Visions of Sufficiency
Even as a young boy, I was concerned about our environmental challenges. Many of the key themes – questions of limits to growth, the importance and limits of environmental technologies, and the excesses of a consumerist society – that appear in my recent book, When Green Growth is Not Enough have been on my mind since then.
I grew up in the Canadian province of Alberta in the 1970s, when it was emerging as a major oil producer against a backdrop of rising global energy prices. At the time, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report was a global bestseller, with some 30 million copies sold in more than 30 languages. It foresaw the possibility of a collapse of industrial society in the 21st century as a result of non-renewable resource depletion. With such ideas being discussed around me, I pondered with some trepidation what the world would be like if we ever ran out of oil; however, for other Albertans, resource scarcity meant economic opportunity. Extraction of bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands was becoming economically and technologically viable, raising hopes of Saudi-Arabia-like riches ahead.
My conservative father’s work as an engineer occasionally took him north to the tar sands, leaving him appalled by the environmental impacts of the extraction process. Indeed, he also had a foot in the emerging world of renewable energy. At the time, thinkers such as Amory Lovins were outlining a “soft energy path” focused on renewables and energy efficiency. Such ideas came to have some influence on my own thinking, although I have concluded that such eco-technological solutions are only one part of what is needed.
As Alberta grew wealthier, my hometown of St. Albert sprawled. Nearby farmland disappeared, new homes grew larger, and automobile dependence was hard-wired into the landscape. In later years, I even had a dream that Canada’s federal government opened a museum of suburbia in my hometown. In the early 1980s, what was then the world’s largest shopping mall opened its doors about a 15-minute drive from our suburban home in my family’s oversized, 10 miles-per-leaded-gallon station wagon. (Alternatively, it took about 40 minutes through a bleak, bicycle-unfriendly landscape on my ten-speed.) I had a summer job there as “submarine captain,” guiding tourists through the display of sharks, dolphins, and other marine life under the waters of an indoor, fake lake. At the time, it was a point of pride that the world’s biggest anything could exist in my corner of the prairie hinterlands.
But I also had a strong drive to see what was on the other side. I scaled the “West Edmonton Mall Wall” and fled, at an early age, to see the world. During my travels—to points across Europe, the remote islands of Sao Tome and Principe, Rwanda, Brazil, and Cuba, among other places—I became conscious of the size of the global gap in material consumption and the ecological impossibility of the rest of the world following the same path of endless expansion as the global North. The need for a notion of sufficiency among the affluent, leaving ecological space for the poor to raise their material living standards, became clear. My thoughts on these issues were heavily influenced by Wolfgang Sachs’s writings (e.g. Greening the North and Fair Future) on the idea of sufficiency as a necessary complement to increased efficiency in the use of resources.
As I struggled with the question of what might serve as an attractive and ecologically sound alternative to a vision of progress focused on infinite growth in consumption, I became interested in the idea of work-time reduction. As an undergraduate and master’s student, I came across the work of writers including Juliet Schor (The Overworked American), Andre Gorz (Critique of Economic Reason), and Alain Lipietz (Green Hopes), who made a compelling ecological and social case that labour productivity gains should be channelled toward reducing hours of work rather than endlessly increasing output. Meanwhile, historian Benjamin Hunnicutt revealed the prominence of a shorter-hours vision of progress in America before the “need-to-consume-to-create-jobs logic” had taken hold (Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day and Work Without End). These were some of the key sources that inspired my master’s thesis, which later evolved into my first book, Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption, & Ecology.
I continued to follow Schor’s work on moving beyond an economy of “work-and-spend” (e.g. The Overspent American and Born to Buy) and had the great privilege of writing my doctoral dissertation under her supervision. Originally, I had intended to delve further into the issue of work-time reduction. I happened to be in France researching that country’s 35-hour work week when a deadly heat wave struck in 2003. That experience was one factor that led me to change directions and make climate change, and the political and social responses to it in Canada and Britain, the focus of my dissertation.
I came to see our environmental challenges as involving a battle among three main paradigms of response: business-as-usual, ecological modernization or green growth (drawing on the work of theorists such as Arthur Mol and Martin Jänicke), and a sufficiency approach, which questions endless growth, whether “green” or otherwise. In addition to Sachs’s work on sufficiency, I drew on Thomas Princen’s writings (e.g. The Logic of Sufficiency). Other related work by Peter Victor (Managing Without Growth) and Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) stood out as key attempts to wrestle with what Jackson calls the “dilemma of growth,” i.e. economic growth appears to be ecologically unsustainable while the lack of growth in contemporary society leads to social instability. More recently, the call to move beyond growth has been taken up by degrowth theorists (e.g. Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era by Giacomo D’Alisa et al.) and Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything).
Although the news with respect to the environment and climate is often bleak, these and other sources have inspired me with the hope there is a possible path that combines the use of more environmentally sound technologies with a sense of consumption sufficiency, in a way that is more effective in generating human wellbeing than the current model of endless growth and consumerism.
Anders Hayden is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University. His most recent book is When Green Growth is Not Enough: Climate Change, Ecological Modernisation and Sufficiency (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Kris Krug. His DeSmogBlog investigates the controversial decision by Alberta’s government to industrialise the Alberta Tar Sands region. Learn more at www.DeSmogBlog.com/CryWolf