avatar
Socialism: Ecology or Nothing


[This is the twentieth and last essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

I have emphasized, thus far in our series of essays, economy, polity, kinship and culture, because these are inevitably present and profoundly impactful spheres of human involvement. But history has been such that another realm has risen to even greater centrality than these, the rivers and sky, dirt and oceans, wind and rain, heat and cold, all around us, affected by us and in turn affecting us. We call this the ecology. We either deal sensibly with it, reversing past violations and avoiding new ones, or everything else we do will sink in the waves of ecological disaster that ensue. We face ecology or nothing. But does that mean our minds should think about only ecology? Does it mean our activism should address only ecology? Not at all. While short-term ecological focus needs to be incredibly intense, it will not garner sufficient support to win immediate changes if it is blind to other aspects of life, and it will fail to have lasting impact if it doesn’t connect with fundamental issues determining ecological disaster or redemption.

When asking about the implications of participatory society/socialism regarding the ecology, the main issue is undeniably economics since it is via production and consumption that by far the largest social impact on ecology occurs. Economies add new contents to the environment, such as pollutants and deplete natural contents from the environment, such as 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. Each of these – and other possible ways an economy can affect the environment – can, in turn, have ripple effects on nature’s composition and, via those changes, back again on people’s lives.

Thus, for example, an economy can add economic byproducts to the environment by exhaust spewing chemicals from cars or smokestacks. In turn these effluents can impede breathing or alter the way the sun’s rays affect atmospheric temperatures. Both of these economic implications can have direct ripple effects on people’s health, but also on air currents which then impact sea currents, in turn affecting polar ice caps, in turn altering weather patterns, sea levels, and crop yields.

Or an economy can use up minerals, water, or forests, leading to people having to reduce their use of depleted resources, affecting the total level of both production and consumption around the world and therefore 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, for example by reducing forests thereby reducing the carbon dioxide they take from the sky and decreasing the oxygen they emit into the sky, or by increasing the number of cows and affecting their eating patterns (to produce more tasty steak for ourselves) thereby increasing the methane they expel, again leading to greenhouse effects that in turn alter global weather patterns. Or economies can alter human living, transportation, and other consumption patterns and attitudes, in turn affecting people’s on-going relations to mountains, rivers, air, and other species.

In the above cases and countless others, what we do in our economic lives affects how we environmentally prosper or suffer in our daily lives as well as how the environment itself adapts. In other words, economic acts have direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on the environment and in turn the changed environment has direct, secondary, and tertiary affects on our life conditions.

Sometimes these effects are horrifying, as in seas rising to swallow coastal areas and 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 but still horrific as in tornados, hurricanes, droughts and floods devastating large populations, or inflated cancer rates caused by polluted ground water cutting down large numbers of people early in life, or dams eliminating whole towns due to their footprint. Or maybe the effects are limited to smaller areas suffering loss when natural environments are paved over or when noise pollution arises from loud production or consumption.

It follows from all these possibilities that the relation of an economy to the surrounding natural environment is deadly serious and that to fail to regard this relation to the environment, even if succeeding on all other criteria, would be a damning weakness for any proposed economic model or new society.

Capitalism and Ecology

Capitalism fails 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, to explain the above, 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 to win market share and stay in business.

The buyer, meanwhile, tries to pay as low a price as possible and then 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 prevents taking into account the well being of those who feel external effects.

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

As an example, 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 roads and driveways 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, 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 for them than using clean technologies; that damage groundwater or use up resources but that cost less for them than methods that don’t; or they will build into products secondary effects which consumers who buy the product won’t directly suffer but others will, and which cost less to produce or induce more purchases. 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 enacted. There is a drive to buy and sell even beyond the direct benefits of doing so because each producer is weighing 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. 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.

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. What we get is an economy turning communities into dump sites, making cities sick with smog, polluting ground waters that in turn escalate cancer rates, and causing global warming that threatens not only raging storms but even vast upheavals of ocean levels and agriculture, with untold species destroying and even society destroying costs to follow.

Participatory Economy and Ecology

Will a participatory economy be any better for the environment than capitalism? Yes, for a number of reasons.

First, in a participatory economy there is no pressure to accumulate. Each producer is not compelled to expand surplus in order to compete with other producers for market share. 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, in capitalism the labor/leisure tradeoff is biased heavily toward more production at all times due to the need for overall growth to avoid shrinkage that brings on failure. In a participatory economy, however, 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 participatory economy will have no drive to accumulate output beyond levels that meet needs and develop potentials. A participatory economy will, therefore, stabilize at much lower output and work levels – say thirty hours of work to produce socially useful products a week – and eventually, even less. Interestingly, and revealingly, some mainstream economists criticize that in a participatory economy because people will decide their work levels they will likely decide on less than now. The mainstream economists call this democratic implication a flaw rather than celebrating it as a virtue.

The second issue is one of valuation. Again, unlike in capitalism, or with markets more generally, participatory planning doesn’t have each transaction determined only by the people who directly produce and the people who directly consume, with these participants having structural incentives to maximize purely personal benefits regardless of the broader social impact. Instead, every act of production and consumption in a participatory economy is part of a total overall integrated 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 in the material plane – which is of course always true – but they are also properly accounted for at the decision making point.

In a participatory economy, 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 to neighborhoods, counties, states, or the whole population.

The key point is relatively simple. By eliminating the market drive to accumulate and to have only a short time horizon and the market-compelled ignorance of economic effects that extend beyond buyers and sellers (such as on the environment) – and the consequent market mispricing of items – participatory economy properly accounts costs and benefits and provides means to sensibly self manage environmental impacts.

It isn’t that there is no pollution in a participatory economy. And it isn’t that non-renewable items are never used. These norms would make no sense. You can’t produce without some waste and you can’t prosper without using resources. Rather, what is necessary is that when production or consumption generates negative effects on the environment, or depletes resources that we value and cannot replace, the decision to do these things ought to be made while 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 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 which decides the labor/leisure tradeoff regardless of participant preferences. We want an economy to let people who are affected make their own judgments with the best possible knowledge of personal, social, and ecological true and full costs and benefits by bringing to bear their appropriate self-managing influence. If the economy presents this spectrum of possibility and control to its actors, as a participatory economy does, what is left to assess is what people will likely decide. All that we can ask of an economy is that people not be biased by institutional pressures or made ignorant or ineffectual due to institutional biases. Participatory economy guarantees both these aims. It provides for people to be free and self managing, and it simultaneously ensures that the logic of the economy is consistent with the richest possible human comprehension of ecological connections and options.

Similarly, we can ask of the rest of society – its culture, its kinship relations, and its polity – that these too not bias people against the environment or future generations. This means a polity manifests people’s wills and has no institutional bias regarding ecology. It means kinship occurs in context of the environment and is attuned to husbanding it. And the same for culture. This last can have many forms – ranging from respecting norms from other spheres but otherwise having marginal specific attitudes to ecology, to the more typically indigenous-type cultures with very rich and detailed ecological attitudes. In any event, it means there will not be disdainful – much less polluting – attitudes and inclinations within cultural norms.

Of course we can refine our understanding of participatory kinship, community, and polity beyond the fledgling descriptions in our vision to date, and thus also their ecological interface. Yet, even as they are now, we hope readers will agree participatory society would yield people with sensible care-taking attitudes toward their surroundings and with nurturant attitudes toward future generations.

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

Other Species

We live on a planet, the earth, which is 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 particularly of 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 on its own is profitable, capitalists do that. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating another species is profitable, again, that is the capitalist path.

Capitalist market competition looks around and assesses short-term profitable possibilities and pursues them. If we add governments or other agencies with priorities other than solely short-term profit seeking, they may ameliorate many ills. But 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 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 participatory economy?

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

  Second, a participatory economy 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 be flexibly responsive to constraints imposed by forces and concerns that are not economic.

  Third, a participatory economy would move 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 social and implications.

  And fourth, a participatory economy would move 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 is a change in its intensity. Together they ensure that a participatory economy 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 participatory economy are likely to be more receptive to arguments regarding the rights of other species.

Regarding its guiding logic, a participatory economy intrinsically 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 participatory economy, if directly preserving or nurturing a species is beneficial for humans, the incentives will be strong to do it. If leaving a species to its own devices is beneficial for humans, again, the incentives will point in that direction. If directly consuming or indirectly obliterating a species by taking away its habitat is beneficial for humans, again, that is the purely economic path that a good economy would intrinsically arrive at.

Participatory economy, via its participatory planning, assesses beneficial possibilities for humans 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, per se. And, regrettably, such species cannot be incorporated as decision-makers to attend to their own interests.

However, a participatory society’s citizens can decide that they want to add to their participatory economic institutions, political or other agencies to act on behalf of diverse 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, such structures or agencies would be added to participatory economy because there is no process that allows species other than people to express their intentions and desires. While these structures will, therefore, presumably need to have popular support manifested through 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 participatory economics, that is, once there is a political 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 – then thereafter the economy functions in accord with that external ruling and 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 compel people to do so.

The question arises, however, 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 toward stewardship for species other than their own and therefore incorporate rules and norms on behalf of such species on top of the economic means they share to manifest their own preferences?

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 will be less thwarted and more enhanced in a system that promotes solidarity and diversity than in a system that promotes antisociality and homogeneity. And the same holds for participatory kinship, community, and polity as compared to patriarchy, racism, and authoritarianism.

Additionally, a participatory economy exalts not only the benefits that accrue from diversity, but also the need to avoid narrow scenarios that eliminate options we might later find superior. We can expect participatory 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, participatory economics and a participatory society puts in place a concern for human well being and development that doesn’t forcefully 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, they would vote for participatory society.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael May 15, 2019 1:04 pm 

    In many ways this may be the most important essay of the series. I would add one more specific element or issue–demographics or population growth. A huge issue. We have on the earth areas with few people and conversely other areas with immense numbers of people crowded together.

    Those in our current systems, essentially capitalistic and competitive with the strong getting the largest share of everything, face a daunting future. Socialism certainly means caring better for all.

    But apart from, let’s say sharing better, there is the unavoidable reality that there are limits to what can be shared regardless of technical innovations. Now we have over 7 billion people and growing. 8, 10, 12 billions people, if we survive so long, are pretty much stretching the limits of imagination. Isn’t this the grim reality? Ultimately, what Michael Albert has been writing about is not simply economic systems and reforms, but the very question of our fate, survival at its basest.

Leave a comment