what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Enough is enough

I think I have at last come across the convincing narrative for these times – in a very accessible paper which documents the discussion last June in Leeds of the first Steady State Conference. The foreward indeed echoes the questions about the Why and How of social change to which I promised to return. Brian Czech, President
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Arlington, Virginia, USA
I owe the find to - a personal website which is worth keeping an eye on. And, if Enough is Enough gives the strategic arguments, let me strongly recommend Richard Douthwaite’s most recent book Short Circuit as one of the most definitive sourcebooks on the practicalities of change at a grassroots level - or, as Ed Mayo puts it "Douthwaite has undertaken the most extensive survey yet of community economics in the industrialized world".
I mentioned Douthwaite recently. His name came to my mind when I was thinking about the intellectual provenance relating to the criticism of consumerism. I remembered a couple of books he had written in the 1980s and 1990s – and a google search inidcated he was still growing strong – now at the Feasta Irish foundation. You can actually download the entire book (section by section) from the website! To encourage you to do that, let Ed Mayo complete his introduction -
Tudor Banus again - "livrevignes"
To fully appreciate the significance of this book, we need to ask ourselves why everything we hold dear seems to be threatened. As individuals, we face increasing insecurity in our working lives, on our streets and even within our homes. As societies, we face a ruthlessly competitive global economy, the threat of armed conflict, and a biosphere stressed to the point of collapse. In the face of all this, governments and businesses offer us, at best, a tattered, decaying safety net. Short Circuit's encouraging message is that the security we need can be found in our own communities by developing our local economies.
But why are communities and families fragmenting? Why are thousands of species disappearing and the world's climate becoming ever more unstable? Why is democracy slipping away, and ethnic conflict, poverty, crime and unemployment growing day by day? The root cause of all these problems often evades even the most intelligent and well-intentioned examination. The world economic system has become so complex, and the attitudes that it has given rise to so all-pervasive, that we now find it is extremely difficult to gain a clear perspective. However, there is a common thread running through these seemingly disparate crises: namely, a system of production and distribution that depends for its survival on endless expansion. This continuous growth has led to economic globalization, which essentially means the amalgamation of every local, regional and national economy into a single world system.
Economic globalization is not the result of superior economic efficiency. It is coming about because governments have been subsidizing international and long-distance trade for nearly two hundred years without stopping to assess the impact on society and nature. It is only through tax breaks, cheap fuel, and massive investments in the underlying transport and information infrastructure that apples from New Zealand displace French apples in the markets of Paris, European dairy products destroy local production in milk-rich Mongolia, and Dutch butter costs less than Kenyan butter in the shops of Nairobi. Even a child might ask, 'Why must food be transported thousands of miles, when it can be produced right here?' This is not efficiency but economics gone mad.
Globalization has also led to the growth of huge multinational corporations that have replaced the hundreds of thousands of small businesses, shopkeepers and farmers that traditionally generated most economic activity and employment. And since big firms, unlike small ones, can threaten to move their operations to countries where the fiscal environment is easier, almost every government's ability to raise an adequate amount in tax has been reduced. Consequently, by blindly subsidizing the process of globalization, the nation-state has promoted its own demise.
Moreover, by inducing people everywhere to rely on the same narrow range of industrial resources, the global economic system has greatly increased competition at every level. As a result, unemployment in the industrialized world has soared while, in the cities of the South, populations are exploding because millions of rural families are being drawn away from local self-reliance by the promises of the consumer society - only to be plunged into urban squalor and hunger. Meanwhile, wilderness areas and biodiversity are under increasing pressure as the demand for industrial resources grows.
The system that has emerged suits nobody: in the long run, there are no winners. Even at the highest levels of society, the quality of life is declining. The threat of mergers leaves even senior managers in permanent fear of losing their jobs. As for the burgeoning list of billionaires, try though they might to fence themselves off from the collapsing social order, they cannot hide from the collapsing biosphere.
It is therefore in everyone's interest that the process of globalization be reversed. The most effective way of doing this would be for governments to get together to curb the powers of the multinationals by negotiating new trade and investment treaties that would remove the subsidies powering globalization and give local production a chance. For example, if the hidden subsidies for fossil fuel use were removed, local and national economies would become much stronger. But such international measures would not in themselves restore health to economics and communities: long-term solutions require a range of small local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and the environments in which they take place.
Unfortunately, many people are opposed to the creation of stronger local economics for all manner of reasons. Some, for example, imagine that the aim of economic localization is complete self-sufficiency at the village level. In fact, localization does not mean everything being produced locally, nor does it mean an end to trade. It simply means creating a better balance between local, regional, national and international markets. It also means that large corporations should have less control, and communities more, over what is produced, where, when and how, and that trading should be fair and to the benefit of both partie.
It is also sometimes feared that localization will lead to repression and intolerance. On closer examination, however, it is clear that the opposite is true: the global economy is itself nothing less than a system of structural exploitation that creates hidden slaves on the other side of the world and forces people to give up their rights to their own resources. Localization is not about isolating communities from other cultures, but about creating a new, sustainable and equitable basis on which they can interact. In the North, being responsible for our own needs means allowing the South to produce for itself, rather than for us.
All over the world, campaigns against globalization are growing in strength as people see how it affects their lives, their high streets, and their neighbourhoods - and as they become more aware that there are alternatives. The significance of Richard Douthwaite's book is that he shows that globalization can be contained by using these alternatives in a coherent way. He also shows we can start to build alternative systems today without waiting for politicians to give us their blessing or for the world to burn.
When community initiatives work (and Short Circuit describes both successes and failures) they release the imagination of those involved and enable them to take further steps towards economic revitalization, stronger communities, and a healthier environment. But so far, as Richard Douthwaite points out, no community anywhere has implemented more than a few of the many techniques described in this book, so the potential for revitalization is dramatic.

I have a running dialogue with my steady state friends and colleagues. The subject is best described with the metaphor of a horse and cart. I say, if we want to succeed in replacing the outdated goal of economic growth with a steady state economy, we have to put the horse before the cart. The horse is the public opinion and political will needed for this change. Without this horse, I say, we have little hope of pulling a cart of steady state policies into the economic policy arena.
Many of my friends and colleagues, however, say otherwise.
They say I have it backwards. Citizens won’t be ready, they say, to support steady state policies unless it is clear in advance just what those policies are. Sometimes I think my friends and colleagues are right. Certainly one of the most common questions I get, after pontificating on the perils of growth and the need for steady state economics, is “Yes, but how do we do it?” When I describe the horse and cart, emphasising the horse, some of the audience don’t buy it. They want to know more about the cart before offering their horsepower.
I suppose we are all onto something. The horse and the cart may have to materialise more or less in tandem. Otherwise the horse may say “that’s enough of this” and walk away, as the grass may seem greener in more conventional “sustainability” pastures. On the other hand, even the sturdiest cart of steady state policies would mire down and rust without the horse of public opinion and political will to lead it into action.
The report, aptly titled Enough is Enough, provides more than just a cart of public policies for achieving a steady state economy.
Part One is mostly about the horse, describing why economic growth has become uneconomic — dangerously so — and describing the alternative: economic degrowth toward a steady state economy. However, the bulk of Enough is Enough is found in Part Two, which is all about the cart of policies. This constitutes the single most complete collection of steady state policy initiatives, tools, and reforms in the literature. That alone makes the report worth its weight in steady state gold. As if that were not enough, Part Three puts it all together into a plan to get the horse and cart moving together to begin the economic transition.
Enough is Enough is an extremely interesting and unique document. It puts the reader into the venue of a wonderfully orchestrated, interactive, and productive conference. One can almost hear the plenary talks from the podium in Part One, walk the halls to the diverse workshop sessions in Part Two, and reconvene with the conferees in Part Three.
Most conference proceedings, book-like or not, go quickly onto a dusty shelf.
I doubt this is the fate of Enough is Enough. Some of the graphics will be familiar to students and practitioners of ecological economics; others were developed at the conference or in the aftermath of this creative burst of energy. Beyond its academic uses, Enough is Enough has the potential to become a manifesto in the hands of policy reformers working on issues of environmental protection, economic sustainability, and social justice.
But most importantly, in my opinion, is that steady statesmen and ambassadors, present and future, won’t miss a beat when confronted with the challenging question of “Yes, but how do we do it?” With a sturdy cart of policies hitched to a horse of public opinion that grows stronger by the day, we are ready to set out towards the steady state economy

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