Innovating Using Limits

Applying Takeaways from Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics”

Published 2024/04/19

In May of 2008, Wendell Berry published an essay titled “Faustian Economics” in Harper’s Magazine. At a time where only 7% of the current repository of degrowth-related publications had been released, this essay stands as one of the first examples of “applied degrowth”. In this essay, the concept of “degrowth” is not even explicitly defined, but a vision for what cultural changes would be required to ensure society stays within planetary boundaries is explored instead. Given the increased level of sophistication of debates surrounding this topic (and the unfortunate lack of overall cultural progress towards these visions) over the last 16 years, this article will highlight some important takeaways from the essay and attempt to provide some modern ideas on how to achieve the desired outcomes. Special thanks to Makella Brems for sharing Berry’s article for review.

“The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait.”

Throughout the essay, Berry effectively uses references to theology and religious practices to describe the current cultural expectations of the West. Berry describes how society has acquired this “collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are ‘free’ to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens”. They recognize that this belief of a limitless world has been “indefensible” in culture - it represents the true, subtle, and unrecognized religion of our modern times.

Common Better’s Take: The attempt to define Religion is an apparently hotly contested topic in and of itself, as it has no clear, widely agreed-upon definition given the number of paradoxes that surround its use and understanding. Some popular attempts at defining religion include:

“A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”

“The body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices”

“A set of organized beliefs, practices, and systems that most often relate to the belief and worship of a controlling force”

“The feeling of absolute dependence”

While not exactly alike, these definitions all speak to a “force of desire” that influence people’s behaviours. What Berry’s article so interestingly reminds us is that religion and its associated behaviours do not necessarily have to involve an ancient, monotheistic figurehead - any collection of widely accepted practices by a group who perceive a dependence on these behaviours to survive, without fully understanding why, can be considered a religion. Western society’s dependence on capitalism and consumerism, then, could arguably fall into this category. This could also be why it has been so difficult for degrowth advocates to both communicate and ideate actionable alternatives to this system - their religious dependence on capitalist systems prevents them from fully understanding how to survive outside of said system. Therefore, if degrowth and other sustainable cultural shifts are to successfully proliferate, recognizing that the current neoliberal capitalist economic structure causing the degredation of planteary boundaries is, in fact, a religion, can be the first step in coming to terms with and understanding what an alternative might entail.

Next Steps: Try debating this conclusion with other sustainability-minded people to better understand how to live a more degrowth-aligned life. Do you find that admitting to the religious influence of consumerism helps to think about how to adopt the opposing religion of degrowth?

“People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine.”

Again, without specifically defining it (maybe because this essay was published before the terminology was coined and its definition successfully understood), Berry is referencing the downfall of what is now know as the ecomodernist “green growth” paradigm. As Berry explains, “green growth” is the sentiment of being able to reach planetary equilibrium through continued growth, however argues that “We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status”. Today, the purpose of post-growth movements such as degrowth are specifically defined in opposition to, and using these perceived issues with, “green growth” in mind.

Common Better’s Take: The politicization of “green growth” vs. “degrowth” as one of the only two possible successful outcomes to the world’s sustainability crisis is the result of people trying to simplify the problem down to seemingly more manageable parts. In truth, a true steady-state economy will only be accomplished by a combination of both strategies. Common Better believes that success will come if both strategies are pointed at specific elements of our society. Specifically, the desired and existing outputs of both movements need to be left aside for a moment, and the philosophies of both paradigms need to be combined and reimagined. For example,

Green growth values:

- Working towards achieving a long-term, steady-state relationship with the Earth’s available resources.

- Using economic trade to create value that incentivizes working towards this steady-state.

- Using human ingenuity to deliver novel mitigations to problems as they arise.

Degrowth values:

- Reducing overall consumer consumption to limit the demands of production.

- Individual and community well-being through equitable and collaborative behaviours

- Achieving fulfilment using non-material experiences over material goods

Using these examples of both movement’s philosophies, Common Better believes that:

- Achieving a long-term, steady-state relationship with the Earth’s available resources can be accomplished through equitable individual and community collaboration.

- The value of economic trade can be used to reduce overall consumer consumption demand, in the same way that it is currently being used to increase its demand.

- Human ingenuity can be fostered to think of ways for people to achieve fulfilment using non-material experiences over material goods.

Next Steps: Use Design Thinking brainstorming techniques to come up with ideas on how these combined philosophies can be achieved. What unique systems could be created to achieve elements of both green growth and degrowth simultaneously?

“We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we we are, what we have, what we have been given.”

Berry claims that we are living in an “economy of community destruction”, where “economic continuity and a common interest between the two partners of the trade” are no longer considered valuable. This “economy”, Berry argues, has been brought about by scientists and technicians, who “have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served”. To remedy this, Berry suggests that culture needs to change to operate within “self-imposed limits” and recognize the fact that “earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning”.

Berry concludes by describing how “it is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits”. While “in science one experiment…is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression”, in the arts “no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for…in the arts there are no second chances”. Therefore, it is the artistic process, rather than the scientific one, that Berry theorizes is the key to understanding how to effectively curb our destructive consumer behaviours and remedy our world.

Common Better’s Take: Similar to the previous Take, trying to frame the issues as “science” vs. “ art” is not nuanced enough to be effective. Combinations of strategies and behaviours from both fields are required to effectively deal with the issues outlined by Berry at the start of their essay. The quantitative analysis, documentation and peer-reviewed rigour of science combined with the experimental, philosophical and passionate applications of art are what create the foundation for the philosophy of Design Thinking - a framework that Common Better believes should be adopted and understood by more people wrestling with these issues. One interesting point from Berry here regards how art has “no second chances”. Practically applying Design Thinking still suffers from the issue of “prototyping” and “failing forward”, which can be useful if they are constrained. Therefore, when ideating on ways to shift culture, build systems and engage others around concepts such as degrowth, it is important to think about how to frame the “design problem” within the limits of what already exists, rather than relying on the expectation of being able to create something new in the future. By using the resources already available at our disposal to innovate and design mitigations to these wicked problems, designers, academics and businesses can ensure to maximize their resource use effectiveness first before engaging in quicker, easier, more wasteful alternatives.

Next Steps: When trying to think of ways to implement the “how” of degrowth in the real world, use Design Thinking to come up with ideas but only use existing products, systems and tools as part of your idea’s implementation. What do you come up with? What can you get done with what’s already out there? Is there anything significantly missing from your proposals? Why do you believe that creating a new product, system or tool would work better than combining whatever already exists?
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