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Thought experiment: Radical abundance

Summary:
From Jason Hickel Imagine if we were to even just partially decommoditize London’s housing stock; for example, imagine the government was to cap the price of housing at half its present level. Prices would still be outrageously high, but Londoners would suddenly be able to work and earn significantly less than they presently do without any loss to their quality of life. Indeed, they would gain in terms of time they could spend with their friends and family, doing things they love, improvements to their health and mental well-being, and so on. And by needing to work less they would contribute to less overproduction, and therefore ease concomitant pressures for unnecessary consumption. The same thought experiment can be applied to all social goods that have either been made to be

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from Jason Hickel

Imagine if we were to even just partially decommoditize London’s housing stock; for example, imagine the government was to cap the price of housing at half its present level. Prices would still be outrageously high, but Londoners would suddenly be able to work and earn significantly less than they presently do without any loss to their quality of life. Indeed, they would gain in terms of time they could spend with their friends and family, doing things they love, improvements to their health and mental well-being, and so on. And by needing to work less they would contribute to less overproduction, and therefore ease concomitant pressures for unnecessary consumption.

The same thought experiment can be applied to all social goods that have either been made to be artificially scarce or that would otherwise be simple to manage as commons. And here I have in mind not only healthcare and education, which are already generally well-recognized as public goods by most social democracies, but also other key goods that are essential to people’s well-being, like internet, housing and public transportation, as in the vision of Universal Basic Services outlined by academics at University College London (IGP, 2017). On top of this, new “utilities” like Uber and AirBnb could be taken into public ownership, or public alternatives could be created, thus enabling the emergence of “platform commons” which would allow people to exchange their material resources (cars, homes) without having to pay exorbitant and unnecessary fees to private monopolies. Employment too could be considered a common good – and indeed this would be crucial: a shorter working week with a job guarantee and a living wage, plus legislation to ensure that all productivity gains are delivered back to workers in the form of higher wages and shorter hours. And by banning advertising in public spaces we could reclaim our streets (and attention) as commons and liberate people from the sense of scarcity that advertising induces.

By de-enclosing and expanding the commons, and by redistributing existing income more fairly, we can enable people to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income (and therefore additional growth) in order to do so. People would be able to work less without any loss to their quality of life, thus producing less unnecessary stuff and therefore generating less pressure for unnecessary consumption. Meanwhile, with more free time people would be able to have fun, enjoy conviviality with loved ones, cooperate with neighbors, care for friends and relatives, cook healthy food, exercise and enjoy nature, thus rendering unnecessary the patterns of consumption that are driven by time scarcity. And opportunities to learn and develop new skills such as music, maintenance, growing food and crafting furniture would contribute to local self-sufficiency (Alexander and Gleeson, 2019).

Liberated from the pressures of artificial scarcity, the compulsion for people to compete for ever-increasing productivity would wither away. We would not have to feed our time and energy into the juggernaut of ever-increasing production, consumption and ecological destruction. The economy would produce less as a result, yes – but it would also need much less. It would be smaller and yet nonetheless much more abundant. In such an economy private riches (or GDP) may shrink, as Maitland pointed out, reducing the incomes of corporations and the very rich, but public wealth would increase, significantly improving the lives of everyone else. Suddenly a new paradox emerges: abundance is revealed to be the antidote to growth.

If austerity represents the apogee of the Lauderdale Paradox, where public wealth is sacrificed for the sake of generating private riches, what becomes clear from the above is that degrowth is the very opposite. This is an important point. Some have attempted to smear degrowth as a new version of austerity, this time promoted by the left rather than the right – an extreme manifestation of old-school environmentalists who want to force everyone to live miserable lives. But exactly the opposite is true. While austerity calls for scarcity in order to generate more growth, degrowth calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary. Abundance, then, is the solution to our ecological crisis. If we are to avert climate breakdown, the environmentalism of the 21st century must articulate a new demand: a demand for radical abundance.

http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue87/Hickel87.pdf

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