Will a participatory economy do any better than capitalism regarding ecology?
The answer is yes for a number of reasons.
First, in a parecon there is no accumulation pressure. Each actor is not compelled to try to expand surplus in order to compete with other actors 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 participatory economy 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 our labor’s products and the rest of life’s options. And so too does society as a whole face this exact same choice. And 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 other than to meet needs and develop potentials and will therefore stabilize at a much lower output level and work level–say perhaps thirty hours of work a week, and eventually even less. Interestingly and revealingly, some mainstream economists criticize this attribute of parecon–that people decide their work levels and that they will likely decide on less than now–as a flaw rather than seeing it as a virtue, which we take it to be.
The second issue is one of valuation. Again unlike in capitalism and with markets more generally, participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the actor who directly produces and the actor who directly consumes, with each of these participants having structural incentives to maximize personal benefits regardless of impact on others. Instead, every act of production and consumption in a parecon is part of a total overall economic plan. The entwinements of each actor and each act with all other actors and all other acts 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 or 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 or 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 spelled out 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 impact 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 navigate as well as self manage environmental impacts.
Surely you aren’t saying there is no pollution in a parecon?
No, that would be silly, 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 available resources.
Rather, what is necessary is that when production or consumption generates negative externalities in the environment, or when it uses up resources that we value and cannot replace, the decision to do these things ought to be made not ignoring these implications but accounting for them.
We should not do it when the benefits don’t outweigh the detriments. And we should not do it unless the distribution of benefits and detriments is just, rather than some people suffering unduly so other people can gain unduly.
This is what parecon via participatory planning ecologically accomplishes and really all that we can ask an economy to ecologically accomplish. What is left to assess is what people decide, and on this 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, both of which benefits parecon guarantees, and that people should be free and self managing, also a parecon provision.
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 grand children as well.
What about 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 in fact 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 light of profit-making possibilities. If directly preserving or nurturing a species is profitable, then do it. If ignoring another species and leaving it to its own wiles is profitable, then do that. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating via effects on its habitats another species is profitable, again, that is the economic way to go.
Capitalism via its market competition looks around and assesses profitable possibilities and pursues them. If we add to capitalist economy governments or other agencies with additional priorities, they may ameliorate many ills, though if they defy or impede profit-making their maintenance will be a difficult struggle against the logic of capitalist accumulation both in the pressures the economy manifests against impositions and in the tendency for capitalism to produce a population unreceptive to even thinking about 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 in our countries today. The results we see around us are indicative of the weight of profit-seeking pressures.
What would be different from the above possibly suicidal and certainly horribly gory picture of current interspecies relations if we instead had a participatory economy’s interface with the non-human species on our planet?
First, from profit as the guiding norm of economic choice, parecon would move us to human fulfillment and well being in accord with guiding social values (solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management). And second, from having a driving profit-seeking logic that will constantly tend to overpower and undue any ecologically or otherwise non-profit justified restrictions placed on the economy, parecon becomes, instead, responsively susceptible to outwardly imposed extra-economic constraints.
The first point is a change of guiding logic or motivation. The second point is a change in its intensity. A third issue, more conjectural, 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 the guiding logic of the newly proposed economy, a participatory economy views other species, as it does everything else, in light of 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, do it. If ignoring and leaving a species to its own wiles is humanly beneficial, why not? If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating via effects on its habitats another species is humanly beneficial, again, that is the purely economic way to go.
Parecon via its participatory planning looks around and assesses humanly beneficial possibilities (with equity foremost, not aggrandizement of the few), and pursues them. It does not, of its own accord, internal to its economic logic, incorporate the interests of non human species.
If we add to parecon governmental or other agencies with additional extra economic priorities, they can, however, 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 they will need to be imposed from outside on the economy which has no such internal tendency left on its own, and while they will therefore presumably need to have popular support, maintenance of restraints on economic activity will not require a continuous difficult struggle against the continually re-impinging logic of capitalist accumulation. In a parecon, once there is a restriction placed on the economy–let’s say, the economy is not to interfere with the nesting habitats of some bird, or the economy must, if altering those habitats, move all potentially affected birds to new and at least as sustainable environments–the economy functions thereafter in accord with the external ruling, not continually throwing up pressures and practices that try to overcome or remove the restriction.
Where capitalism has an accumulation process that propels each producer to try to maximize profits at the risk of disastrous loss of market share and economic failure, as a result continually pushing for outcomes in accord with maximally accumulating output regardless of external restraints, parecon functions in context of external restraints with no built-in tendency that aggressively seeks to continually overcome or thwart them.
The question remains, can we expect such external constraints to arise in a society with a participatory economy? That is, will the populace be more or less receptive to arguments on behalf of other species in a parecon than they would if their economy were capitalist?
It is hard to answer a question like this definitively before the fact, of course. But given that parecon elevates human solidarity to a prime value, rather than propelling an egocentric approach to life that is largely oblivious to other people’s needs, it seems quite plausible that whatever factors tend to cause people to become concerned for other species they will be less thwarted by a solidarity producing context than by an anti sociality producing context.
Similarly, a parecon exalts to high priority diversity. This embodies not only recognition of the benefits that accrue from variety, but also the need to avoid narrow scenarios that eliminate options we might later find to be superior or even essential. Both insights tend to militate for a popular awareness of the richness of biodiversity and its intricate interconnectivity as well. Hurting species much less eliminating them curbs diversity and risks long-term losses to humanity as well. While this isn’t restraint based on rights of others despite the interests of humanity, it is plausible that such attentiveness would yield a greater sensitivity to the existence and conditions of other species, and certainly wouldn’t impede such inclinations, wherever they might arise.
In sum then, parecon removes the accumulation drive for corporate profit seeking which compels, in a capitalist economy, behavior that hurts and even decimates other species. It puts in its place a concern for human well being and development that doesn’t preclude harming other species, but which, in any event, is receptive to and respectful of governmental or other social or ecological restraints on its operations. If other species had votes, in other words, they would vote for parecon.