Juliet Schor’s True Wealth illustrates a rapidly-approaching world teeming with unsocial people insatiably chasing new technologies, products, and things while irreversibly destroying the world’s natural order. Ultimately this misguided population will exceed Earth’s carrying capacity, leading to mass death and deterioration of society. Later, Schor puts on her optimist goggles and explains steps society can take to mitigate this horrible future. This post provides a summary of her book; I hope if motivates you to indulge in this eye-opening read.
In the last century’s free-market economy, mass-production lowered prices of consumer goods which spurred a cycle of further consumption. Yesterday’s luxury goods became today’s norm; indoor plumbing and electricity, refrigerators, radios, vehicles, and TVs all quickly transformed from toys of the super wealthy to the norm inside all homes. As the rate of technological innovation devalued older, but still-useful products, the marketplace favored generic products based on the singular initial transaction while high quality, custom-made goods with lifetime service fell by the wayside.
This led to an unsustainable use of natural resources as labor, finance, and physical capital were the assumed limiting factors in production. Our environment was written-off as free and our planet’s degradation was not factored into pricing. As a result, new versions of products churned out ever-faster, while the still-functioning, yet “old” predecessors were tossed in landfills.
Mass production encouraged skill set specialization, meaning people worked solely on a limited scope of tasks within a niche job. They earned money to pay for the services and products they didn’t have the skills or time to handle themselves. Over time, this changed society’s expectations of purchasing: buy instead of producing at home. This fed the cycle where ever-more money must be earned to pay for every imaginable good or service. People were so specialized they couldn’t do the simplest task without other specialists to help, or simply didn’t have the time to do simple services like cleaning the house.
A compounding side-effect is people paid large sums of money to learn specific skill sets so they could earn sufficient money to buy all the “necessities” in life. This oftentimes forced people into careers they were not passionate about because they felt they didn’t have a choice in their life’s work, rather it was expected of them to fit into society, or they couldn’t change jobs once they fell out of interest. This fueled emotional degradation in a dangerously-high percentage of the population.
As specialized skill sets of people moved to larger cities and away from smaller communities their social connections oftentimes centered around an affinity for products or services such as favorite TV shows, sports teams, or vehicle brands. The relatively more superficial bonds between these people differed from the traditional deep bonds formed under the stresses and joys of shared geography and family, further hurting society’s emotional health.
In short, today’s society is marked by highly specialized workers who are trapped in an endless cycle of working more hours to earn more money from the jobs they don’t like to pay for the ecologically-disastrous mountain of things they feel they need to keep fitting into their shallow social circles.
This is madness and must stop! Schor flips the scenario in the case for plenitude, describing true wealth as a new allocation of time, self-provision, true materialism, and restoring investments in one another and communities. She claims our society can reverse the ecological and social damage committed by the era of mass production and consumerism by simply readjusting the economies of time, creativity, community and consumption.
She makes the case for minimalism without mentioning the term: “the less one has to buy, the less one is required to earn.” She advocates for a return to self-provisioning. In this new world, each household would capitalize on a renewed abundance of time by leaving specialized jobs and performing tasks such as child and elderly care, education, home-cooking, sewing, do-it-yourself construction projects, planting gardens, and naturally preserving food.
She isn’t advocating for a complete ditching of modern society, rather a refocus towards less hours spent in the formal economy and more spent reinvesting in these skills. By doing this, people could once again choose their life’s work, develop deep social and community bonds, reinvigorate the natural world, and ultimately live richly, or with plenitude, in a way that is more meaningful.
I found this book spoke to many of the ideas floating in my head. After reading it I was better able to articulate my positions on today’s societal trends and how I wanted to live my life differently from those influences. I recommend this read, and as such provide an Amazon Affiliates link here for you to purchase it if you so desire (and can’t get it at your local library!).
If you liked this, check out: Passion-Driven Life.