Friday, February 27, 2009

Not Part of the Remit? Part II

by the Sandwichman

The Sandwichman submitted the following comments to the "Middle Class Task Force" (formerly the White House Task Force on Working Families):

The Middle Class Task Force staff report on Green Jobs, issued today, cites the UN Environmental Programme's report, "Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World." I would like to call your attention to two brief but absolutely crucial sections in the UNEP report: "Rethinking Consumption" and "A New Approach to Work Hours".

In the section on rethinking consumption, the authors state, "Sooner rather than later… we need to confront the specter of insatiable consumerism itself. There is a danger that the consumer juggernaut will overwhelm even the most sophisticated methods and technologies that can be devised to make consumption lean and super-efficient. Consuming better does not obviate the need to consider moderation in overall consumption levels."

What this means, to be perfectly clear, is that if we DON'T confront the economic growth imperative all the rest of the good work we do to create green jobs will be moot.

That's a rather strong statement, tucked in inconspicuously in a one-page section of a 376-page document and, significantly, excluded from the summary report "for decision makers."

We know why this matter wasn't discussed more fully because the report tells us. The question about what to do about excessive consumption was "not part of the remit of this report." Let me repeat, it was "not part of the remit of this report" to look into a matter that could overwhelm (that is to say: bury, crush, submerge completely) all of the sophisticated methodological and technological innovations discussed in the other 375 pages of the report.

May I point out that is like getting ready to do a twelve-hour brain surgery without making sure there are double and triple back-ups in case of a power outage? As John Kenneth Galbraith remarked fifty years ago, it is like having a discussion about how to prevent traffic accidents while agreeing not to talk about speed.

There's a name for this bizarre phenomenon of skirting around the forbidden question. It's called "the elephant in the room." The White House blog mentioned the good-natured jockeying among cities and states for who was "greenest." By coincidence, earlier this week the City of Vancouver launched a program with the goal of making Vancouver "the greenest city in the world." In response to that, I started a facebook group called "The Greenest Elephant in the Room" because so much of the talk about green jobs sidesteps the single most direct and immediate way to cut greenhouse gas emissions (among other things) – reduce consumption, reduce the hours of work, share the work and spare the planet!

That brings me to the other brief section in the UNEP report, "A New Approach to Work Hours":

Industrial economies are extraordinarily productive-meaning that the same quantity of output can be produced with less and less human work. In principle, this can translate into either of two objectives: raising wages (in line with productivity) while holding working hours constant, or providing greater leisure time while holding income from wages constant. In practice, it has mostly been the former. Most people have been locked into a "work-and-spend" pattern.
Since the rise of mass industrialization in the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing tug-of-war between employers and unions over working hours… Employees have struggled for less work time – in the form of shortened workdays or weeks, extended vacation time, earlier retirement, or paid leave. These efforts were primarily motivated by a desire to improve the quality of life and to create more jobs. While environmental issues have not played a central role, channelling productivity gains toward more leisure time instead of higher wages that can translate into ever rising consumption also increasingly makes sense from an ecological perspective.

It is crucial to retool not only the economy, but also economic thought. Right now, economic actors are primed to respond to quantitative growth signals… A sustainable economy needs a different way of measuring human activity and of providing signals to investors, producers, and consumers. It needs a different theory, abandoning the outdated assumption that quantitative growth is unconditionally desirable and embracing instead the notion of qualitative growth.
The UNEP report "is correct when it states that it is crucial to retool not only the economy, but also economic thought." But then, amazingly, the report doesn't follow through on what could be done to retool economic thought! It focuses exclusively on the technological fix.

It takes courage to talk about what has become taboo to mention – to name the elephant in the room. The brief sections in the UNEP report that discuss "rethinking consumption" and "a new approach to work hours" are pithy. Their brevity, though, and lack of follow-through speaks volumes.


Myrtle Blackwood said...

Thanks for this helpful post, Sandwichman.

"reduce consumption, reduce the hours of work, share the work and spare the planet! Yeah!

But how to do it as quickly as possible. I've made a few observations. Some people are purchasing solar hot water systems and then spending more than that on solar electric to feed into the grid. With respect to the latter purchase, I think that money would be better spent purchasing a solar hot water system for someone else; since hot water is the biggest single factor in electricity consumption for most households and the solar voltaic systems provide such limited energy generally.

We're using our shed space for storage of furniture and other household items. This stuff is leant out to tennants and other people when they need it. This has saved quite a lot of unnecessary purchases to-date.

With respect to 'reducing the hours of work'. The work involved in reducing consumption does not lead to a drop in labour time, although it seems to be vital to more efficient resource use to reduce paid worforce time.

And then there's the question of finding the efficiencies in the utlisation of limited labour time and resources. What food crop to grow? (potatoes yield well). What jobs to drop (ironing is high on my list). What materials to use in construction. (stone/earth).


Luke Lea said...

In place of the old middle-class dream of a house in the suburbs and a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids, Luke Lea proposes something very different: a national program to build New Towns in the Country in which ordinary working people are employed part-time (18-to-24 hours a week) and in their free time build their own houses, cultivate gardens, and pursue other leisure-time activities. Instead of putting their children in daycare, parents would raise them at home. Senior citizens would no longer retire at sixty-five but take easier jobs as they grow older and continue working for as long as they are able. And instead of relying upon high-speed automobiles, the new towns would be small enough (10,000-to-30,000 inhabitants) and laid out in such a way that the townspeople could get around on foot, by bicycle, and in neigh-borhood electric vehicles. Combining these elements we have a recipe for NEW COMMUNITIES OF LEISURE AND LIBERTY as the author describes them: well-suited to the economic realities of the 21st century, and to the egalitarian ideals upon which our republic is founded.

“Luke Lea is an excellent amateur economist.”
Milton Friedman

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