Social Limits to Growth
This page is an overview of my Ph.D. research conducted from 2014 – 2017. The primary outcome of this research is a set of ‘Social Limits to Growth’ based on observation and discussions with makers, a historiography of sociology, and a framing within complex systems theory and ecological economics. The social limits to growth (which are normative and have already changed since completing my PhD) are:
- Equity and fairness
- Strong mental health (I would now call this Holistic Health Practices)
- Meaningful Domestics (I would now call this Valued Reproductive Work)
- Systemic Education
- Redefined Success
- Thoughtful Consumption
- Connection to Place
- Profound Community Orientation
You can explore each of these limits individually, without the context provided below. I have also pulled out the theory of change that I used in my thesis, to demonstrate the thinking behind my approach to analysis.
There are some notable elements and themes missing from my list of social limits and Ph.D. work in general which need to be recognized as important and in need of development such as:
These will be explored in future work as I collaborate with those who are experts in these fields.
Also, I do recognize some overlap in this project with Doughnut Economics, which was not published before the completion of my thesis.
Below is the presentation I gave for my Ph.D. defense.
In my Ph.D. thesis I critiqued ecological economics based on how various scholars approach and incorporate the social sphere into their work. I also explored the question of whether or not we can find a sweet spot within sustainable development? I use three approaches to demonstrate that we need to think differently about what ‘development’ looks like, if we hope to achieve sustainability. I asked the question:
“How can prefigurative communities of practice better inform systemic ecological economic approaches for cultural change and problem solving to maintain a progressive and high quality of life while remaining within limits of the biosphere?”
Or: how can existing groups help EE to respond to and evolve beyond the mutual exclusivity of SDG’s and available biocapacity? To help answer this question and test the underlying presuppositions that this is even a relevant question, I used a case study approach. The case studies primarily focused on makers. As, to some extent, Makers also represent an implicit rejection or push back against the encroachments of techno-social systems that undermine conscious creative collaborative activity and independence. This is a part of a growing movement of commons-based peer production (CBPP) (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006) which has “brought about a new logic of collaboration between networks of people who freely organize around a common goal using shared resources and market-oriented entities that add value on top of or alongside them” (Niaros, Kostakis, and Drechsler 2017). Popular cases of CBPP such as Wikipedia, Linux, and WordPress, brought forth a new model and paradigm for value creation (Rifkin 2014).
There is a burgeoning network of both Makers and Maker discourse in industrialized countries. Makers have been coined as the “third industrial revolution” (Anderson 2012), a “democratisation of manufacturing” as citizens participate in commons-based production (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006), unlockers of “grassroots innovation” through accessible digital fabrication (Gershenfeld 2005), grounds for activism towards commons-based peer-production (Bauwen 2013), and as a shining example of emerging “sustainable production and consumption” due to their local provisioning and tendency towards remanufacturing increasing post-consumerist value (Schor 2010). In 2017, the website hackerspaces.org reported 1336 active Makerspaces worldwide, with 355 opening soon, that’s 14 times as many as in 2006 (Lou and Peek 2016).
The resurgence of making comes at the same time as the increasing popularity of online marketplaces, the online sharing economy, innovations in creation such as 3D printers, and a mass movement toward knowledge freedom and sharing with projects like open sourcing, and Massive Open Online Courses. In 2011 nearly 12 000 maker projects raised nearly $100 million and $300 million in 2013 (Anderson 2012). By 2016, roughly half of American adults called themselves Makers as there is “an increased awareness of how broad making can be and how inclusive it can be…Makerspaces…have existed for huge amounts of time…woodshops, home-ec centers, model shops, and computer labs” (Lou and Peek 2016). The Maker Map (http://themakermap.com/) puts Makers all over the globe, with concentrations in the United States and Europe. Anderson devotes the entirety of Chapter 2 in Makers: The New Industrial Revolution to the rise in Maker Culture in North America, Europe, and some parts of Asia (mainly China, India, and Japan):
In short, the Maker Movement has arrived.Anderson 2012 p. 22
I contextualized this project around the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs represent years of environmentalists attempting to work within the system to make change.
Mainstream environmental approaches both acknowledge and strategically obscure the implications of the idea of limits. Early approaches focused on problem solving through various acts, accords and international agreements. Sustainable development later emerged as the most prominent discourse that fudges the idea of limits to growth . The Brundtland Report described the need for change, yet still emphasised development as a key motivator and goal of the future. It offered sustainable development as an alternative to fundamental behavioural changes.
The pervasiveness of sustainable development language is expected; it combines liberal ideals of social justice and intergenerational equity while simultaneously supporting ecological protection and economic growth. This vague catch-all term allows for economic and technological development, such as ‘ecological modernisation’, to be compatible with limits, rather than a cause for concern.
For the time being, the development goals of the UN SDGs are firmly rooted in the same economic paradigm as growth economics.
In a presentation by Mathis Wackernagle he pointed out that as countries meet the SDGs their Ecological Footprint increases beyond available biocapacity and that we have yet to see a country in the ‘sweet spot’ suggesting that ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’ are mutually exclusive.
This “wicked tension” is a main theme in the analysis of my work. Mainly, that through a detail overview of historical sociology we can see that many of our socially progressive systems arose along side growth economics.
This popular image demonstrates the inherent coupling of socio-economic trends (GDP, population, transportation, telecommunication) alongside Earth System trends (C02, methane, ozone depletion, coastal nitrogen). What it doesn’t show, are similar trends in things such as animal right, the emergence of unions, emancipation of women, and rights for the disabled. The liberal project didn’t just destroy the planet, it also gave us all the socially progressive norms that we enjoy today. At the time of my thesis, I argued that this meant if we attempted to dismantle one aspect of this complex system (the Earth systems trends) we would inevitably see a fall in the others. Not only that, but that the way we think would become completely demolished – we wouldn’t think as progressive pro-social agents but would allow our lizard brain to take over and have incredible increases in outgroup antagonism (just as one example). Since then, I have changed my view. There will certainly still be cascading impacts, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic (women were hit very hard by a forced ‘degrowth’ scenario), but perhaps nothing beyond what human creativity will manage to overcome. We’ll see…
Regardless, one of the most promising fields of study to help us navigate through these murky and troubled waters is ecological economics. Ecological economics emerged fully as a discipline in the late 1970s as an answer to the ineffectiveness of mainstream economics to incorporate the environment as a vital component of a prosperous future. In ecological economics, the economy is conceptualized as a nested subsystem of both the environment and society, meaning it should never threaten the integrity of social or ecological systems, because this would undermine the economy itself.
A variety of disputed approaches not withstanding, Ecological Economics is premised on three key ideas: 1) Scale – that we live on a finite planet and the economy is a subsystem of the metabolism of the biosphere that must operate within. I.e. ecological economics is a vision of social and economic constraint. 2) Fair distribution (equity), i.e. in the interest of both justice and political order any sustainable market economy requires a sound safety net and a stable institution for redistribution of excess finance. 3) Efficient allocation, i.e. all other things being equal there is no reliable alternative to market allocation as a driver of technological innovation and minimization of systemic waste.
|Conceptual Issue||Neoclassical welfare economics and environmental economics||Ecological economic alternative|
|Fungibility||Reduce value to commensurable monetary units; utility function.||Separate value into incommensurable categories; multi-criteria assessment; embed market value with cultural/social contexts|
|The Rational Actor||Individual consumers and firms at the centre of analysis.||Analyse humans as social actors, consumers versus citizens.|
|Marginal Analysis||Comparative statics of marginal changes.||Recognises discontinuous change and total effects.|
|Evolutionary Change||Evolution as constrained optimisation, survival of the fittest view of market outcomes, individual based selection.||Importance of contingency, historical accidents, path dependency. Considers altruism and group selection as well as selfishness.|
|Uncertainty||Reduce uncertainty to risk. Market outcome focus to decision-making.||Precautionary principle to deal with pure uncertainty. Process-oriented, co-evolutionary focus to decision-making.|
|Decision Criteria||Efficiency as the sole criterion, usually based on potential Pareto improvements.||Equity, stability, resilience of environmental and social systems.|
|Production Process||Theory of allocation of fixed resources; production function.||Production as a biophysical process, thermodynamics; extended IO approach, joint production of goods and polluting wastes.|
|Discounting||Straight-line discounting of future costs and benefits.||Recognises the difference between individual and social valuation of the future; hyperbolic discounting.|
The basic premise of ecological economics is that the economy is a subsystem of the environment and of society. However, society and culture do not make up a significant portion of published material within ecological economic literature (above image), focusing instead on mainstream and micro changes. These are insufficient social and cultural changes as none target the underlying cultural dimensions that drive our ecological emergency. Ecological Economics is a strong discipline that could be improved by focusing less on two areas: functionalist approaches and methodological pluralism. Unfortunately, There is a new tendency for ecological economists to be cautious in recommending radical change.
This is not to disparage the work of those who cover topics such as ecosystem services, natural capital, valuation, or anything else depicted in the image above. Simply that there is insufficient balance. Cap and share, zero interest rates, new forms of property, and work-sharing are important factors of a new ecological economy, but we also need to focus on what would support a healthy social sphere.
An ecological economist will almost certainly be willing to suggest that an economic activity is encroaching on the biosphere, but they are less likely to suggest that a particular economic activity might be encroaching on the social sphere; there is little analysis on how economic activity is detrimental to the well-being of individuals – the direct relationships between the social and economic spheres. This is partially because it is difficult to account for society in economic modeling, but also because economists lack a clear definition of what a sustainable society entails. Ecological economists take for granted that modern liberal-democratic society is, or at least can be, synonymous with a sustainable economy. I suggest that they don’t only need to envision a future with a radically different economy, but also with a radically different society, and be explicit about what this looks like. It behooves ecological economists to be more vocal in the unsustainable characteristics of society and clearly establish the boundaries and characteristics of what a healthy social sphere looks like.
This isn’t where ecological economics started. In For the Common Good, Daly very clearly prioritizes communitarian values over all else. Daly quotes Polanyi who notes that “in a capitalist society instead of economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system”. Daly says that “it is this reversal that an economics for community cannot tolerate”. He argues that we can keep the insights we have learned from individualistic terms and apply these from the viewpoint of person-in-community. This is where Daly left room for functionalist and neoclassical economics to creep back in. He argues that the analysis of the market can continue when the economy is a service of community, but really, we can’t because it wouldn’t be a ‘market’ it would be answering to, and responding to, ‘life’. In using neoclassical terminology, he left the purpose of ecological economics up to functionalist interpretations. The point here is that Daly meant for ecological economics to have a central focus on community.
My motivation for looking into maker culture and my approach to analysis is best understood by reading my whole theory of change (at the time, it has change a bit since then but not significantly).
My research focused on Makers as a case study. My definition of ‘Maker’ includes anyone who takes the power of production into their own hands. This includes the traditional Maker, but also hackers (both physical and technological), farmers and homesteaders, preppers, bakers, brewers, sewers, potters, jewelers, metal workers, programmers, artists, and woodworkers. I chose Makers for three reasons: 1) prior knowledge about the relation of hand/brain connection for learning, self-esteem, and self-care, 2) initial research demonstrated a very clear community emerging in industrialized societies, comprised of those who are also participating in an alternative economy, and 3) the disruptive potential of empowering local production given the base/superstructure model.
As a collective, Makers are finding ways to bring local production together with new technology, a task that, in the past, many thought impossible – this makes them a uniquely situated community for exploring possibilities of small-scale production and localized economies. There are a variety of Makers in Canada, demonstrating possibilities for both individual and collective elements for change in a variety of contexts with wide appeal. Through local production and community support, they potentially challenge capitalist assumptions and systems, bring culture and the economy together, have an implicit environmental message/approach, and include modern technologies while attempting simplicity, though some have criticized Maker Culture as another manifestation of capitalism, particularly for the privileged class. Makers do not necessarily upend globalization and capitalist hegemony but offer a meaningful alternative to conspicuous consumption. It is possible that links between technology, the rich history of DIY, and collective physical ‘places’ can contribute significantly to an alternative vision of political economy.
I conducted over 150 interviews over 3 years with makers in Southern Ontario and Prince Edward Island who were at maker festivals, maker events, members of a maker consortium, and snowball sampled individuals. I separated them out in various groups, the main differentiation being urban versus rural makers. This is the split that I used for my thesis work, but I would approach it a bit differently now and hope to write a paper on this in due time.
By looking through my comprehensive exam on historical sociology, looking at the values and existing tools of ecological economics, and the themes/ trends presented throughout my research of research I developed a set of approaches that EE should normalize to take greater consideration of the social sphere. Some of the ideas below may seem like “leaps” and they are certainly normative, however, this is to get the conversation started. To add some context I have created a short blog post about each approach – linked within the table.
|EE Approach||Related Themes to Makers||Challenges/ wicked tensions||Opportunities|
|Equity and fairness Just distribution of goods, services, and financial resources||Alternative economics (gift, share, barter, local currencies); self-esteem building; special role of women||Difficult to manage/govern; requires organized complexity; requires an extended empathic circle||Open source access; local currencies; imaginative finance structures; mandatory work/life balance – just distribution|
|Strong mental health high self-esteem and life satisfaction||Counter culture sentiments against overworking; making as hand- brain reintegration; making as a solitary activity; making as a religious-spiritual activity; the correlation between making and self-esteem||Tension between re-enchantment or ontological security and instrumental rationality; Decreased consumption and contraction of formal economy means fewer taxes and social services||Open-source/local currencies shown to improve self-esteem; citizen owned production; maker/family-based hero-projects; work/life balance such as 4-day work week and $70k income cap|
|Meaningful Domestics all community roles viewed equally||Gender neutral Maker education; self-esteem building for all children; Re-balancing the formal and informal economies||Contracting state likely to reduce the availability of formal child-care; challenges much modern feminism in so far as predicated on access to the formal economy||Work/life balance – 4-day work week, home-life seen as equally valuable/empowering as work life; community parenting; re-emergence of extended family|
|Systemic Education meets the needs of the community||Changes in craft incorporated into education; role of education in hand/brain learning; increasing self-esteem of children||Need to limit fear around harm/risk; experiential education is expensive; requires continuity in place and greater intergenerational continuity||Embeddedness in place as a driver for what’s learned; open-source access to education; students taught how to produce goods; hands on-learning; greater role of mentors Re-emergence of family/community contexts for learning|
|Redefined Success non-monetary views of success||Alternative economy; working less in the formal economy; the ‘ritual’ and satisfaction of hand/brain making; making improves self-esteem||Difficult to convince and engage people unless alternative meaning frameworks is introduced simultaneously; barter/trade/gifting entails more limited access to more limited range of goods||Work/life balance including $70k income cap; innovation for needs – efficient allocation; encourage barter, gift, and trade rather than monetary exchange|
|Thoughtful Consumption purchase of special products, more local consumption||Counter cultural sentiments against corporations; how craft has changed to produce meaningful objects; Products made with emotions (hand/brain); making as ritual and spiritual;||Contraction of formal economy will reduce tax transfers and engender fiscsal crisis; breakdown of international trade relationships||Citizen-owned production creating special and/or more durable, higher quality and certainly more expensive products; embeddedness in place; needs-based innovation; hold repair cafes & artisan shows|
|Connection to place More meaningful relationship to land; re-embedding of individuals, communities and ecological places.||Making as a reconnection with body and place; making as religious/spiritual activity; making with local goods reconnects; culture associated with local raw materials||Limits social and spatial freedom and mobility||Embeddedness in place through cultural ecological restoration practices; work/life balance as a driver to ‘local tourism’|
|Profound Community Orientation all transactions in the economy meet the needs of the community||Counter cultural sentiments against big government; making as a community activity; making as religious; making as resilience building||Likelihood of increased out-group antagonism||Citizen owned production as a way to learn/interact; work/life balance; open-source as a method of trust building; embeddedness in place; limit social media|
To help navigate this discussion, I have created three snapshots of the relationship between the three spheres that make up ecological economic theory. In Figure 1 I show the different approaches whereby ecological economics could support the EE approaches. In this Figure ‘approach’ refers to the specific economic or political application being used in a community; and ‘potentially encourages’ refers to some of the possible outcomes of those applications for the community. The system map, in Figure 2, illustrates connections between the social and economic applications demonstrating linkages and feedback loops across themes. In Figure 3 I have summarized the approaches and applications.
Figure 1: New approaches to action within the social sphere and potential outcomes of these approaches – each is discussed throughout this chapter
The outcomes and relationships between factors could vary widely depending on the context, so I reiterate that these EE approaches are not a prescriptive approach to ecological economics but represent a set of development goals that may be more realistic for finding the ‘sweet spot’ between development and biosphere integrity. These are not meant to function as a measurement tool for a society or to be employed as a tactic for any one specifically desired outcome. Rather the parameters are designed to be used in concert to provide ecological economists with socially-driven components for problem solving and for understanding the specific contexts of local ecological economic development. Carbon taxing, ecosystem service analysis, and the four-day work week are currently understood as possible methods for improving the ecological economic relationship in a community; these intervention strategies can be used to understand methods for improving the socio-ecological relationships in a community.
Figure 2: A flow diagram showing some of the relationships between various themes discussed
Figure 3: Main components of each subsystem
At the bottom of the Figure 3 there are four characteristics of a ‘healthy environment’. Several scholars have already identified various factors that should be included when setting social and economic limits on the biosphere. Prerequisites for a healthy environment would include: lowest possible throughputs of energy from production; greater reuse and cycling of materials; systemic reduction in resource extraction; maintenance of the highest possible levels of biodiversity; and maintaining the integrity of planetary boundaries.
There are several biophysical and economic indicators that can point to a healthy or unhealthy environment within each of these broad areas. These may include air (levels of pollutants), fish, groundwater, land use, soil, water quality, wetlands, and deforestation.
Defining a healthy society is more subjective than defining a healthy environment. Indictors of environmental health are easily measured (air quality, for example) while parameters for a healthy society are difficult to measure. For example, ‘depression’ is a much more complex indicator to measure than air quality, but also the nature of social progress makes it very difficult to pinpoint what might improve a certain social health issue – the parameters vary between ‘health’ and ‘pathology’. For example, one might consider it an improvement in social well-being that people are seen as individuals and this means there is greater care for the life of that one person. However, individualization is also related to the condition of rising levels of depression and narcissism. These wicked relationships make the notion of social ‘health’ very difficult to define. This is further complicated by considering cultural differences in personality structures. What one society sees as socially healthy might be totally different from another. This makes it especially important to consider the context, needs, and desires of a community in relation to each EE approach. Using lessons from historical sociology and results from the case studies, I have extrapolated the EE approaches for use in investigations of ecological economic approaches to politics, life, and livelihood.
Not all EE approaches will be relevant for every context and the outcomes of the method may be radically different than that proposed especially given nonlinearity in complex systems. For example, a community with a mental health crisis might benefit from encouraging intergenerational care – but not necessarily. And even if such a strategy was potentially useful, the community might not have enough family units to make such a system viable. For these parameters to be useful, the context of the situation needs to be taken into consideration, but in general these EE approaches should be good places to start. If the field of ecological economics is to progress, methods for social change need to be regularly added to the discussion, even though they are complex, messy, subjective, context dependent and potentially vary depending on the cultural structure of the perceiver over time. The inclusion of intergenerational care is cheaper for the state while curtailing freedom for individuals, but also a possible source of long term source of greater meaning structures; there are almost always going to be trade-offs in these ‘solutions’; the idea is to identify structures that might engender different relational balances between one another (greater community and a stronger shift to the ‘we’ from the ‘I’) and with the biosphere (reducing consumption and creating an ecological identity).
After reviewing the data, creating the flow chart with the data, and charting out the outcomes of the study and literature review, I focused in on eight EE approaches, demonstrated in the table with blog posts for each, that challenge patterns of social change that have led to negative environmental impacts.