A brief glance at Juliet Schor’s “Plenitude”

Published online 13 March 2011.

This is a book review in brief of Juliet Schor’s newest (2010) volume “Plenitude,” which attempts to examine what (in my circles) is called “the metabolic rift between society and nature,” more generally known as the environmental crisis, and resolve the problem through a sort of “back to nature” prescription, at least for the well-off Americans who form Schor’s reading audience.  Generally, however, unlike Schor I do not forecast stability for the lives of well-off Americans: it’s quite possible that either they are well-off enough that they’ll end up living in some sort of gated community, in which the masses are purposely excluded, or they are not well-off, in which case they must struggle as an organized mass public to acquire the resources which would form the prerequisite for what Schor calls “self-provisioning.”

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Welcome to Sanctimonious Sunday, a collaborative series published by members of the following groups: The Amateur Left, Team DFH and Frustrati.  Feel free to get your sanctimonious on.  It’s welcome here.

I am going to have to be brief with this review — I’ve been dividing my energy among a zillion or so different things, but I wanted to spend some time in conversation with Juliet Schor’s new book, Plenitude.  There’s also a Plenitude video, though since the embedding is disabled I can only post the link.

Juliet Schor is an East Coast academic who has written a few important books (“The Overspent American,” “The Overworked American”) dealing with the stresses of American consumer life.  She comes across to me as someone who’s really quite bright and who hasn’t been fooled.

Schor’s book starts with a discussion of the “era of limits.”  The discussion of the “limits to growth,” once popularized in a famous 1972 book of that name by the “Club of Rome,” was discredited during the Reagan administration amidst the general rightwing shift of the mass media and the political classes — but Schor thinks that the “limits to growth” discussion deserves a revival, and that we need to begin once again to discuss “overshoot,” the idea that natural limits to economic growth will force the capitalist economy to retreat.

Now, of course the capitalist economy has retreated recently, in the great downturn of 2008-2009, and of course this is Schor’s prompt to begin discussing the concept of “overshoot” again.  I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the “overshoot” concept, if for no other reason than that it tends to simplify “growth” to some sort of linear process which can only go so far before it “overshoots” its material limits.  What we are looking at with the limits to growth is a complex process, in which there are limits to how much of a beating the Earth can take before our planet’s complex ecologies start to simplify what they do, to the detriment of the rest of us.  Schor knows this too:

When we finally and fully tally up the costs of fishery collapse, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, loss of tropical forests, toxic releases, and a mass extinction of species, the price tag will loom large in comparison to the costs of preserving the planet.  As in the climate debate, it will become clear that regeneration will be cheaper than suffering the consequences of collapse.  (94)

Thus you have a lot of different harms impacting the Earth, a wide spectrum of deaths occurring over different places and times.

True to her audience, however, Schor frames the “limits of growth” problem as one of how to live well.  She calls her vision “plenitude,” and argues that “creating a sustainable economy will take decades, and this is a strategy for prospering during that shift.”  (3)

Schor endorses all sorts of searches for sustainability in Plenitude: local production for local use, permaculture, alternative technology, and so on.  She suggests (as per one of her previous books, The Overworked American) that we ought to work fewer hours per week than we currently do, and that we ought to concentrate our search for the good life increasingly upon home production and decreasingly upon participation in consumer life and in market exchange.  The rise in underemployment, for Schor, “represents an opportunity for expanding the norm of part-time work,” (109) and the increase in spare time will presumably be devoted to what she’s calling “self-provisioning” – “woodworking, quilting, brewing beer, and canning and preserving, gardening, hunting, and fishing” (115) and so on.  Schor, in short, predicts a return to DIY living and artisanship. She also, nicely enough, suggests that there may be a return to sharing, as people discover the increased happiness which comes of communal use of resources as opposed to the wastefulness of individual ownership.  In this portion of the book (137-143), Schor praises phenomena such as the Transition Town movement and the Post Carbon Cities network (142) as means to what she calls “economies of reciprocity” — living outside of the money economy.

All of this advice seems quite benevolent.  Yet I can’t help but wonder how much of it involves a vast underestimate of the potential of our present-day society for class conflict and organized uprising.  One of Schor’s more important recommendations is that the people of the future will be strengthening their economies (in the absence of “business as usual growth”) by restoring natural assets.

Ecological regeneration is also a solution to another of the most pressing economic problems we face: extreme inequality and poverty.  More than half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day.  As the climate warms, that fraction will rise, due to declining crop yields, further collapse of fish stocks, loss of coastline, water scarcity, and higher energy prices. (158)

Of course, the problem was that we have a global economy based on immediate profit, on the employment of the preponderance of the membership of the working class toward the cause of the beautification of the next quarterly corporate report.  And this is what led to a planet Earth with ecosystems which needed “ecological regeneration” in the first instance.  Here Schor praises projects such as Green for All, Sustainable South Bronx, and Green Worker Cooperatives. It’s nice to suggest that “planting a marketable crop on an abandoned field, installing a water-harvesting system to raise agricultural yields, and reforestation are ways to lift people out of poverty, empower communities, and heal the earth” (159), as Schor does, but the more immediate profits lie in the commodification (and thus the sale for profit) of that which is healthy about the earth — thus reforestation will never turn the profit which overharvesting promises.

With a mix of strategies, then, Schor is hoping to do something concrete about what is commonly called the “metabolic rift between society and nature,” by which is meant the various degradations of planetary life caused by the processes of commodity production.  The late Teresa Brennan captures the problem most simply in her book “Globalization and its Terrors” — capitalist business metabolizes nature far more quickly than nature can regenerate itself.  “Plenitude,” as Schor has grouped together the mix of strategies she promotes, hopes to overcome this metabolic rift.

Now, if I were a graduating college student expecting to receive a degree from a prestigious institution, or a liberal with plenty of money and assets and some degree of economic security, I would definitely take a liking to Schor’s book, and apply her strategies in the best ways in which my resources would allow.  There’s a lot of good stuff there.

If creating sustainability will take “decades,” however, I wouldn’t bet on those “decades” being very quiet ones if I’m not living in a world of financial security.  If I’m in that class, I would at some point in the future be organizing politically, to forward the interests of my social class, the working class, and to put an end to the capitalist system that is busy grabbing (or has already grabbed) whatever “assets” I might use to forward the cause of my own survival.  For instance, I can’t work a community garden if there’s no community garden for me to work; thus the government must carve out a community garden for my community, somehow, from the vacant parcels owned by my community’s greedy landlords, or I’m working to build another government that will get the job done.

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