Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
Christian Arnsperger started a new blog this April called Eco-Transitions: The Next Step Economy. Here's an excerpt from the 2nd post of 4/16/11 called “Why transition? A first look at concepts”:
"The transition model tries, in a sense, to steer a middle way between revolution and collapse. Transition can be compared to getting an airplane to fall from the sky in a fully controlled fashion -- an accomplishment known nowadays as "landing," utterly baffling and yet totally trivialized. The jet airplane neither falls abruptly from the sky, nor does it remain in flight while mutating into a completely different machine. Transition is intentional, just like revolution. It involves deliberating, tracing out possible scenarios, and then making decisions as to which one we think we can pursue. Transition also has a collapse-like flavor, in the sense that it consists in readjusting many crucial parameters of the incumbent system -- and that readjustment will usually have a "downward" feel to it. Some things need to be done without, in the short and medium run, and sometimes also forever more, but this can be turned into subsequent opportunities for a positive outcome -- namely, a safe landing after a downward-sloping path...
The originality of the transition model is that we deliberately choose not only the speed and deceleration of our landing maneuvers, but we also deliberately select the landing track on which we intend to touch down. In fact, Rob Hopkins, the initiator of the Transition Towns movement, regularly speaks of "energy descent." It's a fair enough expression, since there is no getting around the fact that reduction and rescheduling, as well as even a modicum of selective "de-growth" (I will touch on this in later posts), are indeed part of the transition model. The thing is, all these have to be intentional, hence deliberate and deliberated between the actors concerned. And they do not imply a directive on a predetermined set of "acceptable" ways of life; these are supposed to emerge creatively along the process of (a) touching down safely and (b) exploring the track one has landed on.
Transition links up very closely to the idea of conscious evolution: While the collapse model is often predicated on an ecological notion of "succession" -- that is, the idea that systems break down, go through a series of endogenous mutations, and reach a new equilibrium down the line (see Greer's discussion in chapter 2 of The Ecotechnic Future) -- the transition model relies on deliberate institution- and culture-building. It is, therefore, an intrinsically political model and it requires its politics to be spelled out precisely by those who are doing the institution-building, i.e., the whole democratic collectivity in the most desirable cases. So there is a point in common with the revolutionary model, although the similarity stops here: A transition is not a revolution because, basically, it does not follow an exhaustive ex ante blueprint. In fact, this is where the transition model hooks up with aspects of the collapse model, in the sense of relying on a rather organic and bottom-up conception of overall change. If I were not afraid of being misunderstood, I would surmise that a transition combines "deliberate collapse" and "decentralized revolution." Maybe this speaks to your sensibility, but if it does not, just don't follow the thread of that metaphor further... (Better metaphors for this distinctive middle path may come to my mind in later posts. Suggestions are welcome.)
What I see as particularly interesting in the transition model is that it allows us to think at two levels at the same time:
the level of what I will call framework conditions for change, i.e., the general features our institutions should have so that we can encourage change in the right direction
the level of the life choices for individuals and communities which given framework conditions make possible, and which are the substance of change
Framework conditions (such as, for instance, new modes of political government, a new financial structure, new legal frameworks for enterprise, or a new income-redistribution scheme) come about through a political process and are, therefore, deliberate and deliberated. Life choices (such as, for instance, voluntary simplicity, devoting one's research to the physics of renewable energies, changing one's mode of consumption, insulating one's house, or investing one's money in an ethical fund) are also deliberate but should not, if at all possible, be "forced choices." We all know situations where we think we are choosing freely but are, in fact, faced with a choice set containing only one possibility. If this is what the framework conditions end up doing -- i.e. if, for instance, the new incentives, rules, and regulations amount to an ecological dictatorship -- then we are no longer in a transition but in a revolution. The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act, and this involves necessarily the possibility not to act immediately and in a rush. Life choices can be very difficult to make, and honoring the conflicting demands of our lives may mean that we might not want to become part of the "first wave" of pioneers who move quickly. The transition model can and should accommodate such situations; the revolutionary model is unable to (and history has, alas, shown abundantly how revolutionary factions treat the reluctant and recalcitrant).
The transition model figures prominently in one of our decade's most influential books, Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, which originally (in its report version) had as its subtitle: "The Transition to a Sustainable Economy." Although I do not agree with all the proposals set out by Jackson, and I believe he is leaving out some crucial areas of reform (more on this in later posts), I do believe his book is a definite landmark because he is one of the first economists of this new century to have put on the table the twin issue of framework conditions and life choices, attempting to link them together into a coherent whole through a macroeconomic framework that can allow for microeconomic changes. (He draws part of his inspiration in that area from a somewhat less well-known book, Peter A. Victor's Managing Without Growth.) One of the key questions that needs to be asked as we reflect, and act towards, a transition is: What framework conditions are we going to deliberately create so that the forced economic growth that is currently built into our economic system releases its stranglehold? This implies a deep modification of certain key framework conditions (most notably, credit and money as well as income redistribution) but it does not imply a preordained set of ways of life to be forced on citizens in the name of "sustainability" or whatever other slogan we might cherish. The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the "right" or "sustainably feasible" ways of life. People are not homo economicus: They are caught in a system and they willingly go along with it, but if macro-conditions change many are prepared to investigate alternatives. It's just a question of unleashing that "natural" inquisitiveness of citizens, which the current economic conditions and constraints tend to stifle (except for a small minority of pioneers). Of course, this fundamental trust is open to discussion, and I sense that adepts of the collapse model harbor much less trust in human reason. But this will be one of the key issues to be discussed on this blog.
In the next posts, I would like to gradually unravel the key aspects of what I see as a credible model for a transition towards a more ecologically and socially viable economy. I call it the "Next-Step Economy" simply to emphasize that although I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions -- these changes cannot imply that everyone's lives will be overhauled completely and brutally. If Rob Hopkins's Transition Town movement is any indication, this concern is shared by many of those who are busy reflecting on feasible and desirable pathways out of the current quagmire. (See Hopkins's remarkable Transition Handbook.) Life choices there will have to be, but the transition model carries the hope that they can be effected in a reasonably gradual and progressive way. This hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing. I am not minimizing the relevance of collapse scenarios. But perhaps, as suggested by my colleague Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see his remarkable book, in French: Pour un catastrophisme éclairé: Quand l'impossible est certain, which can be translated as Enlightened Catastrophism: When the Impossible Is Certain), we can use the threat of virtually certain and inevitable collapse scenarios to act in such a way as to avert that threat. Just maybe. But we can never be definite about it. And that, too, is part of the somewhat tragic ethos of the transition model. It's also part of what makes that model so fascinating for those of us who seek a democratic, reasoned, but also critical and emotionally engaged, pathway out of today's blind alleys."
From section 4:3
The need to collect qualitative information above and beyond market prices, so as to coordinate selective de-growth and to decide which areas can still grow, requires a participatory democracy. Participatory coordination means that it is citizens -- not just as buyers and sellers and producers and workers, but as fully-fledged, conscious participants in public decisions about their lives -- who have to be consulted and whose aspirations, demands, and suggestions have to be gathered at each level n so as to be synthesized and sent "up" to level n+1.
This idea of nested levels of political decision-making about economic issues is underpinned by the principle of subsidiarity.... The basic point is simply that decisions ought to be made at the level where the variables in question are "closest" to the people whose lives they affect. This is quite different from the idea that all stakeholders should have an equal say in decisions -- since in many cases...all persons don't really have the same stake in a decision.
As a practical basis for implementing subsidiarity-guided, nested decisions with a view to creating a truly participatory economy that can stand up to the ecological crisis, Bookchin has proposed and expounded a model he calls "libertarian municipalism," embedded in a philosophical doctrine called Communalism. This is no wide-eyed, bucolic dream inspired by some neo-Luddite fantasy of a little house in the prairie, or of a Walnut Grove that is small, hence beautiful. It is an entirely concrete proposal for new democratic governance structures, rooted in the conviction that (a) our current ecological problems are really the visible side of much deeper social-structure and human-relations problems...and that (b) since Man's domination over nature is really rooted in Man's domination over Man, non-parochial local structures of decision-making need to replace the large-scale, over-sized economic and political structures of capitalist social democracy. This...implies a network of bio-regionally embedded communes oriented towards reasonable frugality.
At his blog Arnsperger, like most blogs, has select links related to his own interests. It's notable that not one of those links is trademarked integral, though most are intergraal nonetheless. One such link is to The New Economics Foundation. From their page "a new economic model":
There is nothing ‘natural’ about our current economic arrangements. They have been consciously designed to achieve a simple objective: growth. But growth is not making us happier, it is creating dysfunctional and unequal societies, and if it continues will make large parts of the planet unfit for human habitation.
We need to do things differently, and soon.
This means starting from first principles and building a new model for how the economy functions. Right now every one of us is dependent on growth. The way our economy is structured means that unless there is growth people lose their jobs, the tax base shrinks and politicians struggle to fund the public services we all rely on every day.
At nef, we want to break that vicious cycle by building a new macro-economic model that is geared not towards growth, but towards achieving the outcomes that are important to society and that can be sustained by the planet's finite carrying capacity.
This will not be easy. But we believe that if we can create an economy to achieve the goal of growth then we can also create an economy that delivers for people and the planet.
What we're doing
From 2009, we will be working with other economists on a radical new approach to economic modelling. Standard models take no account of resource use and environmental constraints, and are blind to social outcomes in terms of equity and, of course, human well being. They are open-ended by nature, with growth being the primary output of interest. Inputs feed in, interact with each other, achieve balance (or equilibrium) and outcomes result.
Our approach turns this on its head. We will start with the hard outcomes we need - environmental sustainability; equitable economic justice; and high levels of human well-being - link these to relevant economic determinants within the model (aggregate output, income distribution and working hours, respectively, for example) and to ‘reverse engineer’ what this would imply for the levels and types of differing inputs.
Arnsperger's latest blog post talks about a economic transitional income (ETI) that supports alternative, sustainable lifestyles. And this income would be a government welfare program for those that chose this more frugal, less consumptive way of life. This transitional income would be reduced over time as more sustainable economies gained ground and generated their own income, with the result being a transition into this as the main economy with the gradual phase out of what he calls industrial-financial-capitalism. He not only envisions what we're moving toward but how to get get there practically. I hope I'm still alive to see and participate in this ETI and be part of creating this new political-economy. (Actually I am now is small ways like promoting these ideas and already choosing a less consumptive lifestyle, but I could do more with societal support and assistance.) And note below its “spiritual” orientation. From section 4:4:
One central addition to the set of renewed framework conditions would be a deep overhaul of the current income-redistribution logic of our social democracies.
The most pressing issue, therefore, is what shape the transition toward a frugal economy will take.
But the transition to a post-fossil fuel age is not only a matter of external adjustments, but also of an altered worldview, a new conception of the good life. New macro-systemic conditions and an evolution in worldview actually go hand in hand and are a necessary condition for changes in personal behaviors and in spiritual as well as cognitive modifications.
Many of us are still under the spell of technophilia, wanting to believe that some miracle technology will make growth possible and postpone the need for change. There is also a resistance to anything seen as "going backwards," and a reluctance to embrace what is viewed as marginality or impracticability. The sustainable niche, however, is not the end of work, nor is it the realm of idle hippies, as the mainstream media often like to portray it. It will mean more work and less consumption, but also a shared commitment to neighbors, with more regard for the well-being of all, rather than trying to stand out from others in a large, impersonal economy.
The challenge is to provide assistance to those interested in the sustainable economy, while simultaneously contributing to the primary need of keeping the mainstream economy on track. We will focus here on one possible such scheme, a welfare reform measure known as the Family Assistance Program (FAP), which was first proposed by U.S. President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. It provided an incentive for recipients to find work by allowing them to keep a portion of the FAP payment as their incomes rose. By the time a modest income base was reached the FAP payment would have declined to zero. Because the FAP would be administered through the Internal Revenue Service, it was often referred to as a "negative income tax." That's how I will conceive it from now on, too, using the acronym ETI: Economic Transition Income. The ETI would not only help those wishing to move in sustainable directions, but would also reduce the stigma of welfare for the poor. This stigma would be reduced even further if ETI payments were used by educated young people -- and, more generally, by those who gave up jobs in the mainstream economy -- to build sustainable ways of life. Creative people could be among the first to use ETI payments as they explore new avenues of living sustainably, but so could those who wanted to try traditional ways that are difficult to uphold now, especially in intentional communities formed around shared values.
The difficulties of getting started in the sustainable economy are reduced with more experiences and more people joining it, the ETI payments will decrease automatically, if for no other reason than more people are receiving them, which also means that fewer people are working in the mainstream economy to generate the tax revenues to pay them. As time passes, the sustainable economy will be able to continue more on its own, with lower ETI payments and then none at all.
All such mechanisms would be halted as sustainability replaced growth as the goal. Public budgets could be balanced as the building of sustainable ways of life gets under way. The main motivation in all of this will be to create livelihoods that have ongoing value, as opposed to a job that often provides little beyond a paycheck. A key to economic survival will be to learn how to get by with a lower real income.
The initial trigger for a move toward the "frugality frontier"...would be a new cultural model. It takes a highly motivated and creative person or family to undertake the risk of developing one's work while getting by with less and learning how to become more self-sufficient.
An ETI is not a basic income. It isn't given "for free" to everyone, whether rich or poor, on top of whatever income they are already earning. The State only pays the gap between what one is earning and the guaranteed income level.
Clearly, without some sort of guaranteed income, many citizens today who would like to make the transition to a frugal life will be afraid to do so, because they might lose most, or too much, of the (direct and indirect) income support currently associated with participating in the capitalist social democracy. A guaranteed-income scheme is a crucial centerpiece of any genuine equal-opportunity policy that includes the chance to act on one's "alternative" choice.
Being enmeshed in "business" I am constantly challenged by the abusive work load under the euphemism of "productivity." If one even challenges the notion by correctly naming it as labor abuse one has a "negative attitude," they must be lazy and are therefore expendable. All of course motivated by the bottom line, generating profit for the stockholders in a never-ending race to ever-accelerating growth. There is absolutely no notion that this growth cycle is unsustainable, not only in terms of the devastating costs to labor and environment but in the very economy itself.
Having said that, while I'd love to see something like an ETI government subsidy to those that chose a more frugal lifestyle I don't know how in hell this idea is going to fly with business-controlled government. They of course have no problem extending the subsidies for oil companies in the US budget under the rationale it motivates further exploration for new sources, and provided incentives for exploring alternative energy. But they have so much profit, record-breaking profits in the last year alone, that such subsidies are a cruel joke to where that money should now go, to those with real need.
So it's not like the idea of government subsidies is a new or foreign idea; we've had corporate welfare since forever. Perhaps its time to reinvest that capital in a sustainable economy? What Arnsperger is proposing is not a lot of money, at least at the individual level. And it is certainly not a living wage as a handout. As he said, it is to "fill in the gap" of an existing income to perhaps bring one's total income up to something resembling a living wage. He hasn't said as yet what constitutes said living wage, but it is certainly more than the existing US minimum wage.
The typical minimum wages (or slightly higher) offered by existing democratic workplaces, like food coops, are just not living wages to me or I'd have giving up my relatively high-paying insurance job and worked there long ago. It's unfortunate to be the case, but such alternative economic models are still too young and not financially feasible enough to offer such wages and still make their very tight budgets. What Arnsperger proposes would fill in that income gap for people like me, giving me a bit of a subsidy on top of that minimum wage so that I can pay for things that are the result of the aging process, like healthcare, which costs only increase exponentially the more one travels down that road.* It's a wonderful idea and would give me that incentive to take the leap into the democratic workplace. Now the big problem is getting the government to go for it, since they are at the mercy of their corporate masters that want no part of a democratic economy.
*Yes, one can get health insurance as a benefit of working even for a coop, but such insurance has high deductibles and insurance companies (I know) find any way possible to not allow certain necessary services and charge as high a co-pay as possible,, etc. They are after all "in business" to make a profit, not actually provide healthcare. That the US lags far behind every other civilized 1st-world country in not providing a feasible "Medicare for all" plan is again the result of the powerful insurance business lobby that refuses to give up their outrageous profits so that people as a whole can have a healthy life. And now the Republican Ryan budget plan wants to gut even Medicare...
Have you heard much about bitcoin and the push for a decentralized, open source currency? I've come across a few references to it in the last month. I'm not sure if this is viable, but I thought it merited sharing on this thread.
Decentralized Barter Currency Gaining Traction
I quickly skimmed the posts since 6/5, reading a few sections here and there. It seems the bottom line is that effective transition to the "next-step economy" must come from those within the existing business and political structures through individual "changes in consciousness." And that this will have to happen in transition stages over a long period. Arnsperger does though realize that to do so within the system has the high likelihood of being corrupted by that system, much like freshly minted lawyers start their first job believing in truth and justice and are quickly disabused of such pipe dreams. And that there will be those within the system who will use the language of the new ecopreneurs to maintain the status quo by rhetorically manipulating those truly interested in such change. Like Obama, for one. Or oil company subsidies to research alternative energy while really using the money and research to sabotage such alternatives.
Arnsperger is no fool and sees the inherent problems to changing the system from the inside but he has faith nonetheless that this is the only way that real, long-term change is feasible despite the challenges. I must admit I have difficulty sharing his faith. Even when we look at I-I's "integral capitalism," for example, we see that it has become corrupted by the system, reinforcing Kennilingam's own assertion that the economic system is the key generator of individual worldview, and usually unconsciously. I truly question whether the changes we need can come from participating within that system, since those already within are master manipulators and will skillfully and subversively assimilate the new "integralists" to their agenda and change them in the process, not the other way around.
Also along these lines I've been thinking about the Tea Party. Even though I am convinced they economic agenda is in the wrong direction their political successes speaks to indeed that radical change can happen from outside the system. Granted they elected into the system some of their representatives but their success has come from their recalcitrant refusal to participate in the usual workings of that system. In other words, they are still outside that system. So why not the more progressive revolution from without, electing our representatives into the system with the commitment to remain without it by refusing to go along with business as usual, by holding up the system until we win in the ways the Tea Party has done.
And no, this is not a reactionary movement as if it were an equal and opposite pole of the Tea Party but rather an evolutionary advance* that sticks to its principles for a much more short-term and radical way to effect the necessary change within the system by remaining without it in action.
* Warning, intentional and transparent use of "integral" dog whistle.