Ecology and Environment in a Future Society
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Participants of the Remaining Society Project would agree that, capitalism has been cruel to the ecology and environment. This cruelty stems from the fact that, in a capitalistic society organized under private ownership, corporate division of labor, centralized decision making structures and markets as the medium of allocation, there are strong incentives for (1) growth in production of goods and services and (2) externalizing the costs of destructive resource appropriation and waste deposition activities.
Indeed, in today's capitalistic society, environmental management and policy focuses on the issues related to (2) and creates options for resource conservation, what we may like to welcome and may be call as "rear-guard" activities. Pollution taxes aiming at delivering the "polluter pays" principle, extraction permits aiming at equitable distribution of people's rights on common resources are the main instruments of regulation towards reduced resource consumption and pollution creation. Moreover, today's society allocates funds for research and development in environmentally friendly technologies, such as cradle-to-cradle production and renewable and clean energy systems.
However, the problem is, often the taxes are too low, permits are not distributed at equitable basis, and funds for appropriate technology development are too limited.
Then, are we to blame politicians, decision makers or experts who are involved in deciding for these standards? Or, is there a problem innate to the ways capitalism functions, which systematically avoids taxes being necessarily high, permits being equitable and funds being sufficient? In other words, in a capitalistic society, is it possible to fully internalize the environmental externalities of production and consumption?
My answer to this question is no. In a society, where the rule for survival is to maintain or increase market shares, and therefore increase the scale of production, invest in capital and make even higher profits, taxes and permits and funds diverted from otherwise productive activities are perceived as burden on the cycle of endless accumulation of capital. That is why, the capitalists, state authorities and even the general public systematically argue for reducing this burden to the disadvantage of the environment.
Indeed this dilemma takes as back to the question (1) which is hardly taken -with a few emerging exceptions- as an issue among our so called "rear guard" activities. Unless we question the wants, incentives and mechanism of growth, capitalistic markets and state regulation cannot fully internalize the costs of environmental damage. In order to truly account for the costs of our devastating production and consumption levels, what we need is a new societal arrangement, devoid off from the pressures of growth. For this, one can envision a society with instruments alternative to those of capitalism.
Firstly, in the future society, we must increase and reestablish the commons granting usufructuary rights to the communities identified in respective scales appropriate according to the requirements of that particular economic activity. As a strategy for increasing and establishing the commons, one may argue for novel ways of creating common-private ownerships which set mutual rights and responsibilities for the commons and private sectors, as opposed to today's public private ownerships.
Secondly, the commons and common-private ownership enterprises at the regional or global scale must not collude in capitalistic markets, where throat cutting bargaining for increased market shares create strong incentives for reduced production costs and hence for disrespect to the environment. The allocation of goods and services by mechanisms alternative to the capitalistic market is crucial so as to stop the growth cycle and to truly account for the costs of production.
In this non-market institution, producers and consumers must mutually decide on what and how much to produce and they must also set the standards for the tolerable risks of resource depletion and pollution creation. Obviously, these standards must be assisted by expert groups and should account for the public's risk perceptions.
Running the commons and common-private sectors, decision making for what /how much to produce and for levels of appropriate levels of resource consumption and pollution creation requires participating individuals and communities, empowered with their access to necessary information and guaranteed under appropriate social agreements. The participatory decision making structures can be novel creations and they can model the existing and traditional institutions as well.
In summary, a future society for the ecology and environment must create strong incentives for detaining growth and scaling down the economies where appropriate. This seems to be a must, so as to truly account for the environmental costs of production. For a society to deliver these characteristics, empowered commons sectors as opposed to private ownership-entrepreneurship, non-market institutions for distribution of goods and services and participatory decision making seem as the three crucial aspects that we should be concentrating our efforts to understand more in depth and create for a meaningful change.