Placing the Ecological Transition at the Heart of Social and Economic Thought
The Veblen Institute strives for a sustainable society in which respect of our planet’s physical limits goes hand in hand with well-being, social solidarity and an economy built upon more democratic rules than at present.
We believe that, as we enter the Anthropocene, humanity as a whole faces an unprecedented choice : transitionning to a different model while there is still time, or continuing to go down the same path as before, while awaiting the catastrophic consequences of resource shortages, reduced biodiversity, and climate change. We want to contribute to this decisive choice, upon which the well-being of present and future generations will depend. We want to do so at the level of ideas as well through public policy adivsing, by showing that it is possible to free our society from the model of unsustainable growth, that a change of course is not only necessary but also desirable, and that the “business as usual” scenario threatens our social wellbeing.
Such an approach to the ecological transition obviously involves a vast array of issues and fields of expertise. We focuse on economic issues, which we define in three ways :
First, we believe that economic thought is itself in need of renewal. Whether one likes it or not, policies developed in response to ecological risks make use of concepts and recommendations that are drawn from mainstream economic theory. The latter, however, is particularly ill-suited to this task. Due to its perceived legitimacy, which rests largely on its alleged scientific objectivity – an “objectivety” often claimed on the basis of a questionable use of mathematical tools –, mainstream economics represents a genuine intellectual obstacle on the road towards a sustainable society. To overcome it, we work closely with scholars who are developing alternative approaches, be it in the realm of modeling, macroeconomics, or wealth indicators.
Second, the ecological transition requires public policies which go far beyond a simple "greening" of the current system. To win the battle of ideas, we must be capable of defining the concrete adaptations of our current economical system. What employment policies would prepare us for a post-growth society ? What kind of purchasing power would they imply ? What monetary and financial system could contribute to it ? What new balance will be struck between the market, the state, and the commons as modes of producing and delivering goods and services ? What are new ways of consuming, producing, working, and living together ? What will be the role of social innovation and grassroot initiatives ?
It is by offering answers to these and other questions that one can shift from the stage of stirring speeches to that of organized political mobilization.
Third, proposals of this kind cannot dispense with the technical expertise of sectors involved : transportation, energy, agriculture, housing, production system, and so on. Our ambition is not to become specialists in each of these fields, but to master them sufficiently to understand their interdependencies and to know how to involve specialists in the work on policy proposals. This is essential to responding to the challenges identified in the previous point, but it is not the core of our activity.
The Veblen Institute’s wager is that bridges can be built between three domains : academic thinking about the economy, public policy making, and sectoral technical expertise. In addition to building bridges at the level of thought, we also want to create bridges between various actors working at different levels. Many citizens share our vision of the ecological transition : scholars, experts, and authorities in civil society as well as politics. One of the Institute’s main skills is its ability to work with all these actors without seeking to substitute itself for any, and to help bring forth a coherent vision, as opposed to the sectoral approaches and narrow expertise which still dominate the debate. To strengthen the transdisciplinary networks that emerge and to launch new ones, one must be able to work closely with very different professional cultures, without any pretense of being the “center” around which all the other actors gravitate.
Within these networks of actors working at different levels, most of the Institute’s contribution can be found in the three approaches to economy defined above, in the idea a clearer and more coherent vision of transition policies will make it possible to mobilize the necessary political support. A central aspect of this “clarification” concerns the impact of the proposed policies on social wellbeing : which are the key components upon which a distinct political program could be formuleted ? But we also need a more fine-tuned articulation between top-down regulations and social innovations “from below”— citizens’ initiatives, new forms of production and consumtion, and so forth.