Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Juliet Schor's Plenitude

I found this attempt to rebrand voluntary simplicity as a kind of wealthiness unconvincing. Schor hopes we will eschew growth and income as measures of prosperity and embrace more nebulous concepts, like how meaningfully our time is spent. Though I agree people should consume less, work less if they can, enjoy their work more, slow their consumption in general, and so on, I don't think impending environmental disaster will motivate them to do it. Yes, everybody would probably be happier and better off -- but the same would be true if we all became meditating Buddhists. Yet we are not all Buddhists. We can not will ourselves into taking a different view of what it means to be happy, or what happiness required -- that is conditioned into us as we come into our subjectivity and requires a great deal of sacrifice and discomfort to alter. Some manage to achieve it, but they are by definition extraordinary. Most want to cling to the kinds of pleasures and ideals that first brought them to themselves.

Sustainability is not sexy, and there is no point trying to make it seem so. Better that the concept retain its critical, adversarial edge, rather than be warped to fit with the prevailing consumerist spirit of self-preoccupation, consumerism, and abundance fetishism.

Sustainability, no matter how sexed up, is not enough in the face of the ideology of income and consumerism and symbolic goods and personal branding and so on, which I think the ideology of collaborative consumption colludes with more than undermines.

Schor raises the interesting point that prosperity erodes the idealized community of yesteryear, in which a kind of forced gift economy was necessary for collective survival. Instead we have temporary communities of affinity, which bear with them no responsibilities and can feel shallow.

I'm skeptical that forcing economic relations can replicate the lost relations of community that were forced on people when the world was less prosperous and technologically advanced -- when "convenience" didn't yet breed isolation but the necessity of dependence made people dream of that possibility. People have used income to reject community, and Schor implicitly suggests that they are going to have to re-accept community as environmental catastrophe strips us of income. (yet at the same time she suggests productivity gains from technology will make us all time-wealthy -- not sure I understand how that works, why that can't translate into conventional income measures.)

Essentially, Schor wants us to shift to an economy that generates less in profit without changing capitalist relations of production, which seems to avoid the source of the problem that has saddle us with environmental crisis in the first place.

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