Enough! The Sufficiency Approach and the Limits of Economic Growth
Exploring Economics, 2018
Enough! The Sufficiency Approach and the Limits of Economic Growth
Author: Fernanda Nacif
Review: Corinna Dengler
This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics, published on 4 May 2018.
Something has gone wrong and we must change it
It is clear that we cannot go on like this: environmental problems are increasing, while related social conflicts escalate, and poverty and precariousness deepen in all parts of the world. People are exhausted, nature is exhausted, and the exploitation of all kinds of resources seems to know no limits. We have always been told that if only we increase production, consumption, and trade, then the economy will grow and these problems will solve themselves as countries “develop”. Decade after decade this claim has proven to be false. It feels like we live in a constant state of crisis, socially, politically, economically, ecologically – and so on. Politicians, economists and experts not only insist on this invalid logic, but push it even further, totally ignoring human and ecological necessities for the sake of economic growth. We can even see this insatiable desire for expansion on a “private” level: all available goods, services and innovations overwhelm many of us; yet, something pushes us into wanting more.
In this essay I will address the limits and the problems of two predominant rationales of our society, based on the assumptions that we have now reached the sustainable boundaries of this kind of functioning (in fact, we reached it long ago), and that a fundamental social-ecological transformation is more than urgent. Both rationales are related to the model of economic growth. The roots of the growth model are embedded in, first, the capitalist principle of accumulation, and, second, the idea of homo economicus. We can find both in classical thought and both are causes of the issues I mentioned above. Though they seem to dominate as economic rationales, there are alternatives that we have to explore and discuss. In addition to critiquing these rationles, and in an attempt to contribute further to this debate, I will also present one such alternative.
The Sufficiency Approach, combined with a fundamental feminist critique, encourages us to bring light to that which has been forgotten and made invisible in the course of history, and to illuminate other ways of working and functioning that do not fit into the predominant system. Sufficiency does not work within the capitalism’s hierarchical dualisms: including those of male/culture/active/productive versus female/nature/passive/un-/re-productive. These notions are socially constructed and to some extent crystallized, forming elements of the base of our way of “doing economics. This essay aims to answer the research question: ‘How can the Sufficiency Approach challenge the growth imperative and the postulate of rational, selfish individuals, fighting over scarce resources in order to maximize their winnings?’
Economic growth, homo economicus, and their limits
Economic growth has been an imperative logic since at least the so-called Industrial Revolution. Although in the course of history there have been various attempts to explain it – including by Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, and more recently Robert Ayres – economic growth is basically defined as the increase in the goods and services produced within an economy over a given period of time, usually a year. So, for economies to grow, countries must constantly increase production, consumption, and at best their exports. This means a process of ever-increasing global resource-extraction, whether those resources are conceived of as “natural” – such as water, biodiversity, minerals or certain types of labour, such as the reproductive work usually performed by women – or “human made”, like labour in the productive sphere, as conventionally defined. According to this thinking, as resources get scarcer, a more intense (or efficient) use of them becomes necessary. More services and goods must be produced with fewer inputs. This imperative is valid not only at the macro level of trade markets, but we have internalized it as well, so that it permeates many, if not most, of our spheres of life. According to the imperative we must (read: rationally) maximize benefits while reducing (or externalizing) overall costs, all the time.
At the same time, not much effort is needed for one to realize the worrying moment we are going through: the hard consequences of the economic and financial crisis since 2008 still make themselves felt in the Global South as well as in the Global North; the distribution of goods and services along lines such as “north/south”, “men/women”, “urban/rural” is extremely unequal; natural resources are getting scarcer, just as the demand for them is increasing and the consequences of their overexploitation and reckless commercialization grows. Similarly, hunger crises are worsening in places where it is already hard enough for people to have control over their own agricultural production, and ecological crises due to (just for example) climate change or biodiversity loss unfold with catastrophic consequences. Economic growth has long been unsustainable.
As all these consequences of growth-based capitalist methods of planning and (re-)producing expand, neoliberal States – whether in the Global North or in the (more vulnerable) Global South – have been restructuring in order to dismantling rights won through hard struggle, such as public pensions, public education, labour laws and rights related to care-work. These are now supposed to be the responsibilities of private households; and “luckily” there is a precariat (of disproportionally women, often migrants or historically disadvantaged social groups) that will assume reproductive work or precarious jobs for little money and few or no rights. Of course, this is a throwback to pre-welfare-statism rather than a new phenomenon. But whether in schools, hospitals or care establishments, a lot more must now be achieved with fewer and fewer resources: less money, fewer personnel, and always in a hurry (as we know, time is money).
This shift and its associated extreme cost externalization has been exhausting people’s capacity for regeneration. It means we are also experiencing, besides the already mentioned financial and ecological crises, a social one. Hand in hand with that, a broad feeling is growing in society (with real causes and serious consequences) that we have lost control of politics and democratic processes, meaning a worrying loss of faith or hope in politics in general. Yet, to cap it all, those same exhausted people should be, according to colourful ads everywhere, having fun and buying better things, or travelling and being happy with their brand new products. We must keep the cogs turning. Is it not overwhelming? Are there alternatives?
The ideal type of rational subjects described above – who act according to their pre-existing preferences in order to maximize benefits in a hostile environment of scarce goods – and the related economic growth rationale have been a focus of feminist economic critique. A central point here is that this assumption of homo economicus corresponds to a stereotypical construction of masculinity, which brings about very real and material consequences such as dualistic and hierarchical divisions of labour (just as one example) and excludes everything supposedly considered as “other”, as unproductive, as inferior. Opposed to that, feminist and ecological economists turn their attention to what that conventional economic valuation treats as pure externalities, if not treated as invisible altogether. In this sense, Sabine O’Hara, among others, poses the question of how much is enough, and what fulfils our needs and makes for a good life, pointing beyond the limited scope of mainstream economics. This is where we come to “Sufficiency”.
The Sufficiency Approach and how it challenges the logics of economic growth
Economic growth, which has become a worldwide aim to strive for, is led by the principles of accumulation of capital and expansion of the system – imperatives inherent to capitalism. It is the primary economic policy goal of neoclassical economics, which, as previously outlined, presupposes the existence of homo economicus. I am aware that the root of such complex relations lies much deeper, but also that a more detailed explanation would go beyond the scope of this essay. Therefore, I would rather focus on some approaches that have been developed from concerns about the consequences of the status quo. These reach from ideas that insist on the possibility of a green capitalism (e.g. Green Growth), over models that question the relevance of economic indicators for growth, up to more alternative and extensive concepts (e.g. Degrowth, Buen Vivir). And then there is the Sufficiency Approach, that does not necessarily offer a model or pattern to be strictly followed, but instead, can be a strategy to be combined with other approaches – if understood, as put by the political scientist Uta von Winterfeld, as a critical category and a right. So, what does it actually mean and how does it provide alternatives in face of the actual crisis?
Sufficiency is usually discussed in the ecological debate as one of three possible strategies to sustainability, next to Efficiency and Consistency. Shortly explained, Efficiency means reducing the resource input per product or service, while Consistency refers to increasing the compatibility of anthropogenic material and energy streams with those of nature. Yet, these strategies are unlikely to limit resource consumption or challenge current patterns of producing and living, since they do not question (and even sometimes reinforce, as Efficiency does) the principles of maximizing gain. The Sufficiency strategy or, better said, strategies, work differently and point to a reduction of “the absolute consumption of goods and services […] to a sustainable future-compatible level, since the current distribution of goods and resources is not only ecologically dangerous, but also questionable on the international level”.
Sufficiency has been understood in manifold ways. There have been warnings, for example, that some approaches might contain individualistic or authoritarian facets if focusing only on constraining consumption. It is not my intention to prescribe how people ought to live, economize or consume. Still, I do believe that an increasing consciousness about one’s own consumption behaviour should accompany the understanding of Sufficiency as a critical category. I believe that a broader debate on Sufficiency could get more people to think about themselves as subjects of change. It should be reflexive and experimental, and at the same time challenging. Different strategies do not have to exclude each other. Indeed, Sufficiency is already practised all over the world by, for example, indigenes, subsistence workers, and mothers, through their regenerative labour. Their meta-industrial provisioning is eco-sufficient, Ariel Salleh argues, for in this case costs are not externalised through debt as in the capitalist patriarchal regime.
In an attempt to contribute to this debate I will focus here on one specific approach, the one that considers Sufficiency as a right according to which “no one should always have to want more”. In this concept, Sufficiency is drawn up as a critical category, not as an imperative. It focuses on the socially constructed pressures and constraints of consuming (and producing) ever more, as well as on the dissolving of boundaries that indicate when everything turns to excess (e.g. the need to work more all the time and simultaneously be more available to acquire the newest of the newest products). An interesting example for this contrasting with the logic of neoliberalism is the practice of “saving” among autonomous communities in the so-called Global South through Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI). SDI-groups are smaller grassroots communities that collect money daily in order to allow for self-help or to cover needs in crisis situations. As put by Leo Podlashuc in “Saving Women: Saving the Commons”, this transnational movement of “mainly dispossessed women resisting the neo-apartheid of market practices” exemplifies the double meaning of the word saving, which can be to rescue, to redeem as well as to conserve and to set aside for later. Well, “a right not to engage in excess” in the sense I posed above.
Here we must invert the logic that we are selfish human beings trying to get the maximum we can out of scarce goods. This would finally mean that we are not egoists competing for access over resources – another postulate of the homo economicus. With this new understanding, Winterfeld argues, it makes no sense to concentrate all the forces of social-productive capacity into the production of goods, which today is so overwhelming. Yet, the focus of this approach is not the consumption level, which would perhaps assume individuals as primarily consumers. Instead, Sufficiency is to be understood as a posture, an attitude of not playing “the game of endless growth, of endless needs while scarcity is everlasting […] for [Sufficiency] finds this game unattractive”.
Thus, it is clear that what Sufficiency offers does not go together with economic growth and requires other rationales, other ways of thinking about the economy. What does this mean in concrete terms? For example the Women-Network “Vorsorgendes Wirtschaften” (Network Caring Economy) has interesting approaches for confronting the growth imperative while looking at economy from a different perspective, one that asks what kinds of markets are good for humans and nature rather than seeing markets as ends in themselves. It integrates three dimensions that are considered separately in the capitalist economy, namely the economic dimension itself and the social and the ecological ones, proposing three principles of action, which I will elucidate briefly.
The first principle is care instead of aftercare. This presupposes a conception of human beings other than the homo economicus, because it regards us as individuals living in social relations, individuals who care for ourselves, and others, including nature and future generations. Since we care about the future, precaution arises in the present and we are able to recognize limits and boundaries. The second principle is cooperation. What this means is a cooperative economy in which life-friendly and nature-compatible economic forms are sought through communicative, negotiated processes. Responsibility plays an important role here, since there are partners involved in this cooperation with whom we cannot communicate: namely the environment and coming generations. These partners must be considered equally and the resulting actions process-oriented, not just goal-oriented. The third principle of action of the caring economy is the orientation towards the necessity for a good life (for all participants), instead of an orientation towards profit and growth rates. It means that welfare would not be measured by monetary calculations or by amounts of material possessions, but must be developed in many dimensions. Economy would then be about providing a good life (of course, what a good life means must constantly be discussed and negotiated) rather than just about winning.
What such principles do is revoke the dualistic and hierarchical separation of the productive, valuable and countable from the unproductive, external, invisible. Sufficiency recognizes, “otherness”, be it women, indigenes, nature, non-capitalist ways of doing economics or even future generations, in a way that patriarchal Eurocentric capitalism is unable to.
This essay has been an attempt to discuss the limits of economic growth, the problems caused by the postulate of homo economicus and the urgency of rethinking their validity. Further, I tried to present one approach that can challenge these problems – the Sufficiency Approach. Many aspects and explanations were left out of my argument here, as well as many other models that I am sure deserve our attention when exploring new ways of doing the economy. Interestingly, this is probably where Sufficiency can best show its potential: through being combined with other models, if understood as a critical category that unveils the ugly face of endless growth and ever more consumption. The most important point here is that we shift our view of the economy from a destructive, profit oriented practice, to one that fosters cooperation and responsibility – thus making it possible to deal with the current multiple crises and orienting toward a good life for all participants, not only for today but also for coming generations.
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 I am aware that these binary divisions do not correspond exactly to the complex spectrum of reality, though they are useful empirical categories for research.
 Examples are numerous, struggles related to exploration of metals in South America or contentions involving the right or access to land or water worldwide are just some of them.
 The rapid loss of corals in the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast is a very clear example of this. See Eilperin: 2012 for more information on the subject.
 Winterfeld 2015: 576.
 Urban und Pürckhauer 2016.
 O’Hara 2009: 182.
 For definitions see Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeit: 2017.
 E.g. Winterfeld 2002.
 Fischer and Grießhammer et al. 2013: 7.
 Lexikon der nachhaltigkeit 2017.
 Bauer 2008: 61, own translation.
 See for example Linz 2002; Fischer and Grießhammer et al. 2013.
 See Winterfeld 2011.
 Salleh 2009: 300-304.
 In German: „Niemand soll immer mehr haben wollen müssen“ (Winterfeld 2011: 58, own translation).
 Winterfeld 2011: 58.
 Podlashuc 2009: 268.
 Such assumptions of the human nature can be found for example in Hobbes’ Leviathan (1980), which is still embedded in our thinking whether in politics or economics.
 Winterfeld 2002: 29.
 Winterfeld 2002: 30, own translation.
 See Netzwerk Vorsogendes Wirtschaften: 2017.
 Biesecker 2010.
 Biesecker 2010: 6.
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