The prospects of its imminent realisation, I admit, seem slim; and certainly it will depend on human beings working relatively well together as the challenges ahead intensify. But human beings share a universal desire to work toward a better life, and if that energy can be harnessed and the transition wisely negotiated, then the sufficiency economy will be quite achievable. Seemingly impossible things have happened before.

6. Conclusion

The challenges that will be faced on the path to a sufficiency economy can hardly be overstated. One of them not considered above is our genetic composition, which is not well suited to dealing effectively or thoughtfully with long-term issues. Historically we had to worry about immediate dangers such as tigers, other tribes, staying warm, and getting enough food; now we also have to get our heads around and respond effectively to the seemingly distant and abstract issues of climate change and peak oil. Evidently, this does not come easy to us. Secondly, the very task of decarbonising our economies as far as possible will be much harder and more unsettling than most people think. As you read these words, look around your room and consider what material artefacts are not, in some way, the product of fossil fuels. Is there anything? My point is that the sufficiency economy described above is not about turning off the lights and taking shorter showers. It is about embracing a fundamentally different way of life and a fundamentally different economy. If we do not voluntarily embrace these differences, however, and instead persist with the goal of universal affluence, then soon enough ecological and / or economic systems will collapse and we will be faced with fundamental change all the same, only with much more suffering. As I noted earlier, we can go the easier way (which will not be easy), or the harder way (which will be unspeakably tragic), depending on our attitudes and actions. We are free to choose our fate, and presently we are in the process of doing so.

I have hardly presented the full picture of the sufficiency economy and I acknowledge that various issues, probably most issues, are controversial and will be contested. That is the way it will be, and that is the way it should be. What is important is that the debate gets drawn away from the question of how to maintain the existing system, toward the urgent and necessary question of what new system should replace the existing system. In this sense the humble notion of a sufficiency economy can be seen as the revolutionary proposal that it is. It will not, of course, be easy to build a new, simpler way of life from within industrial civilisation. Everything will conspire against us. But various social movements already in existence provide a glimmer of hope in these dark times, and that glimmer is everyday growing brighter.

In all movements for change, including the broad movements for justice and sustainability, it is important occasionally to hold up for examination what one understands to be the clearest expression of one’s highest hopes and ideals. That is what I have tried to do in this essay, albeit in an incomplete way. No doubt some will find the threads of underlying positivity utterly indigestible, and already I can sense the trolls gathering, waiting to unleash their pure, unconstructive negativity. But let them fester in their own negativity, while the rest of us (including the constructive critics) set about building the new economy out of the emerging ashes of Empire. All we can do is our best, and we should die trying, not because we think we will succeed, but because if we do not try, something noble in our hearts and spirits will be lost.

Notes:

  1. In forming the following views I have been influenced and inspired by many people, the most significant of whom I would like to acknowledge. With respect to material simplicity and ‘the good life,’ Henry Thoreau (1982) has by far been the greatest influence on my world view, followed by William Morris (2004) and the Greek and Roman Stoics (e.g. Seneca, 2004). I am also greatly indebted to my colleagues and fellow authors at the Simplicity Institute – Ted Trainer, Mark Burch, David Holmgren, and Simon Ussher – all of whom, in their own way, have deeply influenced the following discussion (see Simplicity Institute, 2012). The work of Ernst Schumacher (1973) and the Club of Rome (Meadows et al, 2004) first introduced me to the ‘limits to growth’ analysis, and Serge Latouche (2003; 2009) introduced me to the insight that degrowth, not merely zero-growth, is what is needed to achieve sustainability in overdeveloped nations. With respect to energy, Howard and Elisabeth Odum (2001) and Joseph Tainter (1988) have been my biggest influences, showing me how central energy is to the world we live in. I must also mention and thank Rob Hopkins (2008) and the Transition Movement, for providing what I consider to be the most promising framework for bringing about a just and sustainable, post-carbon world.
  2. It may be that tar-sealed roads and existing water infrastructure can be reimagined into decentralised water management systems, but for present purposes I will treat that as a distant possibility on the grounds that the systems for distributing and treating water collected in this manner are still undeveloped. Furthermore, I do not have the knowledge to understand how difficult it would be to secure water for consumption in this manner.
  3. I will not argue against privatisation models here, other than note that in the sufficiency economy I envision, private companies that serve narrow shareholder interests cannot be left in charge of the provision of basic needs. Instead, the universal provision basic needs, such as water, must be considered a social duty that ultimately remains under social control. No one, for example, should be denied water on the grounds that they are too poor.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_the_United_States
  5. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/CAE301277A675941CA257956000E646E?opendocument
  6. http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/UnitedKingdom
  7. http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR06-complete.pdf p34.
  8. I will currently assume the continuation of some form of monetary economy, an issue that I will give further attention below.
  9. Between 2008-9, water in Australia (where I am writing from) was on average $1.93 per 1,000 litres, and for industry water averaged $0.12 per 1,000 litres. See Australian Bureau of Statistics:
    http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/1301.0~2012~Main%20Features~Water~279
  10. See http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2007/11/28/2103395.htm [accessed 22 December 2011].
  11. See Sustain, ‘Eating Oil: Food Supply in a Changing Climate,’ see:
    http://www.sustainweb.org/pdf/eatoil_sumary.PDF [accessed 2 October 2012].
  12. To provide a real-world example, when oil rose to $147 in 2008, it became cheaper to make steel in the US, since the high price of oil added $90 ton to steel production, making Chinese imports less economic than local production. See Jeff Rubin (2009) 150. See also, Peter North, ‘Eco-localisation as a Progressive Response to Peak Oil and Climate Change – A Sympathetic Critique’ 42 Geoforum (2010) 585.
  13. E.g.,http://www.transport.wa.gov.au/mediaFiles/AT_TS_P_ThetruthabouttravelinPerth.pdf
  14. E.g., http://www.planning.org.au/documents/item/363

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May I close this post by thanking Dr. Alexander and the Simplicity Institute for their support in the republication of this essay in Learning from Dogs.

Down is the new up.

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! 

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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.

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.

4.1. Water

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.

4.2. Food

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.

4.3. Clothing

Continue reading “Down is the new up.”

Doing nothing is not an option

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.