Parecon and Ecology

This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope



Economies and the Environment


Economies affect natural environments in diverse ways, of course. They add new contents to the environment, such as pollutants. They deplete contents from the environment, such as natural resources. They alter the arrangement and composition of attributes in the environment or the way in which people relate to the environment, such as by building dams or creating changed patterns of human habitation, and countless other possibilities. And each of these and other possible ways of an economy affecting the environment can, in turn, have additional ripple effects on nature’s composition and people’s lives. 


Thus, for example, an economy can add economic byproducts to the environment as in exhaust spewing from cars or smoke stacks accumulating chemicals in the atmosphere. In turn these effluents can impede breathing or alter the way the sun’s rays affect atmospheric temperatures. Both these economic implications can in turn have ripple effects, for example, on people’s health, or on air currents which then impact sea currents in turn affecting polar ice caps and then altering weather patterns, sea levels, and crop yields, in turn dramatically impacting human options and conditions.


Or an economy can use up oil, water, or forests, leading to people having to reduce their use of depleted resources and thus affecting the total level of both production and consumption around the world, or affecting the availability of nutrients essential to life, or of building materials needed for creating dwellings in many parts of the world. 


Or an economy can alter the shape and content of the natural environment’s dynamics, as for example when by reducing forests we reduce the supply of oxygen they emit into the atmosphere, or when by increasing the number of cows and affecting their eating patterns (to produce more tasty steak for ourselves) we increase the methane they expel, again leading to greenhouse effects that in turn alter global weather patterns, or when we alter human living patterns and thus transport patterns and other needs or consumption patterns and attitudes, affecting people’s on-going relations to mountains, rivers, air, and other species.


In the above cases and also countless others impacting the supply or the quality of weather, air, water, or even noise, globally or regionally, or affecting resource availability, or even affecting the availability of enjoyable or natural environments, what we do in our economic lives affects either directly or by a many-step process, how we environmentally prosper or suffer in our daily lives, whether now or in the future, as well as how the environment itself adapts. 


In other words, economic acts have direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on the environment, and the changed environment in turn has direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on our life conditions. 


Sometimes these effects are quite tremendous, as in seas rising to swallow coastal areas and even whole low lying countries, or as in crop, resource, or water depletion that causes starvation or other extreme widespread deprivations. Or maybe the effects are slightly less severe as in tornados and hurricanes devastating large swaths of population, or inflated cancer rates caused by polluted ground water or escalated radiation cutting down large numbers of people early in life, or dams eliminating whole towns or villages due to their footprint. Or maybe the effects are limited to smaller areas suffering loss of enriching environmental surroundings when natural environments are tarred over or noise pollution arises from loud production or consumption.


It follows from all these possibilities that the relations of an economy to the surrounding natural environment are deadly serious and that to fail regarding relations to the environment, even if succeeding on all other criteria, would be a damning weakness for any proposed economic model.


Capitalism fails quite miserably regarding the environment. First, capitalism’s market system prioritizes maximizing short-run profit regardless of long-run implications. Second, markets ignore environmental effects and have built in incentives to violate the environment whenever doing so will yield profits or, for that matter, consumer fulfillment at the cost of others. And, third, there is the capitalist drive to accumulate regardless of effects on life and all other variables.


In markets a seller encounters a buyer. The seller tries to get as high a price as possible for the object sold while also diminishing costs of production. This is done to maximize profits, which in turn not only yields higher income, but also facilitates competition-enhancing investments undertaken to win market share and thereby stay in business. 


The buyer, meanwhile, tries to pay for an item as low a price as possible and then to consume it with as much fulfillment as possible regardless of the impact of these actions on others about whom little or no information is available.


For both parties market exchange obscures the effects their choices have beyond the buyer and seller, and prevent taking into account the well being of those who feel these external effects.


More, if some course of action will lower the cost of producing an item, or will increase the fulfillment of its consumption, but will also incur environmental degradation that affects someone other than the buyer or seller, that course of action will be undertaken. Thus we routinely use production techniques that pollute and also consume items with no regard for environmental impact.


Rock salt, it turns out, is a very effective tool for “keeping both private driveways and public highways from icing up.” Andrew Bard Schmookler reports that “…the runoff of the salt…causes damage to underground cables, car bodies, bridges, and groundwater. The cost of these damages is twenty to forty times the price of the salt to the persons or organization buying and using it.” In other words, rock salt has unaccounted adverse effects beyond the buyers and sellers who choose to produce it, sell it, buy it, and use it, to keep road from icing up. Schmookler then reports that “there is an alternative product to rock salt that produces no such damage from runoff. It is called CMA, and it costs a good deal more than the salt. It costs less, however, than the damages the salt inflicts.” But "No highway department, homeowner, or business would purchase large quantities of CMA today even if it were widely available, because the individual doesn’t care about [social] cost, only [about private] price." In other words, markets create incentives to violate the environment and anything else external to the buyer and seller whenever doing so will enhance the producer’s profit. 


This is just one of countless examples, chosen for its clarity, and as Schmookler rightly concludes, it shows that market forces “will make changes flow in a predictable direction, like water draining off the land, downhill, to the sea.” That is, sellers will use production methods that spew pollution but that cost less than using clean technologies, or they will use production methods that damage groundwater or use up resources but that cost less than methods that don’t, or they will use production methods that build into products secondary effects which consumers who buy the product won’t directly suffer but others will, and which cost less. And the same logic will typically hold for consumer choices about how to utilize the items they have bought. The impact of their use on others will most often be unknown and ignored. 


And it isn’t only that in each transaction the participants have an incentive to find the cheapest, most profitable course of production and the most personally fulfilling course of consumption, it is that markets compel the absolute maximum of exchanges to be attained. There is a drive to buy and sell even beyond the direct benefits of doing so because each producer is weighing off not the benefits of a little more income versus a little more leisure due to working less but, instead, the benefits of staying in business versus going out of business. That is, each actor competes for market share to gain surpluses with which to invest to reduce future costs, pay for future advertising, etc., and these surpluses must be maximized in the present lest one is out competed in the future.


The race for market share becomes a drive to continually amass profit without respite, which means to do so even beyond what the greed of owners might otherwise entail. 


It is one thing to understand the above theoretically and even to see the frantic, depleting, spewing results all around us. It is another thing to hear the impetus described by those who suffer its force and I should like to relate such an experience. 


I had lunch once with a fellow who had been, not that long before, a four hundred dollar an hour senior partner in a large and lucrative law firm in Boston, Massachusetts. He had quit his position to take a job with a non-profit organization that did fundraising and direct mail work for progressive clients, candidates, and others, which is what brought me and him together for lunch. At one point I asked him why he had made such a dramatic and income-reducing change. He replied that while it was in part due to wanting to do socially valuable work rather than winning large fortunes for already overly fortunate corporate clients, he could not claim that that was the only reason. He had also been seeking to escape his old lucrative employment not just because he had lost a taste for the clients and their skullduggery, but also due to self interest. He wanted a life.


He told me that in his prior job, while he had tremendous income he had to work seventy and even eighty hours a week and more, which left him too little time to live. He wanted more time off. 


But, I said – knowing the theoretical answer well – why didn’t he just work less? He was a boss, after all. Why didn’t he pack up and go home each week after fifty hours, or forty, or, jeez, given his income, after thirty or even twenty if he wanted more leisure time for his family? 


He chuckled and said it was because his choice was always more work hours or no work hours, not more work hours or fewer work hours. The firm competed with other firms. The competition occurred not only in the obvious form of having excellent lawyers (by the standards of the clients which included the lawyers being steeped in the ways and tastes of the clients and being able to wine and dine them, speak their language and hold their hands), but also in all the material accoutrements. If the firm started to take in less revenue and have less funds available for its lawyers to attain lofty living standards that marked them as rich and successful, and less funds for the firm to purchase rugs, wall hangings, high end parties, meetings, high rent occupancy, and high-end travel costs, and to afford maximum expenditures on experts, and so on, in short order its clients would begin to switch to other firms better able to serve their every need. However slight it might be at first, this shift of clients would snowball over time. A few less clients means a little less surplus, which in turn means less wining and dining, and then more lost clients, and so on. 


My friend explained to me, in other words, how even in competing law firms, not only in competing auto plants, the drive to amass revenues to retain and if possible enhance market share, was ever present and permanent. It could be bent somewhat, but only by pressures which worked equally across all firms, such as the collective bargaining power of workers. But wherever market pressure could bend people’s wills to accumulate ever more via more intense and longer work, it would do so. In his case, if other bosses in other law firms would work longer – and surely there were many who had so reconstructed themselves that doing so was their reason for being – then he would have to do so in his firm as well. And the only way to break free of that pressure was to completely escape, as he had done, with another aspiring corporate climber taking his place.


In all market systems, and particularly in capitalist markets, growth is god. The guiding philosophy is grow or die regardless of contrary personal inclinations. This not only violates attentiveness to sustainability of resources but also produces a steadily escalating flow of garbage and pollution. Transactions multiply and in each transaction the incentive to pollute and to otherwise violate the environment persists. In the end, what we get is an economy spewing into, using up, and damaging the environment on a massive scale – ranging from turning communities into dump sites, making cities sick with smog, polluting ground waters that in turn escalate cancer rates, or causing global warming that threatens not only raging storms but even vast upheavals of ocean levels and agriculture, with untold costs to follow.


Parecon’s Alternative Approach


Will a participatory economy be any better for the environment than capitalism? The answer is yes, for a number of reasons.


First, in a parecon there is no pressure to accumulate. Each producer is not compelled to try to expand surplus in order to compete with other producers for market share, but, instead, the level of output reflects a true mediation between desires for more consumption and desires for a lower overall amount of work. 


In other words, whereas in capitalism the labor/leisure trade off is biased heavily toward more production at all times due to the need for overall growth to avoid shrinkage and failure, in parecon it is an actual, real, unbiased trade off. 


In a parecon we each face a choice between increasing the overall duration and intensity of our labor to increase our consumption budget, or, instead, working less to increase our overall time available to enjoy labor’s products and the rest of life’s options. And since society as a whole faces this exact same choice, we can reasonably predict that instead of a virtually limitless drive to increase work hours and intensity, a parecon will have no drive to accumulate output beyond levels that meet needs and develop potentials, and will therefore stabilize at much lower output and work levels – say thirty hours of work a week, and eventually, even less. Interestingly, and revealingly, some mainstream economists criticize that in a parecon people will decide their work levels and will likely decide on less than now as a flaw rather than celebrating it as a virtue, which I of course take it to be.


The second issue is one of valuation. Again unlike in capitalism, as well as with markets more generally, participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the person who directly produces and the person who directly consumes, with each of these participants having structural incentives to maximize personal benefits regardless of the broader social impact. Instead, every act of production and consumption in a parecon is part of a total overall economic plan. The interrelations of each actor with all other actors and of each action with all other actions are not just real and highly consequential – which is of course always true – but are also properly accounted for.


In a parecon production or consumption of gas, cigarettes, and other items with either positive or negative effects on people beyond the buyer and seller take into account those effects. The same holds for decisions about larger projects, for example, building a dam, installing wind turbines, or cutting back on certain resources. Projects are amended in light of feedback from affected councils at all levels of society, from individuals and neighborhoods through countries or states to the whole population. 


The social procedures which facilitate all this ecological rationality are summarized in considerable detail in the book Parecon: Life after Capitalism


The bottom line is relatively simple, however. By eliminating the market drive to accumulate and to have only a short time horizon, and by eliminating market-induced ignorance of economic effects that extend beyond buyers and sellers (such as on the environment) and the consequent market mispricing of items, parecon properly accounts and provides means, as well, to sensibly self manage environmental impacts. 


It isn’t that there is no pollution in a parecon. And it isn’t that no non-renewable items are ever used. These norms would make no sense. You can’t produce without some waste and you can’t prosper without using up some resources. 


Rather, what is necessary is that when production or consumption generates negative effects on the environment, or when it uses up resources that we value and cannot replace, the decision to do these things ought to be made taking into account the implications. 


We should not transact when the benefits don’t outweigh the detriments. And we should not transact unless the distribution of benefits and detriments is just, rather than some people suffering unduly. 


This is what parecon via participatory planning ecologically accomplishes and really all that we can ask an economy to do by its own internal logic. We don’t want the economy to prejudge outcomes deciding by the pressure of its institutional dynamics results that humans have no say in, as, for example, the accumulation drive propelled by markets decides the labor/leisure trade-off. We want a good economy via its institutions to let people who are affected make their own judgments with the best possible knowledge of true and full costs and benefits by bringing to bear appropriate self managing influence. If the economy presents this spectrum of possibility and control to its actors, as parecon does, what is left to assess is what people will then likely decide, and on that score all that we can ask of an economy is that people not be biased by institutional pressures or made ignorant due to institutional biases. Parecon guarantees both of these aims. Parecon also provides for people to be free and self managing, and ensures that the logic of the economy is consistent with and possibly even conducive to the richest possible human comprehension of ecological connections and options. 


Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to think that parecon’s citizens will not only make wise choices for their own interests, but for their children and grandchildren as well, regarding not only direct production and consumption, but also the myriad ripple effects of economic activity on the environment.


Other Species


We live on a planet, earth, a gigantic rock swirling in space around an almost unfathomably larger and hugely energy generating sphere of combustion, the sun, in an even vaster sea of similar entities born billions of years ago and maturing ever since. We share the bounty or resources and energy of our planet and the sun’s rays with a huge diversity of other species, who themselves contribute in a multitude of ways to defining how the planet produces, processes, and presents its assets to us. 


Indeed, our own existence arose from a sequence of other species modified by chance occurrences and selected by dynamics of cooperation and competition, and our existence depends for its continuation on a vast number of current species as well. 


A capitalist economy views other species as it does everything else, in terms of their profit-making possibilities. If directly preserving or nurturing a species is profitable, capitalists do it. If ignoring another species and leaving it to its own wiles is profitable, capitalists do that. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating another species is profitable, again, that is the capitalist way to go. 


Capitalist market competition looks around and assesses profitable possibilities and pursues them. If we add to capitalist economy governments or other agencies with priorities other than profit, they may ameliorate many ills, though if these bodies significantly defy or impede profit-making it will be difficult for them to maintain themselves against the logic of capitalist accumulation. This occurs both because the economy fights back against efforts to restrain accumulation and because capitalism tends to produce a population unreceptive to even thinking about even the long-term benefits of other species to people, much less the independent rights of other species. 


These insights encapsulate the well known history of environmental concerns. The results we see around us are indicative of the destruction wrought by profit-seeking pressures.


What would replace capitalism’s possibly suicidal and certainly horribly gory interspecies relations if we instead had a parecon? 


First, a parecon would move us from profit as the guiding norm of economic choice to human fulfillment and well being in accord with solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management. 


Second, parecon would move us from having a driving profit-seeking logic that constantly overpowers and undoes any ecologically or otherwise non profit-justified restrictions placed on the economy, to instead being flexibly responsive to constraints imposed by forces and concerns that are not economic. 


Third, parecon moves its producers and consumers from having a very narrow and fragmented approach to economy, to instead comprehending the interconnectedness of all acts and their multiple implications.


And fourth, parecon moves us from a me-first, anti-social interpersonal mindset that can easily extend beyond relations to people toward relations to nature, to a solidaristic interpersonal mindset, which can plausibly extend to nature and species as well.


The first point is a change of guiding logic or motivation. The second point is a change in its intensity. Togther they ensure that parecon doesn’t have the negative impetus toward other species typical of capitalism. The third and fourth points bear upon a less structural issue, more conjectural, which is whether people who operate as workers and consumers in a parecon are likely to be more receptive to arguments regarding the rights of other species.


Regarding its guiding logic a parecon intrinsically and inexorably views other species at least as it views everything else, which is in light of pursuing human fulfillment and development possibilities consistent with promoting solidarity, advancing diversity, maintaining equity, and ensuring self management. In a parecon, if directly preserving or nurturing a species is humanly beneficial, the incentives will be strong to do it. If leaving a species to its own devices is humanly beneficial, again, the incentives will point in that direction. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating a species by taking away its habitat is humanly beneficial, again, that is the purely economic path that a good economy would intrinsically arrive at. 


Parecon via its participatory planning looks around and assesses humanly beneficial possibilities, and provides means and reasons for producers and consumers to pursue them. It does not, of its own accord, incorporate the interests of non human species. And, regrettably, such species can not be incorporated as decision-makers to attend to their own interests.


However, a parecon’s citizens can decide that they want to add to parecon governmental or other agencies to act on behalf of species, and these structures can be smoothly incorporated even if they defy or impede possible human benefits on behalf of the rights of other species. Indeed, even in such cases, while such structures or agencies will need to be added to parecon because a parecon has no planning procedure that allows species other than people to express their intentions and desires, and while these structures will therefore presumably need to have popular support manifested through, say, political choices, maintenance of such restraints on economic activity will not require a continuous and difficult struggle against the continually re-impinging logic of capitalist accumulation because the latter is absent. 


In a parecon, that is, once there is a restriction placed on the economy – let’s say, the economy is not to interfere with the nesting habitats of caique parrots, or the economy must, if altering those habitats, move all potentially affected caiques to new and at least as sustainable environments – the economy functions thereafter in accord with the external ruling and it does not continually produce structural pressures and practices that try to overcome or remove the restriction. Individuals might try to reverse such a decision, but the system as a whole has no built-in tendency to do so.


Where capitalism has an accumulation process that propels each producer to try to maximize profits regardless of external restraints, parecon functions well in context of external restraints and has no built-in tendency to aggressively seek to overcome or thwart them.


The question remains, can we expect the kinds of external constraints I have mentioned so far to arise in a society with a participatory economy? Will producers and consumers who use self managed councils, balanced, job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning be inclined to stewardship for species other than their own and therefore to incorporate rules and norms on behalf of such species on top of the economic means they share to manifest their own preferences? That is, will the populace in a parecon be more or less receptive to arguments on behalf of other species than they would be if their economy were instead capitalist?


It is hard to answer a question like this definitively before the fact, of course. But it seems quite plausible that whatever factors tend to cause people to become concerned for other species they will be less thwarted and more enhanced in a system that promotes solidarity, as does a parecon, than in a system that promotes antisociality, as does capitalism. 


Similarly, a parecon exalts not only the benefits that accrue from variety, but also the need to avoid narrow scenarios that eliminate options we might later find superior. We can expect parecon’s respect for diversity in social situations to extend to a popular awareness of the richness of biodiversity and its intricate interconnectivity. Hurting or eliminating species curbs diversity and risks long-term currently unknown losses to humanity as well. 


In sum then, parecon removes capitalism’s accumulation drive for corporate profit which compels behavior that hurts and even decimates other species. It puts in its place a concern for human well being and development that doesn’t forcefully a priori preclude harming other species, but which is receptive to and respectful of governmental or other social or ecological restraints on behalf of other species. If other species had votes, in other words, they would vote for parecon.

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