Chet Baker’s warm, presencing voice and trumpet ushered in the inaugural event of Demos’ “Sustainable Progress Initiative” at the public policy research and advocacy group’s Manhattan offices on the night of October 6. The Initiative’s new senior policy analyst Mijin Cha and its director Lew Daly introduced best-selling author and economist Juliet Schor and her plenitude model, and the evening (which was cosponsored by the World Policy Institute) became an exploration of the model’s potential to free up Americans to be present to explore the dimensions of a more meaningful “livelihood.”
Schor’s latest book, released in paperback under the title: True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans are Creating A Time Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, describes the plenitude model, which calls for Americans to work fewer hours and reap the benefits of both “time wealth” and reduced carbon footprints. Schor reports that she wrote True Wealth as a solutions manual, sensing that Americans were yearning for an alternative pathway rather than a dissection of what we all know is a broken economic and social system.
While much of True Wealth focuses on micro “household” strategies, Schor notes that change at a macro policy and institutional level—including how health care and other employee benefits are administered—will also be required to enable a reduction in working hours for the average American. “In this country the average hours of work have been increasing for three decades,” she reports. “In 1960 we had more leisure time than Europeans, now the reverse is true. We work 400 hours a year more than Germany.”
It is Schor’s belief that as people work less hours there will be a corresponding shift toward lower cost, less wasteful consuming, more sharing and more “self provisioning.” She calls it “connected consumption” and notes that it is already evident in phenomena like couch surfing, tool libraries, and the popularity of Zipcars. “You will get the goods and services you want with less cash expenditure, you will consume in more ecological ways, and there will be less acquiring and discarding of things,” she reports. With more leisure time but less income Americans will also be likely to pursue their passions and acquire new, less resource-intense skills—she sites the examples of permaculture and “fab-lab” technologies. These new skills will in turn lead to the incubation of new careers and sustainable small businesses.
Schor also points out that the new plenitude model is about deepening social connections because the emerging consumer and production patterns will be high in social capital. Going forward our necessarily less fossil-fuel-dependent economy will also lead to more local, small-scale production of goods and services, she concludes. The result will be more resilient American households and communities.