Charles Mudede

If one wants a sense of how far our society has to go before reaching anything like the kind of culture (or economy) that's consistent with a world that has hard limits on the consumption and waste of natural resources, one only has to watch men (and it's almost always men) blowing leaves with a wind machine powered by gasoline. Though the purpose of this activity is to clear fallen leaves (or soil nutrients) from lawns and sidewalks, what it mostly produces is large amounts of waste in labor time, human ingenuity, and costly manufactured materials.

Indeed, not too long ago, while walking to Columbia City's light rail station, I observed three or so men blowing leaves that were also being blown every which way by the wind. The waste produced by this leaf blowing was as impressive as it was depressing. Here in Seattle, a nominally progressive city, a city that's even entertaining future visions of a Green New Deal, the use of leaf blowers is permitted with no checks or justification whatsoever. They are used everywhere, and heard everywhere, these machines that can be, when burning gasoline, as loud as chainsaws.

But to my point...

For those who desperately want something done to reverse global warming, raging rainforest fires, collapsing ice sheets, the very existence of leaf blowers presents in the mind's eye a pretty good idea of the distance between an economy that's actually efficient and the one we are now in, an economy whose contatus (growth without end) is dependent on the production of large of amounts of social, cultural, and natural waste. What we can see is that long before we even reach the extinction of the gas-powered lawnmower, we still have the gas-powered leaf blower. And a thick fog in the far, far distance obscures the extinction of single-family homes with their monster of waste-production, the lawn.

Now, let's quickly turn to Joseph Stiglitz, an economist who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, but who also wasted much of his intellectual brilliance on the formulation of baroque mathematical proofs that showed what anyone with little to no education already knows, namely that someone who is selling something knows more about the thing being sold than the person who is buying the said thing (the Stiglitzian theory goes by the fancy name information asymmetry). (By the way, the only reason why Stiglitz wasted his existential and mental resources on this pseudo-problem was to show other academic economists that markets are not inherently efficient.)

This is what Stiglitz wrote in the opening paragraph of a recent article, "It's time to retire metrics like GDP. They don't measure everything that matters," published by the Guardian:

The world is facing three existential crises: a climate crisis, an inequality crisis and a crisis in democracy. Will we be able to prosper within our planetary boundaries? Can a modern economy deliver shared prosperity? And can democracies thrive if our economies fail to deliver shared prosperity? These are critical questions, yet the accepted ways by which we measure economic performance give absolutely no hint that we might be facing a problem. Each of these crises has reinforced the fact that we need better tools to assess economic performance and social progress.
The accepted way of measuring economic health is the gross domestic product (GDP), which is "the sum of the value of goods and services produced within a country over a given period." The GDP, however, has nothing to say about what's happening to the environment, nor about how socially generated wealth is distributed among individuals. It is impersonal. It is objective. It is a force that's always pushing the backs of politicians and their voters. If it grows, all is well. If it doesn't, all is too bad.

But if we remove the GDP, what kind of economy will we have? To this question, Stiglitz has no real answer to offer. But at the heart of GDP, which is growth without end, is the notion of a kind of progress that can only lead to the production of useless things like wind blowers and lawnmowers and all manner of household appliances. A rake, so the thinking we are accustomed to goes, is old technology; and the wind blower is moving with the times. What needs to change with the extinction of the GDP as a measurement of economic health, then, is the idea of progress itself. What would a culture with progress not directed by growth without end look like? Here, my notion of horizontal rather than vertical progress provides a part of the answer.

This vertical/horizontal distinction was first explained in a 2014 Arcade Journal essay I wrote called "After Growth: Rethinking the Narrative of Modernization," and basically comes down to something like this:

In the past, development was about growing vertically, moving up to what was coded as a Western standard of living: homeownership, car ownership, high wages, low unemployment, crass consumerism, meat-rich diets and so on. But now that mode of life is proving to be problematic. For one, it is environmentally unsustainable; according to a 2012 infographic by blogger and journalist Tim De Chant, if all humans lived like Indians, we would need less than one earth; but if everyone lived like US Americans, we would need over four. And two, it is profoundly unhealthy (read Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank and Richard Jackson’s Urban Sprawl and Public Health). The vertical model is no longer realistic or desirable. But what can replace it? Horizontal development, a model that does not climb but enhances, improves what’s already available.

Horizontal development should not only be about simply funding sidewalks but funding world-class sidewalks, and this is indeed what we have learned from Bogotá. The idea is to leave infrastructure for cars at an underdeveloped level and make infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians world-class. This reallocation of resources not only saves lives by protecting bikers and walkers from industrial forms of transportation, but it also provides an excellent social
engineering tool.

By social engineering I mean tools that enhance what is distinct about our species (or mode of animal), which is hyper sociality. At present we are dominated by the production of tools that fragment this sociality. In his otherwise brilliant book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, the 20th century theoretical physicist David Bohm misidentifies this fragmentation as transhistorical (or as universal), when it is in fact specific to a historically determined mode of economic behavior that embeds market growth at the center of its culture. I will have more to say about Bohm's book and horizontal development in future posts.