The Other Side of Austerity

austerity

This week has been very exciting for me. The first draft of the book Andy Hoffman and I have been writing was sent to the publisher for their comments. The process has been the mirror image of the preparation of my first book, Sustainability by Design.That one took abut 5 years from start to finish. This one has taken less than a year from idea to first draft. Andy had the idea to expand a keynote presentation we did together at MIT to a book. We presented our stuff as a Q and A with Andy prompting me to respond. The upcoming book with a working title of, Flourishing: A Conversation about Sustainability with John Ehrenfeld, combines materials from this blog with a new conversation between Andy and me.

The process forced me to reflect on the ideas presented in Sustainability by Design. With just a bit of immodesty, they seem even more relevant four years later. The green economy, a key topic at the Rio+20 conference going on right now, has done little to slow done our rush to the abyss of environmental and social collapse. The financial collapse and continuing economic problems has had no perceptible influence on the recognition of the folly of ignoring the Earth’s limits and people’s tolerance for the gross inequality that follows today’s form of capitalism. Some people are wealthier and own more goods, but the Marxian and Keynesian promises of a life of leisure are nowhere close to being kept for the masses.

The solutions being imposed by those who are already affluent and part of the top few percent of the citizens in most developed nations all come in some form of austerity, wrapped in all sorts of packages containing programs to restore growth. Ironic that the mass of people must suffer more in the process of continuing to enrich the topmost tiers. We are told that some form of austerity is the key to renewed economic health. In one sense it is. Austerity could be recognized as facing the reality of a finite Earth and the need to share its bounty equitably. That was the message underlying sustainable development. Twenty years after the promises made at the global summit in Rio de Janeiro that laid out a way to implement this critical concept, the world has little of nothing to show. Gro Harlem Bruntland, the Chair of the Commission that brought us the idea of sustainable development just published an opinion piece decrying the lack of progress since the 1992 Rio Summit.

On Wednesday, world leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to review progress made in the 20 years since the 1992 U.N. Earth Summit and hopefully to chart a new path toward a more sustainable future. Protecting the planet and its people must be their first priority… Our central concern is that governments are currently refusing to make the transformative changes needed to resolve the global sustainability crisis.

Results from the Nobel Laureate Symposium Series on Global Sustainability also show that nothing less than a fundamental transformation will be needed, where human societies are reconnected with the biosphere to reverse global environmental change and move toward fair and lasting prosperity… Twenty years after the Earth Summit it is clear that humanity has been a poor steward for the Earth.

Like no other generation before, we can choose the type of future that we will leave to the next generation. A transition to a safe and prosperous future is possible, but will require the full use of humanity’s extraordinary capacity for innovation and creativity… Real leadership is required now to tackle these systemic issues. We therefore call upon world leaders to move beyond aspirational statements and exercise a collective responsibility for planetary stewardship, seizing the opportunity offered by the Rio 2012 summit to set our world on a sustainable path.

It’s quite clear that the call for austerity does not reflect any such awareness. It is primarily a result of the profligacy of the major market economies of the world. It’s the haves telling the rest of the world they cannot continue to consume at the rate they have been going. The irony is that it is these same folks that have rigged the financial system to churn out growth and more growth. But they forgot to tell the countries to direct that growth to the workers and consumers, not the financial sector tycoons.

The very word austerity has two meanings: 1) sternness or severity of manner or attitude; and 2) extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance. The schoolmasters calling for austerity are clearly using the first of these definitions, scolding, as it were, the vast numbers of people that work for a living for aspiring to the dreams feeding the political economies. Hardly a surprise that these people resist the call. It would make more sense if the call was for the second kind of austerity, especially the reference to simplicity.

This form of austerity is consonant with sustainability, whereas the first is simply the screed of a stern schoolmarm. Simplicity paints a picture of authenticity and living in a way that consumption is lined up with caring, not needing. Authenticity is living according to one’s intrinsic values, not the extrinsic values imposed by the culture. It is acting out of one’s own dreams of what life is all about. Our political leaders and especially those who aspire to the seats of power are leading us astray with promises of the American or some other Dream. Then once in power they tell us we are living beyond our means. The solutions we are told are needed require cutting back on taking care of the Earth, letting our social institutions further decay, and worst of all, stop taking care of other human beings who are not so fortunate to have lived high off the hog when the party looked like it would never end.

The almost certain do-nothing outcome at Rio signals that these leaders and those already rich and powerful think the party can go on forever without ever having to clean up the aftermath. The dreams they peddle are those of some economists and political strategists, but completely lack the reality of the world we all share. The metaphor of using dream as a vision of a rosy future has to give way to a different dream, or better, a nightmare, one that pictures how the world will actually look as we continue to ignore its limits and the immorality of so much inequality everywhere.

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