There’s a nice discussion on Dot Earth about overconsumption called “The Endless Pursuit of Unnecessary Things“, a phrase, astonishingly enough, attributable to Adam Smith.
My contribution to the thread is to raise the usual gripe about conventional economics. Here is what I wrote in its entirety:
I am thrilled by and grateful for this conversation.
The problem with the realization of the vicious circle of insecurity, overwork and overconsumption is that it butts directly against the dictates of classical economic theory and the contemporary politics that is so driven by it.
I have never met a person educated in a physical science who was comfortable with the idea of endless growth that appears to be dogmatic in most circles.
Indeed, conflated with our concern about energy, ecology and the environment these days is anxiety about “recession”. If we agree that we are striving too hard and consuming too much, a recession is something to welcome and celebrate (though of course it must be managed well).
We need to rethink all of the concepts of economics, which manage well in an open system with ample resources and scarce labor, and lead simply to our bizarre and counterproductive behaviors today.
(I can’t resist pointing out the analogy to Easter Island, whose culture was plainly successful and adaptive until the very end, when it abruptly got out of scale with its environment and maladaptive. See Jared Diamond’s book Collapse for more on this point.)
Your quotation from Mr. Handy illustrates the point perfectly:
“The conundrum is this: All that stuff creates jobs — making it, promoting it, selling it. It’s literally the stuff of growth. What I’d love to ask Peter Drucker is: How do you grow an economy without the jobs and taxes that these unnecessary things produce?”
It is no conundrum, Mr. Handy. You just don’t, that’s all.
Though he seems to be awakening to the fact that there is a problem, Handy can’t bring himself to address the question of whether growth is by definition inconsistent with sustainability. As a person committed to thinking about the economy the assumption is so deeply held that it’s simply invisible to him!
Just as healthy children grow and healthy adults don’t, underdeveloped economies ought to grow and developed economies ought to, well, sustain. Is this such a radical concept? Is this an unreasonable rough cut at what “sustainability” means?
Many of us are bemoaning the disconnect between our circumstances and what politicians and the press (present company excepted) seem to be discussing; issues about energy, ecology and the environment, for example. There’s a fourth “E” word, though: economics. The issues we are discussing here simply don’t map on to conventional economic thought.
The efforts that do exist to break free of the growth imperative at the fringes of) economic theory, with a few notable exceptions (look for Charles Hall at SUNY Syracuse for a good example), have generally been muddleheaded and romantic.
If there were any possibility of real leadership from modern politics, we’d be seeing leaders trying to help us through the establishment of a new intellectual framework for describing and planning the nature of economic activity in the light of new objectives and new constraints.
What we hear instead is almost perfect silence on this matter.
Let me start with my own small contribution to this endeavor, one of nomenclature. In a mature and wealthy society, a period of declining economic activity should not be called a “recession”. I propose the alternative name “relaxation”. Let’s hope that the current relaxation is long and deep, and let’s try to be open as individuals and as a society to helping people who have to make difficult adjustments as a consequence.
In summary, I think the best thing we could all do right now in recognition of the long overdue economic retreat is to take a deep breath and relax.
Have a cup of tea. Listen to some music. Talk to some old friends. Try to find some time to think about something besides your own troubles. Enjoy the fact that we’re doing ever so slightly less damage this month than we were twelve months ago. Look for ways to relax even more.
Update: Don’t miss “tidal”‘s comment, and check out these people that (s)he refers to therein.
Update: See also Workers of the World, Relax!