Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective

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Participatory Economics & the Environment (Pt. 4)

Go to Pt. 1 / Pt. 2 / Pt. 3 / Pt. 4

Chris Spannos interviews Robin Hahnel.

January 10, 2004

Robin Hahnel has taught political economy at American University for over 25 years. He has co-authored, along with Michael Albert, numerous books on participatory economics. His forthcoming book is Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation published by Routledge. Chris Spannos is a member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective

Spannos: What role would environmental activism, groups like Green Peace, or future environmental political parties, say the Green Party, have in a future society based on parecon?

Hahnel: Substituting the institutions of a participatory economy -- worker and consumer councils and federations, participatory planning, balanced job complexes, and remuneration on the basis of effort or sacrifice -- for the institutions of capitalism -- private enterprise, markets, and hierarchical decision making -- does not guarantee that the environment will be adequately protected, much less restored. A participatory economy gives people decision making power to the degree they are affected. A participatory economy eliminates perverse incentives that make it in the individual interest of decision makers to overexploit and despoil the environment. Unlike capitalism and communism, each of which contain powerful incentives for decision makers to ignore adverse affects on the environment -- and unlike market socialism, which is little better suited to accounting for environmental externalities, avoiding conspicuous consumption, and avoiding injudicious growth -- in a participatory economy it is in the individual interests of decision makers to treat the environment wisely. There is no bias favoring growth of output over growth of leisure. Status cannot be achieved through conspicuous consumption. There are no perverse incentives that make it in the interests of producers or consumers to over pollute because of neglected externalities. Instead, those who benefit from environmental preservation have the power necessary to protect their interests. Long-term plans place constraints on annual plans in ways that balance the interests of present and future generations. And the interests of future generations -- which depend on environmental preservation -- are given every opportunity to receive their due in the long-run, participatory planning process. But a participatory economy provides no guarantee that people will treat the environment wisely, which is to say it does not make the environmental movement obsolete. A participatory economy merely eliminates perverse incentives that create biases against environmental preservation and restoration on a playing field where people weigh their competing goals democratically and fairly.

Therefore, an active environmental movement will be necessary in a participatory economy to argue for the importance of environmental protection and restoration. Many who a participatory economy empowers for the first time will be ignorant of their own true interests regarding the environment. The environmental movement will have to teach newly enfranchised voters in a participatory economy why environmental preservation is important to their well being. Environmentalists will have to speak up in worker and consumer councils and federations, pointing out the true benefits of environmental preservation and the magnitude of the costs of environmental degradation. When consumer federations decide how much local pollution they are willing to tolerate for a given level of compensation, environmentalists in those federations must point out all the damage the pollution causes, and convince their fellow citizens not to permit too much. During the long-run planning process environmentalists must speak up when they believe others are insufficiently prioritizing the interests of future generations by failing to prioritize environmental restoration. Whenever environmentalists believe that people are being overly anthropocentric -- i.e. considering only the effects of decisions on humans rather than placing some weight on the interests of other species and the biosphere itself -- they will have to argue their case and try to convince others. And if there are going to be environmentalists to do all this in worker and consumer councils and federations and long-run planning sessions there will have to be an active environmental movement to sensitize, educate, and empower its members to effectively carry out the work of environmental consciousness raising. Finally, if environmentalists believe that exemplary actions to obstruct mistakes, or to call attention to environmental concerns they believe are going unheeded by an ignorant or selfish majority, then organizations like Greenpeace willing to engage in civil disobedience in defense of the environment will have an important role to play in a participatory economy as well. Real world economic democracy means more than voting power in proportion to the degree one is affected. It also means discussion and debate when there are differences of opinion, and civil disobedience can be an important part of "discussion and debate" in a real economic democracy as well. When we chant "this is what democracy looks like" while marching in the streets and engaging in civil disobedience, we need to realize that we really mean it! That is also what democracy will look like in a participatory economy and society as well.

But I should also point out another aspect of the relationship between the environmental movement and participatory economics: Participatory economics will never replace capitalism until a number of progressive social movements come to see replacing capitalism with participatory economics as necessary to achieve their goals. Until the labor movement, the consumer movement, the anti-corporate movement, the poor people's movement, the globalization movement, the civil rights/anti-racist movement, the women's movement, the gay movement, the peace/anti-imperialist movement, and the environmental movement all grow in size, and come to support something like a participatory economy we will not succeed in replacing the unsustainable economics of competition and greed with the sustainable economics of equitable cooperation in the first place. Strengthening the environmental movement and environmental activism are necessary parts of a successful strategy for achieving participatory economics, and the environmental movement and environmental activists must continue to function once a participatory economy is established to achieve environmental protection and preservation.

Spannos: Thank you very much.

Hahnel: I want to thank the Vancouver Parecon Collective for this opportunity to discuss participatory economics and the environment. I also want to than the members of the Southern Maryland Greens Local, which as been the primary organization for my political activism over the past four years, for deepening my understanding of environmental issues and their importance to local organizing.

Go to Pt. 1 / Pt. 2 / Pt. 3 / Pt. 4

Robin Hahnel has taught political economy at American University for over 25 years. He has co-authored, along with Michael Albert, numerous books on participatory economics. His forthcoming book is Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation published by Routledge.