Plenty, plentiful, plenitude

Alex Millmow, University of Ballarat

Juliet Schor Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Melbourne, Scribe Publications, 2010 (249 pp). ISBN 9-78192164-050-6 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

The Global Financial Crisis is likely to prove a watershed in economic history. Recovery seems likely to be protracted, and its impact on institutions, communities, families has been profound, while the follies of Wall Street have led to a collapse of trust in bankers and in the politicians who approved light-touch regulation over them. The GFC has led to an avalanche of books about how it all happened. One theme has been the challenge that the crisis poses for mainstream market-oriented economic ideology. An upbeat tome by Juliet Schor is one example among books on this theme. Schor offers hope of a new evolving economic culture, an alternative economics that offer ecological sustainability, well-being and the sheer delight of taking it slow. Plenitude is a transition state to the new green utopia of the 21st century. Schor, a sociologist from Boston College, exploits the mood of discontent with Wall Street with visions of a future premised on an ecologically sounder society, one with greater social connectedness and in which people are more relaxed and time-rich. It’s a tract that rejects turbo-capitalism and the frenzy of the markets. Plenitude involves smarter economic arrangements, innovation, macroeconomic balance and the husbandry of wealth. It’s not a blueprint for revolution but rather a proposal for a gentle transition to a better way of managing our economic system.

Four organising principles underpin Schor’s transition economy. First is a new allocation of time that gives people more time for leisure—or at least some moderation in the hours of work. Economic research has unequivocally shown that the happiest among us are those who work in moderation. The unhappiest are those who work long hours, yet perceive that their relative income is falling behind their neighbour’s.

In an earlier work, The Overspent American (1998), Schor showed how her country-folk cannot get off the work treadmill. The book reported that some 70 per cent of America’s GDP consists of consumption. It is now accepted wisdom that happiness rises in tandem with GDP until it reaches a certain point where it then stops rising. The productivity gains the American economy yielded over the past decades were taken in the form of more goods, not more leisure: Americans take just two weeks vacation a year. So hooked are the Americans on consumption they can’t resist the temptation of visiting the Mall even on vacation. In contrast, their Europeans cousins took their productivity bonus in the form of more leisure: five weeks of it!

The second organising principle behind Plenitude is the idea of ‘self provisioning’, that is, the do-it-yourself economy writ large. It something of a challenge to specialisation and the division of labour though people will still specialise, trade and barter in Schor’s idyllic economy.

The third principle is to urge a more environmentally sensitive approach to consumption where there is already a groundswell for change. Lastly, Plenitude is all about how to develop and reinvigorate the social capital or sense of altruism latent within our community. Too much marketing and economism has made us self-centred. Instead of self-love and money-love we need regard for the community.

Americans take just two weeks vacation
a year.

We might sneer at the lofty sentiment of Schor’s new model economy. In the 18th century the British utopian socialist, Robert Owen, in a reaction against the squalor caused by the factory system, took his idealism abroad and formed a model community called New Harmony in the United States. It failed miserably. Schor’s conception is more achievable—rather than instant change, it is designed to unwind over two decades. Indeed she documents how the journey has started, with some of the enlightened making do with less. They find themselves with more time, space, nature and creativity, less stuff or clutter. In post financial crisis America, Schor sees ample signs of a community-mindedness as many move away from the ‘me’ economy toward the ‘we’ economy. After the crisis more than half of the American populace contemplated that a major change in the economic system might not be unthinkable after all. Nearly 80 per cent of Americans now accept that dealing with climate change will impact upon their living standards. Some Americans have made their protestation about the machinations of Wall Street by growing their own vegetables, sharing tools and building houses from earth-friendly materials. Others had already downshifted. It is a collective reaction that involves turning against the cash register and credit terminal. There is no sacrifice or donning hair-shirts then in Schor’s model economy. The technological base will still be there but it will be smarter, greener and smaller in scale. Plenitude does mean, however, an end to McMansions, bottled water and the clutter of the modern living.

Juliet Schor was employed in the Harvard economics department until she had, as she puts it, a ‘transformative moment’ with her mentor, Prasannan Parthasarathi. Her command of mainstream economics is watertight but there is a seditious aspect to the discipline she was brought up on. She knows the arguments mainstream economists will invoke to deride her paradigm of a new sustainable economy. In particular, they will trot out the old verities about how the Club of Rome got its resource depletion forecasts wrong, and their underlying mantra will continue to be that technology and market forces will save us from ecological collapse. Schor dismisses these ‘economic Cornucopians’ as having their heads in the sand. She reminds us that we have done more damage to the planet in the past 50 years than of all human civilisation. Tracking, for instance, the rapid industrialisation of China does suggest something has got to give. Despite the hype about technology and knowledge fomenting economic growth, it turns out that the process of material enrichment has laid waste to much of the natural environment. Schor’s premise is simple: the fossil-fuelled and debt-driven paradigm of growth and accumulation otherwise known as the business-as-usual model (BAU) is quite simply no longer viable or sustainable. Schor is emphatic that economists who posit that preserving the environment compels an economic cost are redundant in the 21st century. Trade-off analysis no longer computes. The work-and-spend cycle, Schor insists, is not the way back for America or indeed for any other wealthy society in its thrall.

The business-as-usual model is quite simply no longer viable or sustainable.

There are echoes of Keynes, Schumacher, Galbraith and Gandhi in Schor’s book. It is all very ennobling and one nods in agreement at her eminent good sense. But as those American corporate marketers used to ask, ‘Well, will it sell in Peoria?’ Can one really get through to the ordinary Joes of the great American suburbia, who crave their SUVs and shopping? Jimmy Carter fell out of favour with the American public with his talk in 1979 about cutting that country’s energy consumption. That occasion, later billed the ‘national malaise’ speech spelt the end of his presidency. Such talk about reducing consumption was, well, unAmerican. There would appear to be a blind-spot in the collective mind of corporate America about the environmental imperative: General Motors need a bailout from Washington because they refused to believe that their customers wanted smaller cars. Schor’s emphasis on sharing and developing a sense of community-mindedness might also be hard to readily implant. As Robert Putnam’s work showed Americans prefer ‘to bowl alone’ (1995), eat alone and now, in the now fifteen years after Putnam’s striking metaphor, too obsessed with apps on their iPhones to converse.

Americans, though, might have no choice but to accept a low consumption, low impact lifestyle. Even if the existing economic order can be put back together, it faces rising energy and food prices along with climate change and other ecological limits. Another external check to American consumption is that one day the Chinese might refuse to fund their gaping budget and trade deficits (Delong & Cohen 2010). Schor will hope, though, that it will be conviction not compulsion that leads Americans to move to adopt a new, low-impact lifestyle. Her book might fall across President Obama’s desk and be taken up but with extreme Republicans on the resurgent, along with the abiding memory of Carter’s one-term presidency, it is a fair bet it will not.


Delong J.B. & Cohen, S.S. 2010, The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money, New York, Basic Books.

Putnam, R.D. 1995, ‘Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 65–78.

Schor, J. 1998, The Overspent American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, New York, Basic Books.

Alex Millmow is a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Ballarat and the President of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia.

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