Saturday, June 25, 2011

Making sense of the "Next Step": Sustainable investment, eco-preneurship, European integration, international trade, and a Green New Deal

It's been a quiet three weeks since the last post of June 5, partly because I had other business to attend to and partly because, as I had announced, the blog's rhythm as well as structure are now going to change somewhat. The big question that looms after the 11 posts that make up Parts 1 to 4 is: What's the next step? In what direction to start looking for actually feasible, realistic steps that don't require a complete overhaul of the existing system, but that aren't going to close down the horizon, making the framework conditions offered in Part 4 forever illusory? In other words, before we can actually be on the new horizon, we first need a transition towards it (since the revolutionary model is all but dead and buried, except in dwindling rhetoric); but before we can even spark that transition, we first need transition-enabling shifts within the currently prevailing logic -- that is, shifts within globalized, financial-industrial capitalism, shifts within the system of world trade and planet-wide investment, shifts within the logic of rapid and wide-ranging mobility and of fossil-fuel-driven circulation -- shifts that both (a) remain sufficiently compatible with today's capitalistic bottom line and return-focused financial thinking and (b) make it possible for enterprising citizens, through the judicious use of existing institutions and existing modes of thought, to gradually "tweak" the incumbent thinking towards the conditions required to spark a genuine transition.

So let me be very clear here. Part 5 of this blog -- which, as announced, is going to be more extended in time, more varied, and also more "messy" than Parts 1 to 4 -- is not going to be directly about transition, and not even directly about the six framework conditions identified in past posts. It's going to be indirectly about them, but the indirectness has to be such that it can be rooted in what exists today. It's a long-term strategy, and given prevailing power relations it's a gamble, too -- some might say, a long shot. But we simply have no other choice -- none whatsoever. The path dependency of institutional and philosophical change is so heavy that we can only aspire to see genuinely new, deeply innovative, and truly "alternative" modes of working, producing, selling, consuming, sharing, saving, circulating money, and so on, emerge from within the institutions and the economic logic that prevail right now. This can be a deeply frustrating thought, but it's purely and simply factual nonetheless. Short of a revolutionary explosion and/or implosion whose historical instances have all been, without exception, catastrophic (many changes that have come to be called "revolutions" were, in fact, not quite that, but rather well-engineered transitions under exceptionally favorable structural circumstances) -- short of a revolution, the only option we have is to painstakingly produce piecemeal changes with the final horizon of deeper progress always in mind. And "piecemeal" doesn't necessarily mean ridiculously small or laughably negligible; at its best, it means homeopathically adequate doses of well-oriented change, carried out by enterprising citizens at the right places within the network of social influence.

The framework conditions for a transition will only become thinkable, and then feasible, if there are strategically and tactically wise citizens capable of using the existing logic (political, economic, cultural) in order to gradually reorient the existing criteria of evaluation and performance measurement, as well as the existing practices of production, work, trade, and consumption, in the "right" direction -- rather than merely using the existing logic to
reinforce their own power, wealth, and prestige within it. Such new enterprising citizens may or may not exist. If they don't, then the conclusion is clear-cut and bluntly simple: the status quo will prevail and the conditions required to eventually spark a transition will never emerge, regardless of how many of us wish they would or would want them to. The good news is that such enterprising citizens do exist. Some are pretty visible because they sometimes dress in slightly offbeat ways, make radical changes in their lives, and adopt new practices they hope can inspire others -- they're the so-called "downshifters" who embrace self-provision and voluntary simplicity, cutting back on many practices linked to consumerism, competitive production, and hyper-mobility. They make huge overhauls in their daily lives in order to attain what the social theorist Juliet Schor from Boston College has called "plenitude" -- and, as much as it pains me to say this given my own past research on downshifting and my deep sympathy for such movements, such huge micro-shifts have minute macro-effects. In fact, the deeper and more momentous the changes made at a very micro-level (in personal lives or in family lives), the less relevant they are at the macro plane unless they are inserted in a very broad -- hence, a very broadly supported -- movement for structural change. The changes we have most control over in our daily lives are those which have the least overall impact; when it comes to creating broad macro-shifts, we are powerless on our own. (I take this idea from the introduction to Feasta's excellent book, Fleeing Vesuvius.)

In today's vastly unequal economic system, with huge parts of the population scrambling for the basics and aspiring to enter -- yes, enter, not exit -- the consumerist treadmill, "plenitude" offers truly inspiring vistas for the well-to-do, but virtually no clout or leverage when it comes to overall, globalized political influence. In Europe at least, voluntary simplicity movements have not been able, over the past decade, to gain any political visibility whatsoever, and when they have it was only because more mainstream actors got interested in them and, inevitably, kept of their demanding objectives only what could be used for immediate purposes. In some cases, these purposes included mainly making more money -- and so, predictably, "greenwashing" and "social-washing" have become favorite activities within high-flying industrial, financial, and political circles. Grassroots movements often despair of the European Commission or the global business community (which includes up-and-coming representatives from China, India, Brazil, and Russia) ever shifting towards genuine sustainability goals. Those who despair can't be blamed in the short run.

Nevertheless, until some highly influential actors start to actively embrace what I would call a "Next Step" perspective oriented by our six crucial framework conditions, grassroots citizen activists will remain powerless to change things. This is a crude fact of economic and political life, regardless of one's deeper political options or utopian aspirations. Like it or not, in a massively globalized system such as ours, ruled in good part by large national, international, and supranational entities as well as by larger-than-life industrial and financial conglomerates, whatever change can happen will have to start from within that system. So I am truly wondering whether the actors of a structural shift in consciousness and practices, one that would actually shake up the current system and would usher in a shift towards new framework conditions, shouldn't instead be sought in more influential places -- places the downshifters are reluctant even to think about because they see them as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution: the corporate world (including large multinational groups) and the world of State-level and -- in the case of the EU -- European-level decision making. In other words, the world of attache-case-wielding, tie-wearing, iPhone-juggling, jet-plane-flying, board-meeting-attending businesspeople and bureaucrats who people our international airports and our city centers.

And lo and behold, in that world -- so alien to the downshifters and not devoid, let's admit, of arrogant and callous personalities -- there are individuals who do aspire to deep change but who believe, for ideological reasons or simply because they see no other realistic path, that such change will have to be tweaked out of the existing system. I've met quite of few of them over the past decade, women and men, older and younger, at informal lunches in between Commission or Directorate-General meetings, at family gatherings amongst otherwise exasperating small talk, at plush dinners after a business school seminar, in well-lit offices where time-out is taken from pressing functional duties in order to discuss "radical change" for an hour or an afternoon, or at late-night get-togethers in my university office to reflect on possible change from within. I have also been around quite a lot in the sphere of grassroots downshifting, in the heroic arena of radical disconnection, in the world of bike-riding, Indian-textile-wearing more-with-less-ers. Frankly, I've met irritating people (and I have surely irritated people) in both worlds, and I have also encountered luminous hearts and minds on both "sides." In fact, the binary vocabulary of sides and camps betrays an old, dying way of thinking -- one to which I have myself adhered for a long time but which, I am now more and more convinced, has become obsolete and even counterproductive. Citizen activists and economic and political decision makers are, to say the least, potentially complementary: The former should have the role of gathering grassroots momentum so as to channel the right demands towards the decision makers, and the latter could be uniquely placed to listen, hear, translate, and implement those demands via the existing power mechanisms. That for the time being neither "side" is coherent (since even "green" or "social" businesspeople fly jet planes and even "downshifters" have bank accounts and pay mortgages) is simply a sign that both are living within a system that makes coherence more and more difficult. Casting cheap blame -- which I've done myself on various occasions, much to my regret -- is useless; and so is leaving the incoherences as they are and keeping on chanting the TINA mantra that "There Is No Alternative."

So what might the Next-Step Economy, remotely but powerfully inspired by the new framework conditions we need to have a genuine transition, take root in? I'll need many posts to spell this out to satisfaction. But let me just start out by positing what I believe to be one very realistic, though not by that token necessarily easy, starting point.
  • To the extent that we're set, ultimately, on ushering in new ways of working, producing, and consuming, we need to gather momentum for what has been, in various documents recently published by the OECD or the UNEP, called the "Green Economy." And within that very broad project of reforming capitalism to make it more sustainable both environmentally and socially, one key aspect is green (or sustainable) investment -- that is, financial and industrial investment which, while still capitalist in nature, increasingly obeys the "triple bottom line" idea put forward by John Elkington: not just financial profitability, but also ecological and social sustainability. Only if this happens now, however unsatisfactory to the "radicals," will there be any chance that, one day, cooperatives and other social firms might be seen as broadly legitimate, rather than as mere freaks.
  • This tweaked vision of business has, of course, to be protected against various instances of "greenwashing" and "social-washing," and much critical vigilance is needed in that area. It also requires that, right from this moment on, our business schools build and constantly reinforce programs of alternative management -- not just as a facade to attract students (although this is already, in itself, a good thing, actually) but as a genuine laboratory to produce cohorts of more and more genuine "eco-preneurs": not just businesspeople who vaguely care about carbon emissions and want to replenish forests but, more fundamentally, leaders and decision makers who, assisted by technicians developing new models of non-financial and qualitative accounting as well as new business models that generate deep "social innovation," come to realize that triple-bottom-line activities -- even if, and because, they entail less-than-maximal returns on investments -- are fully legitimate and economically reasonable. Which also means that the rules of international investment protection might have to be modified gradually so as to allow eco-preneurial investment to thrive rather than be competed out by unduly "protected" mainstream investments.
  • To the extent that we seek, ultimately, new governance structures along the lines of participatory coordination and subsidiarity-based municipalism, we first have to start to reflect on existing political structures so as to make them gradually more congenial with the broadened equality-of-opportunity principle defended in Part 4. I want to focus mainly here on two aspects: (a) the EU and its integration process, to see how seeking to strike the right balance between centralization and decentralization, between closer a-integration and more federalism, might make post-Lisbon treaties more transition-friendly; and (b) the WTO as well as the multiple regional trade agreements, to see how international trade regulations might be very gradually made more congenial to the emergence of a global de-growth compact and an accompanying WTransO.
  • Overall, the conditions for a Green New Deal need to be investigated -- in the sense of a new social compact between governments, employers, workers' organizations, and citizens' organizations, so as to make sure that the three previous reform streams don't degenerate into a reinforcement of capitalism's current unsustainability. In other words, the forces and energies set free by sustainable investment, by alternative management and eco-preneurship, or by new methods of European integration and of international trade regulation, need to be harnessed towards a more, rather than less, sustainable system -- even if it remains capitalist for an indefinite time. And this will require that various actors, but first and foremost citizens' organizations and NGOs, become more conscious of the large-scale technical challenges that need to be grappled with if a more equal-opportunity-oriented system is to gradually emerge out of the "green capitalism" that is currently taking shape. In a sense, the question is: How to regulate "green capitalism" so that society can gradually reorganize itself in the direction of the six framework conditions required for transition? Without such an effort, the creation of an Economic Transition Income (ETI) or the gradual emergence of a Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) sector will once again be halted by the "single bottom line" requisites of an unreformed (green) capitalism.
I have mentioned some of the six framework conditions again here, not because they should be the main direct focus of economic, legal, or political reflection, but because they ought to be the background motivation (however remote and, for the moment, theoretical) for the reform efforts to be carried out. The ultimate horizon of a fully-fledged economic and ecological transition should, as it were, act as a distant -- and, on a daily basis, largely imperceptible -- "attractor" for whatever changes we might realistically introduce as an immediate next step. For instance, to the extent that the very nature of investment can be modified, or that the principles of European integration or of international commercial integration can be tweaked, such reforms should be carried out in ways which don't preclude the deep overhaul of the capitalist monetary system at a later stage, or the emergence of a WTransO in the more or less distant future.

Grassroots citizens' vigilance might very usefully be maximized around such long-term, tactical issues. Indeed, such strategic surveillance of reform programs is going to be of paramount importance if the transition-horizon is to be kept open as the Next-Step Economy emerges. Citizens' organizations as well as NGOs should see it as their role to monitor immediate reform programs, not so much to demand immediate radicalism but to make certain that ultimate radicalism is kept as the basic orientation of systemic changes. This is certainly no easy task and requires collectives of very well-armed citizens, not just busy with localized downshifting and "plenitude"-seeking, but seriously and competently embracing the sometimes difficult technical issues linked to investment, trade, business models, European integration, and so on. Capitalism needs to be made more sustainable, in its various components, before the framework conditions for transition can be made to emerge, and only then will the pluralistic mixture of capitalist and non-capitalist ways of life (with the gradual demise of the unsustainable capitalist economy, hastened by the ETI and the reform of monetary creation) be seen as legitimate and, therefore, be supported by the actors who today -- not all with bad intent -- hold the reins of power.

The immediate task of the advocates of transition is to think of ways in which, as quickly as possible, sustainable investment can be fostered, eco-entrepreneurs be educated in our business schools, EU integration be reoriented and international trade as well as international investment be regulated in new ways, on the background of citizens' and NGOs', as well as politicians' and entrepreneurs', efforts to build a new social contract, a Green New Deal. This does not -- I repeat: not -- mean that research on basic income, monetary reform, or participatory coordination is thereby made irrelevant today. Such research still needs to be carried out and pursued, but mainly with the idea that we are building up intellectual and technical resources that will only become directly relevant once green capitalism has been reformed and harnessed -- and this requires those more immediate, apparently less radical, measures that I have just listed above, along with the technical expertise to make them both realistic and visionary.

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This post from the "Eco-Transitions" blog by Christian Arnsperger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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