TLDR; our current measures of success are all deeply steeped within growth economics. GDP, deficits, stocks, and individual income are all tied to wealth accumulation. This valuation of success is a social limits to growth as it functions as a taken-for-grant-assumption of what one must work toward regardless of happiness or life satisfaction. Many will work long hours to improve one’s income can leave to anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and disrupted families. Policies to support a shift in perspective include income capping, work hours capping, encouragement of alternative and non-market economies, and self-esteem projects through family or values.
This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.
The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.
Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.
‘Redefining success’ is a well-developed concept in ecological economics based on two lines of argument. First, ecological economists suggest happiness and emotional well-being does not increase beyond an annual income of approximately $75 000 (Kahneman and Deaton 2010). This suggests a need for looking at patterns of financialization (how we deal with money), the role of bartering/gifting instead of measuring purchasing power, and the role of money. Second, ecological economists have general criticisms of GDP and growth based measurements of success which emerged during an era when resources seemed unlimited, the environment was viewed as an externality, and quality of life was highly associated with higher economic standards of living. It is widely accepted that the GDP is not a good indicator of progress (Dietz and O’Neill 2013), and that the very assumption of ‘growth’ as an enhancer of life is outdated.
The need for a redefinition of success and progress has percolated into social and civil society. For example, at the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly in 2013, Ban Ki-moon submitted a report for discussion titled ‘Harmony with Nature’. The report argued that to achieve harmony with nature, society must accept limits to growth by learning from deep ecology, systems theory, and key drivers of sustainability including equity, justice and universal rights. To do this, Ban recommends redefining success by promoting broader measures of progress. ecological economics contains various methods to employ broader measures of progress and success such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), The Index of Wellbeing, and the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. These indicators demonstrate a very different picture of developed countries from GDP. For example, the Index of Wellbeing, developed at the University of Waterloo, includes eight domains of life relevant to livelihood and wellbeing, rather than economic measures of success.
Since 1994, Canada’s GDP has increased 38% while our Index of Wellbeing has only increased 9.9%.
These broader tools for redefining success are important for recommending how governments should approach their policy developments for ‘progress’. However, individuals also need to redefine success, which is difficult, because this is asking for a shift in culture. In a reembedded economy the substantive rationality of social action rather than formal rationality of economic allocation means that success is not simply about profit or any single factor, but always by a range of relationships in the community.
In ecological economics redefining success is currently done through top down policy initiatives such as inclusion of GPI; whereas the emergence of a new culture with new relationships between the state, market, and families might redefine success from the bottom up. From this view, redefining success means being a part of a much larger commitment to cultural change.
Participants in my case studies demonstrate that being embedded in a community, having more family time, and participating in self-esteem bolstering activities helped them redefine success in life.
Some tools and developed policies from ecological economics that could help support this are: the use of GPI, the four-day work week, income capping, encouraging local currencies, and creating spaces for gifting, bartering, and trading (i.e.: swap shops, sharing economy, peer-to-peer selling platforms).
Making gave the participants fulfillment because it played a similar role as religion and ritual. A few participants used Making as a way to understand and “communicate” their “understanding and vision of how the world looks to me” and to their “sense of the world” (City5, PEI 3).
City 9 described this process as bringing together “fragmented thoughts and feelings” about the world because “developing the basic raw materials for the work is deeply reflective and informative. I can feel why I am doing this [making] instead of something else”. PEI 4 said that making helps her “make sense of the world by connecting to it in a new way” and asked, “how can we teach that to our kids and help them understand how to respect the world?” She argued that crafting can do that, that crafting “helps kids and adults understand how we fit into the particles flying around us and how we can manipulate them into something really cool”. OOKS 8 answered this question in a similar way stating:
“so many millennials are left with an empty spirit, but with making we can garner an appreciation for the planet because we respect the products produced from it, so much more”.
Given the apparent mass appeal of making and its ability to become a spiritual element for some, this points to the promising potential of Maker Culture to be a foundational element of greener and perhaps more restrained modernity.
Another redefinition of success could be a simplifying of childhood. Many parents over-stimulate their children out of a sincere belief that it is for the child’s best interest. We can see this is the rush parents have taken during COVID-19 to buy the best curriculum packages.
In John Payne’s book Simplicity Parenting, he explains four pillars of excess (2010): 1) too much stuff, 2) too many choices, 3) too much information, and 4) too much speed. Now, the habits of Western children are completely built on a throw-away consumer culture.
A common problem-solving tactic for ecological economists could be a recommendation for reducing the number of extra-curriculars, ‘things’, and expectations in a child’s life. Some ways forward may be to suggest that children are only enrolled in one extracurricular or create social rules around the amount of homework allowed or to encourage community events with family friendly activities – at a Maker Faire, children would also learn the value of creation and the work/energy that goes into making something. However, a more holistic solution would be more inclusion of free-range parenting and schooling that is focused on reconnecting the hand and brain. Making as an extracurricular reinforces the mechanisms of today’s education; a deeper transition would see making reemerge as an aspect of community acculturation.