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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1074
January 30, 2015

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Ecological Economics and Changing Everything

Patricia Perkins

This talk was delivered at a forum at Beit Zatoun, in Toronto on January 11, 2015, on Naomi Klein's recent book, This Changes Everything (2014) [see video at LeftStreamed No. 245]. Patricia Perkins teaches in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto.

I would like to thank and acknowledge the First Nations of the territories where we live and are meeting, the Anishinaabe Mississauga, Seneca, Huron-Wendat, ‘Neutrals,’ and other peoples whose ancestors lived here. The land claim of the Mississaugas of the New Credit, relating to the Crown's 1805 acquisition of land running from Ashbridge's Bay westward to the mouth of the Credit River, and extending 28 miles northward, is still under negotiation. Toronto owes its location and earliest traditions as a meeting place to the aboriginal peoples who developed sustainable ways of living and welcomed settlers here. The appalling treatment of aboriginal peoples by settlers is an ongoing disgrace which is intertwined in many ways with the economic, political, and social systems that have produced climate change.

Late 1600s map of Lac de Frontenac (Lake Ontario), showing Lac Taronto, now known as Lake Simcoe, and the Seneca towns Teiaiagon, “crosses the stream,” (on the Humber River near the current intersection of Jane and Annette Streets, at Baby Point) and Ganatsekwyagon, “among the birches,” (half a mile north of the mouth of the Rouge River).

We must start by acknowledging and addressing long-standing injustices if we are to build alliances to fundamentally change this reality, as we are discussing today. I hope today's session will contribute toward this understanding, and I think we all need to take seriously our responsibility to educate ourselves about the still-suppressed history and the current situation of aboriginal peoples.

Ecological Economics, De-Growth and Climate Change

As I read Naomi Klein's wonderful book, This Changes Everything (2014), it kept reminding me of proposals and ideas which are part of the ecological economics canon, and I'd like to briefly share and describe some of these.

Ecological economics emerged as an academic field in the late 1980s (the journal Ecological Economics began publishing in 1989 and Canada's chapter of the International Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE, started in 1993). Ecological economics recognizes that the economy, however it is organized, is an open subsystem of the Earth's ecosystem (of which humans are of course a part). The Earth system is materially-closed and energetically-open – since the Earth receives sunlight, and hopefully radiates an equal amount of heat back to space. Therefore material limits exist on how big the economy can grow, although these limits are not usually acknowledged in capitalist / neoclassical / traditional economics, which sees perpetual growth as good and necessary. Interest rates, wage increases, profits, and sometimes redistribution are fueled by this growth. Following the Meadows Report, The Limits to Growth (1972), E.F. Schumaker's Small is Beautiful (1973), and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) which pointed out that due to thermodynamics, energy degrades and becomes progressively less useful once it enters the economy, books like Is Capitalism Sustainable? published in 1994, have highlighted the fallacies, contradictions and problems with economic growth-dependence. But as we know, growth has powerful and linked political constituencies.

The Degrowth movement, which is quite strong in Europe now and has an active Canadian presence, advocates for the downscaling of production and consumption so that humans live within the limits of the earth's ecosystem while maximizing well-being through non-consumptive activities centred on culture, community and human relationships. Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster (2008) by my colleague Peter Victor at York University is a detailed blueprint and computer-tested model which shows how social goals like full employment and poverty reduction can be met even in a no-growth economy if the political will supports concerted, directed government spending. Clearly this will require a lot of grassroots organizing!

The Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), founded in 1986, fosters research and discussion about the benefits of an unconditional basic income for all as an economic right. A basic income could be at least partly funded through minimizing the complex bureaucracies required to administer welfare, unemployment and other social transfers, and would allow those without formal employment to still contribute socially. Doesn't this approach the aboriginal principle that everyone deserves food, clothing and shelter? Some people see a global basic income, perhaps funded through carbon taxes and climate debt repayments, as a climate justice goal. Wouldn't this at least partly redress the economic development inequities stemming from colonialism?

The York-McGill-University of Vermont partnership website is

Ecological economists have also researched how to support the development of local economies, how to end perverse subsidies that stimulate economic bads not goods, ways of measuring resource depletion, pollution, and ‘stranded assets’ so that they can be included in national accounts, planning, and policy, and many other detailed policy-relevant topics that are likely to come in handy during the transition we face.

York University has recently begun a pedagogical partnership with McGill University and the University of Vermont to develop a joint ecological economics graduate program that will train dozens of graduate students over the next several years. Its goals include critiquing and advancing alternatives to Western, instrumentalist mindsets and disciplinary silos in order to contribute to a more holistic and practical understanding of sustainable human endeavor. Students work directly with organizations outside the university to put their academic studies at the service of civil society and test the relevance of what they are learning. The three focus areas for this joint program are water, energy, and climate justice.

In much recent work on ecological economics, degrowth, and the transition to more sustainable socio-economic systems, ‘commons’ is emerging as a paradigm for future economic institutions. A ‘commons’ starts out more overtly oppositional to capitalism than other sometimes-vague terms like ‘sustainability’ or ‘development,’ focusing as it does on ownership and property, land, resources, and assets that are explicitly not privately owned.

This goes beyond the idea of a commons as a common-property regime with the socio-political structures required to prevent open access. The vision more broadly is one of people working together, cooperatively, to build methods of production, service provision, and exchange which create value and well-being while integrating ecological care, justice, and long-term planning to the best of diverse communities’ abilities. This includes institutions such as co-ops, land trusts, and non-market or beyond-market collective ways of organizing production, distribution, consumption, and waste or materials management.

Preventing the so-called “tragedy of the commons” by controlling open access through strong social institutions requires a high level of general civic consciousness, co-operation, the ability to listen and mediate differing goals, conflict resolution, flexibility and good will throughout society, especially in the context of social dynamism and diversity. As 2009 Nobel Economics laureate Elinor Ostrom and others have demonstrated through meticulous research, this does not always happen, but it is possible.

The interdisciplinary International Association for the Study of the Commons was formed in 1989, building on the Common Property Network which was formed in 1984. IASC now has over 1,000 institutional members and has sponsored 12 international conferences, with another planned for May 2015 in Alberta. The idea that commons governance represents something fundamentally different from “the Market” or “the State” is becoming well-known and widely accepted.

The journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, founded in 1988, provides a focus for egalitarian and environmental anti-capitalist perspectives. Political ecology, green community development, and feminist eco-socialism, among others, are burgeoning communities of thought and action related to human relationships with the Earth.

My general point is that many relevant theories, methods and tools which may be useful in the struggle against climate change have been advanced and analyzed by academics, and are therefore available when needed and as soon as the political will is in place to put them to use. Academics and activists can and should be strong allies.

Three Sets of Ideas in Addressing Climate Change

There are three areas where I'd like to offer some additional thoughts, building on what Klein says about climate change and capitalism. The first relates to race and slavery, energy transitions, inequities, and human work. Energy transitions are times when humans ‘discover’ or invent a new way of making their lives easier. Animal traction, making ‘domesticated’ animals do work for humans, made possible new kinds of agriculture and increased food production. Using fire was one of the first energy transitions (requiring wood biomass for fuel). The eventual near-deforestation of Europe led to the discovery that coal could also be burned; coal allowed hotter fires, making possible steel smelting and all sorts of resultant technological changes. Transitions to other fossil fuels, and nuclear energy, followed. Technical change in ship design, including hull profiles and sails, made possible ever-fleeter and more wide-ranging wind-powered and then fossil-fueled ships, military conquests, trade, colonialism.

But not all humans were ever the beneficiaries of these energy transitions and technological advances. The beneficiaries depended, and still depend, on which people have access to the technologies and which people, through violence and political power, ‘own’ the ability to enjoy easier lives. Women's work, for example, has nearly always been controlled and directed for the service of men through religious and family traditions, domestic violence, labour-market discrimination, and other institutions of patriarchy. This is why women in North America and Europe still earn only about two-thirds of what men do for equivalent work, and why women with dependents work a double or triple day at the expense of their rest, leisure, and health. After WWII, as electric household machines fuelled from the grid reduced women's drudgery in housework, laundry and cooking, women began to work outside the home, still at low wages. In the global South today, electrification has similar effects, sometimes displacing rural women and men to urban factories where they face a different kind of drudgery.

And slavery, viewed in this way, is another institution that some people invented to make their lives easier at the extreme expense of others – it cannot be separated either historically, economically, or environmentally from the energy transitions surrounding it. (Some alternative energy publications still talk about ‘energy slaves’; since the average sustained power output of a human being is about one-tenth of a horsepower, an ‘energy slave’ is equivalent to about 0.67 of a kilowatt-hour.) Recent research by black scholars is documenting all the ways that slavery undergirded and made possible the growth of capitalism and its heinous intellectual justification. The near-genocides of aboriginal peoples are another aspect of this ‘othering,’ using Power to categorize some humans as beneficiaries and others as outcasts. Our fight today against the results – globalization, corporate control of governments, trade agreements, worsening income inequality, ongoing extreme social inequities, environmental injustices, and climate change – represents our chance to build the strong alliances needed to right these wrongs, as Klein states.

Obviously this is a complex story about which a great deal more can be said, but my basic point is two-fold: We must not allow ourselves to assume that all humans, even all humans in a particular region or country, are equally responsible or equally affected by the institutions and processes that are responsible for climate change. And secondly, this is one reason why the voices of all those affected must be equitably involved in envisioning and building the solutions – so that all the relevant information is brought to bear, and so that the question of interpersonal, political Power is reunited with the question of energy transitions and power shifts in building sustainable solutions. The climate justice literature speaks of “procedural justice” – engagement in building ongoing political solutions – as being equally important along with “distributive justice” – the material redistribution of benefits, land, and rights.

Watercolor depicting the Klallam people of chief Chetzemoka (1808-1888) at Port Townsend, Washington, with one of Chetzemoka's wives distributing potlatch.

I'd also like to add to Klein's words on the role of Aboriginal leadership, treaties, court rulings, and land claims – what John Ralston Saul has described and documented as “the Comeback.” Indigenous worldviews provide such rich insights into ways of organizing society to prioritize resilience, interdependence, trust, and ecological respect. Aboriginal traditions of hospitality, sharing, potlatch (or giving away material wealth as a sign of moral and community standing, thus trading off material wealth for leadership and respect), humility, and reverence for the earth and its creatures and life systems are central to locally-appropriate commons governance processes. First Nations also had nested governance hierarchies which seem to me to correspond with what Elinor Ostrom has cited as successful ways to govern large-scale commons.

The active suppression of the potlatch by the Canadian government between 1884 and 1951, on penalty of 2 to 6 month jail terms, shows the extent to which gift-giving and generosity were inimical to the selfishness and violence of capitalist expansionism. During the potlatch, guests are named and given gifts with the words, “you are recognized.” In The Principles of Tsawalk: An Indigenous Approach to Global Crisis (2011, Ch. 4), E. Richard Atleo (Umeek) comments:

“Over time it was learned that gift giving and recognition promoted balance and harmony between beings, that it obeyed what might be called the laws of the positive side of polarity. To neglect the promotion of balance and harmony between beings promoted what might be referred to as the laws of the negative side of polarity. These are not new ideas. Indeed they are commonly held both by Western and Eastern morality (generosity begets generosity) and by the laws of physics (to every action there is a reaction). When two neighbouring nations shared the same resources, whether cedar, salmon, or human, then it was obvious to the ancient Nuu-chah-nulth that to neglect the act of recognition would open the way to conflict, while to observe the act of recognition, through what I refer to as 'mutual concern,' would open the way to balance and harmony.”

Aboriginal women, in particular, are the strong leaders of the most powerful environmental movements in Canada today.

The issue of women's leadership and embodied knowledge of power inequities is a third area where I would like to add to what Klein has said. The transition away from climate change and fossil fuel ‘energy slaves’ has to mean a transition to meaningful jobs without drudgery for all – and women are everywhere the experts on drudgery. As Emma Goldman said, “Woman is the worker's worker.” Since most of this work is unpaid, and in fact the unpaid economy is at least as big as the paid one in every country and globally, this both undergirds capitalism and is simultaneously outside the market's control, which puts a different spin on the prospects for alternatives to capitalism. A basic income could make the distinction between paid and unpaid work almost irrelevant. Women's voices, participation, and leadership are so crucial in climate change activism for such changes.

I'm learning a lot about this through interviews I've been doing recently with women across Canada, for a study on climate justice and gender in Canada. When extreme weather events disable the electricity grids, flood the farms, bring fires and beetles to the forests, melt the permafrost and sea ice, and cause rising sea levels which destroy the fisheries, this wreaks economic havoc and sometimes brings family breakdown. Women end up doing much more work, and sometimes taking another paid job on top of their family responsibilities. There is lots of stress. And as noted after Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and other climate crises, domestic violence against women can also be a manifestation of climate chaos.

At the same time, gendered social roles and responsibilities mean that women tend to be central to community resilience, care for the sick and vulnerable, livelihood skills transmission, and inter-household sharing in times of crisis. For all these reasons, the alliances needed to build socially, politically, economically and ecologically sustainable futures must rely on women's experience and input.

Organizing into an Effective Movement

I believe the potential of the internet, social media and youth organizing have an important role, especially insofar as youth learn to use these means to communicate effectively across difference, address conflicts, and build politically astute coalitions. Cellphones and community radio, along with the internet (which is more liable to intervention/control and to which not everyone has access), are powerful tools for networking and democratic information dissemination.

Canada's diaspora communities provide many opportunities to communicate broadly, build trust and assemble global coalitions that I think may have tremendous potential in times of climate change. For example, my students in environmental studies at York have included people of Egyptian, Somali, Kenyan and Ethiopian descent who were able to discuss issues related to climate change and water politics in the Upper Nile basin, and at times correspond with their relatives in those countries or do internships and field experiences there, at times when there was a total breakdown in peaceful communication on these issues among the governments themselves. Some of these students have gone on to careers related to environmental policy, water, and climate. Won't their interpersonal connections and experiences with others in the diaspora contribute to their future work and to broader understandings of what is possible?

For those who are doubtful that dog-eat-dog capitalism can be summarily dismantled, let me offer the view that it is already happening, in ways I've outlined. Furthermore, we do know some specific areas where concerted pressure will provide additional impetus.

Here's quotes from commons expert Elinor Ostrom, specifically in reference to climate change:

“Instead of presuming that cooperation related to social dilemmas is an impossibility, the presumption should be that cooperation will occur in settings with several broad characteristics. These include the following:

“1. Many of those affected have agreed on the need for changes in behavior and see themselves as jointly sharing responsibility for future outcomes.

“2. The reliability and frequency of information about the phenomena of concern are relatively high.

“3. Participants know who else has agreed to change behavior and that their conformance is being monitored.

“4. Communication occurs among at least subsets of participants.

“.... The crucial factor is that a combination of structural features leads many of those affected to trust one another and to be willing to do an agreed-upon action that adds to their own short-term costs because they do see a long-term benefit for themselves and others and they believe that most others are complying.

“..... Many of the policy analyses recommending ‘solutions’ at an international level to be implemented by national governments are based on a fear that unless global solutions are made for global problems, these problems will continue unabated....

“Yet extensive research on institutions related to environmental policies has repeatedly shown that creative, effective, and efficient policies, as well as disasters, have been implemented at all scales...... It is important that we recognize that devising policies related to complex environmental processes is a grand challenge and that reliance on one scale to solve these problems is naïve.... The benefits from reduced greenhouse gas emissions are not just global in scope. The benefits are distributed across scales – from the household to the globe.

“..... Rather than only a global effort, it would be better to self-consciously adopt a polycentric approach to the problem of climate change in order to gain the benefits at multiple scales as well as to encourage experimentation and learning from diverse policies adopted at multiple scales.” [2009, pp. 13-14, 27-28, 31]

In other words, starting where we are and continuing to do research, educate, organize, advocate for transparency and democratic governance, attack cronyism and corruption, and build broad, respectful, inclusive political alliances is exactly the way forward. Polycentric commons-building at multiple scales is climate action, and also builds institutions that challenge, destabilize, and create alternatives to capitalism. •

References and Resources:


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