Boosting economic growth is such a central element of modern political culture that few people truly consider whether it is ecologically sustainable. It's not, as the twin specters of Peak Oil and climate change are demonstrating. We desperately need some serious thinking about how to move from the “growth paradigm” as the default goal of our economy to an economy that structurally requires less energy and material throughput. One term that has come to describe this vision is “degrowth.” In fact, a major international conference on “Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity” will be held in Venice, Italy, on September 19-23.
As part of that ongoing conversation, Austrians Andreas Exner and Christian Lauk recently published a thoughtful essay in Solutions magazine on “Social Innovations for Economic Degrowth.” The piece focuses on how the Solidarity Economy and the global information commons offer a template for moving to a no-growth economy -- that is, an economy that uses less energy and material while increasing personal leisure and well-being.
Exner and Lauk consider the models pioneered by the Solidarity Economy in Brazil in the late 1990s when that country “was hit by an economic crisis caused by the liberalization of capital markets.” As bankruptcies and unemployment rose, poor people joined together with trade unions, universities and others to create cooperatives and other enterprises to meet people’s needs. But the innovations were not just business models but social habits and practices that let people work together to meet basic needs without the relentless imperative to grow and chew up the natural environment.
As Exner and Lauk explain, the Solidarity Economy has immense implications for ecological sustainability:
….Wage labor is replaced by self-management, which is the solidarity economy’s core innovation—and not a small one. Indeed, cooperative self-management is a precondition for ecologically responsible production. There are two reasons for this: First, it is only through self-management that production can become oriented toward concrete needs (which are limited and can be satisfied), instead of shareholder value and profit (which are unlimited, can never be fully satisfied, and thus entail growing consumption of energy and materials).
Second, equal cooperation within an enterprise is a starting point for cooperation with other stakeholders and society at large, further reducing the competitive compulsion to grow. For instance, a recent study found that members of cooperative enterprises are more socially and democratically oriented than the average worker. According to the authors of this study, this trend is not the result of selectively employing people who are already socially oriented, but is rather the effect of egalitarian labor relations on individual workers.
Exner and Lauk also point to the information commons as another vehicle for meeting people’s needs without rampant consumerism and growth. They point to the familiar examples of open source software, Wikipedia and Creative Commons-licensed content, but also to the new realms of collaborative, open-platform material production. Examples include the new 3D printing systems such as RepRap, Fab@Home and MakerBot. One might also point to the rise of DIY culture, co-production workshops in cities, and collaborative consumption enabled by digital platforms.
By bypassing wage-labor and debt-driven markets, commons-based economies “would not be compelled to grow but could do what an economy in the Greek sense of oikonomia was originally meant to do: efficiently satisfy human needs for food, shelter, and cultural development.” There are many examples of commons-based production, but they generally have not "found each other" and federated into a more collaborative sector of commons-based production.
Obviously, many vexing issue remain. One is the enormous ecological footprint that computers, electronic devices and Internet connectivity entail. That is perhaps an issue for another discussion, but it must be squarely addressed when considering the ecological implications of information commons. On the other hand, digital spaces are revolutionary in that they enable commoners to come together and develop new social practices, production systems and cultural ethics outside of the control of capital: a significant historical development. The question is whether these alternative forms of production and culture can sustain themselves as quasi-independent forces.
The entire Exner/Lauk essay can be found here.