Apart and Together: Accepting our Vulnerability to Consume Less

This is the 6th piece in a series I named “Apart and Together” to capture the paradoxical reality of the pandemic we are part of: we are being asked to be apart from each other, physically, in the most elemental ways that we are, even as our species’ fate is more than ever fully intertwined with all of us. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari included a discussion of how we used to live in many separate “worlds” and how, now, we live in only one: we each affect, and are affected by, all. This, known to spiritual traditions the world over for a long time, is now a material reality.

I started this series in mid-April. Each time I sit down to write one of them, we are in a different moment in the trajectory of living. This time I am reminded, as if I ever forgot, that global warming continues, along with apocalyptic weather conditions. It’s summer now in the US, tornado, hurricane, and fire season. The pictures are overwhelming. The stories of individuals and communities affected are difficult. 2020 is slated to be the hottest or second hottest year on record, and records are broken more frequently than ever.

Connecting the dots, I reflect, again, on the basic question that this series is addressing: what opportunities does this pandemic, in all its horrors, give us to look at, to understand, and learn to transform deep social patterns that, themselves, fully predate the pandemic? For this piece, I have chosen to look at the way the pandemic has unsettled patterns of consumption. Herein lies the opportunity. High consumption is entirely essential for “economic recovery,” and the logic of economic growth is the most direct cause of environmental degradation, including global warming. The opportunity, therefore, is to see that significant reduction in consumption is entirely possible, and thus to inquire deeply about what all this consumption means and what we need to look at, instead, if there is still any chance to make dramatic changes. I imagine it will come as no surprise that what I find when looking there is core themes of the patriarchal mindset, and, in particular, fear of vulnerability and especially death.

Coronavirus and Consumption[1]

With long stretches of lockdown in much of the world, consumption went down significantly, for at least a period. In April, there was a 30-50% drop in consumer spending, mostly in categories deemed “discretionary,” with a higher concentration on “essentials.” It’s important to notice that this is consumer spending, not total consumption, which only dropped 4.2%, showing us how much of consumption isn’t necessarily driven by individual behavior. Global energy demand is expected to be down 6% in 2020, with CO2 emissions at 8% reduction, though a rebound is expected when travel resumes. Meat consumption is expected to be lowest this year since 2000, possibly leading to longer term changes.

It’s clearly impossible to predict a host of factors, so no amount of what people say they plan on doing could possibly be enough of an indicator of what they will actually do, especially as conditions continue to shift. A second wave of infections is either happening or being talked about, unemployment remains high (over 10% in the US, over 8% globally), and people are getting progressively more restless in our enforced social isolation.

What concerns me, in relation to my focus for this piece, is the way things are framed, and what I infer from that about the likelihood that the vitally necessary changes to our overall economic activity will take place. So, for example, when a Bloomberg article speaks of global oil demand as being “wiped out” or “destroyed,” the implication is that something negative is happening when, if the same information is looked at from a different angle, this would be something to cautiously celebrate. Similarly, a report on the 9.6% decline in retail sales also speaks of it in stark negative terms, such as when saying it will “take 4 years to revive,” with that revival clearly seeming like a positive event. If the underlying mindset and the institutions that support it won’t change, the drive will continue to be to “return to normal,” the very normal that has been destroying us and that is clearly, itself, part of what brought us the pandemic in the first place. (I explored this in some detail in part two of this series, “Grounding in Interconnection and Solidarity.”)

What is happening, by itself, cannot drive change for as long as the overarching framing remains unchanged. Unless the changes shift from being imposed to being chosen, the impacts of reduction in consumption will be temporary. Both in terms of global trends such as CO2 emissions and in terms of collective human behavior. The pandemic and the response to it are not by themselves drivers of social change; they are only an opening to information about what is possible and what we could differently as a species relating to ourselves, to each other, and to life.

Some of the changes in consumption patterns actually point to reduced reliance on the market. More people in the US began to eat home-cooked meals, even for the first time. In Turkey, sales of bread went down, while sales of yeast went up, clearly indicating an increase in baking. In a world where we focus on needs, this would be celebrated. In a world where we focus on economic growth and profits, it’s alarming. This is a persistent choice point in what lies ahead: needs, and with them life, or the economy, and with it likely extinction? Before addressing the question head on, a basic introduction to some key economic concepts, and then questioning them, seems to me in order.

Economic Growth and Human Well-being

One of the core tenets of economic theory is that growing the economy – what is known as GDP, (Gross Domestic Product) – increases human well-being. This seems to be one of those things that “everyone” knows. Far fewer people know and understand what is problematic about this measure. And it appears to me that what is known as the “Threshold Hypothesis” relating GDP and well-being is almost unknown outside of small circles of specialized economists and those who, like me, chanced upon this discovery almost by accident. I want to now take up each of these and expand on it just enough to make their significance clear.

GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced and sold in a country, along with all of its exports to other countries. It is the main indicator used when referring to economic growth: economists and policymakers are generally happy when the economy grows, and concerned when it doesn’t. This is why after September 11th, 2001, George Bush told a stunned population to shop. This is why the issue of consumption is so vitally significant at this point, when the economy partially stopped, and when it is still a question whether and how to revive it.

I learned about the inherent problem of how the GDP is measured in 1995, when I came across the work of Marilyn Waring, a former New Zealand Member of Parliament (at the age of 23). She was the chair of the Public Expenditure Committee and, as the film made about her, Who’s Counting, shows, she began a long quest to understand why national economies were measured the way they were, namely using the GDP (at that time a slightly different version, the GNP). She discovered that, contrary to how any of us measure our personal economic affairs, when measuring national economies, everything that costs money is added, nothing is ever subtracted, and anything that doesn’t cost money is ignored. The result is that an oil spill, disastrous as it is, increases the GDP through the insurance money and through the work of cleaning it up. There is no accounting for loss. For environmental degradation. For impact on communities. At the same time, the most beneficial activities that contribute directly to well-being are not measured at all.

The more I learned of her work, the more troubled I became about using GDP to measure well-being: how can a measure that ignores what we do directly towards well-being, and in which much of what we do that degrades well-being is positively added, be used to measure well-being?

It’s only in the last few years that I learned that, aside from its problematic nature, GDP only correlates with well-being for a while, and then it stops. This is one of Manfred Max-Neef’s discoveries, reported very gently in 1995, in this simple way: “for every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth (as conventionally measured) brings about an improvement in the quality of life, but only up to a point – the threshold point – beyond which, if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.”[2]

This simple sentence challenges the fundamental premise on which stand everything all economists and policymakers tell us. We have been told that we must keep the economy growing indefinitely in order to care for all that matters to us. And this appears, clearly, not to be supported by data. The article I quote from above compares GDP with a measure then used for human well-being called “Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare” (ISEW) for the US and several European countries, and finds that for all of them the GDP continued to grow while the ISEW began to drop.[3]

When I discovered this, I immediately started searching for other articles by him and about this hypothesis. I found one of each. One by Max-Neef himself, in 2010, condenses in a few pages deep and simple information about the inherent unfixability and danger of the system we currently live in.[4] For purposes of this piece, I quote one paragraph:

“Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Move from efficiency to sufficiency and well-being. Also necessary is the solution of the present economic imbalances and inequities. Without equity peaceful solutions are not possible. We need to replace the dominant values of greed, competition, and accumulation, for those of solidarity, cooperation, and compassion.” (p. 201)

I plan to come back later both to the question of accepting limits, and to the depth of necessary shifts at the values level and what we can do about those shifts, starting with where we are. For the moment, the most significant element to focus on is this stark reality: in response to the pandemic, a major lockdown happened. As a result, consumption slowed down considerably. Many other things happened, too, resulting in immense suffering as many people lost their income, unemployment is soaring, entire industries collapsed and the working people that make them possible are now without income. And, still, within that: a huge number of us discovered that we can live just fine with reduced consumption. This is being questioned by economists and policymakers who see our capacity to live on less as a problem rather than as part of the solution. Much thinking is going into how to increase consumption again as soon as possible to reboot the economy in its fullness, rather than into how to build on this newfound resilience and freedom from the market.

And, digging a bit deeper: we are told that reviving “the economy” is tied to our collective well-being. And there is every reason to believe it’s not so; that our well-being is no longer tied to economic growth in many parts of the world. This is the deepest significance of the threshold hypothesis: that economic growth only serves well-being up to a point: “the overcoming of poverty must be the result of specific policies addressed to the purpose, since growth alone can no longer do the trick. We can identify the pre-threshold period as a quantitative economy and the post-threshold as a qualitative economy.” (Max-Neef, “Collision Course”, p. 208) This, previously known only within mostly academic circles, mostly outside the mainstream, can now be the knowledge of all, if we bring it far enough.

This, shattering as it is of all that we’ve been told, exposing the depth of crisis we are facing while showing us another way, isn’t the only disturbing and liberating implication of the threshold hypothesis. A second set of consequences is analyzed in another article I found which applied the threshold hypothesis to countries in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s written by two economists from Australia: Philip Lawn and Matthew Clarke, and is called painfully enough: “The end of economic growth? A contracting threshold hypothesis.”[5] Using the same methods that found the US and several countries crossing that threshold in the 1970s and 1980s, the authors use a measure called “Genuine Progress Indicator” and find, tragically that “the threshold point confronting growth late-comers (i.e., developing countries) occurs at a much lower level of sustainable welfare than what wealthy nations currently enjoy.”

I want to unpack this more fully so that the practical implications of this technical pronouncement for the actual people living in the world can be understood. This requires challenging the myth that the term “developing nation” rests on, which is made up of several parts: 1) that all the world would want to emulate the life available to the average middle class person in the global north; 2) that any nation that wants to can do it, and all that it takes is willingness and ingenuity; 3) that existing so-called developed nations are cheering on and ready to support this in happening; and 4) that to the extent that “development” isn’t happening, it’s because of deficiencies inherent in the way the so-called developing nations function.

The reality, as I understand it, is that every part of this myth disintegrates under even a little bit of closer scrutiny. Everywhere in the world, as far as my understanding goes, there has been intense resistance to the demand to leave subsistence, commons-based ways of living and shift to wage labor and dependence on market-based products and services. This was just as true in 16th century Europe or under colonization as it is today in Latin America, Africa, and the parts of Asia where the destruction of the commons has not been complete. Everywhere in the world, ingenuity and willingness have gone into aiming to create local self-sufficiency, including at national levels, only for that to be destroyed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies. In all these countries, policies emerging from globalization have increased, rather than decreased, inequality even if some forms of extreme impoverishment have declined, through imposing austerity measures while aiming to “buy” the loyalty of the local wealthy class. And, in many places where local populations have chosen to take a different path, they incurred the wrath of the United States and have been attacked, economically, and/or through CIA-backed coups, and/or militarily. This I have known, bit by painful bit, over the years of dismantling my own previous acceptance of the myth and of the thinking that the US is the stronghold of democracy and is engaging everywhere in support of that.

What this article has added is one more way that, what I prefer to call, the exploiting countries – those organizing the economies of other countries to benefit their own economies and corporations; those that house the greatest consumption concentration in the world – have stolen from the exploited parts of the world. Specifically: they have stolen from them the pathway to increasing well-being through economic growth. The contracting threshold hypothesis means that the cost of increasing GDP becomes higher for each new country that gets there. The global south, the majority world, doesn’t have a chance. We, those of us in the global north, have taken away from them the possibility of low-cost economic growth. Our planet cannot sustain it any longer. If there is any chance that we can survive as a species and that well-being can significantly improve in the parts of the world where material misery is prevalent, it won’t happen through economic growth in those parts of the world nor through further economic growth in the global north. It could only happen through shifting resources back to the global south after centuries of theft, and learning, finally, all of us, to shift our relationship to consumption, wherever we are in terms of our consumption patterns.

Life, Death, and Being Human

I can now return to the fork in the road I presented earlier: choosing between needs and the economy, and looking extinction squarely in the face.

My unscientific sense is that the possibility of human extinction is now spoken about more often than it was. Perhaps this, too, is one of the complex gifts of the Coronavirus: although the pandemic, by itself, is no threat to human existence, the fear it invoked, and the intensity of the measures taken in response, which only increased the fear, have sensitized humans to the precariousness of our continued existence. Paradoxically, and tragically, I see our collective and concerted effort to separate ourselves from that vulnerability as key to understanding what I think of as the patriarchal turn and its current modern, neoliberal incarnation.

In the years of reading, thinking, and writing about patriarchy, I’ve been seeing it more and more through the lens of the relationship between humans and life, and less and less through the lens of gender. I now see patriarchy, in large part, as an expression of profound and traumatic loss of trust in the flow of life resulting in the attempt to control life, both around and within us. Control, invariably, means use of force. In particular, it leads to the following:

  • Forcing land to produce for human gain (agriculture) – instead of engaging with the land in reverence and surrender (indigenous practices, pre-patriarchal cultivation, or permaculture);
  • Forcing children to give up their needs, especially needs for freedom, as the cost of acceptance and security (see my long article on this topic) – instead of engaging with children as we would with plants: giving them what they need to come into full flowering;
  • Within that, forcing male children and female children into rigid gender roles that diminish everyone’s full humanity, pit men against themselves and against women, and result in immense power differences and violence against women – instead of following what I now think of as the principle of collective mothering as full orientation towards everyone’s needs, and from there following the mothers in caring for the whole; a life where women, men, and children were all cared for and free;
  • Forcing the earth to give us more than can be regenerated (quoting from the Ecological Footprint website: “Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste. This means it now takes the Earth one year and eight months to regenerate what we use in a year.”).

If you are wondering what any of this has to do with the pandemic or with the economy, here are the dots I am connecting.

During the days when I’ve been writing this article, I went on an overnight trip to some exquisitely beautiful parts of Scotland, where I’ve been staying for the last six months. At one point I looked out the window and saw two crows on a patch of grass. They were hopping along, entirely unselfconscious, as I understand most of life to be. I was struck by two thoughts that came rapidly. The first was realizing just how free they were, and how much that freedom was intertwined with vulnerability and risk: at any point they might not find enough food, or might become food for someone else. This is the inherent uncertainty of life, right there, raw, elemental. I can’t imagine any living creature giving up this freedom, this wildness, for anything, except in conditions of extreme trauma or through coercion. The second thought then came, the recognition that this trade-off is precisely what our long-ago ancestors did: an imposition of domestication on ourselves and life around us in the name of predictability, control, and illusory safety that we can never have enough of. Somehow, seeing these two crows, an almost random moment, gave me visceral clarity of how glorious and expansive it is to live wildly and freely, even knowing full well, in every cell of the body even if not cognitively, that it comes with the certainty of death, and possibly even death that comes from clashing with other lives. It also gave me the clarity of how terrible the patriarchal deal was for us – both those who imposed it, and those it was imposed on.

With that deal began our Sisyphean and dangerous fight against life: everything becomes an instrument or an obstacle to human wishes. What can be an instrument for supporting human life and control – land, water, certain plants, certain animals, certain minerals, must be domesticated and controlled. What is deemed an obstacle to human domination – predators large and small, weeds and some other plants, must be killed or removed.

This is nothing less than playing god. And we’ve been doing it for several thousand years, and without accounting for the reality that we don’t know what needs knowing in order to play god: the interrelatedness of all things. We have not accounted for the reality that by eliminating more and more predators we have removed one way that life keeps populations within ecological capacity. We have not taken in that by making more and more babies viable earlier and earlier in terms of when they are born, and sicker and sicker in terms of how they are born, we are removing one other way that life organizes ecosystems. We have extended our lifespan, almost everywhere (though the trend is reversing slightly in some of the rich countries), and we are continuing to interfere with life, making more children and adults capable of continuing to live despite conditions that would otherwise lead to natural death.

We have come to see death as a failure rather than an organic part of life. And thus have created an exponential growth in our population that is one key driver of our potential extinction.

Enter the Coronavirus, in some clear ways our own product, itself emerging from our insistence on taming, controlling, and exploiting every remaining spot on the planet. Even if it weren’t that way, our collective, global response to this situation is, itself an extreme version of the very inability to face our collective and irreducible condition of mortality.

It has been, collectively, difficult for us to accept that none of our ways of protecting ourselves, none of the items we consume, none of the walls we erect, none of the privileges that some of us may have are capable of stopping a tiny creature for whom none of this has any meaning. Like all life, it moves forward with its own designs, oblivious to its role in potentially being the catalyst for bringing down our entire civilization, instigating either collapse or massive realignment with life. To begin with, it brings us back to our knees, challenging what Jane Clare Jones calls The Idea of Immunity: “Where do our basic material needs, our animal frailty, our porosity to penetration by tiny, lethal particles fit inside a dream of impregnable immunity?” As a complicated bringer of gifts wrapped in suffering and challenge, the Coronavirus is bringing us back our vulnerability, our mortality, and the possibility of surrendering to life and to death while not all of the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth have been crossed. Currently, it is estimated that we have crossed four out of nine of them all of it in only the last couple of decades. One source, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, published an updated report in 2015 naming the four as “climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen),” with the first two considered core boundaries that have the capacity to “drive the Earth System into a new state.”

Reducing consumption has everything to do with this. Individually, we neither need all that we consume, nor does our consumption serve us as promised. Collectively, we either put needs back in the center and revamp everything we’ve thought we knew about economics, or we continue to march towards extinction.

Where Next?

In this moment, as the pandemic continues and perhaps a second wave comes (maybe giving us, collectively, a second chance to create global behavior shifts), many are continuing to push for returning to normal, as soon as possible, continuing to extract every last bit of what we can from our mother for the short-term gain of the fewer and fewer, at cost to all of us and to life itself.

Is there an alternative? Since the 1980, we’ve been told there isn’t.

Manfred Max-Neef, trained in the same classical economics as Milton Friedman, devoted the majority of his life’s work to practicing, documenting, theorizing, inspiring, and advocating for a clear alternative he called “Human Scale Development.” In the article I’ve quoted from, he lays out and debunks – with the kind of data that economists like to have – five myths that underlie the present paradigm. He then proposes a new approach, a new economy, based on five postulates that place human needs and planetary limits at the center. The details, clearly, are beyond what I can cover in this piece. And, truly, his article is so condensed, that I wouldn’t be able to summarize; I would have to quote large chunks to make it clear, and I hope many readers will look for it and read it. Unlike many articles on economics, I found it simple, clear, and accessible, perhaps because it speaks human language and not abstractions based on assumptions that ignore the realities of life and limits.

The one piece I want to quote, because it points the way to what we can do – any of us, at any scale at which we operate and have influence – is his value principle for the new economy: “No economic interest, under any circumstance, can be above the reverence for life.” (Max-Neef, “Collision Course”, p. 204)

This means everything: production, distribution, consumption, and waste disposal, would need to be rethought, re-planned, redone. We have created a machine that we’ve been told cannot stop. It did. We have been told that we need all that we consume, and ever more. We don’t. We’ve put the economy, numbers, control, and profit above all life. Our key to turning things around, if it’s not too late, is to put life, and human needs in particular, back at the center. Max-Neef, like Marshall Rosenberg, separated needs – simple, basic, universal – from what he called satisfiers and what Marshall called strategies (with some important differences that go beyond the current focus). Therein lies our capacity to restore our place in the family of life.

While the possibility of halting our extinction is, primarily, not in our individual hands, if things turn around, each of us, individually, will need to shift our own individual lives to align with the necessary global shift. Nothing to stop us from starting now, wherever we are. This means coming back to embracing our needs, all of which are finite, all of which can be satisfied with far less consumption than is now happening. It means, also, accepting death, finitude, vulnerability, illness, discomfort, and, with it all, life.

You can find more on the “Apart and Together” series (including articles and videos) on the main page.

 

COMMENTS

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 This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Photo credits:

Consumerism, free to use, Wallpaper Flare: https://www.wallpaperflare.com/grocery-shopping-food-retail-supermarket-women-consumerism-wallpaper-gzxvf

Baked bread, free to use, Peak PX: https://www.peakpx.com/9907/baked-bread/

Marilyn Waring, free to use, Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marilyn_Waring.jpg

GDP vs GPI, free to use, Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:GDP_vs_GPI_in_US.jpg

Two crows: free to use, Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Crows_In_England.jpg

 

[1] I want to thank both Melissa Pai Ling and Yaren Köse for their research in preparation for writing this part of the article. If anyone has a specific need to see the details and references, contact us and we can provide.

[2] Manfred Max-Neef, “Economic Growth and Quality of Life: A Threshold Hypothesis”, Ecological Economics, 15 (1995), 115-118.

[3] Since then, a number of other indicators of human well-being have been developed, at levels ranging from towns to country indices.

[4] Manfred Max-Neef, “The World on a Collision Course and the Need for a New Economy”, AMBIO (2010) 39:200–210.

[5] It appeared in Ecological Economics 69 (2010) 2213-2223, and can be easily found on the web.

4 thoughts on “Apart and Together: Accepting our Vulnerability to Consume Less

  1. Rosa Rovira

    Hi,

    I’m Rosa, from Spain. I admire, recomend, try to practice and keep on learning and being trained in NVC for over 2 years.

    I follow the fearless heart for a few moths now, I connect so much with almost all the contents. Many things are not totaly new to me, I’ve been reading from other interesting sources of good information following a big disconfort inside of me and the certainty that the whole system needs to be rethought (or redone bit by bit by each of us’ changes).

    Well this is not exactly a comment but an offer to translate this article into spanish if you think it can be useful to help spread this message that I find so clear at this article and so necessary to be delivered. My english is good, not perfect, but I think I’m getting (with some help sometimes) all the information and nuances content in it.

    I could do it, if that helps and noone else is doing it, for you to check if it’s clear enough. That would, somehow, fill my need to contribute to the change (which is looking for ways to be covered).
    Thanks for your work, information and reflection.
    Rosa

    Reply
    1. Rodrigo Suarez

      Hola Rosa, si lo traduces y lo publicas en línea, por favor deja aquí la liga para que lo podamos compartir

  2. Luke Grossmiller

    Wonderful, fresh and alive insights Miki. The bit on the freedom and vulnerability of crows was quite thought-provoking. I am struggling to understand one of your hypothesis’ in particular- why is it that “The contracting threshold hypothesis means that the cost of increasing GDP becomes higher for each new country that gets there”? This seems extremely important, not just for nations, but for inequities in general. For example, does this apply to the black demographic in America in the sense that it is harder for them to raise themselves then for the people who have already been ‘risen’? I would love for you to elaborate on this in a future post. Thanks as always.

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan Post author

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for the comments you posted.

      In brief response: as I understand the work on the threshold hypothesis, the reason that it keeps contracting isn’t social; it’s ecological: it’s simply harder to continue to grow the economy without incurring greater costs to the environment etc. There is simply only so much that we can extract, and it gets harder each time.

      Miki

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