In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.
Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.
The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off; unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.
One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):
Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.
This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.
We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?
From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?
We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.
That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.
Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.
It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:
“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”
The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”
Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.
“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.
To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:
Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.
There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.
For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):
Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”
But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.
As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.
Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):
Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”
He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):
First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.
He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):
If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.
It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.
Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):
Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .
Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .
Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.
Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.
Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’
His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence.