Monthly Archives: September 1995

Sustainability and the System Problem

Sustainability and the System Problem
by Gar Alperovitz
Based on an address to the Executive Staff of the
President’s Council on Sustainable Development
The Good Society, Vol. 5, No.3, Fall 1995

Content:


Introduction

Let me begin by suggesting that the conventional debate on “sustainability” is itself fast becoming unsustainable. I obviously mean to be provocative–but also quite specific: At one level there is a growing consensus that to avoid compromising the needs of future generations any political-economic system must significantly reduce ecological stress, restore past environmental damage, and generate sufficient momentum so that net environmental deterioration is halted. Although precise definitions vary, many now recognize that “sustainability” also requires both an institutional structure and a culture capable of achieving these bottom line results in an ongoing fashion.

Yet, I believe it has also become increasingly evident that neither of the two major “systems” of the twentieth century–capitalism and socialism–is organized in a manner compatible with these goals. If this is so, the conventional debate will obviously need to push much deeper in order to confront the underlying design characteristics of these and other systems to see if any are–or might be–sustainable. The debate, in its present form, is . . . unsustainable.

Put another way, whether we like it or not the sustainability crisis is pushing us all forward, willy-nilly, to “the system problem.”

Socialism

The easiest place to begin to consider this contention is with socialism, a system which (at least in currently known variants) has produced disastrous, and clearly unsustainable, ecological results in the twentieth century.

Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the push for cheap energy and maximum industrial production–together with a wanton disregard for public health–have created vast ecological wastelands in which dirty air, polluted water, and heavy toxic emissions have despoiled ecosystems and threatened human health.

In 1988 more than a hundred cities in the former Soviet Union exceeded legal air pollution standards by at least a thousand percent. When socialism fell in Poland, sixty-five percent of the nation’s river water had been deemed too polluted even for industrial use, and large segments of the Polish population (including the residents of Warsaw) were not served by any waste treatment facilities; corrective measures are only now getting underway.

Energy efficiency in each of the former socialist countries of Europe has lagged far behind U.S. standards, to say nothing of those of the pace-setting nations. Much energy is produced by filth-generating brown coal plants, many without any pollution controls whatsoever. At the end of the 1980s it was estimated that one out of every seventeen deaths in Hungary was due to air pollution. “Wherever you point your finger on the map,” one Russian scientist recently observed, “there is another horrible place.”

Behind such statistics (and many more could be cited) was a domineering, growth-at-all-costs centralized government bureaucracy, and an ideology which suggested that nature could and should be bent to human will at all costs. The governing authorities of the socialist states lacked the will (and probably the capacity) to hold economic operations accountable to true social costs. And local communities had no means of contesting the anti-ecological values of central power. As ecological economist Ken Townsend has observed, “rationality” converted forests of rich diversity into monocrop fields and attempted to reverse the flow of entire river systems.

Sadly, reports from post-communist Russia are hardly more encouraging. In Moscow, a city where eighty percent of the city’s smokestacks have no filters, trees and vacant land are being ravaged with few restrictions.

Cancer rates are soaring; a factory was recently built on top of a radioactive dump. Says a pained city official: there is simply no awareness “that there are ecological consequences . . . everyone now is just thinking about when they get rich.”

The reasons Soviet-style socialism has produced such results can be traced to certain basic properties or design features of the system. For instance, state-run agencies are compelled to expand by the pressure of internal “grow at all costs” management dynamics and the general expansionist goals of the system. At the same time such institutions are compelled to reduce (and externalize) costs, hence to pollute and degrade the environment if this “saves” money–as it commonly does.

Not only are traditional state socialist systems based on growth imperatives, they produce extreme hierarchies of power which reduce both liberty and the capacity of citizen groups to effect positive change.

Status hierarchies also generate invidious comparisons, hence an unquenchable thirst for “more” as an expression of a peculiarly socialist form of consumerism: “My dacha is bigger than yours!” The outcome is a structurally and culturally determined pattern of growth which is destructive of the environment.

What needs to be stressed, however, is not simply criticism of the result, but rather that the institutional architecture, power relationships, and dynamic properties of 20th Century socialism make ecologically disastrous outcomes all but inevitable.

The problem is systemic.

Capitalism

We have little difficulty recognizing such structural concepts when we look “outward” toward another system. But what of our own system? Are the environmental problems of capitalism also systemic? Are the trends toward environmental degradation and the continuing escalation of resource consumption minor “side-effects” of the system? Or are they a necessary consequence of our own system’s design?

The trends are not encouraging to those who would like an easy answer.

Although there are occasional breakthroughs (like the elimination of D.D.T.) and many small reforms, what obviously counts are long-term “outcome” results. Consider one broad index of natural resource consumption: the World Resources Institute has recently observed that “the United States consumes nearly 3 times as much iron ore as India, 4.6 times as much steel, 3.6 times as much coal, 12 times as much petroleum, 3 times as many head of cattle and sheep, and 1.7 times as much roundwood.” The United States has less than one-third the population of India, so per capita consumption differences are at least 300 percent greater than the ratios above indicate.

U.S. consumption of fossil energy is so large that per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas, are nineteen times those of India.

Alan Durning has estimated that since 1940 Americans have alone used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as did everyone in history on the planet before this time. Such resource utilization rates would be impossible to sustain if all nations were to develop along U.S. lines in the new century. But if voracious consumption–and the deeper sources of growth and consumerism from which it springs–are ever to be confronted, we will clearly have to go well beyond such modest reform proposals as taxing consumption and/or advertising.

Similar conclusions emerge as one reflects upon long-term outcome measures of pollution and toxic wastes. Chemical production in the United States increased by 115 percent between 1970 and 1992 alone. Yet less than two percent of the 70,000 chemicals used in commerce have been fully tested for human health effects; there are no health data at all on over seventy percent of these chemicals. According to the EPA, over half of all hazardous waste in the United States is generated by the chemical industry–and nearly 1,000 new chemicals are put on the market each year. Such rates of growth mean that 50 percent of the substances that will be in use in fifteen to twenty years do not now even exist. Yet if all the laboratory resources currently available were put to work, it would only be possible to test some five hundred chemical products per year!

We all know that capitalism as an economic system has certain basic properties: its profit-maximizing imperatives make it dependent upon continued expansion and continually greater levels of resource use. It, too, generates pressures to externalize costs and to pollute.

Capitalism, too, also obviously creates certain kinds of power relationships–most notably, the concentration of economic and political power in the large corporation. Countless studies (and common observation) indicate that corporate institutions have the capacity to wield disproportionate influence–to manipulate regulatory agencies, thwart citizen action groups, and impact both electoral politics and legislation.

Nor is this because all corporate leaders personally lack concern for the environment; it is because of the logic of the system: Business executives must take care of business–or they will be out of business!

Capitalism also produces extreme income hierarchies, status and cultural inequalities, and materialist aspirations. Moreover, the income hierarchies have obvious feed-back effects on politics: those with more money tend to have more power–and a disproportionate capacity to dominate the broader public interest. It is also no accident that toxic dumps regularly end up in poor and minority communities.

Growth in capitalist systems is not motivated simply by hunger for profit, but also by fear. The logic and dynamics of the capitalist system are such that companies must cut costs if they are to withstand competition. They must externalize. If a company willingly spends money on a pollution reduction problem–and then raises its prices to cover the cost, it risks finding its market share reduced by a less conscientious rival firm.

Again, a community given the choice, say, between continued logging of declining forests or loss of jobs, simply by reason of fear is in a weak position to resist growth politics. On a larger scale we see cities and states prostrating themselves to attract corporate investment–not simply out of greed, but because the consequences of not continuing to grow are so severe and so obvious: high unemployment, continued social breakdown, and, of course, negative political outcomes for incumbent officials in government. For communities, like capitalist firms, it very often also is a matter of “grow or die.”

The same proposition holds for many individuals’ lives as well. The materialist aspirations many so easily condemn often are in large measure the flip side of pervasive economic insecurity. Consider the life cycle of a typical middle-class American: one goes to college in order to get ahead, and then incurs debt. To pay off the debt requires accumulating as much money as possible, and then it’s time for a family, children, and if you’re lucky, a mortgage. More responsibilities, and more pressure to accumulate as much as possible. Then parents come to realize that if they don’t live in the right neighborhood, their child’s education will suffer. Similarly, they had better start saving for college. And by the time that’s over, the question of “who will take care of me?” in old age or sickness becomes central.

For the vast majority of Americans whatever security one attains is fragile at best. At any time–and this is now as true for white-collar managers as for blue-collar workers–one might be laid off as a result of a downturn in the economy, a corporate buyout, a new technology or even simply a change in the exchange rate. The only way to get any real security is first and foremost to avoid failing. It is therefore always wise to strive for “more” now; tomorrow may well bring “less”. . . . Thus continues the materialist merry-go-round–and with it, continued striving to climb the income and status ladder.

In this situation it is hardly surprising that mass insecurity should generate adulation of the rich and the secure in the system–or that the capacity to consume so often becomes a measure of self-esteem and status.

Meanwhile, the corporate need to sell also generates pressures for higher consumption–and further impacts the “buy and consume” materialist culture.

I have been dwelling on such widely recognized features of our own system for a reason. That these are “system properties” is obvious–but this, in turn, implies that the unsustainable outcomes we regularly observe are also inherent in the nature of capitalism. We all know that our system is characterized by such institutional, structural, and power “design features”. The problem is we rarely call a spade a spade. Most important, the implications are seldom incorporated into analyses of the challenge of long-term sustainability.

Confronting the System Issue

If, in truth, the problems of capitalist nations, like those of the former socialist states, are systemic in origin then self-evidently–indeed by definition–they cannot be solved unless systemic change occurs. Again, the point is obvious when we look “out” at another system; much more daunting when we look “in” at our own.

Part of our difficulty in confronting the system issue on the environmental front is that we often have trouble distinguishing between reforms which help ameliorate the worst aspects of environmental degradation and changes which actually result in altering trends. At the most general level positive reforms which diminish harmful effects on the environment obviously occur within capitalist systems. Legislation is passed that helps control pollution; progress is made in eliminating lead and CFCs; there are improvements in the reduction of sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates.

Let me urge, however, that it is absolutely essential that we discriminate much more carefully among the following three categories of change–”A”: occasional breakthroughs; “B”: token reforms and “gains”; and “C”: significant long-term trend reversals. Although most of our environmental debate–and certainly efforts at policy reform–are focused on fostering occasional breakthroughs, token reforms and gains, a great deal of evidence points to the conclusion that the outcome trends that matter most in terms of sustainability are commonly not significantly affected by the “A” and “B” type improvements.

I have sketched some of the obvious consumption/resource indicators above.

With certain exceptions–for instance, modest but tangible gains in air and water quality in the United States –a recent study of long trends in twenty-one environmental factors recently compiled by the organization I head confirms general worsening of important ecological outcomes in each of nine industrialized countries surveyed over the past two decades. This despite the fact that the period began with the first Earth Day, and extended through an environmental “awakening” that spawned a flurry of legislation, reform, the establishment of environmental ministries, green planning, and growing ecological consciousness and grassroots activism. Moreover, had economic growth been anywhere near the levels business and government leaders in these nine nations sought, outcome trends of environmental degradation would have been far, far worse. And, of course, recent political developments suggest that the underlying power-institutional relationships make a roll-back even of many once seemingly secure “gains” likely.

If the basic trend data we are beginning to see across a wide range of indicators are even close to being accurate, what we are confronting is a system problem. Put another way: if most trends can in fact only be marginally altered by traditional ideas of reform, then the system properties of capitalism are by definition incompatible with the goal of an ecologically sustainable future.

Furthermore, if it is truly the case that both capitalism and socialism are systems inherently organized in ways that are incompatible with sustainability–that neither system can produce desired ecological outcome results precisely because of their inherent system architecture and power dynamics–then either there is no way out of the box, or (self-evidently) ultimately we will need to come up with a different system design.

In honesty and logic, we must acknowledge that there may not be an alternative way forward; that there may not be an answer to this problem.

Quite simply, one possibility is that it may not be feasible to build the institutions and the culture required to achieve sustainability. However, if we do not accept this pessimistic conclusion–and I do not–then (equally self-evidently) we need to begin to engage in a serious discussion of system designs compatible with the principles of sustainability.

The question is: are we prepared to face up to the cold realities of such a challenge? Yes, I know the old saying–”you can’t change the system!” But, no, I do not believe you can hide from what is self-evident forever. Hence, I propose that we at least try to think about the issue–and begin a serious dialogue. As Joan Rivers likes to say: “Can we talk about this?”

Community

What is needed, ultimately, is a system design which not only stabilizes existing negative ecological trends, but reverses those trends and produces positive outcome results. How might we begin to sketch at least some of the properties of a system that might undercut the pressures which generate non-sustainable outcome results? When the question is put in this manner, I believe we can at least begin to think about some “elements” of a solution (if not, as yet, a total answer).

Given the limited time we have–and simply by way of illustration–one primary system property (as Herman Daly and John Cobb emphasize in their book For The Common Good) almost certainly must be the re-constitution of a culture of “community” or “common good” as a necessary condition of sustainability.

I do not believe, however, that this can simply be stated as a matter of abstract philosophical vision. “Community” has visionary (and moral and ethical) aspects, of course, but sustainability over time requires that a culture of community be institutionally based–which means it must be embodied in structures which generate, reinforce, sustain, and nurture values of community.

One aspect of the institutional logic of “community” may be posed straightforwardly: in both capitalist and socialist systems any firm has an incentive to pollute its local community if this means lower costs. But if, say, the community were to own the firm, it would have little incentive to pollute itself. Such an “institutional design” would at least structurally internalize most costs.

This is not to say that what is logical is easy to achieve institutionally.

(Nor would such structured change alone deal with inter-community planning.) On the other hand, the growing interest in community land-trusts–an increasingly common local institution–suggests one possibility of some quite practical forms which by their very nature give the broader community a stake in the same institutional structure. Might there be experimentation to slowly push the frontiers of institutional development of this kind well beyond their present modest levels?

In fact, just below the surface of most conventional inquiry a myriad of so-called “community development corporations” of all shapes and sizes have sprung up and are now involved in housing and business activities in almost every major locality. “Community-based,” populist style economic development has also spawned hundreds of democratically controlled worker-owned firms and thousands of co-ops. Some are operating plants of significant scale in such industries as steel. There has even been a surprising growth of community-owned municipal enterprises. Elsewhere small-scale public firms are engaged in everything from methane production and real-estate development to cable television.

The enormous variety of experimental institutional fragments include many “seedlings” which just possibly may point a direction towards community forms more consistent with sustainable development than present capitalist or socialist models. If we agree that the experience of being part of a community is one necessary element of a sustainable system, then one obvious need is to assemble and systematically assess such institutional fragments–and build upon the best of them.

A related issue is how community life might be better undergirded and stabilized. Capitalist development in practice destroys the basis of community integration and wholeness as a matter of course: Companies come and go, and jobs rise and fall. Often as not the social fabric is undermined, the local culture disintegrates, the community unravels, and young people leave. A system which sought to engender the core idea “we’re all in it together” would ultimately have to be better structured to stabilize the basis of local community experience. How best to do this then becomes a critical issue both for research and politics.

Scale

Another fundamental issue is that of scale. To take seriously the preconditions of a culture and politics which might ultimately constrain the forces that produce trends inimical to sustainability requires that we come to terms with the size of the “polity” involved. Quite simply, it is extremely difficult and expensive to build a social consensus in a large polity. It may be–I think it is–impossible in a continental system.

The question of scale used to be part and parcel of the study of political theory. Today “scale” is making a come back in regional studies and among ecological activists in the bioregional movement. It’s also certainly coming back in the developing world, the former Soviet Union, and Canada–as “breakdowns” of big nations occur left and right. Although our national system is increasingly stalemated, in the United States we have yet to confront the gigantism of the continental scale of our country.

Many discussions of social and political theory related to sustainability, and proposals for change in the United States, utilize comparative European models: “the Scandinavian countries did this, the Germans did that, the Dutch did this.” The truth, however, is that all of the European geographic polities are of an order of magnitude so vastly different from our own as to make most comparisons questionable: West Germany, home of the postwar economic miracle, could have been tucked into the state of Oregon. France can be dropped into Texas. The Netherlands is minuscule. Compared to the United States all are very small geographic polities.

If we agree that the size of a polity has implications for consensus building, then we need to look to entities which are smaller than the continental national government: i.e. states or groupings of states within a region. Hence, smaller scale and semi-autonomous regional polities with increased powers and responsibilities vis-a-vis the national government might ultimately be another requirement of a new system–if, that is, democracy and sustainability are serious objectives.

Related to this, another possibility for future development might involve regionally-scaled public enterprise. This, in fact, was the regional-ecological concept behind the original “grass roots democracy” inspiration of the Tennessee Valley Authority–before it was subverted by a variety of political-economic and military pressures (especially during World War II). Despite the current wave of privatization and much rhetoric condemning public enterprise, many studies show that under the right conditions public enterprise can also be efficient in strictly economic terms. (Indeed, large U.S. corporations regularly undertake joint ventures with efficient public firms around the world.)

Liberty

A third illustrative requirement of any serious design is obviously liberty for the individual citizen. As Robert Heilbroner has warned, even the most worthy ecological goals all too easily lead in the direction of authoritarianism. The danger lies in imposing a moral vision of the ecologically sound society without paying attention to the need for an underlying institutional structure which sustains liberty.

The classic conservative position–as expressed for example by Milton Friedman–is that it is the small independent property owning capitalist who provides the structural basis of a free person and a free culture. The entrepreneur stands on his own feet! The idea of liberty in this system reinforces the structural underpinnings; and the underpinnings in turn reinforce the idea system.

At one time the conservative theory, in fact, worked to a certain degree as one foundation for liberty. The United States was largely a system-culture based on individual property-owning, independent small businessmen and businessmen-farmers for much of its first two centuries.

Leaving aside the fact that all capitalist firms tend to externalize costs and thereby threaten the environment, the problem today is that the basis of this system theory of liberty simply no longer exists. Only fifteen percent of American society by any stretch of the imagination can legitimately be called entrepreneurs and small farmers.

In a new system design what institutional structures might conceivably guarantee liberty? Apart from suasion, ethical vision, reform measures, and legislation, the task is to determine a structural basis which might allow citizens an independent place to stand so they can resist authoritarian tendencies in the polity and surrounding culture.

Some possible directions suggest themselves: Peter Drucker has proposed treating jobs as a form of “property right” which, like small landholdings in an earlier era, might now provide a more stable basis for preserving and extending individual liberty. The academic community is certainly familiar with this concept: Everyone at a university knows that if you want to be independent, you better have tenure! (Otherwise you don’t have the “liberty” to say what you want to say.)

Another method which appeals to many Democratic and Republican politicians involves earned income credits–actually, “something for nothing” for those who work, in the form of money added to wages as a means of strengthening a worker’s capacity to support a family and remain independent. (Although under attack in the recent Congress, scaled-down credits have maintained a substantial base of political support even under the Gingrich-led Republicans.)

Yet another intriguing approach is found in the state of Alaska. The principle that the community as a whole should share in the benefits of natural resource development is made operational in the public Alaska Corporation–but it is done in a way which also gives support to the individual. Royalties are divided annually–with each individual citizen receiving a fixed amount as a matter of right (over $900 in recent years)–and the rest going to the state’s general fund. The Alaskan case is deeply flawed because it depends so heavily on the exploitation of oil–and often involves many forms of environmental degradation. However, the institutional mechanism for providing at least some additional support to individuals is suggestive of practical possibilities which might one day be developed in other areas.

What is essential is that a sound basis and structural underpinning for liberty must be central to the design and institutional architecture of any system which has long-term sustainability as its goal. Not only is liberty desirable in itself, but, quite simply, without liberty, genuine accountability becomes impossible. In a system without true liberty, the state dominates society; the resulting culture promotes passivity rather than the aggressive watchfulness that sustainability–and democracy–require.

The Inevitability of Change

Again, a “system” which might one day be less driven to materialist consumption would likely provide structural support for an alternative culture–greater personal security, the nurturance of community, and the cultivation of meaningful work. It might even affirm human spiritual concerns.

Put another way: our culture of grow and consume is also reinforced by what is not present in the current system–an experience of community life and support for personal fulfillment sufficiently meaningful to sustain an attractive way of living different from consumerism.

Some of us still have glimpses of what an alternative feels like–for instance, the broader values associated with the best of some religious traditions. But when individuals and families must constantly move in search of the next decent job, and when the local factory must pollute the community because it has fundamentally different goals, when communities are regularly undermined by economic pressures, then the culture of grow and consume is constantly reinforced simply by virtue of being the only game in town. Nothing in everyday life teaches that there is a common, community interest.

Once we begin to move beyond sketching possible “elements” of a sustainable system to the question of how diverse elements might one day be integrated into a larger whole, numerous other issues (and possibilities) arise. For instance, if there were more security–which clearly requires some form of planning–we might face the challenge of defining democracy in ways more compatible with true sustainability. If we so choose, increases in productivity and a more equitable income distribution could result in a shorter work week–in an increase not of more goods and more pressure on ecological systems but of more free time.

One use of that free time, in turn, could be to expand the capacity of a broader range of citizens to participate politically–which in turn is a precondition for holding planners and governments to higher standards of accountability for sustainability.

Even to begin to open the door to such questions is to suggest the need for a far ranging inquiry which might begin with “elements” but which would ultimately have to lead towards the integration we call a “system.” This in turn poses the age-old problem of “transitions”:

System change is obviously an extraordinary occurrence. Yet, it also is obvious that, in fact, systems change all the time. Historically speaking, they come and go like the cycles of the moon. What may seem impossible today becomes tomorrow’s reality. In one decade alone the Berlin Wall fell, communism collapsed, and apartheid ended. Indeed, the political and economic forms we take for granted today will almost certainly not be the dominant forms of the next century.

The real question is not whether there will be change, but–given the growing pain, social strife and violence in our country and, indeed, around the world–whether the inevitable change will be democratic and sustainable.

A useful paradigm to consider in this regard is the idea of “reconstruction”–the invention within an existing system of new forms and institutions which point in a different direction and which lay foundations for a different system architecture. “Reconstruction” as a paradigm for change involves a nuanced combination of maintaining certain ongoing aspects of our present way of doing business–while at the same time moving to a different way of thinking through incremental institution-building steps. It is a good place to begin, too, to reconstruct our ideas of the institutional requirements of sustainability itself.

 

Sustainability and the System Problem
by Gar Alperovitz
Based on an address to the Executive Staff of the
President’s Council on Sustainable Development
The Good Society, Vol. 5, No.3, Fall 1995

Content:


Introduction

Let me begin by suggesting that the conventional debate on “sustainability” is itself fast becoming unsustainable. I obviously mean to be provocative–but also quite specific: At one level there is a growing consensus that to avoid compromising the needs of future generations any political-economic system must significantly reduce ecological stress, restore past environmental damage, and generate sufficient momentum so that net environmental deterioration is halted. Although precise definitions vary, many now recognize that “sustainability” also requires both an institutional structure and a culture capable of achieving these bottom line results in an ongoing fashion.

Yet, I believe it has also become increasingly evident that neither of the two major “systems” of the twentieth century–capitalism and socialism–is organized in a manner compatible with these goals. If this is so, the conventional debate will obviously need to push much deeper in order to confront the underlying design characteristics of these and other systems to see if any are–or might be–sustainable. The debate, in its present form, is . . . unsustainable.

Put another way, whether we like it or not the sustainability crisis is pushing us all forward, willy-nilly, to “the system problem.”

Socialism

The easiest place to begin to consider this contention is with socialism, a system which (at least in currently known variants) has produced disastrous, and clearly unsustainable, ecological results in the twentieth century.

Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the push for cheap energy and maximum industrial production–together with a wanton disregard for public health–have created vast ecological wastelands in which dirty air, polluted water, and heavy toxic emissions have despoiled ecosystems and threatened human health.

In 1988 more than a hundred cities in the former Soviet Union exceeded legal air pollution standards by at least a thousand percent. When socialism fell in Poland, sixty-five percent of the nation’s river water had been deemed too polluted even for industrial use, and large segments of the Polish population (including the residents of Warsaw) were not served by any waste treatment facilities; corrective measures are only now getting underway.

Energy efficiency in each of the former socialist countries of Europe has lagged far behind U.S. standards, to say nothing of those of the pace-setting nations. Much energy is produced by filth-generating brown coal plants, many without any pollution controls whatsoever. At the end of the 1980s it was estimated that one out of every seventeen deaths in Hungary was due to air pollution. “Wherever you point your finger on the map,” one Russian scientist recently observed, “there is another horrible place.”

Behind such statistics (and many more could be cited) was a domineering, growth-at-all-costs centralized government bureaucracy, and an ideology which suggested that nature could and should be bent to human will at all costs. The governing authorities of the socialist states lacked the will (and probably the capacity) to hold economic operations accountable to true social costs. And local communities had no means of contesting the anti-ecological values of central power. As ecological economist Ken Townsend has observed, “rationality” converted forests of rich diversity into monocrop fields and attempted to reverse the flow of entire river systems.

Sadly, reports from post-communist Russia are hardly more encouraging. In Moscow, a city where eighty percent of the city’s smokestacks have no filters, trees and vacant land are being ravaged with few restrictions.

Cancer rates are soaring; a factory was recently built on top of a radioactive dump. Says a pained city official: there is simply no awareness “that there are ecological consequences . . . everyone now is just thinking about when they get rich.”

The reasons Soviet-style socialism has produced such results can be traced to certain basic properties or design features of the system. For instance, state-run agencies are compelled to expand by the pressure of internal “grow at all costs” management dynamics and the general expansionist goals of the system. At the same time such institutions are compelled to reduce (and externalize) costs, hence to pollute and degrade the environment if this “saves” money–as it commonly does.

Not only are traditional state socialist systems based on growth imperatives, they produce extreme hierarchies of power which reduce both liberty and the capacity of citizen groups to effect positive change.

Status hierarchies also generate invidious comparisons, hence an unquenchable thirst for “more” as an expression of a peculiarly socialist form of consumerism: “My dacha is bigger than yours!” The outcome is a structurally and culturally determined pattern of growth which is destructive of the environment.

What needs to be stressed, however, is not simply criticism of the result, but rather that the institutional architecture, power relationships, and dynamic properties of 20th Century socialism make ecologically disastrous outcomes all but inevitable.

The problem is systemic.

Capitalism

We have little difficulty recognizing such structural concepts when we look “outward” toward another system. But what of our own system? Are the environmental problems of capitalism also systemic? Are the trends toward environmental degradation and the continuing escalation of resource consumption minor “side-effects” of the system? Or are they a necessary consequence of our own system’s design?

The trends are not encouraging to those who would like an easy answer.

Although there are occasional breakthroughs (like the elimination of D.D.T.) and many small reforms, what obviously counts are long-term “outcome” results. Consider one broad index of natural resource consumption: the World Resources Institute has recently observed that “the United States consumes nearly 3 times as much iron ore as India, 4.6 times as much steel, 3.6 times as much coal, 12 times as much petroleum, 3 times as many head of cattle and sheep, and 1.7 times as much roundwood.” The United States has less than one-third the population of India, so per capita consumption differences are at least 300 percent greater than the ratios above indicate.

U.S. consumption of fossil energy is so large that per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, a principal greenhouse gas, are nineteen times those of India.

Alan Durning has estimated that since 1940 Americans have alone used up as large a share of the earth’s mineral resources as did everyone in history on the planet before this time. Such resource utilization rates would be impossible to sustain if all nations were to develop along U.S. lines in the new century. But if voracious consumption–and the deeper sources of growth and consumerism from which it springs–are ever to be confronted, we will clearly have to go well beyond such modest reform proposals as taxing consumption and/or advertising.

Similar conclusions emerge as one reflects upon long-term outcome measures of pollution and toxic wastes. Chemical production in the United States increased by 115 percent between 1970 and 1992 alone. Yet less than two percent of the 70,000 chemicals used in commerce have been fully tested for human health effects; there are no health data at all on over seventy percent of these chemicals. According to the EPA, over half of all hazardous waste in the United States is generated by the chemical industry–and nearly 1,000 new chemicals are put on the market each year. Such rates of growth mean that 50 percent of the substances that will be in use in fifteen to twenty years do not now even exist. Yet if all the laboratory resources currently available were put to work, it would only be possible to test some five hundred chemical products per year!

We all know that capitalism as an economic system has certain basic properties: its profit-maximizing imperatives make it dependent upon continued expansion and continually greater levels of resource use. It, too, generates pressures to externalize costs and to pollute.

Capitalism, too, also obviously creates certain kinds of power relationships–most notably, the concentration of economic and political power in the large corporation. Countless studies (and common observation) indicate that corporate institutions have the capacity to wield disproportionate influence–to manipulate regulatory agencies, thwart citizen action groups, and impact both electoral politics and legislation.

Nor is this because all corporate leaders personally lack concern for the environment; it is because of the logic of the system: Business executives must take care of business–or they will be out of business!

Capitalism also produces extreme income hierarchies, status and cultural inequalities, and materialist aspirations. Moreover, the income hierarchies have obvious feed-back effects on politics: those with more money tend to have more power–and a disproportionate capacity to dominate the broader public interest. It is also no accident that toxic dumps regularly end up in poor and minority communities.

Growth in capitalist systems is not motivated simply by hunger for profit, but also by fear. The logic and dynamics of the capitalist system are such that companies must cut costs if they are to withstand competition. They must externalize. If a company willingly spends money on a pollution reduction problem–and then raises its prices to cover the cost, it risks finding its market share reduced by a less conscientious rival firm.

Again, a community given the choice, say, between continued logging of declining forests or loss of jobs, simply by reason of fear is in a weak position to resist growth politics. On a larger scale we see cities and states prostrating themselves to attract corporate investment–not simply out of greed, but because the consequences of not continuing to grow are so severe and so obvious: high unemployment, continued social breakdown, and, of course, negative political outcomes for incumbent officials in government. For communities, like capitalist firms, it very often also is a matter of “grow or die.”

The same proposition holds for many individuals’ lives as well. The materialist aspirations many so easily condemn often are in large measure the flip side of pervasive economic insecurity. Consider the life cycle of a typical middle-class American: one goes to college in order to get ahead, and then incurs debt. To pay off the debt requires accumulating as much money as possible, and then it’s time for a family, children, and if you’re lucky, a mortgage. More responsibilities, and more pressure to accumulate as much as possible. Then parents come to realize that if they don’t live in the right neighborhood, their child’s education will suffer. Similarly, they had better start saving for college. And by the time that’s over, the question of “who will take care of me?” in old age or sickness becomes central.

For the vast majority of Americans whatever security one attains is fragile at best. At any time–and this is now as true for white-collar managers as for blue-collar workers–one might be laid off as a result of a downturn in the economy, a corporate buyout, a new technology or even simply a change in the exchange rate. The only way to get any real security is first and foremost to avoid failing. It is therefore always wise to strive for “more” now; tomorrow may well bring “less”. . . . Thus continues the materialist merry-go-round–and with it, continued striving to climb the income and status ladder.

In this situation it is hardly surprising that mass insecurity should generate adulation of the rich and the secure in the system–or that the capacity to consume so often becomes a measure of self-esteem and status.

Meanwhile, the corporate need to sell also generates pressures for higher consumption–and further impacts the “buy and consume” materialist culture.

I have been dwelling on such widely recognized features of our own system for a reason. That these are “system properties” is obvious–but this, in turn, implies that the unsustainable outcomes we regularly observe are also inherent in the nature of capitalism. We all know that our system is characterized by such institutional, structural, and power “design features”. The problem is we rarely call a spade a spade. Most important, the implications are seldom incorporated into analyses of the challenge of long-term sustainability.

Confronting the System Issue

If, in truth, the problems of capitalist nations, like those of the former socialist states, are systemic in origin then self-evidently–indeed by definition–they cannot be solved unless systemic change occurs. Again, the point is obvious when we look “out” at another system; much more daunting when we look “in” at our own.

Part of our difficulty in confronting the system issue on the environmental front is that we often have trouble distinguishing between reforms which help ameliorate the worst aspects of environmental degradation and changes which actually result in altering trends. At the most general level positive reforms which diminish harmful effects on the environment obviously occur within capitalist systems. Legislation is passed that helps control pollution; progress is made in eliminating lead and CFCs; there are improvements in the reduction of sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulates.

Let me urge, however, that it is absolutely essential that we discriminate much more carefully among the following three categories of change–”A”: occasional breakthroughs; “B”: token reforms and “gains”; and “C”: significant long-term trend reversals. Although most of our environmental debate–and certainly efforts at policy reform–are focused on fostering occasional breakthroughs, token reforms and gains, a great deal of evidence points to the conclusion that the outcome trends that matter most in terms of sustainability are commonly not significantly affected by the “A” and “B” type improvements.

I have sketched some of the obvious consumption/resource indicators above.

With certain exceptions–for instance, modest but tangible gains in air and water quality in the United States –a recent study of long trends in twenty-one environmental factors recently compiled by the organization I head confirms general worsening of important ecological outcomes in each of nine industrialized countries surveyed over the past two decades. This despite the fact that the period began with the first Earth Day, and extended through an environmental “awakening” that spawned a flurry of legislation, reform, the establishment of environmental ministries, green planning, and growing ecological consciousness and grassroots activism. Moreover, had economic growth been anywhere near the levels business and government leaders in these nine nations sought, outcome trends of environmental degradation would have been far, far worse. And, of course, recent political developments suggest that the underlying power-institutional relationships make a roll-back even of many once seemingly secure “gains” likely.

If the basic trend data we are beginning to see across a wide range of indicators are even close to being accurate, what we are confronting is a system problem. Put another way: if most trends can in fact only be marginally altered by traditional ideas of reform, then the system properties of capitalism are by definition incompatible with the goal of an ecologically sustainable future.

Furthermore, if it is truly the case that both capitalism and socialism are systems inherently organized in ways that are incompatible with sustainability–that neither system can produce desired ecological outcome results precisely because of their inherent system architecture and power dynamics–then either there is no way out of the box, or (self-evidently) ultimately we will need to come up with a different system design.

In honesty and logic, we must acknowledge that there may not be an alternative way forward; that there may not be an answer to this problem.

Quite simply, one possibility is that it may not be feasible to build the institutions and the culture required to achieve sustainability. However, if we do not accept this pessimistic conclusion–and I do not–then (equally self-evidently) we need to begin to engage in a serious discussion of system designs compatible with the principles of sustainability.

The question is: are we prepared to face up to the cold realities of such a challenge? Yes, I know the old saying–”you can’t change the system!” But, no, I do not believe you can hide from what is self-evident forever. Hence, I propose that we at least try to think about the issue–and begin a serious dialogue. As Joan Rivers likes to say: “Can we talk about this?”

Community

What is needed, ultimately, is a system design which not only stabilizes existing negative ecological trends, but reverses those trends and produces positive outcome results. How might we begin to sketch at least some of the properties of a system that might undercut the pressures which generate non-sustainable outcome results? When the question is put in this manner, I believe we can at least begin to think about some “elements” of a solution (if not, as yet, a total answer).

Given the limited time we have–and simply by way of illustration–one primary system property (as Herman Daly and John Cobb emphasize in their book For The Common Good) almost certainly must be the re-constitution of a culture of “community” or “common good” as a necessary condition of sustainability.

I do not believe, however, that this can simply be stated as a matter of abstract philosophical vision. “Community” has visionary (and moral and ethical) aspects, of course, but sustainability over time requires that a culture of community be institutionally based–which means it must be embodied in structures which generate, reinforce, sustain, and nurture values of community.

One aspect of the institutional logic of “community” may be posed straightforwardly: in both capitalist and socialist systems any firm has an incentive to pollute its local community if this means lower costs. But if, say, the community were to own the firm, it would have little incentive to pollute itself. Such an “institutional design” would at least structurally internalize most costs.

This is not to say that what is logical is easy to achieve institutionally.

(Nor would such structured change alone deal with inter-community planning.) On the other hand, the growing interest in community land-trusts–an increasingly common local institution–suggests one possibility of some quite practical forms which by their very nature give the broader community a stake in the same institutional structure. Might there be experimentation to slowly push the frontiers of institutional development of this kind well beyond their present modest levels?

In fact, just below the surface of most conventional inquiry a myriad of so-called “community development corporations” of all shapes and sizes have sprung up and are now involved in housing and business activities in almost every major locality. “Community-based,” populist style economic development has also spawned hundreds of democratically controlled worker-owned firms and thousands of co-ops. Some are operating plants of significant scale in such industries as steel. There has even been a surprising growth of community-owned municipal enterprises. Elsewhere small-scale public firms are engaged in everything from methane production and real-estate development to cable television.

The enormous variety of experimental institutional fragments include many “seedlings” which just possibly may point a direction towards community forms more consistent with sustainable development than present capitalist or socialist models. If we agree that the experience of being part of a community is one necessary element of a sustainable system, then one obvious need is to assemble and systematically assess such institutional fragments–and build upon the best of them.

A related issue is how community life might be better undergirded and stabilized. Capitalist development in practice destroys the basis of community integration and wholeness as a matter of course: Companies come and go, and jobs rise and fall. Often as not the social fabric is undermined, the local culture disintegrates, the community unravels, and young people leave. A system which sought to engender the core idea “we’re all in it together” would ultimately have to be better structured to stabilize the basis of local community experience. How best to do this then becomes a critical issue both for research and politics.

Scale

Another fundamental issue is that of scale. To take seriously the preconditions of a culture and politics which might ultimately constrain the forces that produce trends inimical to sustainability requires that we come to terms with the size of the “polity” involved. Quite simply, it is extremely difficult and expensive to build a social consensus in a large polity. It may be–I think it is–impossible in a continental system.

The question of scale used to be part and parcel of the study of political theory. Today “scale” is making a come back in regional studies and among ecological activists in the bioregional movement. It’s also certainly coming back in the developing world, the former Soviet Union, and Canada–as “breakdowns” of big nations occur left and right. Although our national system is increasingly stalemated, in the United States we have yet to confront the gigantism of the continental scale of our country.

Many discussions of social and political theory related to sustainability, and proposals for change in the United States, utilize comparative European models: “the Scandinavian countries did this, the Germans did that, the Dutch did this.” The truth, however, is that all of the European geographic polities are of an order of magnitude so vastly different from our own as to make most comparisons questionable: West Germany, home of the postwar economic miracle, could have been tucked into the state of Oregon. France can be dropped into Texas. The Netherlands is minuscule. Compared to the United States all are very small geographic polities.

If we agree that the size of a polity has implications for consensus building, then we need to look to entities which are smaller than the continental national government: i.e. states or groupings of states within a region. Hence, smaller scale and semi-autonomous regional polities with increased powers and responsibilities vis-a-vis the national government might ultimately be another requirement of a new system–if, that is, democracy and sustainability are serious objectives.

Related to this, another possibility for future development might involve regionally-scaled public enterprise. This, in fact, was the regional-ecological concept behind the original “grass roots democracy” inspiration of the Tennessee Valley Authority–before it was subverted by a variety of political-economic and military pressures (especially during World War II). Despite the current wave of privatization and much rhetoric condemning public enterprise, many studies show that under the right conditions public enterprise can also be efficient in strictly economic terms. (Indeed, large U.S. corporations regularly undertake joint ventures with efficient public firms around the world.)

Liberty

A third illustrative requirement of any serious design is obviously liberty for the individual citizen. As Robert Heilbroner has warned, even the most worthy ecological goals all too easily lead in the direction of authoritarianism. The danger lies in imposing a moral vision of the ecologically sound society without paying attention to the need for an underlying institutional structure which sustains liberty.

The classic conservative position–as expressed for example by Milton Friedman–is that it is the small independent property owning capitalist who provides the structural basis of a free person and a free culture. The entrepreneur stands on his own feet! The idea of liberty in this system reinforces the structural underpinnings; and the underpinnings in turn reinforce the idea system.

At one time the conservative theory, in fact, worked to a certain degree as one foundation for liberty. The United States was largely a system-culture based on individual property-owning, independent small businessmen and businessmen-farmers for much of its first two centuries.

Leaving aside the fact that all capitalist firms tend to externalize costs and thereby threaten the environment, the problem today is that the basis of this system theory of liberty simply no longer exists. Only fifteen percent of American society by any stretch of the imagination can legitimately be called entrepreneurs and small farmers.

In a new system design what institutional structures might conceivably guarantee liberty? Apart from suasion, ethical vision, reform measures, and legislation, the task is to determine a structural basis which might allow citizens an independent place to stand so they can resist authoritarian tendencies in the polity and surrounding culture.

Some possible directions suggest themselves: Peter Drucker has proposed treating jobs as a form of “property right” which, like small landholdings in an earlier era, might now provide a more stable basis for preserving and extending individual liberty. The academic community is certainly familiar with this concept: Everyone at a university knows that if you want to be independent, you better have tenure! (Otherwise you don’t have the “liberty” to say what you want to say.)

Another method which appeals to many Democratic and Republican politicians involves earned income credits–actually, “something for nothing” for those who work, in the form of money added to wages as a means of strengthening a worker’s capacity to support a family and remain independent. (Although under attack in the recent Congress, scaled-down credits have maintained a substantial base of political support even under the Gingrich-led Republicans.)

Yet another intriguing approach is found in the state of Alaska. The principle that the community as a whole should share in the benefits of natural resource development is made operational in the public Alaska Corporation–but it is done in a way which also gives support to the individual. Royalties are divided annually–with each individual citizen receiving a fixed amount as a matter of right (over $900 in recent years)–and the rest going to the state’s general fund. The Alaskan case is deeply flawed because it depends so heavily on the exploitation of oil–and often involves many forms of environmental degradation. However, the institutional mechanism for providing at least some additional support to individuals is suggestive of practical possibilities which might one day be developed in other areas.

What is essential is that a sound basis and structural underpinning for liberty must be central to the design and institutional architecture of any system which has long-term sustainability as its goal. Not only is liberty desirable in itself, but, quite simply, without liberty, genuine accountability becomes impossible. In a system without true liberty, the state dominates society; the resulting culture promotes passivity rather than the aggressive watchfulness that sustainability–and democracy–require.

The Inevitability of Change

Again, a “system” which might one day be less driven to materialist consumption would likely provide structural support for an alternative culture–greater personal security, the nurturance of community, and the cultivation of meaningful work. It might even affirm human spiritual concerns.

Put another way: our culture of grow and consume is also reinforced by what is not present in the current system–an experience of community life and support for personal fulfillment sufficiently meaningful to sustain an attractive way of living different from consumerism.

Some of us still have glimpses of what an alternative feels like–for instance, the broader values associated with the best of some religious traditions. But when individuals and families must constantly move in search of the next decent job, and when the local factory must pollute the community because it has fundamentally different goals, when communities are regularly undermined by economic pressures, then the culture of grow and consume is constantly reinforced simply by virtue of being the only game in town. Nothing in everyday life teaches that there is a common, community interest.

Once we begin to move beyond sketching possible “elements” of a sustainable system to the question of how diverse elements might one day be integrated into a larger whole, numerous other issues (and possibilities) arise. For instance, if there were more security–which clearly requires some form of planning–we might face the challenge of defining democracy in ways more compatible with true sustainability. If we so choose, increases in productivity and a more equitable income distribution could result in a shorter work week–in an increase not of more goods and more pressure on ecological systems but of more free time.

One use of that free time, in turn, could be to expand the capacity of a broader range of citizens to participate politically–which in turn is a precondition for holding planners and governments to higher standards of accountability for sustainability.

Even to begin to open the door to such questions is to suggest the need for a far ranging inquiry which might begin with “elements” but which would ultimately have to lead towards the integration we call a “system.” This in turn poses the age-old problem of “transitions”:

System change is obviously an extraordinary occurrence. Yet, it also is obvious that, in fact, systems change all the time. Historically speaking, they come and go like the cycles of the moon. What may seem impossible today becomes tomorrow’s reality. In one decade alone the Berlin Wall fell, communism collapsed, and apartheid ended. Indeed, the political and economic forms we take for granted today will almost certainly not be the dominant forms of the next century.

The real question is not whether there will be change, but–given the growing pain, social strife and violence in our country and, indeed, around the world–whether the inevitable change will be democratic and sustainable.

A useful paradigm to consider in this regard is the idea of “reconstruction”–the invention within an existing system of new forms and institutions which point in a different direction and which lay foundations for a different system architecture. “Reconstruction” as a paradigm for change involves a nuanced combination of maintaining certain ongoing aspects of our present way of doing business–while at the same time moving to a different way of thinking through incremental institution-building steps. It is a good place to begin, too, to reconstruct our ideas of the institutional requirements of sustainability itself.

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