Real Growth in the Living Economy

While “the markets” are nervously holding their breaths waiting for the other shoe to drop on Greece and the Euro, or maybe on China, everyone is concerned about the prospects for continued economic growth.

It won't be a land of milk and honey - the story of which may be a dream as much as a warning...

After all, it’s necessary. It’s what brings amenities and luxury, makes a good life for the individual and gives power to the country. Those who don’t have that, want it. Therefore, growth and development, of the same kind as “industrialized/developed” countries had it, must be good and necessary.

The alternative, then, is no alternative. Nothing but poor lives, strife and trouble. Can’t even protect the environment if you aren’t able to afford doing so. There is no other way.

Or so, the dominant story goes.

Unfortunately, in the way this growth-based economy has become set up, there is not much growth other than that of GDP and the human footprint on the world. The very foundations not just of the economy, but of life itself, are being undermined: raw materials are taken from their reservoirs, used, and ditched in less-usable form, but do not cycle much through the system. Even renewable materials which are grown are produced in a similarly industrial way, inputting more energy (in the form of petrochemicals) than they provide, e.g. in the case of food. The very living layer – that’s “the environment,” and that’s us – of the world is being consumed: devoured, destroyed.

To add insult to injury, the forest isn’t seen for all the wood, and this system is said to be the most productive and efficient simply because only the value “produced” is taken into account, but not the associated costs, let alone all the other values that are lost.

We feel we are gaining the world, but losing our souls. We are losing the world, too, and think there’s no promising alternative. “No, we won’t wake up without a collapse.”

Except, there is a third way – or rather, another direction in which to go – and it is the way forward into a real, and really better, future: The Really Growing, Living Economy.

What this economy does differently is, first of all, that it does not obsess over GDP “growth.” A measure that does not count the destruction of the foundations for the economy – and even life itself – and fails to represent the goodness of human lives and happiness of people has to be abolished.

Thus, it does not follow the wrong belief that GDP represents wealth, growth will solve all problems, and it all will (eventually) reach everyone – which, interestingly enough, is a belief shared by socialism-fearing, conservative US Republicans and neoliberalists as well as de facto-capitalist Chinese Communist Party ideologues.
Rather, this emerging economy goes back to what “the economy” really means: people working to make a living, get by (or get rich, for that matter), embedded in societies, communities, and the wider ecological relationships of a life, cultivating skills, cultivating land, nurturing relationships, and building the systems necessary to do that, and do better, so as to create what is needed for a good life.

Old School Poster: Farmstead at Harvest Time
... but there is happiness in living economies. Not easy, but sensible and sensual.

The work is hard enough; this is no utopian dream of pleasurable convenience (that is actually destructive of the world and the human spirit). There are limits to consider a challenge to our creativity, benefits beyond financial profit to take into account – but that is how not just “the economy,” but life itself, works.

One cannot live without others, and those who only profit off others without giving back would find themselves ostracized, not celebrated for their earnings. Those who take more than their fair share – at least, within the bounds that are accepted – threaten other’s survival and flourishing, and thus their own.

We always hear about the tragedy of the commons, in which resources shared between a community are overused for individual people’s profit. We certainly see something like that happening on a global scale: We all, in our drive to live well and the unthinking and unhappy chase after ever more things we supposedly need, are stripping the world of its fossil, non-renewable resources and of its layer of life, the very foundation and capital our lives ultimately depend on.
There is another side to the commons, though – the beauty of the commons, if you will: In functional social groups with a commons, survival and flourishing depends on the help of others, there are social conventions and pressures, and thus it is clear that people either work together and find a consensus on the common’s  use, in line with its ecological productivity – or they will not be a flourishing, or even surviving, group for long.

In the same vein, the story has been shifted to say that the poor will destroy their environments just to get by – and it can happen when there is too much pressure, of course.
There is also an environmentalism of the poor, though. For when you know that you depend on a local environment for your very survival, and you know how to get by within the boundaries of what it offers, the way to making a living is to keep that environment intact or even work to make it more productive.

Many a cultural landscape around the world has come from just such an interaction. They are not untouched wildernesses, but they are ecologically functioning and biodiverse systems providing for their human inhabitants while maintaining – and often enough, even raising – the diversity to be found there. Of languages and cultures, of domesticated animals being bred and plant varieties being cultivated, and of landscape structures and wild species.

Slowly but steadily, even as “the economy” remains a Moloch devouring the world in a mad rush for riches, people are coming around to remembering that it is not they who are to serve that system’s flourishing, but the other way around.  Yes, “the business of business is business,” but that does not mean monetary gains alone, it also means jobs, taxes and the public services they pay for, the satisfaction of human needs and a contribution to flourishing, not the feeding of a destructive habit.

Approaching “the economy” this way, work will always exist as long as there are human beings with needs and wants, but it is also us who can – who, in fact, do and have to – create that system through our own doing.

And our doing is shifting.

Slowly, but strongly, there is a trend back to local, living economies, in which local ecosystems – starting with backyards and patios, and even windowsills and windows – are the first sources of food to eat and sell and raw materials to work with.

In part, these changes arise from a – maybe even desperate, but also immensely hopeful – attempt at “Fixing the Future,” as a recent PBS documentary portrayed it.

Watch Fixing the Future on PBS. See more from NOW on PBS.

The (more-than-)money quote from the documentary:

“It’s truly amazing. The changes we have to make if we are going to have a human future are exactly the same changes we need to make to create the world that most people have dreamed of for millennia, which is an economy which brings prosperity to everyone, an economy that supports strong families, strong communities, and a healthy natural environment. – And that’s exactly what is being created in these local economies, and it is the key not only to our survival, but also, quite literally to our physical and mental health and happiness.”

In part, the changes result in a hard happiness found in reaction to things such as the Greek crisis

Either way, the motion goes towards a world not fixated on efficiency, productivity, and profit for their own sake, even as they destroy us, but people “building an economy of care, craft and culture” (as Tim Jackson, author of “Prosperity without Growth,” described it in a recent New York Times Op-Ed).

The living economic model is focused not on the industrial model of selling whatever you produce, but producing what will sell, designing things to fit into the world, both looking “down” to its ecological basis, and “up” to what people need and want.

Salon magazine recently explained it well, if still all too-focused on global competition, using the example of none less than beer-making and its old, industrial versus new, craft model (“Can Beer Save America?”):

A Macrobrew Economy — a high-volume, low-price model — asks us to compete with other such economies throughout the world, and the problem is that countries like China will always have lower-priced labor, more lax environmental regulations and lower production standards to win a battle that rewards more and cheaper for more’s and cheaper’s sake. By contrast, a Craft Brew Economy — a high-quality, lower-volume model — is a different proposition. It follows the German model, which, as Time magazine notes, is all about being “committed to making the sort of high-quality, high-performance, innovative products for which the world will pay extra.”

The focus of functioning economies must, first and foremost, be local communities of life, and oriented on multiply better, for  happiness, health, and home (how about saying that instead of the divisive “the environment?”). With that, the focus on global sales may be misleading. There is a good side to what they point out even so:

Trade for special goods that are produced in another locality (or cannot even be made in one’s own location) will take place, and should be a consideration (as it’s always been); a switch to high quality and performance, and to remembering that real innovation lies with that, with the better satisfaction of real needs rather than the invention of virtual new needs, will be necessary – and better.

After all, the living economy is not one of a return to old, tough subsistence, barely eking out a living from the land, but one aiming to show and use ecological design intelligence, even when it is in the subsistence foundation of life, to grow, and produce, more – but not in terms of mere yield of “the” product, but in terms of products, qualities, and flourishing.

Part of that is production, “having,” – but a large part of it is also having enough, stopping to buy and starting to be, as the complicated and fascinating social, political, cultural, and biological beings we are, in and a part of this equally fascinating, diverse, difficult and beautiful world.


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