Two features stand out in the nlr debate on eco-strategy. First, the contributors—whether arguing for a green new deal, like Robert Pollin, or for degrowth, half-earthing or a ‘steady-state’ economy to limit humanity’s impact on the planet, as the other authors do—advance a view of the relation between the productive economy and the biosphere that is largely gender-blind.footnote1 They fail to recognize the role of reproductive work in mediating between nature and ‘the economy’, through the daily regeneration of human (and non-human) life. Steady-state and degrowth proposals often ignore the fact that reproductive work will probably increase if energy for labour-saving appliances is less readily available. Even ending the alienation of paid work would not mean freedom from the unrelenting nature of care work throughout the life cycle. Historically—and still, for the most part, today—this labour has mainly been undertaken by women, though colonized and exploited peoples also bear the costs and burdens of socially and ecologically unsustainable economies.
Eco-socialist utopians such as the degrowther Serge Latouche, in Farewell to Growth (2009), or the eco-Marxist Michael Löwy in his recent essay, ‘Why Ecosocialism’, tend to leap over these problems to hail a genderless ‘kingdom of freedom’.footnote2 But as socialist-feminists have long pointed out, in the dreams of a coming age in which one can hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and be a critic after dinner, there is never any mention of who cooks the dinner. Second, as Lola Seaton points out, these thinkers offer bold global strategies for solving climate change and rescuing biodiversity, but they don’t tell us how to get there from here—from our privatized, neoliberal economies with their indebted public sectors and political systems at the mercy of corporate lobbyists.footnote3
This contribution aims to cut the Gordian knot of austerity politics, on the one hand, and environmental destruction on the other, by proposing the democratization of money as a catalyst in the transition from current patterns of exploitation and unsustainability to an eco-feminist model of ‘sufficiency provisioning’. Both terms require a word of explanation. ‘Sufficiency’, as an organizing principle, is most clearly defined by what it is not—neither ‘too much’ nor ‘too little’. As Herman Daly and others have suggested in an earlier work, sufficiency is ‘enough’, the minimum that enables people to flourish.footnote4 There can be no absolute prescriptions for it; what counts as enough must be continually debated, as social and environmental conditions change. Sufficiency is an egalitarian concept: sufficiency for one must be sufficiency for all, or else some will have more than enough and others too little. The ‘sacrifices’ demanded by ecological sustainability, as Seaton puts it, should therefore be met first by those who have more than enough, rather than falling on those with less than they need.
The concept of provisioning is rooted in feminist economics, with its concern for both productive and reproductive labour; it is critical to the development of a radical political economy that is both socially just and ecologically sustainable.footnote5 The notion of provisioning is more comprehensive than the standard categories of political economics, embracing an understanding of human beings as themselves bodily creatures, metabolically related to the environment and embedded in the natural conditions of the planet. As such, provisioning addresses the entire life course of each person, not just those aspects of production and consumption defined by market economics. By contrast, the homo economicus of mainstream thinking is assumed to be fit, mobile, able-bodied and unencumbered by domestic or other responsibilities. ‘He’ transcends the real world of the body, which lives in biological time—the time it takes to rest, recover, grow up and grow old; the daily cycle and the life cycle itself. Economic man is also disconnected from ecological time—that is, the time it takes to restore the environmental effects of human activity, the life cycle of renewal and replenishment within the eco-system. ‘He’ is also alienated from the life cycle of products and processes, seeing them only as traded commodities or consumable conveniences; they appear and are discarded, vanishing from ‘his’ gaze.footnote6
Just as the capitalist mode of production treats natural resources and eco-systems—fossil fuels, water systems, forests, soils, the atmosphere, the climate system—as inexhaustible, ‘costless externalities’, so also it relies on the ‘costless externality’ of the work, historically assigned to women in the gendered division of labour, of producing healthy, adaptable members of the labour force, whose needs for bodily and emotional sustenance are met outside the workplace. This is not to identify an essentialized concept of ‘woman’ with nature, as in Romantic theory. The relations of nature and of ‘women’s work’ to the capitalist-patriarchal economy are not simply parallel—both equally exploited. To the contrary, reproductive work stands between ‘the economy’ and the natural world, grappling with the consequences of ecological destruction. It is this historically gendered work that enables homo economicus to assume a position of transcendence towards the space and time of the natural world—and towards other creatures, human or otherwise—rather than to acknowledge the immanence of embodied creaturely existence.
By contrast, the labour of social reproduction associated with women—child-bearing and rearing; provisioning, cooking, cleaning; caring for the old, the young, the sick—is spatially centred around a specific environment, the home, and characterized by presence, by ‘being there’. The sick must be tended when ill, children clothed and fed when they wake. Temporally, as noted above, the labour of reproduction is structured by daily, recurring needs and by the generational rhythms of the life cycle. Thus while capitalist productive processes aspire to expand globally and operate 24/7, social-reproductive work restores the embodiedness of humankind, subject to the same processes of metabolic growth and decay as other forms of life on Earth, and embedded in the same environmental framework. For environmental strategy, social-reproductive labour also offers a way to connect ecological sustainability to social justice, through the project of sufficiency provisioning.
Sufficiency provisioning thus implies a dual objective: the provision of the goods and services necessary for social reproduction—housing, food, drinking water, childcare, health needs—governed by the twin principles of environmental sustainability and social justice. The question would be to define the limits of what the biosphere can sustain, and to treat all equally within that constraint. This could imply a move from agro-industry to agro-ecology, a choice for local supply chains, a shift to environmentally friendly construction methods and, more generally, to forms of production that help promote the regeneration of the environment. In terms of macro-economic relations, the concept of provisioning helps break down the formal distinction between paid and unpaid work. Aspects of the current economy would become part of the provisioning framework—contributing to sufficiency provisioning through a market mechanism. But since such a market system would need to operate according to principles of social justice and ecological sustainability, this would involve much more local and social production: co-operative businesses and so forth. At the same time, self-organized social-economy structures can only address a limited range of provisioning. There would remain an important role for the public economy, whether this is local, national or international; ultimately, only collective, democratic, universal provisioning can guarantee social justice. Sufficiency provisioning thus also requires the revaluation of the public sector as a provider of goods and services, through re-gendered and non-oppressive relations. This would entail an expansion of high-quality public-sector social provision, funded at least in part by public money.