This post kicks off a series of conversations with leaders and innovators who are working to reinvent the American economy and energy system.
For three decades Juliet Schor has been one of the preminent writers on American patterns of work and consumption. Now a Professor of Sociology at Boston College, she was formerly on the faculty of Harvard’s Department of Economics and is the best-selling author of The Over-worked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, and, most recently, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. Schor is also one of the founders of the New Economics Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping Americans “reduce and shift their consumption to improve quality of life, protect the environment, and promote social justice.”
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Juliet about her latest work, the defining characteristics of the “new economy,” and what makes her most hopeful about the direction of our country and the world.
What are you doing? What’s most exciting?
I just finished running a summer institute on New Economics with 11 faculty and a group of students from graduate schools around the country. I’m also working on a wide variety of new initiatives, including a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation, where we’re researching the sharing economy. We’re looking at time banking, food swapping, the Maker movement–all sorts of low-impact ways of providing goods and services.
You’re one of the foremost proponents of what we often hear referred to as “the new economy.” What are some of the key characteristics of this economy?
People are using those words in a lot of different ways. I think New Economics has four characteristics. First, it’s an egalitarian economics, where you have widespread ownership of wealth, not just income. It also tends to be bottom up in structure, and highly participatory. It’s ecologically committed, low impact, and runs on closed loops. And it is technologically forward — it’s oriented towards information technology, open source thinking, peer production, and compelling user experiences. Technology is an important driver today.
It’s important to say that New Economic thinking has a pluralistic vision. We’re talking about whole system change, where a diversity of new kinds of enterprise types spring up in parallel. Then, in terms of the scale of the entities that make up our economy, we want small-scale or networked entities versus giants. New economics has a preference for building up local and regional economies.
What are the most important drivers of the new economy?
The ecological unsustainability of the current system is a huge driver. So are growing instability and the large-scale failures of the current economic regime–income inequality, growing unemployment, underemployment. But there’s also a positive driver, which is the development of the internet–this peer-to-peer, open source tool–and that opens up space for new possibilities.
Changing consumption involves getting lots of people to change their behavior, so that you get to some larger scale changes. What do you think it takes to get individuals to think about and change their behavior?
Trying to induce individual household people isn’t going to get us very far. The things that will matter a lot are building differently, getting a price on carbon, and so on. Where behavior change does become important in is in showing consistency. That is, climate friendly behavior change on the personal level is a pathway that takes people to greater, more substantial kinds of involvement. I’m not interesting in aggregating the physical impacts of a lot of people turning down their thermostats. I’m interested in building a social movement to gain enough power in the political economy to counter the fossil industry. In order to do that I think you have to show consistency in how you behave, to walk the talk.
How does collaborative consumption fit into the new economy? Can it scale?
There is a tremendous amount happening. Couchsurfing, timebanking, which is not yet at any kind of scale, freecycling, Ebay for used goods, Craigslist–while we don’t have numbers yet on some of these things or a sense of how much they matter, we know that others, such as EBay and Craigslist are already economically significant. From a physical perspective, the inflow of artificially cheap goods needs to stop to encourage reuse, recycling, longer use, trading.
How about financing? Is lack of financing a constraint?
Definitely. Many of the solutions are feasible with relatively low upfront financial investments. They won’t be financed with traditional commercial sources of financing. I also don’t see big government financing coming. There’s a range of innovative financing mechanisms coming up to enable small-scale, local investment. But long term, we need structural changes in the economy and support from the government to support clean infrastructure. Political gridlock is making it so challenging. The financial sector is sucking so much of the surplus value out of the economy. Before the crash they took up 40% of the profits in the economy. There’s the fossil fuel sector and the financial sector, which are so highly concentrated.
As a sociologist, you’ve been researching Americans’ approach to work and leisure for about three decades. What’s surprised you most?
Right now, I’m surprised at how difficult it is to get the agenda of work time into the dialogue. At a time when people are so focused on jobs and growth, it seems people don’t want to talk about it. Shouldn’t there be more of a discourse on new solutions? Sharing work time still seems to be a big blind spot.
What scares you most?
The business as usual climate path and our seeming inability to get off of it. The years are ticking by and the way out has narrowed. I do think there will be another financial collapse. The growth process itself, what drives our whole idea of the economy right now, is in trouble. The good news is that as people realize that it will make more mobilization possible.
What gives you the most hope?
Thinking of complex systems, all the bottom up activity that’s really good, that’s out there but still under the radar. The level of innovation in the system is mind blowing, be it social, or ecological, or economic. I don’t think “scaling up” is how it will happen. You don’t scale up any particular thing. You just drive innovation at all levels. Conditions around the world are ripening, and are compelling people to act in similar directions.
Watch Juliet Schor’s Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth