Community and Connections: SCORAI 2017 Workshop

Community and Connections: Report on Day 2 of SCORAI 2017 Workshop: Bridging Research, Action, and Policy

Ethan Goffman

The second day of Bridging Research, Action, and Policy was more circuitous and variegated than Day 1, although the discussion did wend its way toward the main theme of connecting research and action on sustainable consumption.
Religion and community were key focal points. As one of the hosts of the workshop and an adherent of the Baha’i faith, Anthony Vance opened the day with a discussion of key Baha’i tenets: regarding all religions as guided by a series of prophets, considering religion and science as compatible, and calling for education of girls as well as boys. Vance explained that the Baha’i faith has room for a sensible patriotism, but sees a person’s highest loyalty as owed to the world. The Baha’i believe that we are in a unique period of transition toward a united global order, a transformation that has worked its way through the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the European Union, although it remains a work in progress. All in all, these tenets are strikingly similar to the sustainability ideal, clarifying why the Baha’i would host a workshop devoted to sustainable consumption. Indeed, these uplifting beliefs might prompt me to consider becoming Baha’i if I were not already fully committed to a vague spiritualism. My version of this admits I do not know the nature of a higher power or order that I believe exists. All in all, my amorphous faith demands little of me beyond trying to live the good life and treating other people—and, to an extent, other animals—well.

This makes me part of a trend, a member of the Nones, a growing group in the United States, as Ian Hamilton of the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs explained in his presentation. Overall, the number of mainline Christians (including Catholics) in the United States has declined from 78% in 2000 to 73% today. Many of those who left the faith have become Nones, not atheists but not believers in organized religion either; furthermore, the None trend is strongest among young people. Yet religious communities remain a huge influence in the country and have become an increasing part of the movement working to discredit scientific claims about climate change. Hamilton nonetheless noted “a moral imperative to climate action from faith groups,” and mentioned such organizations as Interfaith Power and Light, the Friends Service Committee, Green Muslims, and Ecosikh. All these faith organizations, he suggested, share the idea of creation care, that we are responsible for taking care of the world.
Religion is uniquely positioned to speak to people. Hamilton explained that the Pope’s climate change encyclical, Laudato Si, has led to massive Catholic engagement with the issue. Our faith communities are becoming instrumental in sustainability efforts. Further, since most religions ask for some kind of sacrifice, and many stress humility, sustainable consumption fits easily into existing faiths. Religious leaders, that is, can use existing institutions to disseminate ideas that stand in opposition to consumerism. In the discussion, Madalyn Ciocci mentioned how her Unitarian pastor had used the image of “a pair of dirty boots in the refrigerator” over an open tub of butter “to create a sense of disgust with consumption.” Faith traditions often call upon powerful images and metaphors to speak to deeper values.

How to transfer these ideas across the boundaries of faiths, and into secular communities, is a tricky challenge. To make matters worse, parts of many religious denominations disbelieve in climate change and, at least in the United States, are allied with the political right. Nevertheless, conservatives have historically been crucial to the environmental movement, particularly hunters and fishers, as Nichole Wissman-Weber pointed out in small group discussion. Overt right-wing hostility to climate change and other environmental issues is a new phenomenon, part of our ideologically rigid moment in American history. Still, Evangelicals and other conservative-aligned faith groups may not prove as inflexible as now appears. As Hamilton pointed out, “Evangelicals are not homogenous.” Young Evangelicals are changing even today, and parts of the country that now appear ideologically solid are in revolt from mainstream Republicanism may evolve drastically in the likely event that Trump, along with the current Republican majority, fails to better the circumstances of the white working-class base.

Ideological changes are crucial to developing a new economy based on sustainable consumption, even one aiming for that most horrible of words to a capitalist, “degrowth.” Yet, how do we make that work in practice, in an equitable way, and on a planet where the conventional middle classes of the United States and Europe have been hit hard? After all, the dispossession of the previously affluent provides the energy and anger that has been manifest in the political wave marked by Brexit, the election of Trump, and the ascendency of neo-Nazis in France.

My breakout group, with Maurie Cohen and Nichole Wissman-Weber, discussed ways to develop new economies, including cooperatives. We opened with the question of the “gig” economy as enabled by the Internet, which in practice has undercut earlier hopes of new technology freeing workers. Rather, it has accelerated the removal of security long promised by full-time employment. In creating a whole new class of contingent workers, the Internet gig economy has replicated earlier capitalist exploitation in that he (and it is usually a male) who owns the capital is able to control wages and labor conditions. Companies such as Uber have outcompeted more benign platforms through opportunism, using “disruptive” tactics to grab a huge part of the ride-sharing market. In other words, ruthless capitalism has swamped cooperative models in the gig economy that have been slow in getting off the ground.

How to remedy this situation? Cohen mentioned Juno, a new company that gives its drivers part ownership, as an alternative approach. I suggested that our whole model of ownership might be questionable, that those who work on a platform and add value should be entitled to an increased say in how it is run. This would restore the democratization originally promised by the Internet.

Yet the new gig economy is just the beginning of a technological revolution undermining traditional ideas of work, in which robots and artificial intelligence do more while individuals earn—and likely consume—less. Under these conditions, what should be the shape of a new economy? A universal basic income (UBI) is one long-discussed option that has proponents on the left and right, the latter attracted to the concept because its implementation could herald the end of the bureaucratic welfare state. Yet I worry about what would fill the gap in individual time. The nightmare vision is of obese, unmotivated individuals sitting on couches watching TV or, in a somewhat more uplifting mode, playing computer games. The utopian vision is a society of philosophers and artists freed from the constraint of work.

An alternative to UBI, or at least a first step, is shortened working hours. Cohen pointed out that in New Jersey, when government workers were furloughed a couple of days a month during the financial crisis, they at first resisted but came to enjoy the reduced hours, even with less pay. It seems that our work-spend cycle is induced by social expectations, but another lifestyle, with more leisure time and less consumption, can with a bit of trial and error be developed and eventually appreciated. As Wissman-Weber pointed out, there is a link between increased hours and consuming more, such as packaged food. So fewer working hours might mean not just less money but a reduced psychological need to consume.

Another positive, although perhaps superficial, trend toward sustainable consumption is the movement toward organic and local food. Coupled with Millennials appearing less committed than prior generations to a lifestyle of suburban sprawl and unremitting car dependence, the conditions may be ripe for change. Can this moment of employment and debt crisis, but also of apparent value reconsideration, be turned toward a deeper version of the sustainable life? For their discussion group, Halina Brown and Phillip Vergragt reported on a window of opportunity in which “Millennials living sustainably now may or may not” transfer to the suburbs as they marry, move into mid-careers, and have kids (if their debt status allows them to). The question is economic, but also social in “how they identify themselves as a group with a valuable lifestyle.” In this, the discussion harked back to Kelley Dennings’ presentation on a New Dream campaign to reduce the exchange of material gifts in favor of social experiences. Such an effort replicates earlier social marketing campaigns to increase seat belt use and reduce smoking.

Marketing techniques, that is, can be used to help society, not just to sell more stuff. The question is whether organizations such as New Dream, with minuscule budgets, can defeat the multiple campaigns of corporate behemoths. It is not just David versus Goliath, it is David versus a horde of Goliaths.

If there is an acceptable answer—and there might not be—it lies in the deeper values of existing religious organizations in combination with movements toward alternative lifestyles and with nascent resistance to Trump. The question is whether these diverse strands will ever cohere into anything meaningful. It is possible that the research conducted by SCORAI, in collaboration with a network of other organizations—religious, activist, governmental, policy—will have some lasting historical significance in generating a movement toward sustainable consumption.

As the conference moved toward a close, news arrived of a huge electoral victory in France, the defeat of the insurgent candidacy of Marine Le Pen. Perhaps the wave of anger has broken and the anti-globalist, anti-European Union, anti-immigrant, and often racist forces will be beaten back? Yet the election’s victor, Emmanuel Macron, appears to be another neoliberal, certainly not an advocate for the sustainable consumption message. Undoubtedly, many French voted simply for the lesser of two evils—and we know that many refused to vote at all. Macron’s version of sustainability—if he has one—likely relies on an imbued faith in technology, not a lifestyle change. The message of sustainable consumption is faint among political actors making actual decisions. Perhaps some of this can be carried forward at the city level, or by white papers issued by the United Nations. Yet sustainable consumption will never happen without a broader movement. Figuring out ways to spark this development, for research to become reality as part of a broad and inclusive coalition, is a key message of the conference.