This is another in a welcome string of recent American books questioning whether economic growth is as beneficial as it's claimed to be. It makes many good points, so my 4 stars are intended to convey its value to a reader who's new to this theme. But it suffers from the usual American myopia of ignoring anything not written in English -- even though, in this case, the author (JS) turns out to have been familiar with many of those sources. As a result, the book's arguments are shallower than they could have been. In this review, I'm going to focus most on what you're missing when you read this book, so you can supplement it with other ones, some of which have recently been translated.
1. First, some of the good points: JS questions the "growth imperative" at both the economy-wide and corporate levels. You'll also find a good overview of some of the problems with the discipline of environmental economics, and especially of the DICE climate models of Yale's William Nordhaus (which have been very influential on US dialogue and policy). JS critiques technological optimism, and also points out that patents and other intellectual property (IP) are more likely to delay a fix for environmental problems than to hasten it. And she continues her advocacy of shorter working hours, begun in her previous books. Here, there's a highlight on environmental benefits of reduced hours, resulting from consumption shifts due to (i) reduced income, since JS implictily assumes less pay for fewer hours worked, and (ii) increased time at home, which means time to make and grow more of your own stuff. (A little jarringly, JS refers to these activities as "self-provisioning," an image that brings to mind survivalism or heading off on the Oregon Trail.)
2. Consistent with the approach of other Anglophone writers criticizing growth, JS focuses primarily on environmental issues, plus the recently fashionable field of "happiness" a/k/a subjective well-being (SWB). Even by these "Anglo-Saxon" standards, though, there are some relevant points the book doesn't engage with, e.g.:
@ JS seems to believe that increases in per capita GDP (a/k/a "average income") still have some benefit; but fails to consider that increasing "average income" in the US, Japan and other Western countries has been accompanied by falling median income since the 1980s. In other words, rising per capita GDP isn't benefiting most people economically.
@ The book doesn't include any discussion of "objective" (eudaemonic) well-being (à la Aristotle, M. Nussbaum & A. Sen), which focuses on such things as a person's ability to lead a long and healthy life, unmolested by violence, with educational opportunities, etc. OWB received a lot of attention in the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report commissioned by French President Sarkozy, which JS does mention in passing.
@ JS points out that productivity increases could be used to free up work time, making the same amount of stuff in less time. She also decries the usual practice of turning productivity increases into more production, because it leads to means more wear & tear on the environment. But although she does talk elsewhere about financialization of the economy, she doesn't point out its links to productivity issues. The elevation of shareholders in recent decades to demi-divine status, and the trend to turn top management into shareholders through stock options, jointly explain the current productivist practice: more sales tend to make share prices go up, which in turn makes management richer. So do "productivity increases" achieved by *involuntarily* reduced working hours, as when companies fire people -- at least in the US, that makes a company's share price go up, too. Unless we modify these linkages, only the same 10% of the US population who currently receive 90% of all capital gains income, or maybe only the 0.1% who get 49.7% of that income, are likely ever to achieve "plenitude" (assuming such folks have any concept of 'fullness').
3. Outside the English-speaking world, all of JS's points in this book have been under discussion for decades, since even before the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth." Cornelius Castoriadis and Peter Kende were among the first to question economic growth in the '60s, to say nothing of the far more influential Ivan Illich (who wrote in English BTW). André Gorz, who championed shorter working hours for decades, as well as being the father of "political ecology" and the author of a book-length critique of IP (in 2003), wrote on these topics from the 1970s until his death in 2007. All these writers based their critiques of growth not solely on environmental grounds, but also on the basis of what it means to be human.
This humanistic concern remains front-and-center in the European discourse on décroissance/decrescita/de-growth that's blossomed during the past several years. In addition to dozens of books on this subject, especially in French and Italian, the activist monthly publication "La Décroissance" has been sold at newsstands since 2004, and a more intellectual journal, "Entropia," was launched in 2006. Not all "Anglo-Saxons" are entirely blind to this line of thought: Tim Jackson's 2009 report for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, "Prosperity without growth?," managed to find Gorz and Illich, among others, and the Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World 2010" includes a textbox from Serge Latouche, one of the most vociferous décroissancistes (and whose book with the English title "Farewell to Growth" appeared in English in early 2010).
There's no hint of any of this in JS's text or bibliography. The only writers on de-growth she mentions are from Anglo-Saxon countries (in particular, ecological economists P. Victor and H. Daly). Here are some ways in which her argument suffers as a result:
@ Apropos of productivity, JS doesn't think of an entirely different proposal: use *lower* productivity to make the same (or a lesser) amount of stuff in the same or even more time, *at higher quality* and perhaps even employing more people. Jean Gadrey (a member of the above-mentioned Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission), has written several times on his blog in the last couple of years about why the drive to increase productivity is misguided, especially for services though not exclusively so. [PS: This and many other pertinent topics Gadrey discussed in his blog during the past 2 years are now treated in a short book, « Adieu à la croissance », published in France in October 2010.]
@ A key point of the European critique of growth is that private consumption has made people pay less attention to their political roles as citizens or as members of a collectivity. E.g., less time spent working and shopping may mean more time for us to work together to reclaim our government from lobbyists, to think together about our common goals and to act together to achieve them. In contrast, while JS does allude to some forms of collective economic activity outside the usual capitalist framework, the dimensions of collective well-being and politics are entirely missing from her analysis.
@ The Europeans emphasize much deeper interconnections between the issues relating to environment, work and growth. E.g., JS sees only an instrumentalist connection between shorter working hours and the environment: shorter working hours can lead to less pollution. André Gorz not only mentioned that years ago, but also that both ecological damage and the oppressiveness of many forms of work, along with the destruction of the political and the social that result from consumerism, have something in common: they all erode the world of our everyday life.
@ Finally, it's disappointing that the metaphor of "plenitude" in the title of JS's book emphasizes *having* more than *being*, a distinction dating at least as far back as Erich Fromm's "To Have or to Be" (1976, in English). While I allow there's some ambiguity here -- "plenitude" might be stretched into a more spiritual interpretation (though JS doesn't emphasize the spiritual at all) -- the title is closer to the related noun "plenty," with its connotations of a cornucopia spilling out with stuff. But "having" is precisely the attitude toward life encouraged by consumerism. So in a sense the book tries to eat its cake and have it, too: even though JS talks about the downsides of consumerism, her central metaphor seems intended to reassure readers that, as womens' magazine covers used to shout in the 1970s, "You CAN have it ALL!" In contrast, a return to an attitude of "being" is what many of the Europeans see as the real goal of de-growth. They emphasize human *activity* rather than mere attainment of a condition.
In correspondence (2010/07) after I posted an earlier version of this review, JS wrote me to say that already in the 1970s she was familiar with some of the French writers I mentioned -- in fact, she was proud to have found them sooner than most people. She explained, though, that mentioning them or not was a "strategic question" relating to "crafting a message that can be heard," and that she thought that for an American "general audience -- not academics -- the approach [she] chose would have more resonance."
I'm not persuaded she's right, for a few reasons. For one thing, what would be the harm in acknowledging the existence of the European de-growth literature, even in footnotes (of which this book for a general audience already has plenty)? That way, at least, readers could find it. More substantively, I'm skeptical that any American who would be moved to pick up this book couldn't "hear" the idea of employing more people to make less stuff, but make it better. Or the idea that having time for collective political action is important -- an idea that already "resonates" with lots of the people who come to Tea Party rallies.
I don't at all mean to discourage you from reading this book. But despite some good arguments, it's far from "groundbreaking," as the publisher's website's claims. Even if you're monolingual, you can now read new translations of Gorz's "Ecologica" and books from Luigino Bruni and Stefano Zamagni on the civil economy and civil happiness, or even Serge Latouche's book, plus Illich ("Tools for Conviviality"), Fromm, and Tim Jackson, all of whose books were in English from the get-go. "Plenitude" may be more plenitudinous in facts and statistics than some of them; but those books present many more dimensions of the issues than you'll find here.