A Just Transition to a Right-Sized Economy

What are the elements of a just transition to a smaller economic system? For example, imagine degrowth of material-intensive activities offset by growth in leisure. Or the freeing of time from the overworked to the underemployed.

In Herman Daly’s exploration of a steady-state economy, he reminds us of the writings of the social critic Bertrand Russell during the Great Depression. In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”, Bertrand proposes a thought experiment:

“Suppose that at a given moment a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

Published by Jon Erickson

Blittersdorf Professor of Sustainability Science & Policy University of Vermont

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