Culture of accumulation isn't sustainable
By Paul Shrivastava
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, several economic and management gurus have come forward with strategies designed to get it back on track. No one argues that several elements of our economy are broken and need to be fixed to put America back on the path to prosperity.
Unfortunately, the focus of too many of the suggested strategies designed to do so remains on restoring the national competitiveness of the United States. Two serious modifications to this approach are needed.
First, to meet America's potential on the world stage at this historic juncture, the U.S. should not focus on making the country's economy competitive vis-a-vis other nations, but instead on positioning the U.S. as a leader of a sustainable global economy. Our economic policies should not focus internally on seeking narrowly defined national competitive advantages but rather on international cooperative advantage.
Duty and privilege
As a global leader and the hub of an interdependent international economic order, it is both our duty and privilege to develop global solutions. If the U.S. does not offer global solutions, Europe and China will create them independently.
If the U.S. turns inward to bolster its own competitive advantage with little consideration of its impacts on others, it could lead other nations to follow suit and pursue insular and exclusionary strategies.
Second, for any new economic strategy to take shape, it must have a compelling cultural vision. That vision cannot simply be to restore the U.S. to its past economic pre-eminence. It must be linked to the current global financial and climate crises -- both of which will surely destroy not just the American economy but also all of human affairs as they are currently structured.
Global economic order
I propose a vision of a sustainable, creative and equitable global economic order. The global economy must be fundamentally reshaped. The economic engine of spaceship Earth must be designed for a current population of 6.7 billion people that will grow to more than 9 billion by 2042 and a simultaneous shrinking of other species at alarming rates.
Global gross domestic product in purchasing power parity terms in 2007 was $65.6 trillion, with an average per capita GDP of $10,000. Consumption is highly skewed, with the poorest 10 percent of the population consuming 2.5 percent and richest 10 percent consuming 29.8 percent.
If we let the current trends of credit and leverage, growth, production and consumption continue, the world economy could increase six-fold by the middle of this century, while massive poverty would persist and we would remain ecologically unsustainable and saddled with additional insecurity and wars over resources.
Our global system of capital accumulation that is premised on ever-increasing material consumption is not viable ecologically or socially. Consumption must be fundamentally reconsidered, examining needs for material versus nonmaterial goods and services. And we must understand the relationship of consumption to the patterns of production work.
Traditional material consumption, especially in the industrialized West, should and will decline. The current global financial crisis will reduce the size of many economies by 10 percent to 15 percent over the next five years. Instead of letting it happen haphazardly, we have the opportunity to be deliberative and direct that decline in ways that cause the least harm to the poorest.
Eschewing material consumption opens space for spiritual, sensory and aesthetic consumption. Consumers are realizing that consuming more is not always better (think obesity), and many are recalibrating what is enough. Deliberate shrinking of traditional material consumption might no longer be a radical idea.
Nature of work
In the U.S., we have 6.5 percent unemployment that is expected to jump to 8 percent by the end of 2009 and perhaps as high as 10 percent. So there is a mad rush to create jobs. There is talk of stimulus packages, infrastructure build-out, job-creation tax rebates, etc. In these narrow discussions we are not examining the nature of work and its relationship to consumption.
Creating more "rivet-head" or 9-to-5 cubicle-inhabiting grunt jobs is self-defeating. It promotes traditional material consumption-driven lifestyles. We need jobs that are meaningful, creative and emotionally satisfying, and that will foster new thoughtful consumption habits.
Work itself can be made a source of consuming satisfaction. Agricultural, industrial and even post-industrial work represents forms of dehumanizing toil that cannot serve as the basis of productive human societies. Human drive for creativity is fundamental. Designing creative aesthetic work is as important as creating new jobs.
Finally, equity in distribution of prosperity needs urgent attention. Extreme unevenness in prosperity across the globe is a major security issue. In an age of cell phones and the Internet, information about lifestyles is broadcast instantly around the world. Disparities cannot be hidden. This knowledge is a source of moral quandary and class conflict. Extreme poverty fosters revolutions, violent control of resources, wars and terrorism.
Twenty percent of the world population not being able to meet basic human needs constitutes a huge pool of disenfranchised people spread over many countries. This is a formula for increased violence, organized crime, terrorism and insurgent wars. Ensuring that all humans have at least the minimum needed to survive and the opportunity to improve their lives is critical for global security and a renewed global economy.
Contact: Division of Communications
Posted Dec. 22, 2008