“Degrowth” is a word to describe the contraction of the economy either seen as a policy choice or as making the best of what will be an involuntary process because the economy hits the limits to growth and degrades the carrying capacity of the ecological system until a point where there is a collapse. Degrowth in this latter context means managing the process as best as we can so as few people get hurt as possible and so the ecological damage stops – or that is my alternative understanding. As it happens there is an international conference on degrowth planned to be held at Manchester University on the 1st – 5th September and I have planned to go. Whether it will now happen or not remains to be seen. (Maybe it will happen but people like myself, over 70, will not be allowed to travel ). In the meantime these are draft reflections, written for the Feasta blog, on the coronavirus crisis as a limits to growth issue.
SARS-Cov-2 has put “Degrowth” in a new perspective and in a different and a necessarily more rapid time scale. Previously, when arguing the case for degrowth I have been thinking and writing about a contraction of economic activity to be achieved in years or decades. But now the global pandemic is requiring action to curb dangerous connectivity and thus dangerous activities in days, weeks and months.
The steps to quarantine, self isolation or social distancing in order to suppress a dangerous virus pandemic is a public health motivated strategy and it inevitably brings economic degrowth with it.
It means staying at home – and thus not using fossil fuel powered transport (including public transport infrastructures and aeroplanes). It means minimal shopping – only for essentials. It means not going to restaurants or on holidays. It means, while it is happening, the closing down of many production processes, a reduction in the transport of many goods and a large proportion of world trade. Some of these production processes, some of the trade and transport will never re-start and the economic organisations associated are likely to go bust.
Essential and inessential production
As it happens, where such production is inessential and only exists to allow rich people in an incredibly unequal world to preen and celebrate themselves, this is no bad thing considered from an ecological point of view. The economy has overshot the carrying capacity of the biosphere and this reduction is what is needed. So when I read that the luxury good sector, which has largely been producing goods in China, has been damaged by the coronavirus I regard this as a reduction of ecological overshoot. From the point of view of getting control over carbon emissions the reported collapse of the hotel, hospitality and air travel sectors is not a tragedy. Of course, one issue is: if and when this is all over, will inessential and ecologically toxic activities restart? Some might but I doubt it for most of them – this kind of historical process is not reversible. When businesses are liquidated one cannot just start them up again – unless there is a real need there.
The deaths and suffering brought about by the coronavirus, the frosted glass in the lungs of vulnerable people is a tragedy – the inability to buy Gucci and other luxury fashion lines together with a demand shock for luxury goods is not. It is to be welcomed.
What is true is that the workers in this sector will be worried about their jobs, paying their debts and their future – I do not wish to make light of their fear and distress. But from the point of view of the environment and public health it is good if this is a process in which people start looking for a change in direction in life. It is important that they are encouraged to do so. It will not be possible to degrow the economy without a lot of people having to change their jobs and retrain. At the right time they should be helped through the stress and financial turmoil up to the extent possible. But these are changes that have to happen. When looking and supporting people in fundamental occupational changes, the jobs that they should be encouraged to retrain for should be in fields where ecology and economy are not in conflict.
Land use change and food production in the growth economy is where the problem originates
Above all it is the food sector that needs to change because this is where the health risks are originating. We will need a massive transformation in sectors like food growing, food processing and marketing focused on locations local to farmers.
Hitherto much of the case for re-localisation and degrowth has been motivated by the greenhouse gases arising in transport. The health risks of food have been about obesity and eating enough fruit and vegetables. There has also been an issue about food poverty. However, what this crisis is also trying to teach us are frightening truths about the ecological consequences of land use changes that have emerged as threats to our health.
If we are to slow down the generation of new diseases like Covid 19 then we need to acknowledge that they are emerging from the ways that industrial, agricultural and urban expansion have brought land use changes which have disrupted ecological systems.
The pathogens did not come out of nowhere, they came out of the disruptions to ecological systems caused by types of economic development that encroach on previous land use patterns.
Pathogens previously boxed into niches of ecological systems are now interacting with monocultural farming systems and human food chains. One study about vector born diseases explains how:
“Our study shows that industrial activities may be coupled with significant changes to human demographics that can potentially increase contact between pathogens, vectors and hosts, and produce a shift of parasites and susceptible populations between low and high disease endemic areas. Indeed, where vector-borne diseases and industrial activities intersect, large numbers of potentially immunologically naïve people may be exposed to infection and lack the knowledge and means to protect themselves from infection.” Robert T. Jones et. al. “The impact of industrial activities on vector-borne disease transmission”
Another study focuses on cross species viral infections between mammalian species including humans. According to this study
“Between 10,000 and 600,000 species of mammal virus are estimated to have the potential to spread in human populations, but the vast majority are currently circulating in wildlife, largely undescribed and undetected by disease outbreak surveillance. In addition, changing climate and land use drive geographic range shifts in wildlife, producing novel species assemblages and opportunities for viral sharing between previously isolated species. In some cases, this will inevitably facilitate spillover into humans—a possible mechanistic link between global environmental change and emerging zoonotic disease……Most projected viral sharing is driven by diverse hyperreservoirs (rodents and bats) and large-bodied predators (carnivores). Because of their unique dispersal capacity, bats account for the majority of novel viral sharing, and are likely to share viruses along evolutionary pathways that could facilitate future emergence in humans….. zoonoses.” Colin J Carlson et al “Climate change will drive novel cross-species viral transmission” (January 2020 )
Bats are not just associated with Covid-19 but also Ebola. Once again we must look to the ecological disruption when forests are displaced by plantations:
“Palm oil plantations …make a great home for fruit bats or Pteropodidae……“Bats migrate to oil palm for food and shelter from the heat while the plantations’ wide trails permit easy movement between roosting and foraging sites.”
Several species of these fruit bats are documented “reservoirs” for Ebola, which could then be transmitted to plantation workers and locals in nearby villages….. intact native ecosystems usually contain pathogens like Ebola, but that clear cutting vast areas of forest can make the pathogen spread out of control……“clear-cutting Forested Guinea may have lowered the ecosystemic ‘temperature’ below which Ebola can be ‘sterilized’ and controlled.”
That’s not all – the real estate markets of cities are extending suburbia into the surrounding countryside. This has consequences too – increased Lyme disease spread by ticks:
“Thanks to increasing urban and suburban sprawl, forests are being parceled into smaller pockets of vegetation, said Northeastern University Distinguished Professor of Biology Kim Lewis, who directs Northeastern’s Antimicrobial Discovery Center. Parks and backyards in the suburbs are now the perfect size to sustain mice, but not quite large enough to sustain foxes. That means mice can run rampant with no natural predators to keep their population at bay. And with mice, come ticks.
“The sprawling of suburbia is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Lewis said. “You get more hosts for the ticks, and of course, you get more ticks.”
Climate change and economic development that has now gone too far has changed weather patterns and wild animals – insects, birds, mammals – have been forced to adapt too – bringing about new kinds of interaction with humans in which humans get infected by “novel” diseases.
“As industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.” (Source: Rob Wallace)
Meanwhile the Industrial farming of animals – the mass production of meat – has entailed fundamentally unhealthy (and thus cruel) ways of raising and treating animals. To prevent them getting sick antibiotics have been routinely used to the point that they are losing their effectiveness as a medicine for humans.
An ideal of degrowth is superceded by real life events
Self isolation and distancing is the beginning. It will bring the economy down and is already doing so. It is not an ideal model for degrowth. Renegade economists like me had hoped that economic contraction might be accompanied by increasing well being. But let us remember that the current contraction is being forced by the ecological crisis brought about by an economy that is illiterate and indifferent to its impacts on the natural world. Normally it is other people and other communities and other species that carry the so called “external costs” of economic development while the corporate magnates reap the profits – this time round though a virus is unleashed that destroys the very foundations of economic activity and the corporations too. Economists and central bankers could ignore the ecological crisis until now – but now they find that the ecological disruption imposed on the biosphere is unleashing a pandora’s pox of problems for which they have no response.
The contraction involved in retreating to what we hope will be the safety of our homes is so that we can survive – in the long run policies of social isolation and quarantine we hope will prevent a lot of people from dying before they need to. But this is merely a temporary expedient and is pulling the global economy down. In the demolition site we will have to start again with something very different that is not just going to take us back to the same place.
In the meantime we need to try to survive the collapse. If the process is badly managed and the production of essentials goods and services collapse altogether then a lot of people will die anyway. Managing this process both at the policy level and at the personal level will be not be easy to judge. People will have to work together to produce food – how much they will need to come together to frequent restaurants and pubs is another matter.
In an article in the blog “Naked Capitalism” Yves Smith writes of the US economy but much of what she says applies also in the UK and other “developed” economies:
“The US economy is 70% services. Travel, tourism, theme parks, casinos, cruises, restaurants, hotels, and restaurants are already in meltdown mode. Due to the market perturbations, people are likely to cut back on all sorts of discretionary spending, from home redos (and purchases), to donations to charities to plastic surgery and shrink visits. Anyone who can stand to wait won’t have surgery. And who would go to a nail salon, or get a massage, or go to a doctor’s or dentist’s office unless they thought it couldn’t wait? And remember, 40% of Americans don’t have enough money or slack on their credit card to handle a $400 emergency. Many workers will be hit with hours cutbacks or job losses. They need assistance pronto or the economic damage will cascade: defaults on rent or mortgages, delinquencies on credit cards, defaults on car payments. And you have societal consequences like hunger, homelessness and suicides.”
But here’s the thing – from the point of view of the ecological crisis do most of us really need “travel, tourism, theme parks, casinoes, cruises, hotels and restaurants?” Many of these are non essential. What we clearly need is hospitals and places for the homeless which could be converted from re-purposed hotels. Instead of plastic surgery and shrinks we need medical assistance with the virus. We don’t need the cars if we are going to be staying at home for the time being. A major priority will be available food. We can do without restaurants but we cannot do without food and many of those who survive will find they have to grow more of it themselves – where their lawns used to be – or up the walls of their houses. In the Northern Hemisphere it is spring time. It is time to be planting seeds.
Taking some risks of human contact in essential joint economic activities is unavoidable – particularly for younger and fitter people – there will be a balancing act of risk taking and it will not be easy. However non essential activity which brings people together risks transmission of the virus with no gain. During a transitional period many many things will have to be transacted on the internet and by “working at home” rather than during face to face human contact. At the same time the internet itself will be under pressure due to difficulty in maintenance because delivering and re-installing replacement components may also be compromised. Over time it may degrade.
How this is to be done is something that all of us individually and as households will have to work out as we go along. It is a time for improvising and making careful and “distanced” arrangements with ones neighbours.
The Mental Health Challenge – the Great Unpatterning
This will be an extremely of challenging time for millions and possibly billions of people. It has profound implications for mass mental health. One author who gets this and writes about it very well is Caitlin Johnstone. Her usual articles are about how the media constructs a faux narrative of events that suits what the elite wants ordinary people to believe. Recently, however, Johnson has written about what she calls “the Great Unpatterning”. Here’s a quote:
“The human mind is conditioned to look for patterns in order to establish a baseline of normal expectations upon which to plan out future actions. This perceptual framework exists to give us safety and security, so disruptions in the patterns upon which it is based often feel weird, threatening, and scary. They make us feel insecure, because our cognitive tool for staying in control of our wellbeing has a glitch in it.
“When you’re talking about a species that has been consistently patterned towards its own destruction, though, a disruption of patterns is a good thing. Our ecocidal, warmongering tendencies have brought us to a point that now has us staring down the barrel of our own extinction, and that is where we are surely headed if we continue patterning along the behavioral trajectory that we have been on. Only a drastic change of patterns can change that trajectory. And we are seeing a change of patterns.
This great unpatterning is going to continue, in many wild and unexpected ways. And things are going to keep getting stranger.
All of humanity’s problems are the result of our collective conditioning patterns throughout history. Where there is pattern disruption, there is the opportunity for pattern divergence. Where there is movement, there are gaps. Where there are gaps, there is an opportunity for light to get through.”
The point is well made. Although marooned in our own homes, we are all on a journey. For many of us older people it will end in our deaths. For other, mainly younger people it will lead to radical shifts in life direction and purposes. Hopefully support can be found through the internet during this time – giving assistance to think about the new life and career options that younger and healthy people will need to embark on – as well as learning practicalities like growing and cooking for ourselves.
For others people, those who cannot manage the practicalities and the mental transition, it may end in insanity – though for many people this may be temporary. Many people will prove unable to adjust to the way the world is changing around us and thus becoming completely dysfunctional, disorientated, confused and frightened. It will be particularly difficult for people who are homeless and destitute – who can manage with a door between them and the world but not on the street. (There will be plenty of hotels with vacant capacity. I doubt that the occupancy in the Trump empire is very high at this time. He is not supposed to have any anyway ).
The mental health problems will not be helped because of the isolation and social distancing. Distancing will limit the ability of millions of frightened people to interpret what is happening around them and find support. It may make them them susceptible to paranoias and impulsive actions. The emotions of the situation are likely to be experienced by many as overwhelming and terrifying. The absence of an explanatory framework of what is happening together with the absence of close friends will be an awful combination.
Who and what brought us to this situation?
I have already started to self isolate. It is not easy. When I lie in bed at night, under a type of self imposed house arrest, my anger and frustration is felt at the managers of the food economy and big agriculture, the mainstream economists and small minded politicians who are ignorant about what have become the fundamental issues requiring attention in the current world.
The process of deliberately social isolation and distancing will be a painful one and evoke powerful emotions. Inevitably thoughts turn not just to what has gone wrong but to who is responsible?
This is the result of a growth economy, and big agriculture, overstepping the limits to growth and degrading the biospheric capacity of the planet. It is the business practices of the agricultural corporations that have brought us to this. They have made extra profits by stealing land from indigenous peoples and degrading the biosphere. Now everyone in the world threatened by Covid 19 are paying the price many times over.
My anger is greater still at those rich people who are retreating to “bunkers” with well stocked wine cellars. Yet it is as well to remember that the world of the super rich is also collapsing. The world is full of experts – but experts in tiny specialisms – like how to make money on financial markets. What is collapsing for the elite are not just arrangements for economic activity – but ways of making sense of the world – and the reasons they regard themselves as different from and superior to other people. They are clearly not…
In conclusion – forget about a return to normal
Following the ideas of the so called “Resilience Alliance” and theorists of “Panarchy” human and natural systems evolve in 3 dimensions. One dimension is in productive capacity. This is what mainstream economists have recklessly celebrated in their worship of economic growth. They have seen that growth as arising in high levels of interdependency and interconnectedness – and underestimated the dangers. This is the second dimension. The third dimension is the degree of resilience or vulnerability. In recent years the economy, society and ecological system has become more vulnerable to collapse. The interconnectedness is manifested in systems which are susceptible to domino chains of cascading collapse.
Over more than two centuries the high level of complexity and connectivity in the economy has increased productive capacity. However the high level of connectivity – where products are assembled from components from supply chains spanning the globe – is very vulnerable and has been collapsing. The finance system is another highly connected system that is very vulnerable which can collapse in a situation like the coronavirus crisis. This throws people back, in extremis, to the resources of their own household and its immediate environment.
Outside the household people will have and need different levels of engagement with other people whether they want to or not. However social support mechanisms and economic relationships and activities will be under under pressure to minimalise. To take a trivial example – we can still take deliveries at home which can be left outside the door for collection (inclusive of arrangements for disinfection). As already mentioned the internet will help.
This is not the place to make recommendations as to how people can minimise social contact. In any case the specific conditions of every person’s life is always unique and each of us must manage risk according to their own judgement. The point to make in this article is of the need to self isolate and/or practice social distancing, at the same time as maintaining economic activity as best we can. There will be no one size fits all ways of doing it and each person will have to improvise during this crisis. At the same time the ideal outcome is that improvisations will lead to fundamental changes that start the re-localisation of economic activity, changes in the food system and land use – and in general “degrowth”. Forget about a “return to normal” – the normal was unsustainable and this is the result.
March 16th 2020
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Brian Davey graduated from the Nottingham University Department of Economics and, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.
6 Replies to “Coronavirus, degrowth and self isolation”
Beautifully and tragically put Brian. Here’s my echo (I think) posted to my site today.
LOCK-DOWN – THE FIRST FAINT WHISPER OF HOPE
For zero cultural CO.2 emissions, plainly we must change the culture. I’d say, we must evacuate the culture and occupy another, so that human causes sit inside a ration of Earth. It is futile to think we can electrify what we have. What we have is no longer possible. It never was possible. We’ve lived a lie – a vicious lie. Few of us want to be vicious. Well, let’s evacuate and be what makes us happy – to be kind.
To live within our ration, we must also abandon those parasitic hierarchies, which prey on balanced and circular economic activity – rent for enclosures of money as property (usury), land as property (rent) and status as property (rent for professional status in law, medicine, architecture, planning…) Without that abandonment, we’ll not live within our earthly means. We must pillage to pay rent.
Coronavirus has forced some steps towards living within our ration, suspending some of the parasitism listed above. And, we’ve seen banking and aviation teetering on the brink of collapse. If we are to stay within two degrees of warming, we’ve only fifteen years to plan their demise. Is that possible? It is not likely – near impossible. Collapse is the miracle we need – the only practical solution. To live a good and kindly life, we must pray for the miracle. Remember, two degrees of warming will still be highly unpleasant. It means the flooding of coastal and island communities – violent storms, terrible droughts…
The tragedy of casino collapse, means that people may come together to build their own economy on solid ground. By casino, I mean usury, currency manipulation, trading of stocks, bonds and shares and the gambling on rising rents. Those rents are extracted from wealth gained by true economic activity. Most powerful politicians, journalists and “business” people today, belong, not in the economy, but in that casino. To be plain, they have no sense of reality, levitated as they are on an upward flow of money from the real economy, which they predate.
In my dream, the ethics of home and family – the fair rationing of land, food, things, chores and pleasures, become the model for a renewed economy – the good housekeeping of every trade and governance. It means the return of the common and the end of enclosure. It is a very strong dream, because I think nearly everyone has dreamed it – as Rob Hopkins says, what if?… It has recurred throughout history and in every place, but it has been almost universally supressed from reality. Today, if it does not become reality, then two degrees of warming will very swiftly become four and it will be sans dreams, sans history, sans future, sans everything. Remember, we’ve only fifteen years to shrug off the parasitism and to live within our physical means.
Coronavirus illuminates both the possible and the likely. They are far from the same. I’ll not hide it. My heart is breaking. Here in the UK, many people are behaving very badly indeed – fighting over what seems, in the end, most precious to them – toilet rolls. Government looks likely to behave very badly indeed by pouring billions into airlines, corporations and banks. Toilet roll manufacturers have done quite well and have asked for no support. It seems everyone needs their suicidal way of life, fearing the virus and its effects, but having a kind of hysterical, psychotic forgetting of the utter terror they will cause, only a few decades away. It is not lack of education. The major causers of climate heating are the climate-educated middle class and the rich. In that category, I include every jet-setting climate activist, and every “climate scientist” who has attended any Earth Summit, since 1990. Plainly, they’ve not changed a thing. Surely, they must also own large stashes of casino money, to afford both those fights and the leisure to make them. They are rather like those New Labour politicians, who have destroyed the Labour Party with the backing of Mr Rupert Murdoch.
But many other people in the UK are behaving very well, devising networks of support – that is living a good life by their “family values” – acting out commons of good and kindly behaviour – without support from government, corporation, or bank.
What if…? – instead of massive gifts of money for suicide, authorities put the same (I think much less would do) into the inherited skill, ingenuity, dexterity and moral probity of communities, so that what is parasitic on those things would collapse and something beautiful, true and appropriate could emerge from beneath the ashes?
Coronavirus has forced some governments to do just that – suspending parasitic activity (rent, mortgage and so on) and providing cash for those who must isolate from their work places.
In developed economies, most manufacturing is destructive and useless. Most travel is destructive and useless. Most “economic” activity is destructive and useless. What if…? – we decided to live good, happy and kindly lives together. It is a very, very powerful and also a very ancient dream and it is, yearningly – just faintly stirring – a possibility. But first, we must actively choose “economic” – that is, total casino collapse – total collapse of the ways we developed and so-called, educated people live today. Viewed from a passing satellite nothing much will have changed. Fields, woods and the solid infrastructures of towns, roads, harbours, bridges… will all remain untouched – awaiting occupation. At night, many pinpricks of light will be quenched and at day those vapour trails, which were once teased out by the wind into semblance of cirrus clouds – will be gone.
Hi Patrick. The casino is certainly collapsing. Today I read in the Independent that the Down Jones Index is falling faster now than at the time of the 1929 stock market collapse….and this could make unscrupulous short sellers very rich indeed! But we must be careful what we wish for and work for – which ought to be swift action to get genuine sustainable responses so this kind if thing does not happen again. The responses must be real answers to peoples’ desperate problems while blocking the disruptions of the casino. I think we must beware of schadenfreude though – the PR propaganda machine still exists and will be looking for distractions and defences – to redirect anger, fear and frustration on scapegoats – like malicious greenies who are described as celebrating the collapse. The opinion polls show a lot of people who are supporting the (UK) government and think it is doing a good job! The Lie machine is still in operation. Frankly this crisis has me under a form of long term house arrest with my life at risk – the same as millions of other people. To then witness the lie machine of those who govern us working to cover the mistakes of people like Johnson and see it successfully boosting their standing in the opinion polls is even more galling. I am angry – to write about “hope” does not express how I feel.
T S Eliot – from the Four Quartets “East Coker”
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
Thanks Brian. To add to the gossip between those in isolation, here’s some more – a distant Utopia conjured from the prison cell. I think Caroline once mentioned such sustaining dreams, shared between French prisoners of war. For myself, decrepitude has partially removed me from the “front line” of food production, while the young and fit take over. Anyway –
CONVIVIAL REVELRY IS NO SMALL THING
Once upon a time, not so long ago, economic transactions using money, were out-weighed by economic transactions, which did not. Still, that moneyless economy, though much shrunken, remains a force for good. Without it, the whole edifice of wages, spending, rents, money interest, stocks, bonds and shares would collapse. Today, because money has accelerated beyond control, “economies” are teetering on the edge of collapse. As we know, parenthood is often deferred to paid child-minders, nurseries and schools. Music is bought in concert tickets and recordings, while singing around the pub piano is a distant memory. Apprenticeships have been replaced by expensive and inappropriate university courses. Monopolies of medicine, law, architecture and so on, charge fabulous rents, merely for their enclosed social status – and of course, much else for which people are paid wages, is futile, ugly and useless.
Only sixty years ago half the population remained at home, without wages, yet working full time – cooking, caring, teaching, washing, cleaning, telling stories, singing nursery rhymes… But for the upper middle class, half the population (women), probably worked harder than wage-earning men. So, in the above respect, unpaid work outweighed the paid. Add to that football, cricket, productive gossip, pub sing-songs – yes, I agree, women often missed out on those things too.
Let’s fade back into the Thirteenth century, when, as David Fleming has eloquently reminded us, a massive part of everyone’s time was passed in religious and seasonal festivals. Economies were hugely resilient, because money was but a small part of the whole. Always, when things went wrong the unpaid probity, ingenuity and dexterity of people could step in.
Don’t mention medieval hierarchies and the unjust distribution of male to female labour. It’s plain – so we can change it for the better. In any case, hierarchies today are spiralling out of control by pillaged and utterly irresponsible wealth. A lord of the manor had function and obligation and was, in any case, poor by today’s standards. In medieval times, (I speculate) Richard Branson would be imprisoned (or executed) for transgression of common law. We are not performing well on the male/female balance either…
Truly, I can see no alternative today but to resume such models. Though money is useful for more complex trades in scarcity and surplus, a so-called steady state, or circular economy must be largely moneyless to achieve resilience to the unexpected and also to achieve self-determined happiness. If every household had a garden, some musical instruments, a store of ancestral tales and rhymes, surely that household would also produce new songs, tales and rhymes of its own. The stimulus would not be money, but conviviality.
Of course, if half of us – a mixture of men and women – worked for money, eight, or so hours a day for four, or so days per week, producing, by our various skills, what our communities need in the way of food, fabrics, furniture, metal work… and that money circulated entirely within that exchange of trades – but for a tax – say a tythe, or perhaps more – as contribution to common infrastructures of hospitals, harbours, libraries, irrigation sluices, bridges and so on, money which, in consequence, would cycle back again – then still that activity would be a small part of a twelve-hour seven-day whole, which one half of the adult population would have for pleasure. The other half of the population would have similar pleasure time (slightly less?). But their day jobs of cooking, cleaning, caring…. Would involve no money.
I do think, we need to welcome the return of uncensored long sentences along with long balmy Summer days to sit by the river and practice the fiddle, or to stroll into a deepening intimacy with our landscape, or to read and write and tell each other stories of how these things came to be. You bring the wine. I’ll bake the bread.
As the world sits in coronavirus lock-down, a common Guardianist (short) sentence is – You said the economy was everything, now we can see that it isn’t. As usual the Guardian is wrong. The economy is everything, but the greatest part of that economy must be moneyless. The true economic dynamo is common understanding of good behaviour, which needs no payment, and is certainly its own reward. Good behaviour makes the culture. Bad behaviour erodes it. Yet, Left Liberals would put money value on “eco-system services” by their “true-cost accounting”. They lobby for basic income for house-keepers. They lobby for more money. It’s true that basic income is a temporal remedy to social injustice and it’s also true that it can stimulate real economic activity. It’s true that it’s the best course in our current shut-down. But if that money is created by central banking, it will simply add to the mass and power of money. If it is generated by a tax on enclosure, as Tom Paine tells us, money flow would remain the same, while its restorative justice could add (it also may not) to commons of good behaviour.
The truth is that increasing money flow by adding still more fictitious “natural capital”, would be another step over the edge for the soon-to-be crashing casino. Commons of good behaviour teach that the ecology of which it is but one small part, is priceless. Reverence is useful. It has proved effective in just about every culture, every-when and everywhere.
As we’ve explored, much else is priceless too – parenthood, the delight of attained skill, bonds of friendship and family, the sight of a good crop of corn, laden apple trees, well-brewed beer, a lovely fabric, a dove-tail joint well-fitting, tale-telling, music, dance…
As T S Elliot’s friend, Ezra Pound (forget the politics) attests – With usura hath no man a house of good stone…
Money as a tool for more complex exchange than barter, is liberating and useful. Money as property is an always destructive power. Enclosures of money, land and status into irresponsible property are at the chore of our amoral pillage of both nature and each other. Present action creates the future, just as past action created our present.
The reason I slid so easily into organic farming and subsequently became so alienated from most “new” organic farmers, is this, my definition of the word, organic –
Organic – method, which seeks efficiency and resilience, by imitating the cyclic behaviours of organisms. Organic as a method applies to everything – to every trade, infrastructure and pleasure. Its primary attitudes are reverence, belonging, study and the learning and application of skills. Such a definition was commonplace to agriculturalists of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. By 1990 it was utterly betrayed. It entered the market-place and wanted as much of it as it could. However that market was “organised”, or rather disorganised, was of no concern. I remember, David Fleming as a solitary voice of discontent at one packed Soil Association meeting. I loved what he said, though what it was escapes my memory. Anyway, it’s a comfort to me now that I have his writing. My younger, and shy in public, conviction is affirmed. As Wendell Berry says, Eat and you are involved in agriculture. We might as well add, Eat and you are involved in everyone and everything.
Thanks Brian, so well written and perfectly on time, though times are a changing so fast. Let’s hope we can steer the world to a better place.
Thank you Patrick for remembering the late David Fleming who had many contacts with Feasta in its early years. His “Lean Logic” is a tremendous work – although I did not share his conservative outlook entirely that book has great wisdom is steeped in his knowledge of history and culture. I and many others owed him a lot.
It does help to take the long view, the historical view in a situation like this. Even the supreme horror of the Black Death when seen in historical retrospect released many of the survivors and their ancestors from the suffocation of serfdom. It also led to such a large abandonment of cultivated land so that the trees could came back and there is some reason to believe that this led to CO2 draw down sufficient to cause the so called “Little Ice Age”. It cooled the planet.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and ato time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. Ecclesiastes 3
No matter how clever the policies for sustainability there will always come around the time for dying, to weep, refrain from embracing, to lose, to keep silence….
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