I dislike the word “sustainable.” One hears the word used in the context of food production (“sustainable agriculture”), product manufacturing (“sustainable industry”) and general economic models (“sustainable economy”). Wind and solar power are considered “sustainable energy sources.”
What’s wrong with sustainable? In some ways my negative reaction to the word is visceral and irrational, but I’ll try to explain my feelings. The word seems to imply stasis, a kind of false ideal of human affairs where population is steady, basic needs are met, and the environment is not further molested or abused. If human beings live sustainably, we live in a way that enables us to keep living. This seems reasonable enough, but it’s uninspiring. What about growth and expansion? Those concepts seem incompatible with sustainability. After all, the planet isn’t getting any bigger.
This criticism on my part isn’t really fair. I essentially agree with most of the ideas behind sustainability. There should be less pollution, less waste, less free use of the commons, less mining, less blasting through irreplaceable resources like fossil fuels (and helium, while we’re at it — did you know once that balloon goes up in the air the helium never comes back? It’s an element — you can’t make the stuff). Collectively, human beings should find a way to continue living without wrecking our home planet.
Instead of the word sustainable, I prefer the word restorative. What our environment and world economy needs is radical healing and transformation. Restorative projects create real wealth (food, energy, goods) while leaving the environment and community in better shape than before production efforts started. The classic example is Joel Salatin’s farm (described in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Using hyper-modern intensive land management techniques, Salatin’s farm produces high quality organic food while creating rich topsoil and adding natural habitat for local fauna (a nearby forest in an important part of the farming system, functioning as a windbreak among other things). Spain’s Veta la Palma fish farm is another example, where resident biologist Miguel Medialdea engineers a system that not only produces 1,200 tons of tasty seafood annually, but also restores natural wetlands and supports a booming population of birds (some of them endangered species).
You could fairly describe Salatin and Medialdea’s efforts as sustainable, but I prefer the word restorative. As wealth is created, the commons are actually improved. Both cases are great examples of businesses creating positive externalities.
The Restorative Economy vs. The Plutocracy
What would a restorative economy look like? In our current economic system, the tail wags the dog. The wealth and health of corporate entities is measured and valued more than the wealth and health of people and communities and ecosystems. Corporate wealth is achieved in a way that creates enormous negative externalities. Industrial pollution increases risk of asthma, cancer, and birth defects. Dehumanizing labor practices damage human health and morale. Corporate fraud steals from the poor and gives to the rich. Corporate lobbyists hijack legislative systems, corrupting the democratic process. A restorative economy would put the health and wealth of human beings, communities, and ecological systems above corporate balance sheets. That this idea sounds radical only shows how far to the right sentiments have swung.
This isn’t an anti-corporate leftist rant. It’s common sense! Corporate power is at obscene levels and the elite are running the show like never before. The rich are richer than ever, and people still don’t get it [PDF]. In the long-term, plutocracies invariably eat themselves. The French Revolution comes to mind, heads rolling into baskets and so forth. How are we going to get ourselves out of this one?
Can We Avoid a Long Decline?
This article, featuring the sad decline of the once-vibrant Japanese economy (and spirit) paints one possible future for the United States. Economic fear and pessimism leads to reduced spending, reduced spending leads to price cuts and lower business profits, failed businesses lead to layoffs and selling off assets, business failures lead to economic fear and pessimism, and the downward spiral continues.
Could this happen in the U.S.? Maybe. Japan suffers from a culturally homogeneous population — a cultural trend (like reduced spending) is more likely to spread to all of Japan because Japanese people are more alike, in general, than citizens of the United States. For every cultural trend in the United States, there is an equal and opposite cultural trend! For example, I’m not worried about the freegan movement taking over the national consciousness — it simply serves as a cultural counterpoint to rampant consumerism. Still, deflation and negative economic feedback loops are a real risk in the United States. It happened before, during the Great Depression.
Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff project points out the perils of our current unsustainable economic model, including environmental destruction, rampant corporate power, unfair labor practices, and the unhappiness created by a consumeristic society. Her proposals for “another way” emphasize reduced consumption, reduced waste, recycling, driving less, getting involved in your community, and buying “green” products. Okay, fine. I more or less agree. But if everyone did this, would it lead to Japanese style deflation? It seems like it would. What’s missing from Annie Leonard’s solution? How do we restore jobs and wealth to the middle and working classes while also restoring the environment and protecting human rights?
What’s missing from the classic lefty take on “our corrupt capitalistic system” is how we actually stimulate the economy. There’s a nod to “buying green” but that’s about it. The missing piece of the puzzle is how to vastly expand our skilled service industry. That’s how to get the wealth flowing without having to buy lots of crap goods that nobody needs. It’s not enough to just curb corporate power.
Ultimately, if we want to both restore our environment AND experience the upsides of a growing economy, we’ll need to gradually shift away from making, selling, and buying things towards making, buying, and selling experiences and information systems. The entertainment, videogame, and software industries are already doing this. You no longer need to purchase a physical product in order to buy music, watch a film, or use software (you still need the “playback device” or hardware in each case, but otherwise you’re just buying information). There’s no reason these sectors of the economy can’t expand indefinitely, and they can do so without incurring additional environmental costs.
The Players In the Restorative Economy
If you buy into the idea of restorative (or sustainable, if you prefer) economy, what should you do? It depends on what kind of player you are.
If you’re a corporate board member or officer, or business-owner …
- operate responsibly (environmentally, socially, fair labor practices)
- create quality products that actually last, and/or are upgradable (get rid of planned obsolescence)
- expand services and digital goods sectors (things that can be sold that don’t require raw materials)
- don’t try to buy legislation — stay out of government
If you’re a legislator …
- take back our democracy from private interests — push for corporate reform and regulation
- subsidize industries and projects that create positive externalities (increasing public health and wealth)
- tax the truly rich ($10M+ net assets) more aggressively (they can afford it, and public services are hurting)
- stop funneling public funds into the hands of corrupt anti-democratic private contractors
- make sure children, old people, the disabled, and other less powerful members of society are protected and provided with high quality education, healthcare, and other public services
If you’re a citizen in a democracy …
- vote for legislators who commit to (and have a history of) doing the items above
- buy products and services from companies who commit to (and have a history of) doing the above
- be noisy about who you vote for and what you spend your money on
- spend stingily on crap consumer goods, but generously on local food, artisanal products, high quality sustainably manufactured products (that will actually last), and services that actually improve your quality of life
Maybe I’m just rehashing the classic leftist agenda, but I actually consider myself to be a political centrist. I’m pro-business (and a business owner), I’m a fiscal conservative (against waste and corruption, against a bloated military), and I’m an inclusive traditionalist (pro-marriage, regardless of sexual orientation). I believe in a strong private sector, minimum effective regulation, lean government — all that good conservative stuff. What I’m against is corporate criminals doing whatever they want with impunity, buying up legislators, evading taxes, and stealing from the commons to give to the rich.
The way out of our economic morass is to create a restorative economy. Create real wealth — not just dollars in bank accounts but happier, healthier citizens and restored ecological systems. Curb corporate power but support the efforts of corporations that operate responsibly. Recreate U.S. manufacturing based on incredibly high production standards — well designed non-toxic stuff that doesn’t break. Expand the base of skilled knowledge workers with quality public education, and expand skilled service industries (entertainment, software, biotech, medical, graphics, design, architecture, research, analysis, etc.) on every level (individuals, small businesses, large corporations).
There are lots of people thinking about, writing about, and acting towards a restorative economy. Van Jones has lots of great ideas in this area — too bad he was targeted by the goons of the power elite (including Glenn Beck). Marvin Brown writes about an “economy of provision” in his book Civilizing the Economy. Brown understands that the tail is wagging the dog — people are serving the needs of the economy instead of the economy serving the needs of the people. Annie Leonard suggests that working an insane work week in order to buy lots of unsustainably manufactured, poor-quality (and in some cases outright toxic) products that don’t actually make us any happier is … well … kind of crazy. The entrenched power elite would paint all these people as radical lefties or Marxists, but in fact they’re all pragmatists. The current system, based on giving corporate robber barons unlimited power, isn’t working for anybody (except, of course, the power elite themselves).
During the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, the United States become an over-militarized plutocracy. President Obama is trying to claw back towards the center and invest in our country’s future, but the entrenched elite are fighting him every step of the way (read Krugman’s The Angry Rich). I hope that on election day Americans seriously consider if it’s a good idea to give more power to the elite, to multi-national corporations beholden to no one, and to the politicians they buy off.