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Political Appointments and Sustainability

December 31, 2016

Since this is a blog about sustainability and social enterprise, I thought I’d end the year with one about sustainability and politics. In particular, a contrarian view of Mick Mulvaney, trumps pick to head the OMB.

I say contrarian because a Grist headline on December 22nd was this: “Trump’s pick to head the federal budget questions whether the government should fund science.”

Initially that headline bothered me, and then I suspected it was supposed to bother me – and other readers of Grist. As anyone that has watched The Smart State, a 48-minute documentary released in 2015, realizes, it has largely been government research that has led development (you know, research and then development). But then I began thinking. Is it, from a sustainability point of view, necessarily a bad thing that the head of OMB questions whether government should fund science? Hear me out.

There are many roots to sustainability. Carl Mitcham, in “The Concept of Sustainable Development: Its Origins and Ambivalence” (Technology in Society 17, 3, pp. 311-326) identified the British economist E.F. Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful, 1973) and the “intermediate technology” movement as one of the roots.

The intermediate technology movement morphed into the appropriate and then the alternative technology movements, which in turn spawned the term “alternative agriculture.” Alternative agriculture gave scope and life to arguments for organic farming, which has become closely associated with what is now closely associated with what is explicitly called “sustainable agriculture.”

During the 1960s and early seventies, the Intermediate Technology movement resonated strongly with the counterculture.1 (In this I am following the argument put forth in Jordon Kleiman’s 2000 doctoral dissertation entitled The Appropriate Technology Movement in American Political Culture, Department of History, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.) It also contributed significantly to the internal debates shaping the modern environmental movement. In subsequent decades, intermediate technologists, now often referred to as appropriate technologists, increasing focused on developing regional economies that would integrate sustainable agriculture in the countryside with ecologically designed cities. In an effort to reverse the concentration of economic power in the hands of large corporations and a centralized banking system, the movement attempted, and still attempts, to reshape public policy while promoting an array of “appropriate institutions,” including small businesses, cooperatives, community development banks and credit unions, microenterprise loan circles, local currencies, and community land trusts. See, for example, the ongoing work of organizations such as the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and The New Economy Coalition. There are other such organizations.

According to Kleiman, “Appropriate technologists” turn out to be neither “technophilic nor technophobic.” Their social vision, he writes, “meshes tightly with an abiding decentralist tradition rooted in Jeffersonian republicanism, populism, and, to a lesser degree, anarchism.”

So how does this merge with politics, today? One of the comments I heard E.F. Schumacher say in the mid-1970s, likely at a 1976 public appearance in Denver, Colorado, was this:

“If we could know more than we can know, then somewhere decisions are being made about what we will know.”

And those are political decisions. Link Schumacher’s insight to a comment made years later by an economist I knew at Colorado State University (where I earned my Ph.D. in economics, he was actually on my dissertation committee). Somewhere around 1983 (a guess) he commented that if one were doing research in industrial agriculture there were plenty of grants available to support the research, but if one were interested in organic agriculture it would be difficult to find support.2 Somewhere decisions were being made that we would know lots about industrial agriculture but little about organic agriculture.

Who would be making such decisions? It should be obvious, in light of the recent political campaigns, that it is corporate interests that have successfully overtaken U.S. policymaking and which has so inflamed the populist sentiments in not only our country but across the globe. So it might not be a terrible thing if Mick Mulvaney heads the OMB and cuts off government support of scientific research, if he can. It would put traditional, corporate, crony capitalist and industrially oriented (and supposedly “free market”) research and development on a more even par (as far as government support is concerned) with research “rooted in Jeffersonian republicanism, populism, and, to a lesser degree, anarchism”—that is, research grounded in the values of sustainability that supports small businesses, cooperatives, community development banks and credit unions, microenterprise loan circles, local currencies like Berkshares, and community land trusts.

Think about it!


1 If you are unfamiliar with the literature of appropriate technology and approrpaite scale, I recommend the following.

Leopold Kohr, The Overdeveloped Nations (1977).

If you can find a copy, read it. There is an interesting chapter in this book on consumption. Today we might call it over consumption. Kohr, by the way, was an economist, one you will never hear referred to in your economics texts. The same editorial holds for Max-Neef (see below).

Leopold Kohr (2001, originally 1957), The Breakdown of Nations, Green Books.

E. F. Schumacher (1973), Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper Torchbooks. (Cudahy Main Stacks HB171 .S384).

A classic, also treated in Sofia Guedes Vaz (editor), Environment: Why Read the Classics? Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing

Manfred A. Max-Neef at al. (1990), Human Scale Development: An Option for the Future, Uppsala, Sweden : CEPAUR, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

Manfred A. Max-Neef (1982), From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in “Barefoot Economics”, Uppsala, Sweden: Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation.

You can find You Tube videos of Max-Neef discussing his non-traditional view. Look for them. There may be more and more recent books by Max-Neef. If there are I have not read them. If you do (read them), let me know your take on them.

Jane Jacobs (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.  Cudahy Main Stacks (NA9108.J3)

Jane Jacobs (1969), The Economy of Cities. New York: Random House.  Lewis Main Stacks. (HB 171.M5452009)

Jane Jacobs (2000), The Nature of Economies. New York: Modern Library.  Lewis Main Stacks (HB 75.6.J3252000)

Jane Jacobs (2004), Dark Age Ahead. New York: Random House.  Cudahy Main Stacks (CB 19.J332004)

Kirkpatrick Sale (1980), Human Scale. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.

2  It has always been my belief that he was talking about himself.


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