Juliet Schor

Juliet Schor

Juliet Schor is professor of sociology at Boston College and a member of the MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Schor received her PhD in economics at the University of Massachusetts.

Her most recent book is Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. Previous books include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, among other titles. Widely credited for influencing the national debate on work and family, The Overworked American appeared on the best-seller lists of The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and The Boston Globe, as well as numerous annual best books lists.

Schor is a former Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language from the National Council of Teachers of English. In 2006 she received the Leontief Prize from the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University for expanding the frontiers of economic thought. She has served as a consultant to the United Nations, at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, and to the United Nations Development Program.

Schor is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans’ lifestyles and the economy and the emergence of a conscious consumption movement. She is a co-founder and co-chair of the board of the Center for a New American Dream, a national sustainability organization. In addition to the foregoing, she is a co-founder of the South End Press and the Center for Popular Economics; a former trustee of Wesleyan University; an occasional faculty member at Schumacher College; and a former fellow of the Brookings Institution. Schor has lectured widely throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan and appears frequently in national and international media.

Vision Statement on Confronting Comfort:
Challenges to Urban Cultures

As we think about the challenges facing cities around the world, poverty and burgeoning slums are the most pressing, particularly in the global South. Huge metropolises experience steady inflows of poor people losing livelihoods in rural areas and waves of in-migrants looking for economic opportunity. Arriving in cities, they move to vast shantytowns and slums with intolerable conditions, including a lack of safe water and basic infrastructure, numerous environmental hazards, and in many cases minimal economic opportunity. That is the salient reality of cities in the 21st century.

In the global North, the situation is rather different, although these issues are relevant to some extent. Thinking particularly about New York, I identify three major challenges.

First, how can the city, like the rest of the nation (and the world, of course), become ecologically sustainable? While New York is an admirably low-footprint place due to its high density, excellent public transportation, walkability, and a number of other factors, true sustainability will require considerably more. I am thinking particularly of the enormous (90%) carbon-footprint reductions that will be necessary to address climate change, closing the production loop with a paradigm shift to zero waste, nontoxic methods, and a move to organic and sustainable agriculture. At the level of the city, I envision a number of design and infrastructural changes that would facilitate this sustainability revolution. Central among them is urban food production. The Cuban example shows that food miles and pesticide and fertilizer use can be slashed, and that local food production can meet a significant fraction of caloric requirements within an urban environment. We also need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Realistically, we’ll have to reduce energy demand at the same time. Retrofitting both residential and commercial buildings and ensuring that new construction emits no carbon are key parts of this strategy. The latter can be achieved through the use of renewables for heat and electricity, including the implementation of latest-generation passive solar technology. On the demand side, enhancing the subway system and revamping the bus system to increase speed, reduce footprint, and dramatically expand ridership and service is very important. (I am thinking here of a Curitiba, Brazil–style system.)

Second, what economic transformation will support the shift to sustainability? A key challenge for New York, and other urban cores in the global North, is to enhance economic opportunity. Large numbers of jobs have been outsourced from cities, which are increasingly zones of consumer culture, entertainment, and pleasure that attract tourists, suburbanites, and the like. But that model of development has not worked to keep the urban economy vibrant, nor provided sufficient jobs and income for residents. The sustainable city of the future will return to a more balanced mix of production and consumption, in which jobs and opportunity are relocalized. I see this happening in part through the sustainability transformations noted above. So, for example, the growth of an urban food sector could function as an important generator of jobs and livelihood for urban residents. Retrofitting and the expansion of public transportation could do the same. I am interested in small-scale enterprises, particularly those with innovative ownership forms such as cooperatives. In Cleveland, an initiative to recruit inner-city residents into four green cooperatives has been particularly dynamic and is already attracting interest from cities around the country. There, local, green production both reduces the ecological and carbon footprint and creates economic assets (shares of the businesses) for residents.

Finally, what do these changes imply for the way urbanites spend their time? In the contemporary city, and New York is an archetype here, many residents work long hours, lead very busy lives, and have little time to build social capital and involve themselves in civic life. A key feature of future sustainable cultures will be a less time-pressured life, more social connection, and shorter working hours in formal-sector jobs. The reasons for this are varied, but in a nutshell, sustainability will require a shift out of the high-intensity work-and-spend, high-growth lifestyles and economies that have characterized wealthy countries for the past few decades. Time-stressed households have higher ecological and carbon footprints. To achieve the kinds of production and consumption patterns we currently understand as necessary for true one-planet living (i.e., an eco footprint in the range of two hectares per person), individuals will need to live less harried, more time-abundant lives. They will do more walking and biking, will share more, and will have more opportunity and time to foster deep social connections and participatory, rather than highly commodified, leisure. Many social scientists, including myself, believe that there will be significant benefits for economically secure individuals who adopt lifestyles that are more time-rich and less oriented to increased income and consumption. These benefits will come in the form of increased opportunity to do enjoyable things, and the possibility for denser and more meaningful social connection. In cities where people work less, we can expect a more vibrant public and civic life, stronger neighborhoods, and more public culture. These are key aspects of cities’ appeal.

—Juliet Schor

Photo: © Gary Gilbert

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