A problematic system
We are facing a multitude of perilous issues across the planet today, ranging from the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity to human rights violations in transnational production chains, that are directly related to our production methods and consumption habits. These issues are the result of our failure, first, to properly evaluate the benefits and the harms of our economic activities and, second, to determine whether the trade-off between these benefits and harms is (still) worth our support.
That failure derives not from a deficiency in measuring, but rather from one in thinking. To be more specific, it follows from our imprudence to allow economic rationalism to become the dominant paradigm in politics and society. This paradigm impels us to associate value with monetizable assets and suggests that we, human beings, are predisposed to make decisions on the basis of calculations involving such values. Assuming these claims as absolute truths dramatically affects our sense of judgment; it makes us reduce ‘benefit’ to economic profit and ‘harm’ to economic cost.
From this perspective, the defining features of the prevalent economic model today perfectly make sense: complex business practices, quick manufacturing, mass production, and short-term focus are all aimed at minimizing production costs and/or maximizing consumption. We (are conditioned to) think of this model as offering a favorable trade-off between benefits and harms, because the economic profits it produces trump the involved economic costs.
Its limitations and consequences
The problem is that economic rationalism excludes a whole range of non-monetizable, non-rational values that many of us would consider equally important in economic life, such as one’s emotional satisfaction in work or biodiversity in an ecosystem. Their benefit is not appreciated and the harm done to them is not recognized. In other words, the rationalist trade-off may be internally consistent, but a priori skewed because of its exclusion of these other values.
Indeed, the current model becomes rather problematic if we start considering its effects beyond profits and costs. High levels of complexity have obscured our understanding of business practices and even triggered the biggest crisis in recent history, as in the financial sector. The high pace and mass scale of production (and consumption) have come at the expense of the well-being of people involved in production, as in the apparel industry. Finally, the focus on short-term economic interests has disregarded and often damaged the vital long-term interest of keeping our planet a diverse and livable place, as in the fossil fuel industry.
An alternative model
The path to a more balanced economic model starts with thinking differently about economic activity and ends with adopting an alternative paradigm. This is a paradigm that goes beyond the reductionist notion of homo economicus and holds a considerably more comprehensive view of human beings. It suggests a broader conceptualization of value, comprising both monetizable and non-monetizable assets, and thus accepts that we may base our choices on a variety of considerations and impulses, including rational, emotional, and moral ones. As a result, this paradigm significantly expands our scope when thinking of benefits and harms, allowing us to better judge the trade-offs involved with each economic activity.
This paradigm shift naturally also promotes a shift in how we produce and consume. It makes us rally around a set of principles that do accommodate such versatility in values:
Simple is about sticking to the essence of things and discarding excesses and complexities. It instructs us to judge practices, methods, and habits not on the basis of their novelty, trendiness, or sophistication, but their utility and aptness for a particular case. Simple also inspires us to be straightforward and to commit ourselves to transparency and fairness in our economic activities.
Slow is about acknowledging that time is an essential ingredient of value, rather than a cost or an annoyance. It allows for creativity, attention for details, and self-actualization. Slow essentially makes us prioritize experiences – experience in the sense of the totality of knowledge and skills built up in time, but also experience in the sense of enjoying an activity.
Small is about recognizing that despite all our similarities, we are still individuals with our own peculiarities. It encourages us to celebrate the diversity of preferences and to avoid generalizations. Small requires us to seek personal answers to personal questions and, thus, to imbue a sense of individuality to the things we create and use.
Sustainable is about embedding an economic activity in its ecological surroundings, so that the quality of life that we thus build may be sustained over centuries. Its importance lies in reminding us of all the non-monetizable, non-rational values that our environment offers. Sustainable also implies that we commit ourselves to creating things that can last in the face of objective obstacles, such as the weathering of materials, as well as subjective ones, like capricious style trends.
A variety of movements, institutions, organizations, and individuals have already committed themselves to improvements along these lines. We may think of the various fair trade certification systems, the slow-food and slow-fashion trends, the many artistic entrepreneurs offering custom-made items, and of course the wide range of environmental organizations and institutions. Though very valuable, these initiatives have largely remained isolated reactions to symptoms of one and the same problem, the rationalist economic model. What we need is an answer to that problem.
The time has come for the embracement of an alternative economic model built around these four principles. This is a model that challenges existing notions on production and consumption, and presents a view of economic life that accommodates the versatility in the things we value. Ultimately, it is a model that offers a path to an economic system that prioritizes transparency and fairness, experience and well-being, diversity and uniqueness, and a harmonious relation with our planet.
This is what Atelier Espenaer stands for.