Two Good Books About The Future

We modern humans sure do love our conveniences. Most things in our lives are so convenient we’ve forgotten there ever was such a thing as inconvenience.

Look at some of the inconveniences we’ve forgotten:

Having to procure our own food from start to finish.

Having limited quantities of untrustworthy water.

Being at the mercy of the climate.

Being at the mercy of the weather.

Having no easy access to large quantities of energy.

Assuming that some of our children won’t live to adulthood.

Living in a world where death is always immanent.

These are some of the big ones. Many of the conveniences we know and love are resolutions of one or another of this list, scaled to fit circumstances. Having to replace the steam nozzle on your cappuccino-maker is a tiny inconvenience to one person (you); the collapse of a coffee crop is a major inconvenience with repercussions all the way from farmer to consumer.

In the coming years, times are going to get harder. Some of the inconveniences we’ve forgotten about are going to re-enter our lives. Weather-related mortality is going to increase (it already has). Our infrastructure is going to deteriorate (it already has). Our water supply is going to be less reliable (it already is).

Our current economy is built around convenience. Having ready credit is a convenience, as is having ready cash available at any ATM. Being able to fly anywhere in the world, is a convenience, as is having a place to stay when you get there.

You get the picture.

Traditional cultures have social rituals and mechanisms for coping with the procurement and preparation of food, the climate and weather, the difficulty of large tasks, the death or sickness of a community member. You can make a pretty strong case that a culture’s identity and uniqueness is encoded in its response to difficulty, to hardship, to inconvenience.

And we humans crave community. We are social creatures, and our cultures provide us with meaningful ways to relate in a wide variety of contexts. We need one another most when times aren’t good.

Which is part of the reason our communality has eroded concurrently with our inconveniences. An unintended consequence of the development of a quick-satisfaction consumer culture in which anything we want is available is the gradual disappearance of the things we really want: one another.

Which brings me to two books I’ve been reading recently.

Juliet Schor’s Plenitude starts off with a meticulously crafted description of what our oh-so-wonderfully-convenient culture has brought us. An economist by profession, she’s someone I wish our administration was listening to, for her analysis is built not on the dogma of the dismal science, but on the patterns that emerge at the intersection of ecological limits and social history.

A good example is her discussion of the transformation of clothing from a product of utility to a product of fashion. When clothes were expensive to buy and inconvenient to make, it made sense to use sturdy construction and long-lasting materials. As new manufacturing methods cut expense at all points on the supply chain, the relationship between buyer and product shifted:

As the economics of apparel production have changed, so too have consumers. They have come to expect low prices and frequent design change. Buying is more indiscriminate, and garments are worn fewer times. Shoppers can indulge their taste for novelty, worrying less about whether their wardrobes are versatile and durable.

“Plenitude,” p. 30

And what do people do with the once-fashionable clothes they no longer wear?

They throw them out, of course. Or drop them in Goodwill boxes, or give them to homeless shelters, or sell them to used-clothing stores, where, as Schor points out,

The most revealing fact about the contemporary apparel market is this: clothing can now be purchased by weight, rather than by the piece, and at a price as low as a dollar a pound. That means it’s possible to buy…apparel for less than rice, beans, or other basic foodstuffs. In historical perspective, this is almost unfathomable.

“Plenitude,” p. 28

Which reminds me of a story. This is my version of a Jewish folktale called “Just Enough.”

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When Joseph the tailor was a young man, he made himself a fine coat out of the best fabric he could buy, and he wore it proudly. One day he saw a young woman shivering in the snow and he offered her the coat to wear. They fell in love and were married, and Joseph continued to wear his fine coat for years and years until it was all worn out.

He held up his tattered garment and recalled how it had helped him meet his beloved Anna. “Now there is nothing left,” he said…but he laid the coat down again and looked at it carefully. “Aaaaah! There is just enough for a jacket!” And so he measured and cut and stitched and hemmed, and by the next day he had a fine jacket, which he wore everywhere.

And in time, Joseph and Anna had a little girl named Rachel. When she was a year old he picked her up and tucked her in his jacket and took her outside and danced with her in his arms through the falling snow. And he continued to wear his fine jacket for years until it was all worn out.

He held it up and remembered how he’d taken Rachel out into the snow, and said, “Now there is nothing left.”

And as always happens in such stories, he laid the jacket down again and looked at it carefully. “Aaaaah! There is just enough for a cap!” And so he measured and cut and stitched and hemmed, and by the next day he had a fine cap, which he wore everywhere.

And in time, his daughter was thirteen years old, and it came to pass that there was a famine in the land. Everyone was hungry, and the family went searching for food. They walked for miles when they discovered a clump of berry bushes, full of ripe berries waiting to be picked. What could they do? The only thing they had that would serve as a basket was Joseph’s fine cap, and it got stained and dirty. But he continued to wear his cap for years and years until it was all worn out.

He held it up and remembered how it had saved the family from hunger, and said, sadly, “Now there is nothing left.”

But….

He looked at it carefully and shouted, “Aaaaah! There is just enough for a bow tie!” And so he measured and cut and stitched and hemmed, and by the next day he had a fine bow tie, which he wore everywhere.

And in time Joseph was an old man and his daughter had married and given him three grandchildren. One day his grandson, sitting on his lap, said, “Grandfather, you’re wearing a butterfly,” and pointed at the tie. So he took it off and made it flutter and fly around the little boy’s head. And every day after that Joseph and the children would play with the bow tie. And he continued to wear his bow tie for years, until he was all worn out.

And one day he came home from the market in despair. His bow tie had fallen off. It was gone. Everyone in the market had helped him look, but it was nowhere to be found. He was heartbroken.

Anna tried to comfort him, but nothing seemed to work. Then she brightened. She sent for Rachel and the three grandchildren, and when they arrived at the house, she asked Joseph, “Please, tell the little ones the story of your coat. They haven’t heard it.” And so Joseph told of how he’d made his coat as a young man, of how it had warmed Anna on the day they’d met, of how it had cradled baby Rachel on a wild dance through the snowstorm, of how it had held berries for the family to eat, of how it had turned into a butterfly for the delight of the children, and how it had finally been lost that day in the market.

And Joseph realized: all that was left of his beautiful coat was a beautiful story. And I’ve just told it to you.

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That, dear friends, is what clothing (and stories) used to be. Now? You know as well as I.

But I digress.

Juliet Schor notes that nowadays, fashion governs:

…everything from the pencil holder on the desk to the teapot on the stove, never mind the cell phone, its case, and its ringtone.
“Plenitude,” p. 31

And fashion depends on convenience and ease. Waste is its inevitable companion; when things fall out of mode, they are disposed of, and the convenience of waste is that we don’t have to think about what happens to (for example) the cigarette lighter we just threw away. It could be picked up and recycled. Or it could get dumped in the ocean and wind up here:

Dead Albatross chick full of plastic

If Schor’s book were only a penetrating diagnosis of the socio-economic roots of our planetary malaise, it would still be immensely valuable. The first half of this book irrefutably shows how our present economic model is collapsing inward on itself. But her analysis of market capitalism and its discontents is only prelude to the presentation of a powerful alternative model.

The word “plenitude” connotes abundance, and we have been conditioned by our decades of air-conditioned convenience to believe that abundance implies waste. But it ain’t so. The abundance she advocates is frugal in its use of environmental capital and effulgent in its variety of human interactions.

We’re going to have to spend more of our time just plain surviving, and that fact has to change our relationship to work. Schor first recommends reducing the number of hours we work at our jobs, pointing out:

For at least 150 years, the market economy has used growth to absorb the labor that it sheds through technological change and industrial decline.

[snip]

This solution is no longer available in the way that it has been historically. Bumping up against planetary boundaries means that BAU growth as the way out of unemployment…is folly.

[snip]

So we need to use productivity growth differently and reduce the number of hours associated with each job. This allows businesses to innovate without laying off personnel, cushions declines in sales, and results in more positions when demand expands. Reducing hours per job may sound slightly exotic, but it’s what happened in response to the technological change of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hours of work in the United States began to decline after about 1870, at which point they were nearly 3,000 a year….in 1973 hours stood at 1,887, 1,077 below where they had been a century earlier.

[snip]

The experience of other wealthy countries was similar. Between 1870 and 1973, the United Kingdom experienced a decline of 1,065 hours, France 922, Germany 1,071, the Netherlands 1,141, and Japan 779. Reducing hours in tandem with productivity growth allowed prosperity to be broadly shared and helped build the middle class.

“Plenitude,” p. 164-166

Because of multiple factors, the United States (unlike these other nations) has not continued reducing work hours. We’re going to need to. But this reduction has to be part of a larger redirection of our entire way of economic thinking. Schor concludes her discussion of work-hour reduction with the following telling paragraph:


The other reason we need to get back on the shorter-hours path is ecological, a point that sustainability advocates increasingly recognize. Along with economic revival will come productivity growth — the ability to produce a given amount of output with fewer inputs. Some of it will be growth in the productivity of natural assets achieved by the switch to clean tech. Labor productivity will also increase, especially in the early phases of the recovery. If the freed-up hours are used to expand output, they’ll cause more ecological degradation. The alternative is to produce the same amount in less time, which puts less pressure on the planet. It’s a far cry from austerity, because it doesn’t involve doing with less, only forgoing additions to income, an important distinction.

“Plenitude,” p. 168

The other part of her model has to do with what we do with those hours where we’re not at our jobs. Multiple studies show that having more time makes people happier than having more money; working long hours to make money doesn’t correlate well to happiness, while having regular family meals and a rich community life do. If we are to live as a species in a state of plenitude, Schor wisely asserts that our true wealth must lie in the multiplicity and reciprocity of our relationships with one another, with our local ecologies, and with the planet.

The climatic breakdown which industrialized humanity has set in motion is going to make all our lives more inconvenient in the years to come. To survive and prosper requires a reinvention of community; the only way we’ll make it on a planet ravaged by climate change is through collective wisdom and collective joy.

“Plenitude” is a compelling presentation of an alternative economic model, one that is both appealing and necessary. It makes an important companion to Bill McKibben’s newest book, “eaarth — making a life on a tough new planet.”

Bill McKibben needs no introduction to environmentally conscious readers. Like Schor, he begins with a measured presentation of the facts of our predicament, but his perspective is that of an environmentalist, not an economist. Which means that he discusses the breakdown of the world’s climate and ecosystems — and makes some projections about what it’ll mean to us over the next decade and the next century.

It’s pretty depressing. Don’t start this book before bedtime, or you will lie awake staring holes in the ceiling.

In the second half (having whacked you around for a while with eloquent descriptions of climatic tragedy, done as only he can), McKibben asks, essentially, “Given that the world is going to be like this for the forseeable future, how can we live in it and be happy?” And by way of answer, he gives inspiring example after inspiring example of locally based, globally conscious sustainability in practice — covering the varied economies of (among others) food, energy, and information.

He profiles small-scale sustainable entrepreneurs and the communities they’re part of. Tod Murphy, the owner of the Farmers Diner in Quechee, Vermont, has made a commitment to use locally grown or raised food almost without exception in his restaurant. McKibben follows him from supplier to supplier, tracing the web of relationships that allows Murphy to feed customers from local and regional sources without having to charge impossibly high prices.

Murphy can still find vegetable growers to fit his scale, for example, someone to plant the five acres of cucumbers he needs for his pickles. But to help rebuild the supply of meat and chicken farmers, he’s launching a nonprofit foundation…[which] will help growers with business plans and marketing strategies.

All this to make a smoked-turkey club. Or, to read from today’s specials menu, some poached Vermont eggs with Cabot cheddar cream sauce. Or some maple butternut squash. Or some Cortland apple cobbler topped with local granola, and a scoop of that Strafford ice cream…For change back from a ten-dollar bill, it doesn’t get much sweeter than this. It should work. It should spread. If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner.

“eaarth,” p. 138-139

Continuing his examination of the food component of local economies, McKibben points out that farmers’ markets have begun to bring people together again; he cites a recent study showing that shoppers had ten times as many conversations in a visit to a farmers’ market than in a supermarket.

(I enjoy watching the hustle and bustle of vegetable-sellers in the open markets of India. The constant flow of conversation is as essential as the exchange of money for goods. People bicker and dicker, gossip, joke and laugh. Even in a place where I don’t understand the language, the atmosphere of good will is pervasive.)

Every farmers’ market is different — which is (as the software people like to say) a feature, not a bug. On the other hand, every Stop & Shop, every Whole Foods, aspires to a practical interchangeability. In the management of national chains, local variations are considered bugs, not features — a profound misunderstanding of how sustainability functions.

While McKibben is constitutionally optimistic, he gives us some pretty strong medicine:

…no use underestimating the depth of change we’ll need to deal with, especially since there’s no end point in sight. As we lose the climatic stability that’s marked all of human civilization, it’s not as if we’re going to land on some other firm plateau. The changes to our lives will be ongoing and large and will require uncommon nimbleness, physically and psychologically. Our focus will have to shift. As a culture and an economy, we’ve had the margin to afford a lot of abstractions. Abstractions in the supermarket aisle: Lunchables, and Cheetos, and the four thousand other incarnations of high fructose corn syrup. Abstractions in our relations with the rest of the planet : “the free world.” Abstraction will grow harder; increasingly, we’re going to have to focus on essentials: on actual food and on energy that comes from the wind and sun in our neck of the woods, not from that abstraction called “The Middle East.”

“eaarth,” p. 147-148

As the father of a little girl I cannot linger on Frank Fenner’s prediction that humans will be extinct within a century. With luck, however, our present form of capitalism will become extinct, and a model like the one Schor outlines will come into place. And this plenitude-based economy will support a richly networked, community-intensive mode of living like the one McKibben describes. If we can make this transition happen, we, as a species, will be able to restore both our planet’s health and our own, over the many thousands of years it’ll take.

Dianne Dumanoski concludes her magisterial “The End of the Long Summer” with these words:


Looking ahead, it is natural to focus on the dangers, but those who will be making their way in this uncertain future will also have unusual opportunities, although these may not be of the kind that one would have chosen wittingly. In the struggle to continue the human journey, they may live lives enlarged by a shared sense of great purpose, leavened by imagination, and enriched by the creativity that survival has always required.

Like our ancestors who managed to survive vicissitude and great hardship over the past 5 million years and who found ways to live creatively in a deeply uncertain world, we must have the fortitude to confront this immense uncertainty and find a path through its dark thickets. As has always been the case, we will be sending our children into this challenging future without guarantees. But if we are both wise and prudent, we will arm them for this dangerous passage with understanding about how our inherited assumptions about ourselves and the world have unleashed this instability, with resilient institutions designed for flexibility and redundancy rather than profit and efficiency, with a recast map of the world that reflects the volatile nature into which they have been born, and with the most precious endowment passed down through countless human generations — knowledge, courage, and honest hope.

“The End of the Long Summer,” p. 252.

That’s my dream, and I’m grateful to Bill Mckibben and Juliet Schor for making it seem possible.

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