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[berkman] Juliet Schor on sustainability and the Web

Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston University, is giving a Berkman Tuesday lunch titled “Plenitude: Sustainability and the Web.” The tech and sustainability communities need a much closer relationship, she says as the talk begins.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by telling us about the urgency of the issue of environmental sustainability. A World Wildlife Foundation study shows the decline in biodiversity. “A massive extinction is underway.” A study of eco-footprints shows that the USA’s average is about five times the world average biocapacity per person. Countries with equivalent standards of living have about half our eco-footprint. And that’s not to mention the upward path of CO2 emissions. Although there’s been some good news recently, it’s largely due to the economic downturn, she says. To avoid climate catastrophe, we need a 90% reduction by 2050.

In the 1970s, a group of MIT modelers (associated with James Forester) showed that if industrial production continued to increase, the system would collapse right about now. It was a simplistic model and it focused too much on non-renewables. Oil did not behave the way they predicted. The economists thought we could continue to grow by de-materializing, i.e., getting more out of resources [I may not have gotten that right], but the growth of use per person has more than outweighed the decline in carbon intensity. There’s been a 45% increase in materials extraction worldwide, 1980-2005, i.e., de-materialization is not happening. North American extraction has increased by more than 66% over this period. Mainly we’re burning fossil fuels and using construction materials. A stiff price on carbon would help tremendously, but is unlikely, Juliet says.

Unfortunately, the downturn is likely to increase the damage to the environment, since the imperative is to get people back to work by growing the economy. She says this is a stupid approach since we are getting people back to work doing what they did before, with all of its inequalities and emphasis on consumption. It would be helpful to improve the equity of the distribution of assets and income. We need to create wealth and well-being. And we should avoid top-down, innefficient or elitist solutions. “I call this plenitutde,” a new type of economic model.

As an economic model, plenitude is about:

  • A move to closed loop/clean production and consumption systems.

  • Eco-knowledge: open source transmission and ecological skill diffusion. Innovation has been based too much on using (and wasting) Nature. We should be treating nature as a scarce good. Open source is crucial for the diffusion of ecological knowledge and skills

  • Reducing the hours in business-as-usual, and building time wealth for people.

  • We need a “growing green sector of small scale enterprises, and new property forms”

  • Invest more in social capital.

She’s going to talk about two principles of Plenitude; there are four in her book.

First, we should reduce the number of working hours. From 1870 until the 1970s in the industrialized world, we went from 3,000 hours of work per year to about 1,800. Without this, we would not have been able to absorb all the labor displaced by increased productivity. But from 1973 until now, the hours of work in the US have increased, and has created a gap between us and other industrialized countries. If we can’t keep increasing the size of our economy in dollar terms, we have to reduce the number of hours. “In Europe, people are beginning to understand this.” “Given the magnitude of the climate reductions we need, the wealthy countries of the world are probably going to have to stop growing.” As soon as we get serious about targets, Juliet says, we’ll see that. “Shorter hours of work is associated with lower ecological footprint.” We should create policies that make working fewer hours more attractive to individuals and to firms.

So, what are people going to do with their new leisure time? The second principle of Plenitude is that people should begin to do more “high tech self providing” — make and do more for themselves. (It’s a phrase from Fritjof Bergman.) This will lead to green entrepreneurship, Juliet says. E.g., permaculture (more advanced high productivity agriculture), micro-generation of energy, DIY home building (low cash, low footprint). Her Center for a New American Dream is looking at all of these.

Juliet points to Fab Labs for their lower barrier to entry. She talks about the rise of sharing — home-, tool, car-, couch-sharing. The Web has reduced the transaction costs for this type of sharing. Plus the recession has changed the calculus of time and money. Transition towns grapple with what will be happening with the climate; there are 80 in the US.

Q: How adaptable are these ideas to developing countries?
A: Many have been practiced for quite a while in developing countries.
Q: That’s not the mindset of those in developing countries.
A: It is for some development groups. Not for the World Bank. Look at some of the less mainstream, more alternative groups.

Q: To what extent does the increasing use of electronics contribute to the the eco problems?
A: That is an issue. It’s a big energy consumer. Google is thinking about its footprint and is moving to renewable energy. The mindset is generally better in that sector.

Q: Google searching can also save energy because I can avoid driving from store to store looking for something. Also, the most effective development tools are the small enablers, e.g., a sewing machine or chickens. Rather than being dependent on others, people can develop their own enterprises.
A: My model is similar to that, but it’s not money-driven. Financial constraints are not the issue in developed countries. We are constrained much more by time because we work long hours in formal jobs in order to get access to housing, health insurance, and education. Why would people want to become pose-industrial peasants? They get diversity of income streams. This is especially important because we’re coming into a time of increasing uncertainty — financial collapses and climactic uncertainties. New tech allows individuals and small firms to become highly productive because of their relationships to networks.

Q: Over the past two decades, networks have risen empowering individuals, yet capital has concentrated into fewer hands. Do you see that changing?
A: We need to develop a new economic model. Peer production can help create a new kind of economy. The increased concentration of wealth has to do with state policy. What’s happening on the Internet can be the basis of a new economic model.

Q: How do you see the politics behind this movement happening?
A: My book tries to avoid dealing with politics. We live in such a politically polarized moment. But you do need a politics to get you to this place. We lack a viable and credible economic alternative to global capitalism. We have to put it together — intellectual work. At the same time, we need people doing it and living it — real life models of alternatives. It’s happening at a very local level. In the Pacific Northwest we’re beginning to see a sustainable alternative. And there are some policy elements: A single payer health system would allow people to de-link from fulltime jobs. The recession provides us with a tremendous opportunity to explore alternatives.

Q: Are there numbers about what’s going on?
A: Not many. This movement started with people with a lot of education and social capital. That’s changing. Some of the most active areas are low-income people of color. We’re seeing less of it in the white working class. It’s beginning to become a more diverse movement.

Q: How about how the educational system could be helpful? All you hear is jobs, jobs, jobs. And how undergrad economics is taught is not on the same planet as what you’re talking about. We’re part of the problem here at Harvard.
A: How to make change in universities? Let’s just take economics. It’d be very useful if scientists actually began to take more of a role in the university in talking about what students should be taught about planets and its management, which includes economics. Humanists won’t be listened to on this. The disproportionate role of economists in running these universities…
Q: Half of the Harvard student body takes the party-line econ course.
A: Econ depts generally have one person working on environmental issues. This is a civilizational emergency, and we have depts of 70 people, 69 of whom pay no attention to this. And the one who does is probably funded by the energy industry.

Q: Do we have time to travel this path?
A: On the one hand, we can look at what’s happening and say it’s getting worse — e.g., Citizens United — and say it’s hopeless. Or we can step back and ask what we need to build. It’s going to be ugly. So we need to build a movement that will counter a corporatized, fascistic vision of green, or a scenario of non-green. We need to be constructing a much more humanistic, egalitarian world that will really be good for people, and will give people more freedom, more community, more safety, more security. That’s all we can do.

A: What’s happening in tech is not on the radar of the sustainability groups. They’re still trying to think about their web sites. The transformative power of tech has not struck them yet — transformative of knowledge transmission, how we live our lives, and the economic model. In the tech world, there are lots of people who care about sustainability. More institutional connections would help. In the tech world, people meet and things happen, and that’s part of how we’re going to get to where we need to. We need lots of innovation.

Q: Do you see the Admin’s regulations about moving MPG up as a model?
A: That’s taken decades. I’m more advocate of new techs that leapfrog over marginal change initiatives. And that’s part of how we shorten the timeline for reaching our Plenitude goal.

Q: You say mostly highly educated are involved in this movement now. How do we move ahead and expand the movement?
A: We could start out hiring people at 80% time.
Q: The Net makes knowledge more available, but how do you help people get formal education?
A: Policies could help … [Couldn’t hear parts]

Q: I’m a Ph.D. student in econ. The politics of making the shift should not only be concerned with reducing the influence of big firms, but reducing the influence of some of the big economists.
A: Economists have started taking a lot more money from financial corporations. The field has been corrupted by money. Twenty years ago, a student of mine did a report on the boards of directors that Harvard’s faculty is on. That’s never revealed when they testify, etc.

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