Book of the Week: Plenitude, The New Economics of True Wealth (1): Author’s introduction

Responding to our current moment, Plenitude puts sustainability at its core, but it is not a paradigm of sacrifice. Instead, it’s an argument that through a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies, and different ways of living, individuals and the country as a whole can actually be better off and more economically secure. And as Schor observes, Plenitude is already emerging. In pockets around the country and the world, people are busy creating lifestyles that offer a way out of the work and spend cycle. These pioneers’ lives are scarce in conventional consumer goods and rich in the newly abundant resources of time, information, creativity, and community. Urban farmers, do-it-yourself renovators, Craigslist users-all are spreading their risk and establishing novel sources of income and outlets for procuring consumer goods. Taken together, these trends represent a movement away from the conventional market and offer a way toward an efficient, rewarding life in an era of high prices and traditional resource scarcity.

* Book: Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. By Juliet B. Schor. Penguin, 2010

An important book this week, which deals with the necessary transformations after the financial meltdown, and how to change from a scarcity engineering point of view, to an abundance engineering point of view.

For today’s first installment, I asked the author, Juliet Schor, to think about how our work is related to the p2p sensibility and movement.

Juliet Schor:

“It is a great pleasure to communicate with colleagues in the P2P world. One of the main points I emphasized in Plenitude is that the transition to sustainability can be seen as a knowledge transition. This is a point that is generally not recognized in the sustainability discourse. Technologists think it’s just about a shift in shifting how we make things, and in the case of climate change as a shift to an alternative/clean energy system. Economists think it’s just dependent on policies such as taxes and subsidies. Social analysts focus on human behaviors such as getting people to eat less meat or drive less or buy less. Another group thinks mainly in terms of sectors.

These are all important perspectives. But they miss a key aspect of the transition—how we transition to a sustainable economy, and the role of open-source knowledge transmission in that shift. If the technologists are right—and I believe they are—that we need a new energy system and new ways of producing in agriculture, transport, manufacturing and so on—then how do those new ways get learned and adopted? Right now, there are two key features of our system that are structuring that process. The first is that we’re relying on for-profit enterprises dealing with proprietary information to lead the transition to clean energy and sustainability. The second is that it’s a mainly large-enterprise process, with either big firms leading the way, or small firms leading and being incorporated into big ones.

Members of the P2P community are very familiar with the downsides of the first feature. Proprietary information can slow down transmission by being too expensive to access, impeding incremental progress (“shoulders of giants” effects get dampened), or because companies have financial interests in stopping adoption of new technologies. What if major solutions to climate change are bottled up by self-interested corporations? That would be a tragedy of monumental proportions, but one that is quite possible under a highly proprietary regime. In chapter 5 of Plenitude, I discuss these issues within the context of a shift to a sustainable production and consumption system.

On the question of scale I discuss why we should being ratcheting down the scale of enterprise, even to the household level. The economics of scale are changing, with households and small firms now having much more potential for productivity than in the past, thanks to the information revolution. Linked in networks, small scale enterprises can provide autonomy, creativity and wealth. They’re also key agents for spreading a low-footprint way of producing that will help us solve the climate crisis and restore ecosystem health around the globe.

In chapter 1, I lay out the principles of Plenitude. Chapter 4 goes into more detail on these issues and in chapter 5 I discuss the economics of information transmission, scale, labor market balance and the transition to a truly sustainable system.”

“One of the key features of P2P activity, which I discuss in Plenitude, is the need for people to have sufficient time outside of their formal jobs to participate in peer production. In the United States, in much of the global South, and among certain groups in Europe, paid working hours have risen in recent decades. The demands of jobs, especially for white collar workers and professionals have increased markedly. With technology making 24/7 access easy, it is difficult for people to carve out time to do other things. In the US, for example, the average employee added about 200 hours to his or her annual schedule since the 1970s. For white collar workers, and full-time employees, this number is even greater. On a family basis, the increase in hours is in the range of 300-500, depending on demographics.

The downturn that began in 2007-08 is having varied impacts on hours of work. In Europe, a number of countries deliberately used shorter work time policies to share work and avoid layoffs. In the US, there was a little of this, but the bulk of the response was through outright unemployment. One consequence is that anecdotal evidence is spreading that work intensity and demands are rising among those with jobs. In Europe, recent calls for a “new austerity” are demanding longer hours. This is a mistake, not only because it will exacerbate unemployment and worsen inequality, but also because it will choke off the incredible innovation that is possible when people have time off the job in order to be creative and contribute to P2P activity.

This is a key insight of the P2P process: people need time to participate. It’s vitally important that the pace of life and the structure of working hours are compatible with P2P activity. In Plenitude I discuss trends in labor markets, the role of reducing hours in restoring labor market balance, and how P2P activity is a vital part of that new balance. This is true both for online and offline activity. One message of the book is that the downturn, by reducing hours for most people, has led to much more social innovation and both on- and offline peer production. Here I’m referring to social and economic innovations such as time banks, exchange networks, cooperative, permaculture activity and the like. I think we can expect an expansion of these and related activities in coming years. The P2P community has a tremendous amount to teach us as we try and expand this alternative, ecologically sustainable sector.”

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