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Why the Sustainable Economy Movement Hasn't Scaled



My concern is that sustainable economy movement strategy is not working. Over the past four years, the United States has experienced the most acute economic crisis since the Depression. The majority of Americans are very disenchanted with our economic system and are questioning deeply ingrained assumptions. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity to launch an alternative economy movement. Yet sustainable economy has not caught on. Arguably, the BAU economic ideology dominates the country in a more hegemonic manner today than it did a decade ago. And this lack of diffusion is not for lack of effort. A devoted contingent of activists and subculturalists have worked industriously to build the movement throughout this period. Rather, I will argue that the movement is applying the wrong strategy.
Why the Sustainable Economy Movement Hasn’t Scaled:
Toward a Strategy That Empowers Main Street
Douglas B. Holt
Book chapter in: Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest for Plenitude, eds. Juliet Schor and Craig
Thompson, Yale University Press, 2014
In Plenitude, Juliet Schor maps the twin breakdowns caused by the
business-as-usual economy (BAU): the acute ecological overshoot problems
caused by an economy only concerned with economic growth and purposely
ignorant of market failures, and what she predicts will be a growing problem of
labor market dislocations and declining incomes. In response, she offers a call-
to-arms pushing for socio-economic transformation toward an alternative
sustainable economy. She develops particular rhetoric to do so, which she calls
plenitude. Schor’s goal in constructing the idea of plenitude is to make
sustainable lifestyles a desirable alternative, directly challenging the notion that
sustainability requires personal sacrifice. More broadly, her goal is encourage
the “bottom up” diffusion of an alternative sustainable economy across the
country, supplanting BAU.
I will use Plenitude as a prominent recent example of what I will call
sustainable economy movement strategy. Plenitude joins similar calls by other
leading activists in the sustainable economy movement (e.g., McKibben 2007;
Jackson 2009; Speth 2009), which have sought to frame sustainable economy in
a way that will encourage citizens to give it a try. Considered within this
campaigning literature, Schor’s argument has a number of distinctive and notable
aspects. But from the strategic viewpoint that I will argue here, what these
campaigners have in common is more significant than their differences. These
academics and activists illuminate the ecologically destructive contradictions of
BAU and then call on citizens to consume less, work less, enjoy social life and
build local community, pursue creative leisure time, and engage in self-
provisioning. They write from within a taken-for-granted strategy paradigm that
I find widely shared across the sustainable economy movement. This paradigm
centers on the assumption that the best way to build the movement is to
communicate leading examples of people enacting sustainable economy to
inspire non-activists to sign up to the movement’s ideology and practices. This
approach is very common too in environmental sustainability media: on websites
like and magazines like Orion and the Utne Reader, and in progressive
newspapers like The Guardian. This book is another good example of this
conventional strategy.
My concern is that sustainable economy movement strategy is not
working. Over the past four years, the United States has experienced the most
acute economic crisis since the Depression. The majority of Americans are very
disenchanted with our economic system and are questioning deeply ingrained
assumptions. It is hard to imagine a better opportunity to launch an alternative
economy movement. Yet sustainable economy has not caught on. Arguably, the
BAU economic ideology dominates the country in a more hegemonic manner
today than it did a decade ago. And this lack of diffusion is not for lack of effort.
A devoted contingent of activists and subculturalists have worked industriously
to build the movement throughout this period. Rather, I will argue that the
movement is applying the wrong strategy.
My goal in this chapter is to constructively critique this strategy, point
out why it isn’t working, and provide a framework and some suggestions for
building a more effective approach. I build my argument by applying a
marketing perspective to movements: What is the most opportune target for the
movement? What is this target’s worldview and life experience with respect to
the movement’s issues? What movement strategy will resonates powerfully with
them and compel them to action? My hope is to instigate a new strategic
conversation amongst activists who are committed to the sort of transformation
that Schor envisions.
In contrast to other chapters in this book, which consist of case studies of
plenitude in practice, I want to step back and examine the central big-picture
question raised by this book: what is the best strategy for diffusing sustainable
economy at a scale that actually tips the balance away from BAU? While the
cases provide valuable clues as to the cultural, social and phenomenological
drivers of sustainable economy participation amongst activists, they do not
provide evidence that the scaling of plenitude has been a success. One can find
numerous small local examples of sustainable economy throughout North
America and Europe, but this has been true for at least four decades, as I outline
I argue that the sustainable economy movement has made a classic
marketing mistake: it has (implicitly) chosen the wrong target and, therefore, has
put most of its resources behind the wrong strategy. I place implicit in
parentheses because, while I have no direct evidence, my reading of the
movement’s texts suggests that there has been little explicit strategizing, and so
this strategic miscue is an unintended consequence of activists doing their best to
diffuse the movement by trying to make their movement ideology attractive to
others. My argument is multifaceted. So I begin with an outline to provide the
reader with a roadmap for the analysis to come:
The movement today consists of a subculture of sustainable economy
practitioners, some of whom are active campaigners. These countercultural
activists pursue sustainable lives (in work, consumption, provisioning) to
enact a global ecological ethos (sometimes expanded to include global social
justice) similar to what is advocated in the sustainable economy literature
above. This book contains a number of excellent case studies of this
The movement’s sustainable economy ideology has resonated powerfully
with modern bohemian subcultures (many of whom have joined the
movement) and has become an increasingly important plank in bohemian
ideology over the past four decades. By the late 1990s, the two subcultures
had substantially merged (imagine two heavily overlapping circles in a Venn
diagram) into what I will call sustainable bohemia. Participants in this
sustainable bohemian subculture have been prolific entrepreneurs, launching
many businesses grounded in sustainable bohemian ideology.
These sustainable bohemia marketplace offerings have been immensely
attractive to a significant fraction of America’s upper-middle class—the
bourgeois-bohemians—who find great symbolic value in them. So the
market for sustainable bohemia ideology has exploded, largely driven by
bourgeois-bohemian consumption.
If Bobos truly embraced sustainable economy this would be a great result—
precisely the mass diffusion of the movement that activists are trying to
promote. After all, Bobos are a significant percentage of the population on
their own (perhaps 8%) and, more important, they are very influential both
culturally and politically. So, if Bobos truly embraced sustainable economy,
they would likely drive the transformation of the BAU economy. However,
my research suggests that this is not the case. Most Bobos embrace
sustainable economy superficially, as consumption symbolism. They are
very unlikely to adopt sustainable lifestyles in significant percentages
because they gain so much now from BAU. Likewise, they are highly
unlikely to push for political and institutional challenges to BAU, since this
would undermine their status and incomes. So, from a strategic perspective,
they are a dead end. The wrong target.
Yet, because the sustainable economy movement strategy is premised upon
showcasing great examples of sustainable living within the subculture,
movement campaigning (such as the books above) tend to replicate
sustainable bohemia. This campaigning also appeals to Bobos as another
mode of symbolic consumption, but it won’t convert them.
Meanwhile, the movement’s best prospects—the segment of Americans most
likely to adopt sustainable economy—are a different socio-economic class,
what I will call the new “Main Street” class.
Main Street lives are very different than Bobos; they pursue different ideals
and struggle with different problems. And so the sustainable bohemia
rhetoric that resonates so powerfully with Bobos doesn’t connect at all with
Main Street.
This is a marketing problem I call a cultural chasm: the strategy that works
best to win converts within the subcultural/activist population fails when
applied to non-activist citizens.
The way to overcome this chasm, diffusing sustainable economy to Main
Street, is to build a new campaign strategy that identifies with and is
responsive to the everyday understandings and aspirations of Main Street. I
offer one such example at the end of the chapter.
To make this argument, I adapt ideas from my prior work on what I term
cultural branding (Holt 2004; Holt and Cameron 2010), which I have also
applied to social movements (Holt 2012). My model draws from various socio-
cultural traditions in the social sciences and humanities, including cultural
history, cultural sociology, cultural studies, and the cultural tradition in
marketing called consumer culture theory (Arnould and Thompson 2005). The
basic application of the model runs as follows. For the sustainable economy
movement to resonate deeply and motivate collective action, it must: a) target a
group of citizens sharing the same socio-economic circumstances, b) address an
acute cultural contradiction that is disrupting the target’s identity projects; and
then c) propose an alternative that offers a compelling path to substantially
resolve these collective tensions and anxieties.
My analysis focuses on social class-based segments, for reasons that will
become apparent as the argument progresses. How Americans perceive the
benefits of pursuing a sustainable economy and, thus, how they respond to
campaigning, varies dramatically by social class. The American population is
demographically very diverse and the sample in the qualitative research we
report below reflects that diversity (across ethnicity, politics, religion, and sexual
preference). However, in seeking out the most opportune target for
sustainable economy strategy, these aspects of identity are far less
important than their common social class thread.
For these purposes, it is useful to divide Americans into four segments (to
which I’ve added rough percentages). I ignore the upper class as a direct target,
since they constitute such a small percentage of the total population—usually
somewhere between .1 and 1%--while acknowledging their profound influence
on consumerism (Schor 1998).
Professional-Managerial Class (20%)
Materialist Lifestyle (12%)
Upper-middle class citizens whose lifestyle lines up closely with the usual
critiques of American consumerism—conflating the American Dream with the
pursuit of more and better stuff.
Bourgeois-Bohemian Lifestyle (8%)
Upper-middle class also, but high in cultural capital, well-educated, living in
urban metro areas and college towns and tend to be professionals (see Holt 1998;
Holt and Cameron 2010). They tend to be socially liberal, aligning with
progressive social issues and environmentalism. I will use David Brooks’
parodying but accurate term for this class fraction—Bourgeois-Bohemians (or
Bobos). Not all Bobos are in the top economic quintile, and so they do not
always fit intuitive portrayals of the “upper-middle class.” For instance,
teachers, social service workers and managers in the not-for-profit sector all tend
to be Bobos, yet earn less than average for college-degreed work. However,
their economic life chances are much more similar to their fellow four-year
college graduates when compared to the Main Street class below them: they
work in secure occupations, usually with good benefits, with a competitive labor
market, earning salaries significantly above the American average.
Main Street Class (60%)
What I will term the new Main Street class combines social class groupings often
separated into class fractions such as lower-middle class, working class, and
working poor. I rely upon recent socio-economic portraits of class in the USA to
forge this single meta-class grouping. Political and economic shifts over the past
thirty years have organized society into two increasingly divergent classes: the
professional-managerial class above and everyone else. As I briefly review
below, the economic lives of people within this otherwise heterogeneous
spectrum are increasingly alike, a tectonic shift that Paul Krugman (2007) calls
“the great divergence.” This characterization aligns with Schor’s predictions as
well. Main Street consists of households in which adults work outside the
professions and management. The large majority of Main Street adults do not
have a four-year college degree, though Main Street also increasingly includes a
percentage of young adults who have earned bachelor’s degrees but have not
been able to land a job in management or the professions. Main Street work
includes services, clerical, retail, and various types of manual labor. Main Street
also includes adults working in the public sector, skilled trades, and union jobs
that have historically been secure, with better pay better and benefits. These
economic remnants of the post-war economy are quickly disappearing, today
representing a minority of the Main Street economy. For that reason, my
analysis focuses on the “new” Main Street economy.
Long-Term Poor (20%)
This segment consists of the long-term unemployed, permanently disabled,
seniors living only on social security, and prisoners. Official government
statistics estimate that about 15% of Americans live in poverty, but many experts
think this statistic underestimates the true number. Structurally, the long-term
poor already live very modestly and are not embedded in the BAU economy.
Arguably, they are already living sustainable lifestyles, though this is not how
they would characterize their lives. As a result, I bracket out the long-term poor
in my analysis.
I draw upon two empirical sources for my analysis. For my arguments
concerning Bobos, I rely upon extensive academic and professional research that
I have conducted on this population over the last decade. Word limits prevent
me from reviewing the academic research here and so I encourage the interested
reader to read the relevant chapters (case studies on Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s and
Patagonia, reported in Holt and Cameron 2010). For the Main Street portion of
the analysis, I rely on a set of thirty ethnographic interviews, which I conducted
with another colleague in Boston, Dallas, Denver, and Greeley Colorado. We
assembled a random sample of adults who did not have a four-year college
degree and whose household incomes fell between $30,000 and $80,000. (The
median US household income is around $50,000.) Our sample includes seven
African-Americans and seven Hispanic-Americans.
Sustainable Bohemia as Subculture and Bobo Consumer Myth
The Rise of Sustainable Bohemia
Schor’s Plenitude engages an historic countercultural intellectual
tradition. By other names, and with modest variations in content, the idea of
plenitude has been the central ideological rebuttal to the contradictions produced
by the American economy since the rise of modern capitalism stretching back to
the late 19th century. These calls for personal and economic transformation have
ebbed and flowed ever since from the likes of Edward Bellamy, the “Agrarians”
of the South, Lewis Mumford, Ralph Borsodi, Scott and Helen Nearing,
Kirkpatrick Sale, E.F Schumacher and many others. Early critics often promoted
an anti-modern agenda, calling for a revival of a Jeffersonian pastoral society
dominated by local economies, small businesses and small farms, with an
emphasis on a vital social life and community, rather than acquisition and
materialism. It is useful to recall that Franklin Roosevelt promoted a very
similar ideology in response to the Great Depression, launching the Civilian
Conservation Corps (CCC) as a massive effort to get young men out of the cities
and to indoctrinate them into work based upon Jeffersonian principles (Shi
Today, with the explosion of small-scale sustainable businesses that
leverage all sorts of new technologies (IT, CAD, prosumer media production,
etc.), this anti-technological bias has largely been set aside. Indeed, Schor
celebrates the use of such technology in Plenitude. However, the rest of the pre-
modern utopian ideal remains: sustainable economy involves reviving organic
local community—with meaningful work, community provisioning, artisan craft
and indigenous culture replacing the BAU society dominated by impersonal
globalization, technocracy, brute standardization, never-ending status games,
possessive individualism, and media simulacra. I will employ this slightly
broader construction of plenitude as movement ideology for the remainder of the
chapter, specifically referencing Schor’s version where appropriate.
For the past forty years the plenitude ideology of the sustainable
economy movement has increasingly merged with the bohemian ideology
advanced by various bohemian subcultures to forge a discourse that I will call
sustainable bohemia—by far the most powerful cultural force promoting
sustainable economy today. While the original bohemian subcultures of the 19th
century organized to challenge social norms regarding sexuality and the family,
bohemian challenges of the past forty years have been organized largely as an
antidote to hyper-industrialization of culture and the hyper-rationalization of
work. Modern bohemians are equally allergic to the rationalized
commodification of everyday life and culture, as well as being yoked onto the
rote work, psychological management principles, and heavy surveillance of
contemporary corporations. Bohemias source their countercultural codes from
the margins of society, from history, and from pre-industrial societies that
haven’t been captured by modern industrial norms. Bohemia’s sustainable
utopias take their cues largely from an imagined pre-industrial society: a world
of handmade, local, artisanal goods centered around an agrarian ideal of the
This sustainable bohemian challenge to BAU first peaked during the
“back-to-the-land” movement of the early seventies, in which millions of young
Americans migrated to rural enclaves to engage in the kind of DIY crafting and
self-provisioning that Schor imagines. Using The Whole Earth Catalog and
various Rodale publications as their bibles, they learned a wide variety of
practical household skills such as how to harvest water, build a teepee, and farm
biodynamically. Their aspiration was to reinvent society in microcosm. As this
social experiment eventually crumbled, it splintered into a number of interesting
directions,: grocery cooperatives, a new epicurean food scene centered in
Berkeley featuring a return to artisanal production and local organic livestock
and produce (Chez Penisse, Peet’s Coffee, Anchor Steam beer), and a new
businesses organized around social missions (Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Tom’s of
Maine, Burt’s Bees, etc). In this era, for the first time sustainable economy
activism and bohemian lifestyles blended into a single counterculture, which has
continued to evolve to the present day. While these businesses devised popular
“social missions” that promised to transform business toward sustainability, none
of them threatened to subvert the BAU economy.
A very aestheticized version of sustainable bohemia has expanded
recently as demand has soared amongst Bobos for sustainable bohemian
consumer myths, as I develop below. For the last fifteen years or so, sustainable
bohemian pockets have exploded all over the USA that have embraced precisely
the kinds of sustainable economy initiatives that Schor advocates, combining
DIY artisanal collaborative provisioning and work: from farm-to-table
restaurants, snout-to-tail meats, the tiny house movement, the “makers”
movement, knitter’s circles gathering weekly at bars, the urban revival of back to
the land (raising chickens, rooftop gardens), the rise of craft hobbyists via Etsy
and many others. However—as with the back-to-the-land movement—this new
incarnation of sustainable bohemia poses no systemic threat to BAU. Rather, it
has been readily incorporated as valued new cultural source material for many
thousands of new businesses.
Bobos and the Sustainable Bohemia Myth
Many members of the Bobo fraction of the professional-managerial class
also embrace plenitude, but in a highly-attenuated symbolic fashion as a key
component of a consumer myth that largely rejects the movement’s
transformational socio-economic ideals. As plenitude migrates from the lived
experience of sustainable economy activists and participants in the sustainable
bohemian subculture to Bobo consumption, it gets transformed into myth. I have
conceptualized these cultural mechanics in the cultural branding model that I
developed in prior research (Holt 2004; Holt and Cameron 2010).
Beginning in the late eighties, the United States encountered a
demographic shift, accelerating to the present, in which a huge new cohort of
young adults whose parents were college-educated came of age, creating what I
call the cultural capital cohort (Holt and Cameron 2010). Socialized to desire
more culturally sophisticated and aestheticized goods than prior generations, they
faced a consumer culture in which the mass industrialized and increasingly
anonymous goods of the BAU economy dominated, just the opposite of what
these new tastes demanded. Entrepreneurs responded by developing a vast array
of goods and services that pushed against this dominant consumer ideology to
promote what we term the artisanal-cosmopolitan ideology of the bohemian
counterculture. While food and drink are core categories for the aestheticization
of consumer culture, the same holds true for clothing, interior décor, travel,
autos, appliances, bicycles and many more.
Since the nineties, competition across these categories has led to what we
call cultural code inflation: businesses seek to outdo their competitors on the key
cultural codes that best expressed this ideology. For instance, in the 1980s
restaurants pioneered “California cuisine” emphasizing fresh locally sourced
ingredients, but these codes had become table stakes for Bobo food by the late
1990s. So, leading edge restaurants pushed ever farther on these codes,
developing “farm to table” cuisine, “snout to tail” butchering of animals, and
advanced underdeveloped artisanal categories such as pickles, tea, whiskey and
charcuterie. The latest push to advance bohemian codes in food is to challenge
the formal business organization of the restaurant itself in the form of pop-up
restaurants and underground restaurants that bohemian types run out of their own
homes in whimsically creative and usually intensively foodie fashion.
Likewise, this same cultural code inflation process pushed entrepreneurs
responding to Bobo market demand to ally with the sustainable economy
movement (a pivotal shift that I analyze in the Starbucks chapter in Holt and
Cameron 2010). Hence, plenitude became an important component of
sustainable bohemia, not because of activist pressure but because culturally-
savvy entrepreneurs understood that the ideology was just what the market
demanded. The incorporation of the sustainable economy movement added an
earnest dose of environmentalist credibility to the subculture’s market offerings.
Bobos are not interested in joining a subculture or movement. Rather
they imbibe in sustainable bohemia as consumer myth—as an idealized narrative
that one aspires to because is ideology is appealing though it is “lived” only
through occasional consumer rituals rather than embraced comprehensively.
Bobos demanded goods saturated with the sustainable bohemia myth because the
myth resonated so powerfully with their identity project. For adults who work
non-stop at symbolic analysis as instrumental “free agents” in a national and
often global labor market for large corporations, plenitude promises a return to
small scale, crafting with ones hands, local community, solidarity, living
viscerally with nature.
Marketers excel at creating these sorts of consumer myths, as I explain in
my prior writings (Holt 2004; Holt and Cameron 2010). As a consultant, I have
helped to create such myths for a wide variety of brands. Conventional
multinational companies often market myths that have little to do with their
products—consider for example Coca-Cola or Nike or Harley-Davidson. Thus
the popular meaning of myth (that it is fictitious and perhaps even deceitful) is
closer to the truth. But what about social enterprises that make products
according to social missions that seem to align so well with the sustainable
economy movement?
While social enterprises are often are founded by movement activists, and
have earned a loyal base of activist customers, my research has revealed that for
the most successful of these brands, the large majority of customers use the
products to ritually consume myth. Social mission brands help Bobos to imagine
that they are living a sustainable ethical progressive life even if most of their
choices and activities violate this identity ideal. Bobos are hangers-on of
sustainable bohemia, drawing from it selectively to construct their identities. In
our research on and consulting for a number of well-known sustainable brands
(Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, New Belgium and Starbucks, reported in Holt and
Cameron 2010), we find that Bobos love the stories and images of sustainable
bohemia. And so they place a high value on culturally charged rituals that allow
them to participate meaningfully in this world: eating a farm-to-table meal at an
actual farm, taking an eco-vacation, or wearing a Patagonia jacket. However,
they aren’t willing to pursue sustainable economy comprehensively in their
consumption, nor are they willing to take the leap in their work and provisioning,
despite its symbolic attractions.
Bobos find the DIY creative collaborative work of plenitude to be very
attractive in principle. They often experience contradictions in contemporary
white-collar work. While they desire work that allows them creative expression
and individual idiosyncratic pursuits—the imagined work of bohemians injected
into professional life by Steve Jobs and fellow Silicon Valley enthusiasts during
the dot-com era—few are able to find such work today. The rationalized
technocratic workplace, once aimed squarely at blue-collar jobs, has trickled up
into the professions and middle management. The sustainable bohemian
alternative provides the perfect antidote: bohemian work rejects overscheduled,
overly pressured, overly demanding, ladder-climbing work in favor of the
intrinsically rewarding work that exists in America’s nooks and crannies.
Bohemians thrive on work that they would do even if they weren’t paid: work
that is humane, improvised, unpredictable, thought provoking.
However, Bobos do very well in the BAU economy. For them BAU
operates as golden handcuffs: they are well-paid, enjoy many perks and have
committed themselves to a lifestyle that requires this level of income. They are
also committed to sustaining their social class position and ensuring that their
children can do so as well, which requires the right social networks, school
districts and colleges. Hence, Bobos routinely experience what we call “the ache
of the Bobo”: they evince a deep desire to jump ship and pursue work that fits
the plenitude model, yet they are unable to do so because they are locked into the
financial commitments and social networks allowed for by their current
Paradoxically, the segment that today enthusiastically embraces plenitude
in symbolic terms is the least likely to embrace the actual transformation in work
and lifestyle required to shift out of BAU. Bobos consume the packaged myths
of sustainable bohemia to embellish their identities while remaining firmly
anchored in the BAU economy. They readily bracket out the political and
institution-building aspects of plenitude in favor of “political consumption”—
voicing their identity politics through their purchases. It is a have-your-cake-
and-eat-it-too lifestyle that is not easily disrupted. While some Bobos dream of
leaving the BAU economy, very few are willing to endure the economic
sacrifices and status insecurities that are required.
In sum, sustainable bohemia is a valued ideology that is now governed by
the mechanics of market commodification in modern consumer culture. The
sustainable economy movement, especially its vision of plenitude, has been
coopted as an important pillar of this ideology. The market is extremely adept at
circulating and amplifying the valued symbolism of plenitude—imparting upon
consumers the cosmopolitan outlook and moral higher ground that comes from
engaging the earth’s environmental problems through consumption choices—
while trivializing its underlying socio-political goals.
Within the sustainable bohemia subculture, ever more impressive
sustainable businesses constantly emerge, offering innovations that have potent
socio-political potential. However, because Bobos evince little interest in the
socio-political side of these innovations, neither does the market. The businesses
that succeed in scaling sustainable bohemia offerings typically grab the valued
symbolism for their brands while discarding much of the potential to advance the
movement. Both Bobos and corporations have a vested interest in stripping out
the more radical socio-political ramifications of sustainable innovations. The
cumulative result is small incremental gains in sustainability bundled with ever
more valuable symbolism. Consider two iconic Bobo brands: Whole Foods
brilliantly showcases its small percentage of industrial organic offerings to bath
the brand in a halo of environmental enlightenment so that we Bobo shoppers
feel like everything we buy from Whole Foods is somehow good for the planet.
Starbucks works the same branding magic. The company’s Estima™ Fair Trade
coffee, Ethos™ bottled water, and Shared Planet™ retail campaigning leaves
customers feeling like every cup of Starbucks coffee they drink is doing its part
to sustain farmers in Africa.
As hard as movement activists try, these market mechanics remain
stubbornly in place. As long as Bobos are locked into BAU for its economic and
status benefits, they will consume plenitude primarily as myth. So, strategically,
Bobos are a poor target for the movement. If the movement is to have any
chance of success, it must shift its target to a segment that is more likely to take
up sustainable economy as workers, families, and community members, not just
as consumer symbolism.
Main Street as Movement Target
My research on market transformations, along with what I’ve learned
from histories of social movements, suggests that the kind of tectonic shift aimed
for by sustainable economy movement can arise only in response to an acute
cultural contradiction. The target population must collectively experience a
socio-economic disruption that challenges the taken-for-granted assumptions of
their current lifestyle, and creates latent demand for an alternative. Movements
do not spread beyond their activist base without such a contradiction to motivate
diffusion. From the standpoint of cultural strategy, Americans who constitute
the “Main Street” social class are the only viable target to diffuse sustainable
economy because they have endured acute contradictions of the BAU economy
for years.
Today, despite tremendous efforts by environmental activists to construct
this sort of collective tension, leveraging extreme weather events like Katrina
and Sandy, Americans do not yet view environmental issues as crises that
demand a personal (much less a political) response. The reasons for this relative
lack of concern have been much discussed, including the impact of the climate
denialism industry and the particular characteristics of global environmental
problems. Regardless of the cause, climate change and other global
environmental problems remain toward the bottom of the list of Americans’
rankings of problems that concern them, a consistent finding for the past twenty
years in Gallup polls. And relative to other social classes, Main Street is most
susceptible to pushing environment to the margins; they view environment as a
luxury good that they can’t afford.
Rather than trying to amplify the environmental crisis, shifting the focus
to the ongoing economic disruption offers a much more promising path. Unlike
the professional-managerial factions, for whom BAU continues to provide a very
desirable living standard, Main Street life suffers from economic trauma, which
shows no signs of abating. Today we must look for opportunities where
economic dislocations are challenging the dominant growth-at-all-costs
consumerist ideologies and practices of the past sixty years, creating a cultural
opportunity for the sustainable economy movement.
Living with Economic Trauma on Main Street
To devise a sustainable economy strategy that will resonate with Main
Street requires entering their lives, understanding their dreams and anxieties—
their collective identity projects and the obstacles that the BAU economy throws
in their path that thwarts their pursuit. The thirty informants we interviewed
provided a redundant data set: every interview we conducted fit the general
pattern described below. Interestingly, in addition to the thirty informants, we
mistakenly included two college students in the interview set. Their identity
projects fit nicely with sustainable bohemia and, so, provided a sharply-drawn
antithesis to the Main Street interviews we were conducting.
Let’s first sketch a social landscape of this class, culling highlights from
the burgeoning literature that describes recent shifts in American social class
structure (Krugman 2007; Stiglitz 2012; Hacker and Pierson 2010; Bartels 2008;
Noah 2012). Since the late seventies, a series of political-economic shifts
(including the demise of unions, regressive tax policies, and the liberalization of
labor and capital markets) have had a devastating impact on Americans who are
not part of the professional-managerial class. Economic life in Main Street
America has fallen apart: well-paid and secure jobs have disappeared at a rapid
rate and replaced with jobs that pay much less with skimpy benefits. Retirement
benefits have been retracted, medical costs have skyrocketed, and college
education costs have risen dramatically. Main Street pay has been pushed
downward toward a “$10/hour economy.” The explosion of consumer debt and
bankruptcies is a symptom of the economic trauma. Economic conditions have
further deteriorated since 2008: real incomes have declined 10% and are now at a
lower level than the early seventies, despite that corporations have enjoyed
substantial productivity gains in this period. While unemployment for the
professional-managerial class hovers around 3-4%, real unemployment
(including Americans who’ve given up looking for full-time employment or are
severely under-employed) on Main Street exceeds 15%. Nearly two-thirds of
Main Street workers have suffered a job loss, pay cut, or reduction in hours since
2008. Perhaps most damning for a country that has long been willing to trade off
economic inequality for mobility, class mobility in the United States is now
lower than in all countries in continental Europe, including all of the
Scandinavian countries that have always served for neoliberal proponents as case
studies for lack of personal initiative and industry.
Amongst our informants, personal crises begot by these economic
conditions are the norm, not the exception. One after another reported falling
into economic crisis (foreclosure, bankruptcy, even homelessness) as the result
of losing a job, a divorce, a medical condition, or having to deal with a family
emergency. The macro statistics reflect this on-the-ground reality: 75% of Main
Street will spend at least one year in poverty, 75% worry about having enough
money to pay their bills, 50% suffer from chronic financial problems. One in
seven American families declared bankruptcy over the last decade. More people
will go bankrupt this year than graduate from college.
Daniel. Daniel is a single white male in his twenties. He grew up in a
secure middle-class Boston-area household where his father earned $30/hour as a
skilled electrician and his mother was a waitress. After high school, he
apprenticed as an electrician for $19/hour, but when the recession hit, there was a
huge decline in demand for construction-oriented trades. The biggest Boston
electrical company, which had ninety electricians in 2007, was down to five
employees. Everyone he knew from the trade is now out of a job, and even his
father struggles to find work. So he went to college, U Mass Boston, where he
majored in philosophy as a pre-law degree: “I thought I could make good money
as a lawyer, might be something I’m good at.” But after two years he pulled
out, as he was accumulating debt and becoming increasingly skeptical that there
would be good jobs for lawyers once he got out of school. So he’s now a
bartender at a country club, working side-by-side with a college grad in finance
who was laid off two months after starting his first job out of university. He’s
given up on his big career dreams and stays focused instead on enjoying “simple
stuff”: hanging out with his girlfriend (whom he lives with), going out to eat, and
playing pool. He wants to have a family and own a home some day—“nothing
extravagant, three bedrooms so everyone isn’t crammed in”—and so knows he
needs to move on to a better job but has no idea what that will be.
Kasha. Kasha grew up in a small town in Mississippi, one of eleven
siblings. She is African-American, in her thirties, and currently lives in Dallas.
Her mother and father never worked, except for an occasional mowing job. She
dreamed of having kids and being an airline stewardess and traveling the world,
a fantasy she picked up from television. Her mother died in her senior year of
high school. Kasha went straight to college, first out of state, then back home to
Alcorn State, and then Mississippi Valley State for two years. In each case, she
“burned out.” “I should have taken a break. College is for some and not for
others. I couldn’t concentrate and was sick of school, so I didn’t go back.” She
vowed not to have kids but ended up having two children immediately after she
quit college. “Kids are a blessing, I would never give them up, but you can get
more accomplished without kids.” Her first kids are now young adults and she
has a three-year old daughter also. She has worked at data entry and customer
service work her entire adult life. She tried call center work briefly but found it
to be too boring. She hates living in Dallas “the economy sucks and its hot as
hell” and imagines that New York would be better. “There are companies that
are hiring but they pay you $9.50 or $10.00 an hour and they want you to run the
full office.” For her, happiness is freedom from financial stress. Her happiest
moments are simple things like going to the state fair with her kids or lazing
around on Sundays all day watching football. Her dreams for her kids are very
modest: she just wants them to have decent secure jobs that they enjoy.
Angelica. Angelica is an Italian immigrant, married and in her 40s,
whose parents came to the country to live the American Dream. Her father
always told her “America is a place you could come and make your fortune.”
She and her family lived for decades in the highest tier of Main Street with a
successful small business. They pushed their kids to advance up the social class
ladder by getting through college. But her husband’s business remanufacturing
brake parts was gradually “snuffed out” by Chinese competition. When his
business finally went under, the economy was so bad that there was no related
work for him to move to. So they were forced to downsize, selling their big
home in a “hoity toity” neighborhood and moving into a small rental house in a
working class neighborhood. (She emphasizes the one great benefit of moving
from professional-managerial class neighborhood to Main Street neighborhood:
people are more friendly and neighborly.) The family stopped going out to eat.
They sold their newer cars that had loans and bought old cars for cash. Even
with four kids, she went back to work, doing contract work in elder care. Her
husband was stressed out, searching for work for almost a year without success,
finally creating a new small business as an “auto concierge” taking care of the
cars of wealthy clients.
The experiences of the last five years have totally reshaped her identity
project. Her primary goal today is financial security—“there is no better feeling
than money in the bank.” She is very apprehensive about her kids falling into
debt from college and struggling to find work. She advises her daughter in
college not to “study something crazy like woman’s studies. Study something
that might get you a job. It’s sad but you can’t study what you’re interested in.”
She is counseling her remaining son at home to avoid college altogether and
instead “use your hands to fix something” because “your rack up $200,000 in
loans and there are no jobs.”
Main Street: Greeley, Colorado. In the USA, Main Street enclaves are
everywhere (urban, suburban, and exurban Main Streets abound) but are
particularly pronounced in mid-sized cities that have been hollowed out
economically: cities in California’s Central Valley dominated by big agriculture,
cities in Texas dominated by dirty petrochemical industries, Midwestern cities
that have never been able to replace union jobs previously tied to major
industries like autos and steel, cities in the deep South that have never developed
an industrial base. These are cities where the labor market contradictions
inherent in the BAU economy play out in the most dramatic and “pure” fashion.
They present Main Street life in stark relief.
Greeley, Colorado is one such city dominated by main street economics.
I claim no great ethnographic expertise on Greeley: I spent five days there
conducting interviews. But even this small snapshot provides a window into
Main Street life that we can use productively. The Greeley economy is held in
place by JBS Swift, a huge beef and pork processing plant on the east side of the
city. The plant was originally owned by Swift & Company, one of the first
national meatpackers. Jobs at the plant were always physically taxing and
dangerous, but like other blue-collar jobs at large companies in the mid-twentieth
century, cutting meat paid reasonably well with good benefits and job security
and so were highly valued. Swift grew into a typical postwar conglomerate,
venturing into a variety of unrelated businesses including insurance and oil,
women’s brassieres and even Avis Rent-a-Car. In the 1980s, Wall Street began
attacking conglomerates, with wealthy “raiders” aiming to break them up to
generate higher profits. Swift was forced to sell off all of its businesses, and the
meatpacking business was bought by the huge packaged goods company
Conagra. In turn, Conagra sold out to a private equity firm in 2002, at which
point intensive cost-cutting began, pushing workers to speed up work on their
lines while accepting lower wages. To do so, the company relied heavily on the
labor of illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America, South America, and
Africa, which eventually led to a raid by US Immigration and Customs
Enforcement (ICE) and the deportation of over 1,000 workers at six plants
including Greeley. In 2007, having enhanced the company’s profitability
through these aggressive measures, the private equity firm sold the business for
$225 million to the Brazilian multinational JBS S.A., the largest meat processor
in the world. Today, the plant’s economics are driven by the aggressive profit
goals of a multinational company competing in what is now a global market for
meat. So JBS pushes pay as low as they can for grueling repetitive manual labor
in slaughter rooms where the temperature hovers around fifty degrees. Yet, at
around $13-14.00/hour, jobs at JBS are still prized as the best-paying work in
town for Main Street citizens. (Other corporations in town offering less grueling
jobs have followed the same race to the bottom, and have set average Main
Street wages slightly above minimum wage.) Because the work is so hard and
dangerous, the work tends to attract immigrants despite the ICE crackdown.
Greeley is now 30% Mexican-American. As well, when the US government
needed a place to relocate thousands of Somalis seeking asylum, it chose Greeley
because they could enter this labor pool as well, which caused considerable local
ethnic turmoil. My white informants freely spouted damning racist slurs against
both Mexicans and Somalis.
The only other significant private sector employers in Greeley are two
huge call centers—a common work destination for women and less-fit men who
don’t have the physical stamina to work at the slaughterhouse. Startek business
process outsourcing, and AFNI provide outsourced customer service for
companies such as Verizon. Like JBS, these businesses compete on a global
market to help multinationals drive down their costs. (Startek also has centers in
the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Honduras.) So wages are set at poverty levels:
pay is $9.50-$10/hour with minimal benefits and no job security. Other desirable
Main Street jobs—such as administrative work at the University of Northern
Colorado and service work at the local hospitals—rarely becomes available as
these jobs are so attractive. So many Greeley Main Street workers bounce
around retail and call center jobs that pay just above minimum wage.
Greeley’s Main Street citizens live in cheaply-constructed apartments and
run-down bungalows, which dominate the east side of the city near the JBS
plant. The smells wafting from the plant on the weekly slaughter day fill the
entire city but are particularly pungent nearby, so Main Street citizens live there
and the professional-managerial class on the Western fringes. Nearby retail is
dominated by dollar stores, pawn shops, payday loan operations, and bail bond
shops. Wal-Mart is viewed as the premium high-end of the retail spectrum.
On Main Street, economic turmoil is the central fact of life. Families live
a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, in which everyday decisions always begin
with questions of affordability. This everyday financial stress is punctuated by
serial household crises that are directly related to economic trauma: layoffs,
bankruptcy, poverty wages, and medical emergencies run hand-in-hand with
divorce, prison, and drug addictions. Single mothers, in particular, struggle to
keep their households afloat.
Tammy. Tammy is a single mother in her 40s, with a teenage son. She
grew up with a single mother, a nurse who became a devout follower of
televangelists. Tammy was caught doing petty theft at age 12 and her mother put
her in a group home. Her mother viewed her as a heretic because she believed
the bible was fiction and hung out with gay men. She now works at one of the
call centers for $10/hour. Her identity project is constructed around parenting,
correcting for all the mistakes her mother made with her. Her life is totally
focused on keeping her son focused on school and safe and out of trouble. She
tries to keep him entertained, but is financially limited so this usually means
watching a movie together on television.
Prior to Greeley, she lived in Las Vegas, a constant point of comparison
in our conversation. She dislikes Greeley because it is so boring. For leisure,
she relies heavily on free public spaces and events, which were far better in
Vegas. She can’t afford a car so they live on the bus route; she’s angry that
Greeley has no bus service on Sundays so she has to walk seventeen blocks to
work. She spends lots of time in the public library as its nearby and free. She
dreams that she will move with her son to Denver sometime soon. Call center
jobs there often pay $11/hour, and there’s far more free stuff to do. It is her land
of opportunity, if only she can get together enough money to afford the seventy-
mile move.
Sally. Sally is a white woman, living wither partner, in her 30s. She grew
up in rural Nebraska on her grandparents’ farm. Her father was a long-haul
trucker and, from ages two to five, he often took Sally along for the ride. She
loved it. She followed other family members to Greeley where she got into lots
of trouble as a “rebel” in high school. She got pregnant and was kicked out of
school as a result. She credits her kids with pulling her out of her teenage life of
drugs and petty crime. She now lives in an apartment with her three kids (from
two former relationships) and “my old man”—her partner, who works cleaning
up oil rigs in rural Colorado and Wyoming. He recently got out of jail, and has
two kids of his own; their mother, his prior partner, is now in jail. Sally has done
manual labor her entire life—waiting tables for many years and then more
recently working as a nursing assistant at nursing home where she spent most of
her time lifting elderly people. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result
and recently had surgery. She can’t go back to lifting so will probably wait
tables again once she recovers.
Sally has no hobbies or avocations. Neither she nor her partner likes
Greeley because the general poverty leads to lots of crime, gangs, and drugs.
They live a purposely isolated life, trying to avoid other people in their apartment
complex and beyond because such interactions often lead to “too much drama.”
They fill their leisure time with simple safe and cheap outings: either doing a
barbeque in the local park or taking the kids to the Boys and Girls Club to play in
a safe environment. There is no money for leisure apart from watching movies
and playing video games at home. Like other mothers we talked to, Sally spent
much of her energies worrying about how to keep her kids safe and out of
trouble. Their short-term dream is to rent a house with a yard so that their kids
would have a place to play that is separated from neighbors. Their long-term
dream is to move back to rural Nebraska and live on the farm with her
grandparents: physically isolating themselves from the problems and despair of
the Main Street economy.
Crossing Plenitude’s Cultural Chasm
The Main Street citizens we interviewed are oblivious to the idea of
sustainable economy, and are unlikely to respond to the rhetoric of plenitude.
This lack of resonance is an example of what I term a cultural chasm (Holt and
Cameron 2010). I adapt the term from the diffusion of innovations literature in
high technology categories, where Geoffrey Moore (1991) extended Everett
Rodgers’ original formulation to describe the diffusion barrier that new
technologies often face in “crossing the chasm.” New technologies are
vigorously adopted by early adopters, who like to be on the cutting edge of new
technologies and who do not encounter increased risk by adopting them. But the
marketing that works so well to attract early adopters often fails in attracting the
mass market because the preferences of the latter are so different. They perceive
the innovation through a very different lens, and they are often very risk-averse
because the existing technology it seeks to replace plays a crucial role in their
business. For companies to “cross the chasm” they must entirely reformulate
their marketing to address this broader target.
Many social movements hit an analogous diffusion problem. Movements
often adopt strategies that echo the ideology of movement activists. These
strategies fail because they resonate primarily with fellow activists rather than
converting prospects outside the activist community for whom conversion
requires a different strategy.
Main Street today is living with acute everyday contradictions due to the
breakdown of the BAU labor market. So, unlike Bobos, Main Street citizens are
potentially very receptive to an alternative as long as they can be convinced that
it offers a plausible path to leapfrog the economic problems that they face. But
sustainable economy campaigning speaks in a language attuned to cultural
tensions faced by Bobos rather than Main Street. So we need to significantly
revise the current strategy in order for it to resonate with Main Street.
Focus on Pragmatic Improvements in Main Street Lives rather than Appeal
to Cosmopolitan Ethical Commitment.
Sustainable economy campaigning appeals to citizens to gather together
to address massive environmental and economic problems. The scale of these
problems is such that taking them on requires a cosmopolitan worldview, a
confident and ambitious idea of ones efficacy to change the world on such a
broad scale, as well as a significant level of economic security. This sort of
rhetoric is the coin of the realm in places like Boulder, Berkeley, Brooklyn, and
Cambridge, but it is alien to Main Street. Main Street citizens have no choice
but to devote their energy to immediate household problems. Grappling with
global problems or problems of future generations rarely crosses their minds,
crowded out by the challenges that the BAU economy presents their household
While they are deeply concerned about the American economy, Main
Street views it at a distance as passive observers. They don’t believe they could
ever have an impact. They are not at all engaged in global sustainability issues.
The rhetoric of plenitude and all other sustainable economy campaigning begins
with the assumption that prospects are concerned about global problems and
anxious to contribute to societal transformation if only they could be convinced
of the right solution. For Main Street, this is not the case. Rather the movement
will succeed only if it alters its rhetoric to focus intensively on the locally
relevant concerns of Main Street communities.
Respond to Today’s Economic Crisis, rather than project Environmental
Crises in the Future.
The sustainable economy movement is focused primarily on how to avoid
global environmental collapse, and then sometimes makes linkages to the
economy (as Schor does) and to global social justice issues. So if you’re not
concerned about the environment, it’s unlikely you will engage with the
movement. Main Street Americans are suffering the economic traumas of the
BAU economy, exacerbated by American political policies. As yet these
economic problems have no perceived connection to the environment, so the
basic argument is a disconnect for them. Our Main Street informants view such
issues as tangential compared to the personal issues they must overcome. This is
a foundational aspect of the cultural chasm that the movement strategy must
address: while environmental issues are core to the movement, this doesn’t mean
that environmental arguments are the most compelling pathway to attract non-
activists. Rather than trying to convince Main Street that environmental
overshoot is indeed worth acting on, strategy must instead seek an alternative
path to the same result. Main Street’s pathway into sustainable economy is
through the promise of grappling with the acute personal economic problems
caused by BAU.
Create Credible Work Alternatives Rather Than Promote Working Less
Like other sustainable economy tracts (including Schor’s prior work),
Plenitude advocates working less, creating more time for family, play, and social
life. For the professional-managerial class, which works long hours and are paid
high salaries such that cutting back is entirely plausible, this idea of working less
can really resonate. But for Main Street, the idea of working less is fraught with
problems. Main Streeters live with tremendous economic insecurity. Many have
lost their jobs in the recession and have struggled to find work at decent pay.
Everyone has family members and friends who have been out of work for many
months. They work long hours because they desperately need the money.
Several informants talked about moving to a different city for a better job, based
upon wage differences as small as $0.50/hour. Janet, a Mexican-American
woman living in Denver with three children, described how her husband, an
electrician for the city of Denver, had been forced to take three weeks of
furlough in 2008 and the days had not yet been added back. As a result, the
family would likely have to pull their children out of parochial school and send
them back into the public school system. To avoid this, she had been trying to
go back to work after nearly two decades of raising her children, with no luck.
We spoke to another woman in Boston whose husband was fired without
warning from Filene’s department store, a company he’d worked at for over
three decades, went bankrupt. She immediately went to work, taking whatever
job she could find, despite that she had two school-age kids. The only work she
could find was to join a small outsourcing firm that did “shelf sets” for grocery
stores: showing up in the middle of the night when there are no customers to
stock shelves. She got on a mini-bus at 8pm with other workers, was driven to
grocery stores around the county, often an hour away, spent the night cutting
open boxes and loading up shelves, and then bussed back home just in time to
get her children breakfast and off to school. She moved on to a job at UPS
sorting packages, working in a fifty-degree warehouse that kept her fingers numb
all day long. She shares with other Main Street informants a fundamental
economic desperation: she would take any additional hours working any decent
job. Her dream, like other Main Street adults, is to work in a secure job with
decent pay where she is treated well. This ideal needs to be the focus of
sustainable economy campaigning to Main Street, rather than working less.
Focus on consumption equity rather than consuming less.
Another core sustainable economy message—buy less—suffers from the
same problem. The idea is entirely sensible for the professional-managerial
class—most of whom are deeply ensconced in the culture of consumerism—but
it comes off as incoherent for Main Street. They live in relatively small
apartments or bungalows. They are conscientious of their energy use due to the
cost. They seldom take vacations out-of-state, and can’t afford air travel. They
buy used cars. They rely heavily on Craig’s List (their favorite business, beating
out the likes of Google and Apple) for cheap used goods if they need a baby crib
or to replace a busted television. They shop only sale and coupon items at the
grocery store, and buy meat only when it’s marked down. They rely heavily on
public space for their leisure—spending time with their families in the parks was
the most popular activity amongst our informants. The exceptions we
encountered were three families that had enjoyed relatively high incomes as
small business owners, only to have these once-reliable incomes fall apart in the
recession. These families all describe chasing a materialist good life. But no
more. The shock of the country’s financial implosion and their own
corresponding personal economic problems has led them to renounce their old
ways and embrace financial autonomy and security instead. Main Street
denizens are intensely concerned with providing the basic goods and services
that their households require at a basic level of quality—a constant struggle for
them. Sustainable economy movement strategy needs to shift its rhetoric away
from consuming less (a message focused on the upper-middle class) and instead
focus on the social justice angle, what we might call consumption equity: the idea
that a sustainable economy requires that everyone should receive a basic level of
household goods and services.
Build Resilient Local Economic Institutions Rather than Champion
Entrepreneurial Communities.
Sustainable economy campaigners want to rejuvenate local social and
civic life as a means to generate more life satisfaction than that generated by
participating in the BAU economy. Our informants vary widely in their current
communal engagement: some live a “circle the wagons” life within their
households while others are already very much engaged in their local
communities. The dominant community institutions amongst our informants are
the church and the military (the one economic sanctuary that still exists for Main
Street, with many community extensions as well).
In Plenitude, Shor advises citizens to participate in sustainable economy
via myriad small business opportunities that are now thriving using new
technologies. (She also mentions that community economic initiatives can be
effective in the transformation, but that is not her main focus.) While many of
our informants have struggled to find good work, most could not pursue this kind
of entrepreneurial alternative simply because they do not have the working
capital to start up such a business. Even if they did, most would consider such an
endeavor far too risky as the recession has made them highly risk averse.
Finally, because they are not concerned with global environmental issues, they
would have no particular interest in pursuing businesses that delivered
environmental sustainability.
Two of our thirty informants did pursue an entrepreneurial path. When
Angelica’s husband lost his custom auto parts fabrication business to severe
Chinese price competition, he searched for any sort of job in which he could
using his skills, with no luck. Out of options after a year, in the end invented his
own job: helping well-to-do executives get their cars serviced and repaired. His
new venture has him joining the service economy for those who have become
very wealthy in the BAU economy (a new member of the class of service
workers for the upper-middle class found in all global cities as described by
Sassia Sasson). The fact that he was working on servicing very expensive new
autos—the antithesis of a sustainable business—would never cross his mind as a
problem. He was thankful to have finally come up with a business that paid the
Judy lost her first husband when he lost his footing and fell into a canyon
while hiking in the Rocky Mountains. She used the life insurance money to
renovate her home in order to obscure for her children the emotional challenges
of living with memories of life with their father. But she didn’t have enough
money remaining for the mortgage and soon lost the house to foreclosure. She
met her current husband playing on-line poker; he moved from Ohio to Colorado
to be with her. Neither of them had work and, so, became desperate to bring in
money. Her deceased husband was a house painter and had supplies in the
garage. So the put an ad on Craig’s List as painters and began to get work.
Eventually they tracked down a guy who flipped houses (i.e., bought dilapidated
houses, fixed them up, and then sold them for a profit). They earned his trust
and he promoted them to act as contractors for his renovations, overseeing all of
the tradespeople working on the renovation. As a result, they work very long
and unpredictable hours, spending extended periods on the jobsite. They rarely
have time to cook at home, so they largely subsist on dollar meals from fast food
restaurants, driving their truck all over the city to track down materials, and
oversee construction sites. That their work involves one the hotspots of the BAU
economy—the speculative end of the real estate market, in which they rip out
functional kitchens and bathrooms and replace them with new ones in order to
attract sales—never crosses their minds as a problematic way to make a living.
Main Street citizens, desperate for any secure job that pays well, pursue
whatever opportunities they come across, as these cases indicate. The vast
majority of such opportunities will be deeply embedded in the BAU economy.
Main Street does not have the risk-taking capacity to pursue the less
economically viable and more risky opportunities at the fringes of sustainable
economy. They will pursue such opportunities only if the movement creates
them. So it is up to the sustainable economy movement to inflect the creation of
local labor markets toward sustainability.
Constructing a Community-Centered
Sustainable Jobs and Services Program
Given that everyday economic insecurities tightly coupled to the BAU
economy are the dominant tension in Main Street lives, the sustainable economy
movement will resonate only if it offers an economic alternative that helps them
grapple with these problems. To engage sustainability on Main Street requires
retooling conventional campaigning: in the midst of a structural economic crisis
with no end in sight, communications that call on Americans to personally
address environmental issues, especially with such a global and long-term
perspective, is a non-starter. Sustainability must be construed in economic
terms, with the desired environmental impact treated as an unintended
Further, Main Street does not have the resources to pursue economic
alternatives on their own, as entrepreneurs. So the movement must offer
tangible local economic models that Main Street families view as a desirable
alternative to their current situation. This requires launching innovative new
programs—social innovations rather than campaigns. In particular, I want to
think through this problem through the lens of cultural branding, exploring ideas
that respond with Main Street’s identity desires caused by the contradictions of
their engagement with the BAU economy.
The idea needs to center on how the community can create sustainable
work for its Main Street citizens, not how Main Street individuals can transform
their lives. We need to consider how to develop models of the new economy in
microcosm, invite Main Street citizens to join up, and then use these lead
successes to diffuse the model to other communities. American cities spend
exorbitant sums in tax breaks to court businesses in the quixotic pursuit of new
employers. But the grand promise of new jobs rarely pays out as the companies
move on to the next bidder or move overseas. Even when they stay, the cost per
incremental job is extraordinary. So, what if cities instead decided to invest this
money to build their own local alternative economy? Here is one such idea.
Example: Main Street Community Corps
Let me briefly sketch a speculative idea, which I will call Main Street
Community Corps (MSCC), to illustrate the direction I believe the sustainable
economy movement must go. MSCC is a local community corps of young adults,
a new spin on the community service model of Vista and AmeriCorps (which, in
turn, borrows from the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps). MSCC is a
social innovation designed to simultaneously address a number of issues: to
provide an economic pathway toward a local workplace autonomous from the
BAU economy, to make material improvements in the lives of Main Street
households now traumatized by the BAU labor market, to build community
networks of economic security for a population that are now forced to struggle
for self-reliance as free agents, and to introduce indigenous environmental
sustainability initiatives for a population that does not need to consume less as
The central concern of Main Street families is that there is no pathway
today for children in these families to become productive adults with respectable
jobs that pay well enough to start their own families. Main Street adults have
gone down the path that the dominant discourse has pushed them to embrace—
do whatever it takes to get you and your kids through college and your worries
are over. In case after case, my informants discovered that they had been sold a
false bill of goods. Most can only afford community colleges and there is no
pipeline of jobs available for those with associate degrees. Others have tried to
make four-year college work but the costs overwhelmed them (forcing most to
work full-time in addition to schoolwork), so none of them made it. They
dropped out with big debts and no job opportunities. Their children, many now
in high school, are entirely cynical about the rewards that come from education
and so have no interest in working hard at school. An innovation that provides
real opportunities for their children would be hugely valued. If we can make
these opportunities deliver on sustainable economy, then we will have a way to
diffuse the ideology through practice rather than continue to fail at the
unwinnable battle to persuade through communication.
MSCC is a job corps of young adults (last two years of high school, and
two years after graduation) who enter a business apprenticeship program that
provides needed services to their Main Street community. MSCC members are
selected based upon recommendations from their teachers, community
organizations (religious organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc) and interviews.
They enter into a business, mentored by adults with expertise, that serves Main
Street at subsidized rates for several years before moving into the permanent
workforce. The MSCC is promoted to local businesses as a training program
that provides a credential and training pipeline into local jobs. These local
businesses become vested in the program as well and volunteer to help develop
the MSCC services as well.
The huge gap in public services for Main Street citizens provides the
opportunity to create important local work that the community will relish. The
neoliberal era of stripped-down public goods creates an opportunity to create a
jobs program that is directly responsive to Main Street’s local needs for public
services. In practice, I envision that the choice of community services would be
crowdsourced, with local Main Street communities developing and then voting
on sustainable community services that they would most value. We can also
devise these ideas through market research, which we’ve started to do. As part of
the research, we interviewed twenty-five social service workers who spoke to us
about the service gaps that impact Main Street citizens most acutely. From these
gaps, I have inferred a variety of MSCC services that also align with
environmental sustainability concerns. For example:
Home Energy Conservation. Main Street families often struggle to pay high
utility bills because they live in poorly insulated homes, yet don’t have the
money to pay for the needed repairs. This is a “low-hanging fruit” sustainability
initiative that a community jobs corps can effectively deliver. Main Street
doesn’t have the time to work their way through the paperwork and contractors
and financing to do it themselves. Government initiatives are woefully
underfunded despite efforts by the Obama administration. MSCC can provide a
simple standardized weatherization service, which they can offer door-to-door,
the cost of which can then be added to utility bills over the following year.
Parks Daycare. For Main Street public parks are the most important oasis for
leisure. MSCC provides outdoor daycare at low subsidized rates to provide kids
with healthy and safe outdoor play and parents with a convenient way to further
enjoy parks.
Work Shuttles. Main Street workers rely on older cars, often neglecting
maintenance, and so consistently have car trouble, which keeps them from
getting to work and adds big expenses to their lives. Bus services in Main Street
neighborhoods are seldom organized to efficiently transport workers to their
jobs. MSCC provides shuttle services to the major businesses in the community
(e.g., JBS and the two call centers in Greeley) at inexpensive subsidized rates.
Convenient Healthy Foods shops. Main Street suffers from high rates of obesity
and diabetes because they live on diet of artificially-cheap heavily-processed
carbohydrates. MSCC runs a network of small retail stores, located in Main
Street neighborhoods, that provide healthy prepared meals at subsidized rates
(further subsidized by sourcing from various food banks).
Social innovation concepts like MSCC can provide a concrete pathway
for Main Street families to pursue the sort of self-reliance and economic security
that they dream of, while building local community around desperately needed
services. Along the way, they become immersed in the sustainable economy and
learn its value first-hand. Imagine walking through the neighborhood seeing
crews with MSCC uniforms who are insulating homes, providing recreation for
children in the parks, preparing meals, and driving shuttles for workers? By
launching businesses that deliver on environmental sustainability, the MSCC
could provide a visceral lived example of the kind of alternative economy that
sustainability campaigners wish to promote. If the movement successfully
launched a handful of MSCCs around the country as “showcase” projects, and
then promoted the successes, other communities would catch on quickly, and we
would see sustainable economy concept scale much more quickly than is
possible with the communication-centered campaigning approach that the
movement now relies upon.
I argue that the sustainable economy movement is inadvertently pursuing
a dead-end strategy. The movement shines a light on the subcultural pockets of
what I call sustainable bohemia as microcosmic models for the societal
transformation we need. Activists work tirelessly to bring citizens from outside
the movement into this fold, proclaiming that this life is better, people are
happier, social life is more pleasant. While, given the focus of this edited
volume, I use Julie Schor’s Plenitude as an exemplar, her book is by no means
exceptional in this respect. Schor’s arguments and calls-to-action are situated
within a strategy paradigm that has long been taken-for-granted by the major
actors in the space, from the foundations and NGOs that promote sustainable
economy, to major academic bodies that organize knowledge on the subject (e.g.,
SCORE and SCORAI), to other movement leaders such as Bill McKibben and
Gus Speth.
Narrating the movement’s successes certainly plays a valuable role, as it
does in all movements: it builds solidarity and identity and focus within the
movement. However, such rhetoric is necessarily inwardly-focused: the stories
activists tell each other are not necessarily the best campaigning tools to diffuse
the movement to a broader public. Rather, this approach often leads to what I
call a cultural chasm. Successful campaigns must be crafted to identify with the
worldview of the most opportune prospects, in this case Main Street. Because the
movement does not even try to engage Main Street’s most pressing life issues, it
is perceived as irrelevant.
Even more problematic from a strategic viewpoint is the fact that the
movement’s rhetoric has been wedded to a wide variety of sustainable bohemia-
branded goods and services favored by Bobos for its identity symbolism. Bobos
embrace sustainable bohemia ideology to demonstrate that they are deeply
concerned about the earth’s problems and that they take seriously their role as
virtuous worldly citizens. But their superficial embrace through consumer rituals
is ecologically meaningless and politically detrimental. They are locked into
BAU because they benefit enormously both in economic and status terms and so
will not give it up. Hence, this alignment is a strategic dead end.
Moreover, this unintended embrace between the movement and Bobos
has led to a problematic unintended cultural consequence: it has forged a class
divide that alienates Main Street, pushing them away from movement ideology.
To the extent that sustainable economy ideology is used by elites to claim moral
superiority while continuing to be happily ensconced in the BAU economy, they
are badly damaging the sustainable economy brand. They provide rhetorical
ammunition to Main Street to see it as something frivolous that people who are
“full of themselves” pursue—what “the people in Boulder do” as one of my
Denver informants dismissively proclaimed. The movement must repudiate the
use of its ideology as empty status symbolism and, instead, focus single-
mindedly on improving Main Street lives.
To do so, the movement must take seriously Main Street concerns and
shape its “offering” accordingly. If it is to be viable, the movement must take
leadership in launching community-level social innovations that create
sustainable economy jobs by offering sustainable services that the community
really needs. The MSCC is a speculative idea, and perhaps the wrong one. But
imagine how Main Street would react if all of the sustainable economy
movement’s community organizing, cultural influence, financial resources, and
political power were focused squarely on a strategy that built this sort of
sustainable economy initiative in the localities that most desperately need them?
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Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.
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__________ and Douglas Cameron. 2010. Cultural Strategy: Using Innovative
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Krugman, Paul. 2007. The Conscience of a Liberal. NY: Norton.
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Durable Future. New York, NY: Times Books.
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... People living in local societies understand best which socioeconomic, technological and other contexts enable or constrain actions in a given area [114]. Holt asserts that "entering their lives, understanding their dreams and anxieties" [115] is needed to identify real-world concerns, needs and opportunities for change. Arguably, we should consider the benefits of scaling down, in addition to or instead of scaling up ideas and actions to reflect better the diverse and dynamic framings of climate actions among citizens [116] and pay attention to the creativity of actions anchored in people's everyday lives, which are sometimes not as "conspicuous" as tangible movements but are still influential in shaping climate mitigation and adaptation on the ground [117]. ...
... Whitmarsh et al. [119] suggest that Carbon Capability for transformation to decarbonised societies comprises the ability to make decisions, act, practice, and engage in deep change. Thus, the changes must go beyond what can be addressed by individual and household consumer behaviour and include broader engagement, such as community actions and civic movements [70,115,120,121]. However, such crosscutting collaboration and mutual learning with actors from diverse backgrounds can bring about conflict in framing, including reasons for various actions, concerns, and desires for the future society [100,101,103,109,116,122,123], reflecting the diverse resources and capacities [74,110,112,124]. ...
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There is a growing recognition of the urgent need to change citizens’ lifestyles to realise decarbonised societies. Consumption-based accounting (carbon footprinting) is a helpful indicator for measuring the impacts of peoples’ consumption on climate change by capturing both direct and embedded carbon emissions. However, while carbon footprinting can propose impactful behaviour changes to reduce carbon footprints immediately, it may deflect people’s attention from the much needed but time-consuming efforts to reshape the “systems of provisions” to enable decarbonised living. To propose a more constructive application of carbon footprinting, the paper examines the three cases of using carbon footprinting derived from the 1.5-degree lifestyles project, including citizens’ discussions and experiments in six cities in 2020 and 2021, citizens’ workshops contributing to the local policy development in 2022, and lectures and mini-workshops since 2020. Based on the examination of the cases, the article argues the broader purposes of using scientific data in citizens’ engagement in climate actions, namely to help deepen understanding of the systemic causes of the incumbent carbon-intensive society, to guide discussions on the desired conditional changes to support lifestyles shifts, and to help identify possible risks or negative consequences of changes to specific groups in society. These benefits contribute to developing relevant stakeholders’ essential capacities to promote changes at the individual, collective and public levels toward decarbonised societies.
... In this view, conscious consumption practices serve to signal an elevated cultural status and respond to class distinction strategies deployed within the moral realm. Yet, HCCs' embeddedness in the dominant production system prevents them from embracing truly sustainable lifestyles and constrains them to performing symbolic acts of consumption (Holt, 2014). Increasingly, however, "responsible" forms of consumption that consist in marginally changing one's consumption behavior are being criticized for having little effect on the social and environmental problems that motivate them (Csutora, 2012;Koskenniemi, 2019;Thøgersen and Crompton, 2009), while consumption restraint is being presented as the only truly effective solution to sustainability issues (Black, 2010;Jackson, 2008;Kropfeld et al., 2018). ...
... Becoming a voluntary simplifier has been described as a demanding process (Boström, 2022), highly constrained by a social pressure to consume (Shaw and Newholm, 2002) and the necessity to conform to dominant socio-cultural norms (Ballantine et al., 2011;McGouran and Prothero, 2016). Adopting a simple lifestyle is especially challenging for HCCs, who also tend to be upper middle class and are deeply embedded in the structures that produce the dominant market ideology (Holt, 2014). Having grown up in a consumer culture and benefiting from rather secure and comfortable economic positions, these individuals "are not interested in joining a subculture or movement," argues Holt (2014: 211); instead, they consume the myth of sustainability in a ritualistic and conspicuous manner. ...
Practices and preferences of high cultural capital consumers are being reconfigured as a consequence of their incorporated ecological and social concerns. Yet, while their status and tastes are primarily influenced by their cultural position, their consumption logics also reflect their economic situation, which tends to be relatively secure and comfortable. As the limits of ethically-labeled substitution strategies are being exposed, high cultural capital consumers are forced to reconsider their living standards. In this context, the spread of online gifting communities in rather well-off and highly-educated neighborhoods suggests that thrift practices are popularizing, while being ethicized, among advantaged individuals. How does thrift fit into these consumers’ lifestyles? To what extent does it contribute to alleviate the tensions between their ethical principles and material standards? Through an analysis of thirty-five semi-structured interviews with participants in online gifting communities, this study finds that the adoption of thrift practices by high cultural capital consumers is indeed largely motivated by anti-consumerist concerns. Yet, the extent to which these consumers incorporate them in their everyday lives is conditioned by their position within the dominant consumption field, itself partially determined by their economic status. While trash-avoiding practices are highly consistent among respondents and align with their declared aversion to material waste, consumption reduction strategies vary by income level and are influenced by conventional logics of consumption. By adapting critically-motivated practices to their existing consumption patterns, these high cultural capital consumers redefine ethical consumption from within the broader field of consumption, not simply opposing it. At the same time, they legitimize its contesting dimension, revealing a dialectical relation between ethical and conventional consumption.
... By purchasing brands and goods that signify a heightened social consciousness (e.g., Fair Trade coffee; TOMS shoes, organic, locally sourced foods), they can feel symbolically absolved from culpability in the perpetuation of socioeconomic inequalities. Consequently, their habituated class predilections also create an ideological blind spot toward the exclusionary signals that conscious capitalist ideals and values convey to those who lack the economic and cultural resources needed to fully participate in a middle-class lifestyle (Holt 2014). ...
... Our Slow Food advocates use the humanistic rebel strategy to redress the authenticity challenge posed by the elitist critique's connotation of social exclusion and the related sociological argument that consumers' social class backgrounds structurally predetermine their taste affinities (Holt 1998). From this critical viewpoint, Slow Food advocates may not consciously intend to be elitists but their preferences for goods that convey meanings of sustainability, locavorism, and artisanship betray a host of class advantages that distinguish them from consumers whose lives are marked by conditions of necessity (Holt 2014). While Slow Food advocates may be well intentioned (i.e., they are being "not inauthentic"), they are also complicit in a system of institutionalized class-based inequities. ...
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This research analyzes the cultural contradictions of authenticity as they pertain to the actions of consumers and marketers. Our conceptualization diverges from the conventional assumption that the ambiguity manifest in the concept of authenticity can be resolved by identifying an essential set of defining attributes or by conceptualizing it as a continuum. Using a semiotic approach, we identify a general system of structural relationships and ambiguous classifications that organize the meanings through which authenticity is understood and contested in a given market context. We demonstrate the contextually adaptable nature of this framework by analyzing the authenticity contradictions generated by the cultural tensions between conscious capitalism—a market logic that encompasses both global brands and small independent businesses, such as a farm-to-table restaurant or an organic food co-op—and the elitist critique. The Slow Food movement provides our case study for analyzing how consumers, producers, and entrepreneurs who identify with conscious capitalist ideals understand these disauthenticating, elitist associations and the strategies they use to counter them. We conclude by discussing implications of our analysis for theories of authenticity and for managing the authenticity challenges facing conscious capitalist brands.
... By far the largest group of consumers are those in the middle -who are low-to-moderate on environmental concern and moderate on need for status are likely to engage in conventional (over) consumption as they care about status or at the very least, they are concerned about losing status if observers associate their reduced consumption with financial constraints (Sekhon and Armstrong Soule 2020). Past research suggests that most "main street" consumers are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues and might consider environmental concern as a luxury that only elites could afford (Holt 2014). In fact, any messaging focused on prosocial benefits of sacrificing one's consumption or lifestyle for the greater good might actually turn them off. ...
Anti-consumption is arguably the most impactful environmentally friendly behavior but can be very challenging for consumers and antithetical to marketing. However, it may be possible for brands to support consumers in difficult anti-consumption actions. This paper demonstrates that a conspicuous signal communicating environmental motives can encourage anti-consumption, particularly for consumers least likely to do so without it. Real social media behavioral data and two experiments show that willingness to engage in anti-consumption practices can be enhanced with use of conspicuous anti-consumption signals, specifically for consumers low-to-moderate on environmental concern and moderate-to-high on need for status, while increasing willingness-to-pay. This type of consumer is unlikely to be intrinsically motivated to reduce consumption and much more common than extremely green consumers, potentially resulting in very large positive impact. If more brands support reduced consumption, the dominant social paradigm around marketing and ever-increasing consumption could begin to shift for the good of the planet.
... gibi web sitelerinde, Orion, Utne Reader gibi dergilerde, Guardian gibi gazetelerde de bu yaklaşım yaygındır. 23 Amerikalı ekonomi bilimci Juliet Schor tarafından küresel ekonominin yarattığı zararları azaltacak çözüm önerilerini sunduğu "bolluk" nosyonu, daha iyi bir gelecek projesi içerir ve sürdürülebilirlik çalışmaları gibi en yeni yeşil teknolojilere uyumlu olmamızı ister. Tıpkı paylaşım ekonomisi gibi bolluk ekonomisi de kollektif sorun-lara mikro-eylemlerle makro-dengeyi koruma amacındaki tüketimin azaltılarak, eşyaların ve hizmetlerin paylaşılmasını kapsamakta ve bu ekonomi günümüzün çevre sorunlarına bir çare olarak sunulmaktadır. ...
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z: Modern XXI. yüzyılın başlarında dünyanın karşılaştığı en önemli kriz, ekolojik krizdir. Bu krizi önleyecek çarelerden biri ise sürdürülebilirliktir. 2000'lerde ortaya atılan, pek çok makalede özellikle işletme alanının makalelerinde göz kamaştırıcı bir başlık olarak yer alan sürdürülebilirlik kavramı, bu makalenin konusunu teşkil etmektedir. Her ne kadar içerdiği anlam "zararsız", hatta "yararlı" gibi görünse de, aslında sürdürülebilirliğin tüketim ve medya yoluyla verili toplumsal sistemin kendini yeniden üretecek toplumsal koşulları yarattığı, çevreyi korumaya dönük gibi görünen anlamının ise kapitalizmin bu yönünü mistifiye ettiği ortaya çıkmaktadır. Bu görüşten hareketle bu yazı, sürdürebilirlik nosyonunun ortaya çıkmasına neden olan ve sürdürülebilirliği ortaya çıkaran tüketim ile tüketimde medyanın oynadığı rolü eleştirel bir perspektiften tartışmaktadır.
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Twenty years of major policy and activist interventions that seek to promote sustainable consumption have been guided by what I term the ethical values paradigm, despite that this paradigm has significant conceptual flaws and has not produced impressive results. This article critiques the ethical values paradigm and proposes an alternative by adapting the market constructionist paradigm. The author analyzes the development of the American market for bottled water and demonstrates that this unsustainable consumption is an unintended consequence of the construction of a consumption ideology that is specific to the bottled water market, what the author terms ideological lock-in. This model explains why activist interventions have not worked and points the way toward more effective strategies. The author argues that we should reallocate the vast government, NGO, and foundation sustainability investments from promoting consumer value transformations toward a federation of market-focused social movements aimed at leapfrogging the ideological lock-in in key unsustainable markets.
How serious are the threats to our environment? Here is one measure of the problem: if we continue to do exactly what we are doing, with no growth in the human population or the world economy, the world in the latter part of this century will be unfit to live in. Of course human activities are not holding at current levels-they are accelerating, dramatically-and so, too, is the pace of climate disruption, biotic impoverishment, and toxification. In this book Gus Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning and a widely respected environmentalist, begins with the observation that the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to decline, to the point that we are now at the edge of catastrophe. Speth contends that this situation is a severe indictment of the economic and political system we call modern capitalism. Our vital task is now to change the operating instructions for today's destructive world economy before it is too late. The book is about how to do that.
Using a vast swath of data spanning the past six decades, Unequal Democracy debunks many myths about politics in contemporary America, using the widening gap between the rich and the poor to shed disturbing light on the workings of American democracy. Larry Bartels shows the gap between the rich and poor has increased greatly under Republican administrations and decreased slightly under Democrats, leaving America grossly unequal. This is not simply the result of economic forces, but the product of broad-reaching policy choices in a political system dominated by partisan ideologies and the interests of the wealthy. Bartels demonstrates that elected officials respond to the views of affluent constituents but ignore the views of poor people. He shows that Republican presidents in particular have consistently produced much less income growth for middle-class and working-poor families than for affluent families, greatly increasing inequality. He provides revealing case studies of key policy shifts contributing to inequality, including the massive Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 and the erosion of the minimum wage. Finally, he challenges conventional explanations for why many voters seem to vote against their own economic interests, contending that working-class voters have not been lured into the Republican camp by "values issues" like abortion and gay marriage, as commonly believed, but that Republican presidents have been remarkably successful in timing income growth to cater to short-sighted voters. Unequal Democracy is social science at its very best. It provides a deep and searching analysis of the political causes and consequences of America's growing income gap, and a sobering assessment of the capacity of the American political system to live up to its democratic ideals.
Is more economic growth the solution? Will it deliver prosperity and well-being for a global population projected to reach nine billion? In this explosive book, Tim Jackson a top sustainability adviser to the UK government makes a compelling case against continued economic growth in developed nations. No one denies that development is essential for poorer nations. But in the advanced economies there is mounting evidence that ever-increasing consumption adds little to human happiness and may even impede it. More urgently, it is now clear that the ecosystems that sustain our economies are collapsing under the impacts of rising consumption. Unless we can radically lower the environmental impact of economic activity and there is no evidence to suggest that we can we will have to devise a path to prosperity that does not rely on continued growth. Economic heresy? Or an opportunity to improve the sources of well-being, creativity and lasting prosperity that lie outside the realm of the market? Tim Jackson provides a credible vision of how human society can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet. Fulfilling this vision is simply the most urgent task of our times. This book is a substantially revised and updated version of Jackson's controversial study for the Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the UK Government. The study rapidly became the most downloaded report in the Commission's nine year history when it was launched earlier this year. In 2017, PWG was published in a second, substantially revised and re-written edition that updates the arguments and considerably expands upon them.
While the American Dream remains a unifying cultural tenet for an increasingly diverse society, it may be showing signs of wear. Growing income inequality and slower growth suggest that now is an important moment to review the facts about opportunity and mobility in America and to attempt to answer the basic question: Is the American Dream alive and well? This report summarizes research and provides new evidence on both the extent of intergenerational mobility in the United States and the factors that influence it. In sum, the research reviewed herein leads us to the view that the glass is half empty and half full. The American Dream is alive if somewhat frayed. Chapter I of this report provides new data on how today's families are faring relative to their parents. Most of the historical analysis, detailed in Chapter II, reveals that there has been no strong trend in relative mobility since about 1970, although a few studies suggest that relative mobility may have declined. The international comparisons analyzed in Chapter III reveal that there is less relative mobility in the United States than in many other rich countries. Chapter IV, which reviews the current data on wealth and its effects on intergenerational mobility, concludes that parent-child wealth correlations are similar to parent-child income correlations but that each generation does have a reasonable shot at accumulating assets. Finally, chapters V, VI, and VII look beyond the story for all families to examine how mobility may have varied for men and women, for blacks and whites, and for immigrants and native-born Americans. Appended are: (1) The PSID Sample and Family Income; (2) Non-Cash Contributions to Family Economic Well-Being; (3) Four-Part Typology of Economic Mobility of Sons and Daughters; (4) Four-Part Typology: Economic Mobility of White and Black Families; and (5) Research Literature on Black-White Differences in Intergenerational Income Mobility. (Each chapter contains tables, figures, notes, and resources.)