Monday, June 24, 2013

Alternatives to "Zombie America"

I was asked to come up with some additional material for the chapter of a textbook that I've been writing. The chapter is for an introductory sociology textbook and concerns the relationship between societies and their environments. This is something of a first in sociology; up until now the environment has been either ignored or given a few sections under some other topic (such as population or social change).
Sociology, unlike it's sister discipline anthropology, has not until recently paid much attention to how the environment affects culture and society.

I was so pessimistic in my last post, that I wanted to provide a little balance, particularly because I found the books I read for this additional material so interesting (list of references at bottom of post).  So here is the additional material written over the past week:
Where does this leave us? On the one hand, as long as our world economies are organized as they currently are failure to grow will have devastating economic and social consequences; on the other hand industrialization and economic growth have brought us to the point where the human ecological footprint has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Are we doomed to either slide into economic recession with increasing unemployment and poverty while we protect the environment, or to prosper economically while we destroy our environment? No, we are not so doomed. The choice between economic growth and environmental sustainability is a false dichotomy. 
A growing number of environmentally aware economists (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011) point out a crucial flaw in the economic growth versus environmental sustainability choice. That flaw is that environmental problems such as global warming, food and water scarcity, and the depletion of non-renewable resources like oil are fundamental roadblocks to economic growth. If human societies do not address the environmental problems we will have no choice at all, economic growth will grind to a halt because of intrinsic limits imposed by the natural environment. 
This is not a new idea; it was first systematically put forth in the classic The Limits to Growth a research study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1972 (Meadows, Rander and Meadows 2004).  The conclusions of this study have been reinforced by careful analysis of the actual environmental and economic trends of the intervening forty years (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011, Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004). If the world’s nations persist in pursuing the goal of economic growth, the result will be both environmental destruction and the failure of economic growth. Once environmental limits bring economic growth to a halt, the economic system would most likely crash in catastrophic fashion (Heinberg 2011). 
This is not necessarily the doomsday scenario it might seem at first. Most people are “pro-” economic growth because they assume that prosperity and economic well-being are dependent upon economic growth. Using detailed social and economic data environmentally savvy economists have demonstrated that economic growth is not necessarily equated with economic prosperity and security, and that the increasing size of economies undermines the prosperity of the average person (Daley and Farley 2003, Dietz and O’Neill 2013, Heinberg 2011). 
Economic growth is a matter of size, of quantity not quality and is generally measured by the expansion of the gross domestic product of a nation (GDP).  Growth is about more but not always about better. GDP increases when we drill and sell more oil, but it also increases when we spend millions of dollars on cleaning up oil spills. If the number of people smoking decreases and sales of cigarettes fall then GDP goes down, while if the number of cancer cases increases and we spend more money as a society treating cancer patients than GDP goes up.
Measures of economic growth also pay no attention to how wealth and income are distributed (Heinberg 2011). Between 1975 and 2012 the Gross Domestic Product of the United States increased nearly nine times (from 1.8 trillion to 15.7 trillion). During that same period the amount of income and wealth inequality increased with the gap between the top wealthiest individuals and everyone else growing substantially. Median wages and household incomes in the United States stagnated and fell – even as corporate profits and gross domestic product rose (Packer 2013). There were other qualitative declines in standards of living in the United States that were not included in measures of economic growth: the percent of the workforce holding part-time and temporary jobs increased, as the percent receiving health care, sick leave, retirement and other benefits declined (Packer 2013). The conclusion: economic growth has not translated into economic prosperity or security for increasing numbers of people both in the United States and elsewhere. 
There is an alternative one that promises both economic prosperity and security and environmental sustainability. The alternative is the steady-state economy which maintains a stable level of resource consumption and a stable population, while providing sufficient resources for the sustenance and satisfaction of people. The goal of a steady-state economy is improving quality of life within ecological limits. 
What would a steady-state economy look like? The first defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is environmental sustainability. There would be strict limits on the use of materials and energy, and on the production of waste materials (Heinberg 2011). Built environments – roads, bridges, housing, factories – could not expand into new land; existing agricultural and natural lands (whether forests or deserts) would be protected from encroachment. Environmental sustainability includes an overall reduction in the scale of economies with a shift from far-flung global supply lines to localized production and exchange of both food and manufactured goods (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Stabilization of world population numbers would be an essential element of environmental sustainability (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). In a steady-state economy humans create sustainable environments in which natural ecosystems and human development are blended to design healthy communities, economies, and ecosystems over the long term. 
The second defining characteristic of a steady-state economy is fair and equitable distribution of resources: food, housing, employment, health care, transportation, leisure time, educational opportunity and economic security (Daley and Farley 2003). Everyone would have access to meaningful jobs and full employment would be the norm (Dietz and O’Neill 2013). Fair distribution of resources would apply within and across societies and across generations (McDonough and Braungart 2013). The result is a world in which everyone is prosperous and extremes of wealth and poverty are muted. 
A steady-state economy is one in which the quality of life is measurably enhanced. People are healthier with fewer of the diseases of poverty (cholera, dysentery) and those of affluence (obesity, heart disease). They work less, have more leisure with time for creativity and hobbies, time to spend with family and engaged in their local community (Heinberg 2011, Dietz and O’Neill 2013). 
How is a steady-state economy achieved? The title of this section of your text suggests that the alternative to “growth” is “restraint,” but restraint is not how one completely transforms the world’s economies to avoid environmental and economic disaster. The project of creating steady-state, environmentally sustainable before environmental problems such as global warming and resource depletion become irreversible requires a mobilization effort similar to the one that helped the United States ready for war in 1942 (Assadourian and Prugh 2013). Major transformation of economic, political and social institutions and a substantive shift in individual and societal values is required. 
There will remain a role for markets in a steady-state economy, but markets must be balanced by the state and civil society (Dietz and O’Neill). The current ruler for market success is profit alone, which must be replaced by a triple metric in which people and the planet are placed in line ahead of profit (McDonough and Braungart 2013). New priorities that focus on long term outcomes measured in terms of sustainability, equity, employment and quality of life, rather than simply profit will have to be set for economies, and only governments can do that (Daley and Farley 2003, Heinberg 2011). But governments can only set new priorities if the people who elect and support them develop new, sustainable rather than growth oriented values. 
How do you, the student, meet this challenge?  The first thing is education. Understand why growth is problematic not only for a sustainable environment, but also for a sustainable society and human quality of life. Learn what it takes for a sustainable environment and a steady-state economy.  A good place to start is the books such as those cited in this section including: Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources by Robert Dietz and Daniel W. O’Neill (2013); The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg (2011); State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? organized by Erik Assadourian and Tom Prugh for World Watch (2013); and The UpCycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2013). 
Finally it is important to use your knowledge by becoming involved with local and national organizations that promote change. Every geographic locality has a variety of local groups that concern themselves with sustainable development. The numbers are so great and the types of organizations so varied that one cannot even begin to list them.  You can begin by searching on the internet for both local and national groups using search terms like: sustainable communities, Transition, permaculture, renewable energy, and appropriate technology (Heinberg 2011). You can also talk to others around you—fellow students, instructors, neighbors, local government leaders—to find people who share concerns about the environment and the need for sustainable development.

Assadourian, Erik and Tom Prugh, Project Directors. 2013. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington, DC: Island Press. 
Daley, Herman and Joshua Farley. 2003. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington, DC: Island Press. 
Dietz, Robert and Daniel W. O’Neill. 2013. Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. 
Heinberg, Richard. 2011. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers. 
McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2013. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. New York, NY: North Point Press, Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 
Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. 
Packer, George., 2013. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. London, England: Farrar, Staus and Giroux.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Zombie America - Installment 4

A year and a half ago, as I was thinking about the state of things economic, political and environmental in this country, the phrase "zombie America" popped into my head. What is a zombie? The original use of the word is for a dead body, devoid of real life and soul, that is reanimated and caused to walk around by witchcraft or dark magic. In the ever popular science fiction of recent years, the concept of zombie has evolved to mean a person who has as the result of infection or exposure to unspecified substances been robbed of their humanity - of their personality, intelligence, soul and will - and transformed to a monster that kills and feeds on uninfected humans (especially their brains). Those that are not killed also infected and become themselves zombies.

Zombies are variously referred to as the "undead" and the "walking dead," phrases that I think can be applied to American economy, politics and society at large. The nation is still lurching and weaving about, animated but no longer truly alive, dead (or dying) but because still animated, so that many observers still imagine it to have life. Pretty pessimistic stuff, right? 

Personally, right now, this week, this month, this past year, my life is pretty great. I have a job I really like (most of the time), enough income for current needs, and few debts (just my house). Since I have tenure I'm unlikely to lose my job any time soon, and I'm over 62 and not far from full-retirement age with (I hope) adequate retirement savings. So unless the entire U.S. economy and government break down completely, and civil disorder and anarchy overtake us I'm in pretty good shape personally.  The problem is that as a sociologist, I believe that such a break down with ensuing disorder and anarchy due to environmental problems, the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the cultural/political divisions of U.S. society, will occur before I die - or alternatively, attempts at repressive totalitarianism to maintain order will prevail in places for a while (think NBC TV's "Revolution") as an attempt (futile in the long run) to contain disorder.  

Most of the time I function happily and contentedly within my personal present. I enjoy the lovely woods and hills that surround my home, I enjoy my conversations with my husband, playing with my dogs and cats, interactions with friends, television and novels, and artistic activities. But, ugly reality intrudes through news stories, articles friends link on Facebook, and most of all through my work as a sociologist. Because it is my job to teach students about society and the environment, about social problems and about inequality. 

I do learn or discover many positive things as I do the research necessary to be an good instructor in these fields or just simply in interacting with the world. There are whole states, whole communities taking wonderful positive actions. There are many non-profit organizations and even more individuals engaging in positive actions towards an environmentally, economically, and politically sustainable future. Occasionally there are even political decisions at the national level that are positive (two from the Supreme Court in just the last few days - striking down the right of private companies to patent naturally occurring human genes, and striking down Arizona's discriminatory citizen test for voter registration). But the bad stuff just keeps coming as large corporations seem to be able to do whatever they please to make the profits they crave regardless of their human and environmental consequences. The rich get richer and the rest of us (not just the poor) and the earth get poorer, more beaten down and more broken. The good things seem like band aids placed here and there on a body gone septic throughout with drug-resistant infections. 

The sad thing is that in an absolute there are solutions. The problems with our economy, our political system and our environment are not written in stone. These are all humanly created institutions and they can be changed.  There are other countries that have made changes or are making changes that could cushion them from the worst of the fall-out from the United States spiral into chaos. But as a society we do not have the political will to change, largely because a huge percentage of voters and their representatives refuse to see our institutions as humanly created capable of being modified or even ditched for something better, insisting instead that they are "God" given, unalterable, sacred institutions. 

But there is something horribly wrong, horribly broken with a society and an economy that has more empty houses than it has homeless people (, governors can sell off highways, colleges, prisons and other public resources rather than tax the rich (, and people in eastern Kentucky where I live think that the way to save their community is to bow down to everything the coal companies want, even if it is leveling the mountain behind their home.