Thursday, December 3, 2009

A prelude to collapse is more unpaid work

Some economic thinkers believe that a greater level of unpaid work is an 'economic necessity' in our current time of crisis.

The long evolution to disorder that we now find ourselves in has incorporated the emergence of a grossly distorted system of currency exchange rates and a trading system where the essence of 'trade' has come to mean international cross-border transactions within the same corporations or network of corporations. Non-trade in essence.

Peter Dorman points out in his article 'The Financial Crisis Through the Lens of Global Imbalances' that "a substantial portion of the world’s capital stock is obsolete" now because its tied up with the dead-end dynamics of global imbalances and that exporters also possess capacity in many industries which far exceeds domestic demand. Peter goes on to say that the US failed to invest in capacity to reduce its dependence on the key non-renewable fossil fuel - oil.

William Catton long foresaw this crisis and describes it in his article entitled 'The Unrecognised Preview'

Both Peter Dorman and William Catton say that new institutions and policies are (or were) needed to accommodate more sustainable growth strategies. Catton pointed out that by the 1970s mankind had taken over for human use about one eighth of the annual total net production of organic matter by contemporary photosynthesis in all the vegetation on all the earth's land. That much was being used by man and his domestic animals.* It would require taking over more than the other seven-eighths to provide from organic sources the vast quantities of energy we were deriving from fossil fuels to run our mechanized civilization, even if economic growth and human increase were halted by the year 2000.

Catton concludes that we have been a long time in ecological overshoot. His predictions are frightening.

I hope Catton is wrong but whether he is correct or not in his pronouncements is irrelevant to the nature of the steps that I see are now needed to at least reduce destructive outcomes.

Vast new sustainable infrastructure whose design is guided by the principle of 'biogeochemical circularity' described by Catton is needed urgently. Systems of production need to move away from drawdown of non-renewable resources.

Such an immense transformation can't happen when many millions of people are unavailable to participate. Work, whether it occurs in a capitalist or ecologically sustainable paradigm, needs to be rewarded if it is to proceed apace. Whilst our production paradigms are now obsolete, the concept of paid work isn't.

* Odum 1971 (listed among references for Ch. 6), p. 55.


Walker said...

"I hope Catton is wrong"

Catton says there is no fairy godmother. When I base a prescription on an analysis, it's because I assume the analysis is right not because I hope it is wrong. Catton's section, "No Fairy Godmother" gives an account of the rearmament swindle very congenial to the argument I've been developing here with regard to the New Deal, Keyserling, Eisenhower and the AFL-CIO's abandonment of shorter hours in favor of military-industrial growthmanship.

If Catton's conclusion are indeed "irrelevant to the nature of the steps that I see are now needed" why have you premised your prescription on his analysis and what is the analytical basis of the steps you see as necessary?

Min said...

"Some economic thinkers believe that a greater level of unpaid work is an 'economic necessity' in our current time of crisis."

I agree. Let top management of Too Big To Fail institutions work for $1 per year. (If it was good enough for Lee Iacocca, it's good enough for me.)

Brenda Rosser said...

Thankyou for these questions and comments. Fair enough.

It wasn't just shorter working hours that was abandoned by the New Deal etc. There were all sorts of opportunities and ways of life lost. Lewis Mumford provides a good list of abandoned paths in his book 'The Myth of the Machine'.

What we've got tells the story of what we haven't got. We have now for intstance a terrible *conformity where "human affairs...places the demand for constant technological change above any considerations of its own efficiency, its own continuity, or even...its own capacity to survive. To maintain such a system, whose postulates contradict those that underlie all living organisms, it requires for self-protection absolute conformity to the human community; and to achieve that conformity it proposes to institute a system of total control, starting with the human organism itself...."

The thing is, I haven't got a prescription. The situation we now face is so complex that it's simply not possible to provide a framework for even a small number of situations at any time.

So, the prescription of shorter paid working hours falls flat just like a prescription for a greater number of paid (and unpaid) working and/or living hours fails in many contexts.

The context in which people live and work is the key to our predicament; the basis of our arguments. In my life context I see a need for more people to be rewarded for their effort through what Catton calls the 'medium of mutualism'. Some form of money exchange that will free up individuals to contribute more to problem solving than they are capable of without such a medium. (Not all of the time, here. Not for everyone here.)

Last night's posting, as you have pointed out, lacks sufficient development of thought. It was 'a cortisol moment' for me. In any case I hope it pointed to a discussion that needs to be had.

gordon said...

It's the first time I've seen Howard Odum referred to on an econoblog post. Great!

Thanks for the Dorman link. You might also be interested in this rather heterodox analysis of the GFC by Robert Brenner, "What Is Good For Goldman Sachs Is Good For America: The Origins of the Current Crisis"

Walker said...


I agree that there absolutely needs to be a discussion about "what to do" with free time that goes beyond simply the freeing of time. Henry Ford's notion of leisure as a spur to increased consumption is profoundly at odds with that of Prosperity without Growth author, Tim Jackson.

Did I mention "profoundly"?

The answer to that discrepancy is not simply choosing Jackson over Ford (or ignoring them both) but also discovering how Jackson both transcends AND incorporates Ford.

gordon said...

And now Economists' View puts up a post about how the savings glut (which the linked P.Dorman piece says is a myth) is responsible for the GFC. Now I have to read the Dorman piece...

Anonymous said...

Brenda: "The situation we now face is so complex that it's simply not possible to provide a framework for even a small number of situations at any time."

And, this is why hours must be reduced, and, ultimately, work has to be abolished: So that people are free to experiment within their own particular "framework" and discover answers which need satisfy them alone. Above all, people must be free to define their own framework in ways that do not carry, as a consequence of failure, that they starve.

You ask on another post what is this freedom - this is it.