The Center for a New American Dream presents Juliet Schor’s Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. In the 1970s, researchers predicted that human overuse of planetary resources would surface at the beginning of the 21st century. Almost on cue, food prices skyrocketed, peak oil got closer and pollution destabilized the climate. In 2008, financial collapse erased a trillion dollars of wealth and the US lost over 8 million jobs. Three years later, there were 44 million people on food stamps and five job seekers for every available position. Meanwhile, the richest 5% of the population had managed to grab a record 65% of the country’s wealth. Wall Street and big companies were thriving, but poverty, anger, and social discontent were rising. The official discourse allows for just one way of solving these problems: expand production, rev up the engine and hope the jobs will trickle down. But no realistic estimates of growth are high enough to reemploy the 25 million people who are out of work or can only find part-time jobs. And the indiscriminate growth we’d get would intensify ecological overshoot, which in turn creates more financial instability. We can’t just trade one problem off for another. We need to reduce ecological impact and create jobs. How do we do that? We absolute have to get off fossil fuels, and innovation and technology are essential. But a common suggestion, technologically-driven “green growth” is only a partial solution, because growth itself degrades planetary resources. We also have to challenge our devotion to endless growth by building a new economic model and way of living. We need a plenitude economy. Its central insight is that changing how we spend our time is the key to reducing environmental impact, creating more jobs, and giving us all a better life. Americans could use a break. Since the 1970s, working hours have risen by about 200 hours a year. That extra work creates stress and impairs family life. Long hours also boost carbon emissions. So let’s reduce worktime. Rather than hiring 4 workers for full-time schedules, an employer takes 5, each working 80%, or a 4-day workweek. Yes, we’ll need to address the costs of benefits, but that’s solvable. Some years ago, the Netherlands government did this for all its new employees. Eventually the whole Dutch financial sector went to 80%. A fairer distribution of work makes the income distribution fairer too, because too little work is a major cause of poverty. Giving people more time off is also at the heart of the trend to DIY, or do-it-yourself. People are growing vegetables, bee-keeping, canning and brewing beer. They’re building low-cost, eco-friendly housing; generating energy; sewing clothing, and even making manufactured items with desktop-sized computer-controlled machines. DIY is savvy economics because 21st century technologies have raised the productivity of small scale production. It allows people to live better with less money, exercise their creativity, and even start businesses as they develop expertise in new, eco-intelligent ways of producing. And when people work less, they tend to consume less. The planet gets some time off too. Plenitude practitioners are also finding security by linking up with each other. There’s a wave of social innovation
for sharing, bartering, informal and neighborhood exchange, re-use and re-sale. The sustainability movement motivated it.
The internet facilitated it. And the economic downturn mainstreamed it as cash got scarce and time got more abundant. People are having fun and saving money with clothing and soup swaps, car and ride sharing, couch surfing and tool libraries. They’re building social capital as an alternative to the borrow-and-spend consumer culture. So there’s the new model: a plenitude economy that gives people more time away from work, expanded opportunities for low-impact economic activity, and a commitment to social connection and community. It’s a way to reclaim a human scale to our economy, take responsibility for our lifestyles, and treat one another and the planet with the respect we all deserve. The Center for a New American Dream: more of what matters.