May 20, 2010


Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. By Juliet B. Schor. Penguin. $25.95.

The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success. By Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske, with Liz Neporent. Da Capo. $25.

     Whether Juliet Schor’s Plenitude strikes a reader as visionary or nonsensical will depend to a great degree on the reader’s faith in the willingness of people and their created institutions to do the right thing. Schor’s basic argument is that ecological degradation is real, is at a crisis point, and is going to upend the entire American and world economic system – especially the American one. But, she argues, there can be far better times ahead by “merely” shifting to an emphasis on new forms of wealth and a new style of living. Schor does not put “merely” in quotation marks or suggest that the changes she proposes are small, but throughout Plenitude, she constantly argues that they are doable, beneficial, affordable and good for the planet as well as for individuals. For example, she points out that “even very wealthy countries can remain rich and reduce their [ecological] footprints. The average Norwegian has a 19 percent lower footprint today than he or she did almost half a century ago, even with a per capita income that is about eight thousand dollars higher than the U.S. level.” This is quite true. But Schor does not mention that Norway’s population is 4.8 million – about as many people as live in Alabama. She does not note that Norway’s population is extraordinarily homogeneous – nearly 95% ethnic Norwegian, 3% from elsewhere in Europe and only 2% from the entire remainder of the world. Is Norway’s situation – which also includes a top individual tax rate of 47.8% plus a Value Added Tax of 25% – really comparable to that of the United States? Schor would rather assert the comparison than argue it. Indeed, Plenitude abounds in assertions. People will be better off if they “work less in the declining market, but use those freed-up hours productively, to invest in new skills and activities. Some of the time will be deployed to replace higher-priced food, energy, and consumer goods with homemade or community-produced alternatives. Some will be used to invest in social relationships, another form of wealth. And some hours will be spent in high-return leisure activities requiring relatively little monetary outlay.” In a country of 310 million people, a huge number of ethnic groups, vastly different skill sets and tremendously varied ethnicity, how exactly will this utopian vision apply to all? No answers here.

     “Plenitude requires substituting into new, high-benefit uses of time, ideally those that can serve double or even triple purposes,” writes Schor. “These include producing for oneself, making items that may be sold or bartered for other things, and engaging in activities that are meaningful, skill-building, and contribute to one’s standard of living.” What, in the nation’s vast areas of urban poverty, will people produce for themselves? How will the IRS, which taxes barter transactions if they are a regular part of one’s way of life, react to this approach? What sort of skills will be built that will not be reapplied to additional hours of work, which will be deemed counterproductive? And who will so deem them? “In many cases, sustainability entails paying more up front. However, this is not always more expensive over the long run.” And what about people without the luxury to look at the long run when deciding what to buy? As for business, “small is more efficient” and is therefore the basis of the plenitude model. Why, just look at “enterprising, strategic, and lucky [craftspeople], like Josiah Wedgwood, [who] remain known even today.” Yes, but Wedgwood, Waterford and Royal Doulton are now made by an international company controlled by a New York-based private equity firm. No mention of that in Plenitude.

     Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College, is not a complete naïf, and her belief in and commitment to alternatives to the wasteful consumer society shines through in this book. Furthermore, some of her arguments are attractive, at least for the sufficiently wealthy – for example, that a plenitude spending model can be built around customization of items that would individually be more costly but would serve their purpose better than current items and for a longer time; and that jobs involving restoration of nature could be a viable alternative to much work today that, directly or indirectly, undermines the natural world. But Schor fails to show how and why individual people will move in dramatically large numbers into a plenitude model – she gives some examples of early stages of plenitude thinking today, but they are mostly eccentric and unlikely to spread throughout a nation with vast and varied geographical territory and a large, diverse population. And although she brings up the Malthusian concept of a population growing beyond its means to feed itself – only to dismiss the idea almost offhandedly – she never looks at, say, an approach to worldwide population growth as a way of limiting the demand on Earth’s finite resources. How about taking China’s one-child-per-family policy one step farther and limiting reproduction according to income level? There’s an idea that would cause vast outrage and would be impossible to implement. But no more impossible than making the plenitude concept a success – unless there are compelling reasons attracting people to it, or overweening governments forcing individuals to live by it.

     What is possible, though, is to help “set” your brain on the path to success in whatever sociological environment you are in – at least according to Jeff Brown, a Psy.D. and Harvard Medical School psychologist, and Mark Fenske, a Ph.D. neuroscientist. In The Winner’s Brain, they argue – with the authorial help of health writer Liz Neporent – that there are eight “win factors” that everyone can develop, regardless of educational level or IQ. They call these factors self-awareness, motivation, focus, emotional balance, memory, resilience, adaptability and brain care. There is no cute acronym here, and indeed there is nothing particularly new in the list itself. Brown and Fenske argue that winning in life is more a matter of deciding how to win than if we will win, since the brain equates winning with success and there are many ways to succeed. Before detailing their “win factors,” the authors discuss five essential success elements that they call “BrainPower Tools.” And here they get a little jargon-y: the tools are “opportunity radar,” “optimal risk gauge,” “goal laser,” “effort accelerator” and “talent meter.” The explanations of these tools are clear enough, although their fit with the eight “win factors” is less so: the authors say that their areas of specialization (Brown’s in behavioral modification and Fenske’s in brain-scanning techniques) are complementary, but the fit is not always seamless. Still, the “win factors” come through clearly enough. With developed self-awareness, “you are not only aware of how you relate to the rest of the world but also [of] how the rest of the world relates to you.” Motivation helps you “glide over obstacles.” Focus keeps you from being overwhelmed by distractions. Emotional balance helps you “put feelings to good use rather than being driven blindly by them.” Memory is used “to help anticipate the future and make predictions about the best way to respond to a novel situation.” Resilience involves coming back after inevitable failures. Adaptability has to do with how the brain responds to differing stimuli and “is the foundation of every single Winner’s Brain strategy and tip.” And brain care involves eating the right foods, getting plenty of sleep and otherwise taking care of your body and thus of your brain. This is actually a pretty mundane list: it may disappoint readers looking for new ideas and approaches. What gives Brown and Fenske’s book its value is less the list of factors than their suggestions on how to improve each factor in everyday life. They show, for example, how to “reduce the discrepancy between the real you and the public you” and how to “calibrate the level of Focus across a broad range of circumstances.” Some of what they suggest is based on scientific findings about how the brain works; other ideas are presented in an inspirational manner by discussing ways in which various people have succeeded in their special areas of interest. For example, Whoopi Goldberg is an example of resilience, while a London cab driver and a rock star who decided to become a doctor are examples of adaptability. Readers who find “leading by example” useful will get more from these upbeat stories of successful people than readers looking for a methodical, step-by-step brain-boosting plan. In truth, the most specific suggestions here are not in the narrative but in small boxes scattered about the text. For example, those boxes discuss the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and four ways to get better sleep. The Winner’s Brain is a somewhat odd mixture of a self-help book with a motivational get-up-and-do-it cheer, but it does have some good, specific suggestions for improving brain health mixed in with a fair number of anecdotes that are sometimes entertaining but not necessarily applicable to readers’ lives.

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