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Participatory Economics & the Environment (Pt. 1)

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: Participatory Economics is an economic vision, just one part of society. What role do environmental considerations have in visions of a future society?

Hahnel: I think you raise two important issues in your question that I would like to address separately. One issue has to do with the fact that historically, most leftists have proposed economic visions as if they were sufficient visions for all spheres of social life. The second issue has to do with environmental vision and how that relates to economic vision.

I believe that by conflating economic vision with social vision in general, most left visionaries have been guilty of unwarranted "economism." However, in this regard, I do not think Michael Albert and I were guilty when we wrote about participatory economics. Participatory economics was proposed as an economic vision -- not as a substitute for political and cultural visions, nor for a vision of non-patriarchal gender relations. Moreover, Michael Albert and I never presumed that economic vision was more important than visions for new and better social institutions in other spheres of social life -- quite the contrary -- and I think we made that very clear in everything we ever wrote about participatory economics.

It is true that we wrote much more about economic vision than visions for other spheres of social life. But we did so only because we thought that we, personally, had more insights to offer regarding economic vision, not because we ever believed that emancipatory visions for other spheres of social life were any less important than economic vision. Even in this regard, when we wrote about what we called at the time "socialism tomorrow" in Part III of Socialism Today and Tomorrow (South End Press, 1981), we wrote separate chapters on "socialist politics," "socialist economics," "socialist kinship," and "socialist community" because we did not want to conflate vision for a truly socialist economy with vision for a desirable society in general -- which we, like everyone else at that time, called "socialism." In short, since the two of us were already sensitive to economistic biases on the left before we ever wrote about economic vision, I think we did manage to avoid the mistake of conflating economic vision with social vision.

However, regarding the relationship between our vision of a participatory economy and the environment, I'm afraid I must plead guilty. As a whole the left was a "Johnny-come-lately" to environmental awareness. That includes not only the old left, but much of the new left as well -- which is where Michael Albert and I both grew to political awareness in the 1960s. As a result, I believe most economic visions coming out of the left -- including ours -- have failed to adequately address environmental concerns.

When we first wrote about participatory economics we believed that a participatory economy would treat the environment far more wisely than capitalist, communist, or market socialist economies, and we briefly pointed out why we believed that was the case in broad generalities. We mentioned that externalities, such as pollution, and public goods, such as environmental preservation, would be more efficiently accounted for by participatory planning than by markets, but we did not propose specific procedures to protect the environment, or explain concretely how particular features of a participatory economy could be expected to lead to a more judicious relationship with the natural environment. In other words, we failed to address serious questions about participatory economics and the environment when we first published The Political Economy of Participatory Economics (Princeton University Press) and Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty-First Century (South End Press) in 1991.

Therefore, it was not surprising that serious environmentalists took us to task at the time, and remained skeptical of claims that remained vague. Carl Boggs wrote: "It is unclear precisely how Albert and Hahnel's participatory economy establishes mechanisms for determining overall ecological impacts, for setting limits to the production of harmful goods, or for ascertaining how much industrial growth is desirable. (Carl Boggs, "A New Economy," The Progressive (May, 1992): 40.) And Howard Hawkins reported: "One Left Green who read Looking Forward scoffed at it as 'industrialism with a human face.' He wondered how in the world -- given our contemporary situation of ozone depletion, greenhouse effect, radioactive and toxic poisoning, and general ecological breakdown -- can one lay out an economic vision without going into some detail on ecological issues? (Howard Hawkins, "Review of Looking Forward and The Political Economy of Participatory Economics," Left Green Notes (August-September 1991): 14.) Boggs and Hawkins were completely justified in demanding to know what "mechanisms" would determine ecological impacts and set limits on harmful production and growth.

It took over ten years, but I think we now have some concrete answers for environmentalists about precisely how the environment can be protected in a participatory economy. However, these answers are just getting out there. Don Fitz and the editorial board of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought were kind enough to publish a short piece on a rush basis in their most recent issue, number 34, spring 2004. I believe a longer version of "Protecting the Environment in a Participatory Economy" is also available on their web site, I also propose and discuss concrete procedures to protect the environment in a participatory economy in chapter eight of my forthcoming book with Routledge Press, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation. But that will not be available until the end of this year at the earliest.

While I look forward to reactions from environmental activists and scholars to what we now propose about how a participatory economy can handle environmental issues, I hasten to point out that we have not proposed an environmental vision as that is usually understood. Explaining how decisions regarding the environment can be made in a participatory economy is not the same as describing what wise interaction with the natural environment will actually look like. In other words, there is nothing forthcoming that will satisfy environmentalists who want to know what specific technologies will be chosen or banned in a participatory economy, what the rate of growth of production will be, or how great the division of labor between different communities and regions will be in a participatory economy.

In their great nineteenth century utopian novels Looking Backward and News from Nowhere Edward Bellamy and William Morris each attempted to motivate a desirable alternative to capitalism not only by describing new economic institutions and patterns of behavior, but also by describing new products and technologies they presumed their post capitalist economies would feature. In that regard, Bellamy and Morris did provide a technological and environmental vision as part of their attempt to motivate readers to think positively beyond capitalism. I think greens who research and write about new products and technologies that are more environmentally friendly in the energy, transportation, agricultural, and industrial sectors are doing crucial intellectual work. I think activists who experiment with environmentally friendly modes of production, consumption, and living in an economy hostile to their efforts are an important part of the hope for the future. But I am neither an expert on green technologies, nor competent to judge which ideas about environmentally friendly technologies and products are more fruitful, and which will prove to be less so. I must leave the job of pointing out the advantages of particular technologies and products to scientists and engineers, and the task of conveying what life might be like in ecotopia to more talented novelists and science fiction writers than I am. I think this work -- offering environmental vision -- is very important. I'm just ill-equipped to do it myself.

Instead the focus of my attention is on whether or not basic economic institutions afford creative ideas and proposals about how we relate to the natural environment a fair and friendly hearing. In that vein, in the past I have tried to explain why the profit motive ignores crucial environmental effects unmeasured in the commercial nexus, why markets are biased in favor of economic activities that pollute and biased against activities that preserve and restore valuable ecological systems, and why capitalism promotes private consumption over social consumption and leisure to the detriment of the environment. In other words, I have tried to explain why capitalism is incapable of granting ideas about how to better relate to the natural environment a fair and friendly hearing. Now I am trying to explain, more concretely than a decade ago, how particular features and procedures in a participatory economy can create an institutional setting and incentives that promote judicious relations with our natural environment. In other words, when ideas that environmentalists (and I) think are promising -- ideas like recycling, organic farming, locally grown produce, smart growth, de-automobilization, solar and wind power, and more leisure instead of more consumption -- are proposed in a participatory economy, why is there good reason to believe they will receive a friendly hearing rather than be discarded as they are in capitalist economies today.

Let me state my views regarding the environment clearly. I do not believe environmentalists should ever be satisfied that any proposal for how to conduct human activities will adequately protect the environment. Unlike other species, we humans proved so adept at shifting from preying on one species to others, that even before we invented agriculture we were already a bull in the ecological china closet for whom the normal ecological constraints on over hunting and grazing were largely absent. The agricultural and industrial revolutions greatly compounded the damage we have wreaked on the natural environment. And as we enter the third millennium AD, none should doubt that the six billion humans on earth can damage the biosphere irreparably in a number of different ways, and that most of us are still blissfully ignorant of the havoc we create and the dangers we court.

But environmentalists must be satisfied with something less than zero pollution and no depletion of non-renewable resources. Zero pollution usually means not producing and consuming goods and services whose benefits far outweigh their social costs -- including the damage the pollution associated with producing and consuming them does to the environment. Never tapping non-renewable resources is a debilitating constraint when it proves possible to develop substitutes before a non-renewable resource runs out. Unless we plan to vacate planet earth, zero pollution and no resource depletion are impossible. But fortunately, they are also unnecessary. A sustainable economy does not mean going back to scattered clans of hunter gatherers -- who hunted most large mammal species to extinction in short order wherever they spread in any case! Humans will affect the environment -- but we must learn to do so in ways that do not produce catastrophic climate change. Human activity will drive some species to extinction -- but we must learn to do so in ways that minimize species extinction and do not destroy vital ecosystems. Human activity will affect fauna and flora -- but we need to learn how to affect the living environment in ways that preserve a biosphere capable of sustaining human and non-human life of the same, or higher quality that we presently enjoy. It would be foolish as well as impossible to strive to have no impact whatsoever on the biosphere.

Our present interaction with the environment is not sustainable, and will not be sustainable as long as global capitalism persists. At present we are consigned to fighting rear guard actions to minimize the environmental damage capitalism wreaks while organizing to replace the unsustainable economics of competition and greed with a sustainable system of equitable cooperation. By calling them "rear guard actions" I do not mean to demean their importance. Without effective rear guard actions there may be no tropical rain forests to preserve by the time capitalism is replaced, and there may be no way to avert climate change if it has proceeded past the point of no return. After global capitalism is replaced, we will certainly need to prioritize immediate changes to prevent environmental collapse. But we will also need to plan the transition to a sustainable interaction with the environment with both efficiency and inter-generational equity in mind. Even if collapse is avoided, if the transition is too slow it will unfairly advantage the present generation at the expense of future generations, and unwisely reject opportunities to achieve future environmental benefits that exceed present social costs. But besides being impractical, insisting on an immediate transition imposes unnecessarily high costs on the present generation. So once capitalism has been replaced, we will need to calibrate non-zero levels of pollution and resource depletion over long periods of time, and the question will be if our new economic institutions are suited to helping us do this. I look forward to discussions with environmentalists of whether the specific features we have recently proposed in participatory economics are appropriate.

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.