Part 2: Competing Visions

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This two-part blog post is taken from a talk “Competing Visions of Sustainability: Scarcity or Abundance?” at the University of Maine, Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, on September 14, 2015. Read Part One.

Executive Director, Bill Sheehan, Ph.D.Let’s look at the Scarcity and Abundance worldviews in the context of sustainable production and consumption. I’ll mention two active movements that offer very different remedies for what ails our current material culture.

I actually believe that the Scarcity and Abundance worldviews are part of a continuum of visions for sustainability — from those rooted in varying degrees in the Abundance worldview, to others informed more by assumptions of Scarcity.

Abundance Worldviews: Circular Economy

iStock_000023613968Medium (1)Those at the Abundance end of the continuum tend to be optimistic about human ability to solve problems using technology and innovation. Hence they’ve been called techno-optimists and eco-modernists.

At the extreme end are climate change deniers. But in truth, most of those who hold the Abundance worldview believe that our climate is changing and our situation is serious. Their perspectives range from a reluctant “We’ve messed up the planet, now let’s learn to manage it,” to an eager embracing of technology and even talk of a ‘Good Anthropocene.’

  • The Breakthrough Institute is at the forefront of the latter way of thinking. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, lead authors of the recent Eco-modernist Manifesto, argue for embracing technology like nuclear energy and GMO crops to [quote] “intensify human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world.”
  • Cradle-to-Cradle co-author Bill McDonough is another proponent of the Abundance worldview. Ten billion people? Not a problem. Unleash innovation and we can redesign everything so it can be “upcycled,” there is no waste, and everyone can thrive.

The movement that best reflects the Abundance mindset and addresses sustainable production and consumption is the Circular Economy Movement.

iStock_reduce-reuse-recoverWhile the term circular economy is not new, it’s been very effectively popularized by Ellen MacArthur and her foundation in the UK. Established only five years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has created a huge buzz in Europe, especially in business circles. It’s been a perennial topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos. And recently even the European Commission has started talking about circular economy goals.

The circular economy is ultimately about reforming the current industrial system. Primary emphasis is on engaging business leaders because, it’s argued, only large corporations have the resources and agility to move fast enough and far enough to make a difference in solving the big problems humanity faces.

Business leaders tend to be optimistic about the future and to believe that technology and innovation can solve most problems without government regulation. They are probably drawn to the circular economy movement because it does not call for slowing rates of economic growth or consumption – that is, for selling fewer products — but rather for making products and product systems more efficient.

The Circular Economy feels to me a lot like the civic Zero Waste movement that I helped launch 20 years ago. Zero Waste? Circular Economy? What’s not to like? One comes from the Scarcity worldview, the other from the Abundance worldview. In and of themselves, both are visionary, vague, and apolitical.

Scarcity Worldviews: New Economy

At the other end of the Abundance-Scarcity continuum are those who believe that humanity’s situation is more dire and calls for deeper changes. Relying on hope and techno-fixes that will allow us to continue living how we’re living in the face of catastrophe is delusion, they believe.

Hot_planetNobody has framed it better than Naomi Klein. In her book, This Changes Everything, she makes the argument that much of the resistance to acting on climate change arises because global warming requires government regulation and limiting material growth.

A strong moral case for action was recently made by Pope Francis in his June encyclical, Laudato Si. Like Klein, the Pope emphasizes that unending material growth has a disastrous side, especially for the poor. What’s needed is a radical transformation of political and economic institutions.

It’s tempting to paint the Scarcity worldview as simply knee-jerk pessimism. And you might get that impression from images like this one on the cover of a book by Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over. Indeed, a third of the world has had its fossil fuel party, while another third hasn’t even started.

Heinberg is the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute in California (where I am a Fellow). Heinberg believes that our fossil-fueled economy is going to end, one way or another, within a few decades. And we will have to transition to renewable energy sources, which will mean a much more localized, and a radically-lower-energy mode of existence.

But actually Heinberg and a lot of others are focusing these days on thinking through how people can adapt and thrive in a world without fossil fuels. There’s a great deal of activity, both theoretical and practical, on what Tim Jackson calls “prosperity without growth.” It’s based on the idea that Abundance does not have to be defined solely in materialistic terms. Abundance can also be defined in less material terms, such as Abundant health, and satisfaction and joy.  (Which kind of muddies my neat little Scarcity-Abundance dichotomy, doesn’t it?)

Much of the academic work on sustainable consumption is being networked by the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative.

The sustainability “movement” that best reflects the Scarcity mindset and addresses production and consumption is the New Economy Movement. It seeks to replace consumerism with values like happiness, resourcefulness and equality; and global capitalism with resilient local economies.

Street signs with Economy and EnvironmentThe New Economy Movement is really more of a frame of mind than a coherent movement. Gar Alperovitz has written (rather enthusiastically), the New Economy Movement is “a far-ranging coming together of organizations, projects, activists, theorists and ordinary citizens committed to rebuilding the American political-economic system from the ground up. … It involves thousands of real world projects — from solar-powered businesses to worker-owned cooperatives and state-owned banks. Many are self-consciously understood as working prototypes that may be applied at regional and national scale when the right political moment occurs.”

The organization in the United States attempting to coordinate this diverse assemblage is the New Economy Coalition. It was created in 2013 from a merger of two other organizations; and they’re affiliated with the New Economy Foundation in the UK. Here is a link of the member organizations in the United States.

It’s interesting that the group of foundations that have funded the work of organizations like UPSTREAM over the past decade have recently changed the name of their affinity group from the Sustainability Funders Network to the New Economy Funders Network.

In Conclusion…

I find it fascinating how the word sustainability is used in so many different ways, and how our visions for the future are informed by our worldviews of Scarcity or Abundance.

The Abundance worldview seems to be associated more with interventions at the Production stage of the industrial system, while the Scarcity worldview tends to focus more on the Consumption stage.

Moreover, the Abundance worldview seems to correlate strongly with business values — which Jane Jacobs, in Systems of Survival, called the Commercial Moral Syndrome. The Scarcity worldview seems to correlate more strongly with values characteristic of government – which Jacobs called the Guardian Moral Syndrome.

Jacobs concluded that both moral syndromes are needed for a healthy society.

And I believe that we need both radical innovation from business, and strong government action, if we are going to avert the worst effects of climate change.

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