Environment or Jobs: Straw Man or Real Dilemma?

This post was co-authored by Gary Gardner and Michael Renner

How do we reconcile simple living, which we have long espoused as an essential ingredient of a more sustainable economy, with the urgent need to revive moribund industrial economies whose chief driver is consumption? In economies like the U.S., where consumption accounts for 70 percent of gross domestic product, living more simply weakens the traditional economic engine–and the jobs it creates. We appear to be “between a sword and the wall,” as the Spanish saying goes. Either we trash the planet or abandon workers to joblessness.

Robert Reich, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley and former U.S. Secretary of Labor, warns that with governments slashing budgets and consumers holding off on purchases, “global demand will shrink to the point where a worldwide dip is inevitable.” In a piece titled “Why Growth is Good,” Reich argues that consumer spending must be stoked, and notes defensively that “growth is different from consumerism.”

Similarly, Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman warns that the United States finds itself in a situation akin to that of 1938—when government policies to limit economic damage turned out to be too cautious, and unemployment remained disastrously high. Like Reich, Krugman would have government do more to prime the consumer pump. But neither of these analysts addresses the environmental problem created by consumption.

Boston University professor Juliet Schor attempts to address environment and jobs with a radically different approach (see video: Americans Need to Work Less). She advocates job-sharing as a way to spread work opportunities more broadly across society. This approach has two advantages: it employs more people, and because each person works part-time at a lower income, it lessens consumption and its environmental impacts.

Complementing Schor from a different quarter, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks featured a pastor in California, David Platt, whose fast-selling book Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American DreamI, focuses on down-scaling as the authentic Christian calling.

Schor and Platt offer appealing visions of stepping off the consumerist treadmill. But are they feasible options for individuals, without broader changes in the economy and society? It’s all too easy to lecture others on what they should do. So, to take a hard-nosed look, we look at our own personal realities.

Both of us have families, each with two kids. Each family is supported by one income. We have resisted the siren song of credit card debt. Both of us have a mortgage, but absent any significant savings, a major expense like a new roof or furnace (investing, not consuming) would require debt financing. Both of us have stopped saving for retirement because it is unaffordable in the face of escalating health and education expenses. Luxuries in each family are simple and few: seeing a movie is rare, and rarely involves the whole family.

In this context, Schor-style work-sharing, while terrific in principle, is absolutely out of the question for us. Although both of us have long advocated simple living and critiqued conventional economic growth, it would be dishonest for us to say that we wouldn’t welcome growth in our own family incomes, if only to feel more shielded against the possibility of job loss or sudden unexpected expenses. Our reality is perhaps not atypical of many Americans, not to mention people in other countries around the world.

Where does this leave us? This is a topic we’d like to tackle over several coming posts. And we’d love to hear your thoughts. We’ll begin the next post with a few principles we’d like to put on the table. But don’t wait for us. How do you think we can balance employment generation with simpler lifestyles? What measures would you design into an economy to make it meet everyone’s need, yet be respectful of nature’s boundaries? Is the capitalist economy up to it, or does this amount to squaring the circle? We’d love to hear your comments.

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