Alternatives to the Overdeveloped Society

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, September 2008

Politicians, fearing political backlash, would never question the overdeveloped, bloated infrastructure of North American society. It is not considered polite to identify the waste and questionable work practices that result in what Leopold Kohr described as The Overdeveloped Nations. In 1959, he warned that bureaucracies of both the private and public sector have a fierce appetite, that like an addict, are dependant on ever growing injections of resources and money. For example, witness the recent actions of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

As the election begins there is little real concern about the environment. Will anyone mention that the era of cheap fossil fuel is ending? Meanwhile, the realities of global warming are written all over the growing stress levels on Mother Earth. The people of Haiti have been bashed by hurricane force winds and rain at least three times this year, while Americans spend more than the Haitian GNP on protecting one city – New Orleans. There is unprecedented melting of the Artic Ice Shield. The desperate destruction of forests and natural areas for paper, minerals and urban sprawl continues unabated. In much of North America, overconsumption is obvious. The cause of the growing ecological crisis has become institutionalized in our way of living.

As Wendell Berry says, “We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves. This belief was always indefensible – the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed – and by now it is manifestly foolish.”

There is a cultural divide in North American society. On one hand are those large institutions who are either overwhelmed by debt or those who benefit fantastically from the uneconomical growth – think of the banks, car manufacturers and high tech companies who come up with ever ingenious methods of keeping production expanding. On the other hand, there are those who yearn for a more peaceful society, one where people can work at satisfying jobs that productively contribute to a local economy. This latter group is almost silent. They have no political voice. As far as I can see, outside of David Suzuki, the idea of an absolute reduction in consumption does not have champions in the public arena.

The public imagination has no concept of reduced consumption of manufactured goods and services because, let’s face it, cheap fossil fuel has made travel, shipping and materials so inexpensive that the majority have been well served by the endless parade of consumer items. When inflation threatened to undermine cheap production, globalization was conveniently embraced to export production to low wage countries. This trick of economic specialization replaced North American labour with the cost of cheap transportation, closing factory after factory, while relocating production in Mexico, China, South Korea etc. Who really cares about the abstract environment or decent local jobs when the technological wonder world that we have been served up is accessible to at least 80% of our population?

Politicians will never propose job destroying policies aimed at reducing economic consumption, especially in the name of greenhouse gas reductions. Reducing our ecological footprint within our consumerist-job-driven society needs a public voice. Below are three ways of understanding why a reduction would help our overdeveloped economy. We would do well to realize how much extra equipment we carry around, recognize how growing bureaucracy strangles useful activity, and learn how much wasted consumption is built into our transportation model. The final section considers practical options for individuals acting outside of our collective inaction.

The Extra Equipment We Carry Around

John Kenneth Galbraith, in the late 1950s, concluded The Affluent Society with a prescient reminder,

“To furnish a barren room is one thing. To continue to crowd in furniture until the foundation buckles is quite another. To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and to fail to proceed thence to the next task would be fully tragic.”

All evidence undeniably points to a crowded room where indeed the foundation is buckling. By the 1950s, Western societies had learned how to solve the problem of production, that is, how to ensure that all had access to food, clothing and shelter. Now, job creation continues apace, with all efforts dedicated to a problem that in reality needed a different solution.

There is a constant fear that our standard of living is declining and thus this unending effort to create jobs. Food, clothing and housing are abundant. The main problem is not that we have a declining standard of living as much as we have an economy that is eating into our wealth. We have lost the flexibility to learn how to creatively share the abundance we have. Increasingly, the way we make economic decisions leads to diminishing returns no matter how hard we work.

In reality, it is our level of subsistence that keeps rising. Our subsistence is better described not as a rising tide that lifts all boats, but rather as more and more water that makes swimming increasingly difficult. The consumer junk, gadgets, and cars all weigh us down. We think that we cannot survive without them, but with them the economic cost just keeps growing. Leopold Kohr summarizes this argument by stating that, “swimming with all this equipment in deeper waters is inefficient”.

Growing Bureaucracy Strangles Useful Activity

The so-called complexity of our society is increasingly held together by bureaucrats in the public and private sector. A mode of production that can only be called wasteful has crept into how we conceive of production and services. Western societies have such significant surplus dollars that no one cares to calculate. According to Kohr in Development Without Aid,

“the astronomical cost of modern techno-bureaucracy resulting from the double drag of the high remuneration because of its long preparation, and the stifling red tape effect it exerts because of the notorious inverse relationship between the need for its services and the efficiency of its performance.”

The Canadian economy has gone from primarily a goods producing economy to a service economy. In the latest employment figures there were only 3.4 million workers who produced goods while 12.8 million workers produced services. The economy is dependant on service jobs, the vast majority of which add very little value to the economy. The proliferation of media, finance, advertising, retail, health care, education, and administration, are all costs to the economy carried by a continously shrinking manufacturing sector.

Who can calculate the growing environmental cost that comes with the time and money committed to consultations, committees, office space, human resource training, and collaborative management processes? These costs can all be justified. Every budget leaves plenty of room for such goings on. Khrushchev, exasperated at the over-managed Soviet system, described the situation as “supervisors supervising supervisors”. At some point, overdeveloped systems implode in on themselves as workers refuse to take serious the pleadings of management for determination, straight-forward action and responsibility. It becomes easier to socialize the risk by proposing one more meeting, fudging numbers, demonstrating results without substance. The bureaucratic way is deceptive and it infiltrates the way workers think.

How Much Wasted Consumption is Built Into Transportation

A significant reduction in greenhouse gases is possible if North Americans wasted less time commuting and reduced the movement of goods by truck and airplane. How efficient is it to use a three thousand pound car that can reach speeds of 250 kilometres an hour, to move the vast majority of commuters who travel at most 25-50 kilometres a day? This same vehicle will be lucky to last seven years on the road and is very likely to be involved in an accident. Accidents boost economic growth, but are bad for the car owner, especially if the accident causes any kind of serious damage. The cost of gasoline, parking, maintenance, taxes and lease payments on a car can add up to a fifth of an average wage earner’s income. This does not account for all the time wasted in traffic. The commuter car culture wins the award for the most unproductive activity that the majority of workers have no choice but to participate in everyday.

Clive Doucet, an Ottawa city councillor and author of Urban Meltdown, Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual, documents how the just-in-time truck delivery has played havoc with Ottawa city streets. Overall in Canada, he reports that during 1995 - 2000 there was a 44% increase in truck traffic. In Ottawa, just the downtown core takes 3,000 trucks everyday. He shows how this strategy of warehouses on wheels has successfully downloaded on to municipalities the cost of bridges, road maintenance and the fastest possible route. An economy that produces very little and imports almost everything is truck dependant. Goods are shipped into the city and government offers investment credits and subsidized research to the petroleum industry to ensure access to oil. Our cities are made poorer with such arrangements. Meanwhile big box stores continue to expand as do their warehouses on wheels, continually speeding up and down the provincial and municipal road system.

Leopold Kohr in Development Without Aid looks at the question of how many miles in a loaf of bread. He is not impressed by the economy of scale that comes with long range tractors and trailers criss-crossing over long distances first to procure ingredients and then to distribute product. It is not just high quality carbon that fuels this process, what of all the marketing, management, and human resources. All this effort generated by the transportation economy can be easily contrasted with a different method of development. Kohr thinks of the European city states of the 1700s which produced better quality bread in abundance without a transportation network. Small shop bakers contributed to “spacious houses, urban adornments, stately inns, engaging streetscapes, and other indispensable accessories of a civilized standard of living.” Rather that centralizing income in large conglomerates with huge transportation networks, a local bakery which reduces scale, controls expenses, and produces close to its market, turns upside down how we think about the nature of work. Local production reduces waste and creates a different model of employment.

Rethinking the Nature of Work

This essay is proposing a different way of thinking about an important political issue - how to reduce overdevelopment and consequently, consumerism. Greenhouse gas reduction would be a side benefit. Reducing the vicious consumption spiral would be the main advantage. Excessive economic development is adding burdensome equipment, bureaucracy, and inefficient transportation. It is drawing negatively from our cultural reserves.

In some respects, it all comes down to jobs. Our Gross National Product is a barometer for how many jobs are created. But this is not where our attention should be. We need to search under the surface to understand how local economies work best.

There are many ways to live outside of the dictates of economic growth. We can learn from those who live simply. Why is it that in most North American communities, those with the fewest resources, those with mental health or physical burdens are able to live with incomes far below the average? They walk, bus, bike, to get around and they shop at used furniture and clothing shops. There are no grandiose plans here. There are others who choose to work part-time, who refuse the expense of a car and use a bicycle instead, who believe that work must reflect their commitment to conserve the natural world. Yes, these are examples of true environmentalists, but really, they are just citizens who make common sense decisions to live more sanely, to live within their means.

It is not necessary to think of economic development from the top down. Economic units are most viable, when they are numerous and small, physically struggling to create independent economic development mixing culture and poetry – a shared understanding of the work and creativity necessary for independent action.

The hard working producerist can provide useful goods and services that are uneconomical for the formal system. It is requisite that such action be done for love of concept, more than the riches that it will bring. This is where economic development thinking must be turned on its head. Work is not for becoming rich, but for providing satisfactory goods and services in a way that enhances the community.

Useful work generates revenue. One’s standard of living must be commensurate with revenue. The beauty one’s work creates and the lessons of commitment and artisanship, are the true rewards, and they will most likely be matched over time by revenue. The revenue is not guaranteed to afford a high standard of living by the means of money, but will do so by means of the accomplishment of genuine work.

The common sense lesson, for those who have a double income, but who are frustrated by the wastefulness of their work, is to figure out how those who already live with less are able to somehow make ends meet with far fewer resources. It is possible over time to conserve income, reduce expenses and slowly develop a line of craft that revitalizes one’s spirit. Jane Jacobs in her final book, Dark Age Ahead, suggests that the only hope for suburbia is to transform the sprawl with renovations and densification, through an import replacement strategy that would see more and more services provided in suburban neighbourhoods. One person converts his garage into a car repair operation, another creates a daycare, another creates a three bedroom rooming house, another attempts shoe production and repair, and another creates a greenhouse. There is no lack of ideas or creativity that is possible for those committed to getting off the path of spiraling economic insanity.

Decent, compact living in Southern Ontario, once the norm, is now barely understood, the result of a forty-year-never-ending sprawl event. Nonetheless, such living is still available in the core area of most municipalities. The Working Centre has always been influenced by a British journal, Resurgence that we make available at the Queen Street Commons Cafe. Some of our favourite thinkers like E.F Schumacher, Leopold Kohr and Ivan Illich developed their ideas in articles in the 1960s in this publication. John Papworth, one of the founders, envisioned,

“economics under genuine human control because the size of such units are small, sensible, and human scale, where there is a maximum of decentralized decision making, and where the pace of change is the day-to-day needs of small-scale human communities.”

This idealism of compact living flourishes everyday at The Working Centre. Productive amenities on a pedestrian scale thrive in downtown Kitchener. In the pages of Good Work News, we often document the many successes of these projects. Consider the community services generated by Recycle Cycles – the community bike shop, the Computer Recycling shop, public access computers, the Job Search Resource Centre, Worth A Second Look – Kitchener’s largest furniture and housewares recycling centre, Queen Street Commons Cafe with its wide selection of locally produced natural foods and baking, and St. John’s Kitchen, are just a selection of practical projects most of which operate primarily with the enthusiasm and commitment of over 200 volunteers. Visit any one of these operations at anytime of the day and you will find each a hub of purpose filled activity.

Forty individuals live in our various affordable and transitional housing units that are all within a kilometre of each other. Many of our volunteers walk to their project of choice. How rich can you be to be able to walk to your place of work? BarterWorks and our newest project – Waterloo Region ASSETS (A Service for Self Employment and Training Supports – in cooperation with the local MEDA chapter) provides practical home business training. All together, these closely packed services build off each other while operating as distinct cultures based on the tools and services they provide.

On Queen Street, the Cafe is like the restful enclosure of the local square, a place to meet and hang out. The building renovations have accentuated the attention to detail and the commitment to revitalized use. The dense array of projects combined with an adherence to multiple levels of elegant design gives all involved recognition that their commitment enhances the community.

There is so much work to do. The Russian prince, humanist and anarchist, Peter Kropotkin wrote with vigour and commitment about how all can cooperate to build a better society. His best known works, Mutual Aid, The Conquest of Bread and Fields, Factories and Workshops describe how mutual cooperation can make a difference in many areas of human endeavor. Just consider the one example of building a different food system, not by decree but by personal action. This includes digging up parkland and backyards, the nurturing of soil, the complexity of organic gardening, the science of composting, the preservation of heritage seeds, learning how to grow food year round and relearning food preservation techniques. This work builds community. Amartya Sen shows how people can free themselves from poverty when they can control the means and ability to produce the things they need such as food, energy, and housing. The work of securing these tools generates dignity and self esteem. That in itself generates community.

The challenge of reducing consumption cannot be solved by invoking a law. It is complex and can only be approached through choice, good will and a personal commitment to find satisfying work. A starting point is freeing oneself from overdeveloped work and finding peace through work that conserves resources. Investigate and understand examples of human communities that offer work opportunities that are not a disrupting force on this earth. Thankfully enjoying the beauty of nature, taking the time to tend to the soils and flowers around us, seeing the diversity of those that dwell on the earth, these are reasons enough to truly celebrate the wonders around us, reason enough to create work that moves counter to present day political opinion.

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