Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Economy of Care: Two Views. We Need a Fruit Tree, Not a Tunnel (beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care)

Magazine article Compass: A Jesuit Journal

Economy of Care: Two Views. We Need a Fruit Tree, Not a Tunnel (beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care)

Article excerpt

The term sustainability usually refers only to the pressure that economic expansion puts on natural resources and energy, together with the negative consequences that production and consumption have on the environment. But the issue of sustainability runs deeper than environmental concerns. Commentators have speculated that society will not be able to sustain the high social costs of rising unemployment, while the growing commercialization of society has spawned discussion over the "erosion" or "colonization" of human culture.

Moreover, as Harry de Lange and I have described in our book Beyond Poverty and Affluence, a series of baffling paradoxes are increasingly permeating industrialized societies. They illustrate in real life the mistaken outcomes of numerous economic calculations made over the past two centuries about how to create unending material progress. Paradoxically, precisely at a time of unprecedented wealth, we experience a rising sense of scarcity, recurring budget deficits and less and less ability to practise care. We also experience ongoing unmet needs for labour even as unemployment rises, more and more pressure on our time, and the increasing persistence of various forms of poverty, not only in the poorest countries but also in our own cities and rural communities. These paradoxes originate in the implementation of classical and neoclassical economic calculations, equations that have put all their eggs in the basket of a progressively expanding economy and a rising standard of living. But these calculations no longer appear to add up.

In western culture, we prefer to think about "sustainable development" rather than the "development of sustainability." Pursuing sustainability as an adjunct to continuous linear development suits us well. But sustainability becomes problematic if it requires a form of development based on finiteness and material saturation. Yet that is precisely what sustainability requires in our time. Today's tunnel economy, built on the linear premises of endlessly continuing streams of economic traffic racing towards the assumed light at the end, must be transformed into a fruit tree economy, which "dams up" the one-dimensional rush to expand in size to make possible the bearing of fruit.

Lessons from Biology

In a living organism such as a tree or plant, a transition takes place that moves the maturation process away from growing in size and towards bearing fruit. Biology textbooks teach us at least three lessons about this transformation.

First, at least some of the organism's vital elements are needed as reserves to bring the transition about. These organic elements must be withdrawn from the effort to expand in size and freed up for new objectives. To make an analogy with the economic process, we cannot expect conversion to occur without restraint happening somewhere in the economy, which will then permit the creation of a reserve for use elsewhere. In this scenario the economy still has net production outputs, as before, but society no longer automatically directs them to its spending or consumption side. Instead, society channels them to new and more important objectives, so that the economic process begins to serve the preservation of social and human capital, instead of having social, human and natural capital merely serve the economic process.

There is a second lesson we may glean from plants. Biology textbooks say that as each cell pursues the same objective (the preservation of life), living growth occurs only when decomposition and new growth go hand in hand. Here too the analogy with economic life is clear. It is not enough to pursue only the decomposition of certain processes--the processes that threaten sustainability. Simultaneously, and closely linked to the process of decay, a different form of growth must take place. In other words, a new economic sector must be formed in society that is geared to the bearing of fruit. …

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