The New Economics


My book rests largely on a critique of modernity, particularly the hegemonic use of technology to solve every problem, large and small. The few chapters offer a framework for remedying what I see as the root causes of unsustainability. But it is rather modest and focused on using technology to carry new ideas and practices into daily life, and slowly changing current cultural behavior patterns. Over and above what I have written, I have often been asked what can “I” do by many readers and others concerned about sustainability.

This is a difficult and perplexing question for me. The focus in the book was largely on re-designing everyday artifacts to express new values and practices consistent with sustainability. The two-button toilet was my prime example--a device that, simply by using it as designed, would make us consciousness of our place within and our connections to the world, and, at the same time, generate responsible, caring actions. If enough people would start to act in a sustainability way, at some point we could reach a tipping point. The societal norms would then drive the collective in the right way. This is the bottoms-up, subversive way to sustainability. I favored it because I believe that a top-down approach wold be resisted and probably stymied by the existing power structures.

At the same time, I recognized that top-down institutional change would also be, if not necessary, an effective change agent. But not just any change. Any change would have to be based on a new set of beliefs and norms, far from those implicated in bringing us unsustainability. I came across just such a set of practices and beliefs while doing a book review. The book is The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption: Seeds of Change, by Gill Seyfang.

As I do, Seyfang criticizes the underpinnings and policy consequences of the neo-classical model of a modern economy. But her main thrust is to describe what has become a movement in the UK, centered on a new set of economic principles. The movement grows on foundations laid by E. F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), Manfred Max-Neef, Paul Ekins, Kenneth Boulding (Spaceship Earth), and others. The economic model rests on new definitions and understandings for wealth, work, money, and the place of ethics in economics. I will return to discuss each of these concepts in the future.

This movement have been ripening in the UK since 1986 and continues to be developed and disseminated by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). The ideas show up in five areas of implementation: localization, reducing individual ecological footprints, building community, taking collective action to transform the status quo, and building new infrastructure for the provisioning of everyday goods and services. I will also come back to a fuller discussion of each of these in future posts. Here in the US, we see some of these involved in the creation of local economies using local currencies, CSA farm cooperatives, buying less impactful products, co-housing experiments, and many others. The numbers of people changing their life style to some form of “sustainable consumption” is growing here, according to surveys about LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). The boundaries between these practices are fuzzy and many practices combine several of them.

The power of these ideas lies in the possibility of transformation directly among and by people concerned about sustainability. Using everyday artifacts for transformation depends on the willingness of companies to design, manufacture, and market them. Top-down change is important because established rules and infrastructure pose barriers or, conversely, can be tweaked to promote these new concepts. This approach to “sustainable consumption” should become part of the sustainability arsenal everywhere. In searching for connected information about the new economics in any context, I found the highest concentration in the UK. In the US, pockets of activities cluster about “green” places, like western Massachusetts or Seattle, but little elsewhere. Perhaps the difference is due to the island economy of the UK. They have known the limits of their circumstances for a long time. We here in the States still act mostly as if our economic world has no bounds. This is one of the illusions of neo-classic economics. Maybe the world is flat, as Tom Friedman describes it, but it surely has limits. I find the story about the new economics very positive and helps me keep my pessimism at bay. More to come.

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Scott Gast said:

Hi John,

I agree that the work being put forward by NEF and others is very hopeful in terms of developing new ideas about what the economy is for, how it ought to operate, how it's driven, etc. Revising our economic ideas is an enormous piece of the sustainability puzzle, and one, I think, that will also be culturechanging in the process. Imagine the change required to put community well-being in place of GDP growth as our primary economic policy goals!

Also, I'm betting you've seen this already, but if not you should take a look: "Prosperity Without Growth", the newish report from NEF/UK Sustainable Development Commission, linked below.

Long, but very readable and a great analysis of where we are, where we need to go, and how to get there in terms of promoting prosperity without growth.

Great post.