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’.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR06-complete.pdf p34.
- I will currently assume the continuation of some form of monetary economy, an issue that I will give further attention below.
- 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:
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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.