Continuing his prolific few months of writing (with several more essays still to come!), Mark A. Burch has published a new Simplicity Institute Report, this one entitled ‘Simplicity and Economy.’ As always, Mark presents an insightful and inspiring analysis, deserving of serious attention. I’ve posted a short section below and the full essay is available here.
Since the humbler meaning of economics as “care of the household” is tied up with well-being, no treatment of economics can be divorced from some underlying set of beliefs, whether explicit or implicit, about what makes for well-being (the good life). I understand an economy to be the set of all human activities (for not everything people do is ‘economic’), together with the technology necessary to transform energy and materials provided by the Earth in service of a certain concept of the good life. If we believe that a good life will be achieved by building bigger and bigger statues, then we get the economy of Easter Island and technology to achieve those goals. If the good life is ultimately found in an afterlife our conveyance to which requires the construction of massive burial monuments, then we get the technology and economy of ancient Egypt. If the good life consists in simply having more of everything we can imagine faster and bigger than ever before, then we get the blistering cancer of North American consumer culture with an economy and technology to match. My point is that there isn’t just one set of economic “laws” that somehow exist separately from what we want. As historically we have wanted different things at different times and places, so we have seen different economies appear to serve them. This is both good news and bad news. The bad news is that our economic experiments have generally been pretty disastrous, and paradoxically, especially when, as pointed out by Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress (2004) they were most successful.
The good news is that, on the historical evidence, it appears that human beings are capable of conceiving a diversity of “good lives,” including ones that are far lower on the material consumption scale and far more sustainable than the consumer culture in which we now live. For most of human pre-history and ancient history, our economies were not concerned with money at all—money itself being a fairly recent invention. Thus we find grounds for hope that we may not be genetically programmed to breed and consume ourselves to extinction.
It is this set of beliefs about what is a good life that is the hinge between present day consumer culture and how some proponents of mindful sufficiency imagine themselves living. In germ, I propose that an economy of sustainable living would be organized to achieve different goals and in different ways than our present economy. It would offer a different measure of success, engage different technology, and go about meeting human needs in a different way. These differences would not be so radical as to be unrecognizable to us, but they would definitely imply creating new institutions, dismantling others, developing a new menu of policies and development priorities from the one current, and organizing everything to achieve substantially different goals. Some of these changes may require the recollection of historically older ways of doing things; other changes may require sheer invention. These goals are in no way foreign to our humanity—in fact, they would be more authentically reflective of it. But they would be different from how we organize our economic affairs today, and achieving them would require a thorough-going and probably fairly lengthy process of social evolution—certainly a generation and perhaps more.
A very intriguing contribution in this direction is offered by Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies in their book The Subsistence Perspective (1999). These authors bring a feminist and Earth-centered perspective to a discussion of economics, in contrast to the male-dominated money-centered perspective of traditional economics. Their proposals spring from the idea that a “subsistence” economy, far from being concerned with mere survival, is instead an economy whose first concern is life and enhancing the conditions which make for more life, ecological productivity, health, and vitality. This is achieved through ecologically sustainable production regimes within ethically defined limits intended to protect the interests and well-being of life-oriented cultures. Such a system can thus be contrasted with “death-oriented” economies aiming for resource extraction and consumption with the goal of expanding commodity and excess value production so as to promote the interests of capital (profits) rather than promoting the interest of life.
Before moving forward, I think it is a mistake to treat the economic aspect of simple living apart from the other changes to society and politics that would likely coincide with the economic changes implied by a lifestyle of sufficiency rather than hyper-consumption. It’s hard to imagine significant change coming to the economy without a parallel politics of simple living and changes arising which are not about simple living per se, but which stem from other values shared by people who make a commitment to simple living. Surveys have shown that people who self-identify as living simply also display a preference for holistic approaches to health care, tend to choose locally produced organic foods, tend to opt for human-powered or pedestrian transportation, tend to be involved as volunteers in community-focused projects and activities, and so on (Elgin 1981; Johnston & Burton 2002; Pierce 2000; Young et al. 2004). While these are not direct results of simple living, they are attitudes and values correlated with it. It’s reasonable to expect that in addition to opting for a less consumptive lifestyle, people with such values would also be working for changes to public policies, social welfare systems and services, settlement designs, transportation systems, and a host of other things which would have economic implications. Thus a shift to mindful sufficiency would involve a major social transformation, reflected in the economy to be sure, but elsewhere as well.