Chapter 8 - The Road of Ecology
Translated by Matt Noyes
(Thanks to Emi Do and Leo Sammallahti – MN)
[This chapter offers a framework for analyzing the “ecological problem” that should be useful to those seeking to make sense of the economic aspect of the current planetary crisis. Razeto summarizes the crisis, considers the importance and insufficiency of existing approaches at the level of the State and Civil Society, and the difficulty of controlling nature and then offers a “theory of the ecological question” that focuses on the economy and its “mode of action and organization.” The destruction caused by the existing modes of production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation are outlined as are the ecological benefits of an economy centered on solidarity. - MN]
The Road of Ecology
Ecological concern and conscience
Ecological awareness has grown remarkably in recent decades. The press and the media have begun to disseminate information and analysis concerning climate change and the multiple related crises which menace us with increasing intensity.1
What we can call “the ecological problem” affects the planet in its totality and is becoming more severe at every level. The atmosphere is deteriorating with the pollution of the air with particles and toxic gases that emanate from the combustion and use of fossil fuels. The thinning of the ozone layer has not been remedied and the concentration of greenhouse gases is causing global warming and climate disruption. The water in the rivers, lakes, and oceans is polluted with toxic residues of all kinds, “acid rain” continues to be a problem in many parts of the world while ocean acidification threatens marine life. Sea levels are rising and both droughts and floods are increasing in intensity. The land is contaminated by the use of pesticides, herbicides and other highly dangerous chemical products and suffers deforestation and desertification of broad geographic zones. The biosphere is suffering grave imbalances with the extinction of animal and vegetable species which imply unforeseeable losses of genetic material and damage to delicate biological balances on land and in the sea. Uncontrolled emissions of radioactivity from accidents and waste from the generation of nuclear energy affect the planet as a whole, constituting another factor for alarm. All of these phenomena are reciprocally conditioned by the climate crisis, the current and predicted magnitudes of which are now scientifically recognized, which poses an extraordinarily serious danger with potentially catastrophic consequences for the biosphere and all life on the planet, including human life.
Until just a few decades ago only a few thinkers, like prophets in the desert, were raising the alarm about the cascade of imbalances that would be unleashed once a certain point was passed and the destruction was irreversible. Authors of science fiction and speculative fiction soon echoed their calls, sketching numerous possible traps into which humanity might fall unless modern industrial civilization changed its ways.
The succession of events and the mounting evidence of environmental destruction has slowly induced a raising of collective consciousness that the warnings of the environmentalists and scientists are not baseless alarmism. Groups of academics and professionals are taking on the theme of ecology in its global dimensions, organizing groups, movements and even political parties founded on an environmentalist ideology. The question of the environment has become more visible, for some excessively so. The new ideologies are characterized by placing this real problem front and center in their conception of the world then showing how it “tints” the analyses and proposals for action made in any field and at any level of an issue on which groups are focused.
The spread of concern for ecology through society and its political rise has had a profound impact on the scientific community. Consistent with their positive methodologies, numerous research centers have dedicated themselves to the quantification and measurement of the levels reached by ecological imbalances and to evaluating their future tendencies. Thus, today we have enough empirical evidence to be certain that the destruction of the environment poses a very serious threat to the planet.
Nor has the religious dimension been absent. With growing insistence, theological elaborations from various sources have underscored the “sacredness of creation.” The declarations and documents from the Vatican, for example, formulate the necessity of new relations with the environment founded on a superior valuation of nature2.
The time for decisions – long overdue – has finally come, beginning with the definition of ecological and environmental policies on the part of the public authorities. Bit by bit, governments all over the world are taking steps to confront certain aspects of the problem – those that are most visible and have the most impact. Naturally, in the process of defining policies the consensus about the gravity of the problem is broken, given that along with different ideologies about the roles to be played by the State and individual initiative, there are different interests at play among those who will inevitably be affected.
Different policies have been applied. In some cases it has just been about prohibiting the use of certain contaminating agents. In others a particular problem is the target to be addressed through special taxes on activities that cause the problem, transferring at least part of the costs of the solution of the problem to those who are causing it. Incentives are also used, establishing benefits and tax exemptions on businesses that build plants in geographical zones that are not critical, or prizes for the introduction of technical instruments that mitigate or reduce a certain problem. The design and implementation of more advanced ecological technologies is often encouraged through special funds or subsidies.
At the level of civil society actions tending to address the problem have been undertaken, organized above all by ecological movements and organizations dedicated to environmental causes. These actions are usually deployed on two levels: on the one hand, denunciation of particular situations and consciousness raising about the global problem, and on the other, direct action to limit specific imbalances or instances of environmental devastation, from less confrontational – planting trees, preserving endangered species, recycling – to more – blocking pipelines, strikes, etc.
Have these policies and actions lead to an effective solution to the problem? Have they been sufficient to address the complex imbalances that affect our planet as a whole?
While these policies and actions are clearly indispensable, contributing in some way to addressing the problem, their results are obviously insufficient. With respect to State action, it is enough to note the abundant evidence that the problem has acquired such broad dimensions and is so tightly bound up with cultural and economic dynamics that it can not be solved through any combination of public measures that are economically and politically viable in the framework of the existing structures and organization of the economy. In order for restrictions or incentives to have a significant impact on the global problem, they have to be drastic and will thus affect many activities and processes, which implies excessive costs. To this can be added the fact that the ecological problem, by its nature, transcends the limits within which the decisions of nation-states are made and enforced.
As for the direct action of environmental groups, its importance has been due more to its character of bearing witness and building awareness than to the effectiveness of its impact on the environment. It must be noted that any action directly aimed at modifying nature with the goal of reestablishing some lost balance or stopping deterioration that is already underway, however wide and socially powerful it may become, will not easily achieve significant effects: the phenomena and forces of nature are so strong that any human action will be disproportionately weak. This is proved by the key ecological problem itself – climate change – which is caused, fundamentally, by the immense amount of energy spent in the combined processes of production and consumption that humanity has developed around the world. It is worth asking, moreover, if we really have sufficient understanding of the delicate mechanisms of nature to know the proper ways to re-balance it by acting directly on it.
The ecological question presents itself to us in this way, overwhelming, beyond our capacity to address it. Does this mean that we can not do anything, that all is lost? Our analysis does not necessarily lead to that conclusion. If we remain stuck on the magnitude of the problem and the insufficiency of the means used up to now to confront it, we will fall into despair and passivity. To overcome this state of being it is necessary to find and deploy an ecological theory that enables us to understand the true causes of the problem and the ways to resolve it.
For a theory of the ecological question. The relation between economy and ecology.
The ecological problem arises from the relation between humans and nature; a relation which, unlike the relation between animals and nature, is neither direct nor natural. Other animal species obtain and extract that which they need from nature as they find it and in the form in which it is offered to them. They consume it naturally and return the waste to nature in turn. They find shelter where nature permits, making few modifications, opening caves or building nests. It is otherwise with humans.
Our relation with nature is not immediate, it is mediated by the economy: complex and dynamic processes of production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation. The economy is, in essence, a vital process of exchange between humans and nature which transforms both. It is precisely because of this economic mediation between humans and nature that ecology is posed to us as a problem.
Until a few years ago there was an optimistic conception of the mutual transformation of humans and nature. It was supposed that the action of humans on the environment signified a process of humanization of the world, resulting from the incorporation of the human into the natural world. Through their intelligence, imagination, creativity, science, and labor, humans would convert the natural landscape into a human landscape, one that was supposedly better because of the natural superiority of humans themselves. The most brilliant exponent of this optimistic conception was Teilhard de Chardin, although it must be acknowledged that the vision of secure and constant progress has been ideologically predominant throughout the modern epoch.3 The idea that humans acquire a growing and unlimited control and dominion over natural forces through science, technology, and labor is not alien to this conception.
The problem of ecology has radically called into question the progressivist hypothesis. Environmental destruction is leading us to discover the painful reality that the process of transformation of nature by human technology and labor does not always bring positive outcomes, on the contrary, it can provoke imbalances that affect humankind and may even degrade the habitability of the earth. With full realism we must recognize the simultaneous positive and negative effects of the action of humans on nature, both of which are probably growing. As the gospel teaches, the darnel grows with the wheat due to the ambivalent nature of humans who are the subject of the action.4
If the transformation of nature and humanity which is proved in the vital interchange between them can be at once humanizing and destructive, the mode in which it is effected must be decisive. The relation between humans and nature is mediated by the economy, so the positive or negative character of the transformation of the environment depends fundamentally on the economy and its mode of action and organization. If we understand this, we can locate the question of the ecology in its true dimension: as a problem of the economy. Placed on this plane, where the cause is found, and not on the plane of nature, where the effects are manifested, the possibility of truly addressing the problem opens up. This is because humans can control the economy, which depends on us, but not nature which surpasses us and of which we form only a part.
We observe in passing that the intimate relation between economy and ecology has been crystallized in language through the shared etymology of the two words, which, understood properly, have the same meaning, as both understand the oikos, our home, as nature transformed through the labor of all.
An anti-ecological practice of economy
If ecology depends on economy, the existence of a serious ecological problem reveals very serious problems in the economy as it is currently organized. At the same time it underscores the necessity and urgency of developing alternative forms of economic organization. Which aspects of economic organization does ecology call into question? What are the requirements and needs of ecology that must be met by an economy which seeks to improve the environment and save nature? We begin with the first question, which will bring us valuable hints with which to respond to the second.
Environmental decline has many causes and is provoked by each of the four main phases of the economic circuit: production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation.
Starting with production, one cause of ecological imbalance arises from the great scale that many industries have reached and the fact that they use gigantic volumes of natural resources and are moved by enormous quantities of energy highly concentrated in limited spaces. In industry natural resources are processed indiscriminately and massively; only one or two of their qualities are made use of, the other properties being eliminated or homogenized through chemical processes of intense transformative power. This generates a tremendous quantity of waste that contaminates land and water and emits gases in massive amounts, polluting the air and atmosphere. Moreover, the high level of concentration of production in limited urban spaces presupposes the existence of transportation services that are intensive users of highly polluting energy, carrying great masses of natural resources from their locations of origin to processing facilities, and on to the locations where the products will be consumed.
The process of distribution includes one cause of environmental degradation which lies in the very unequal distribution of wealth which leads to the configuration of distinct geographic zones, some of abundant goods and others of stagnant poverty. It is important to take into account the pollution generated as a result of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Rich social groups pollute through excessive consumption of material energy and the generation of quantities of waste. The very poor, concentrated in densely populated urban zones, have no alternative but to use low-yield natural combustibles and lack the means to clean and care for their immediate surroundings.
But the principal cause of ecological degradation, in terms of distribution, derives from the fact that each economic subject operates in the market on the basis of their own utility, with no reference to the needs of the community and taking no responsibility for the effects of their decisions on their surroundings. If each subject makes economic decisions solely based on their own exclusive interests, accomplishment of the common good, care for the environment, preparation for the collective future are all left to the State and other authorities; but there are forces seeking to limit the functions of the State and its powers and as large as the authorities become they are in no position to assure a balanced and healthy environment, which can only be achieved with the active and permanent cooperation of all the community.
When it comes to consumption, ecological degradation is basically the result of what is called “consumerism” – the disproportionate use of things to satisfy needs and desires that have been inflamed and subdivided to the extreme, that are never satisfied by goods which are obsolete before their utility has been fully consumed, prematurely replaced by others that are always more sophisticated until they, too, are rendered obsolete. Consumerism forces a inordinate growth in production with a consequent depredation of natural resources and non-renewable energies, giving rise to a superabundance of waste which is dumped in the natural environment.
Accumulation, too, in its current form has become a permanent source of environmental degradation. Every economic subject seeks to appropriate – individually and privately – the maximum quantity of things, energy, land, water, trees, etc., seeing in them a guarantee of future security and a source of prestige and success. A culture of “having” leads to the valuation of people on the basis of the quantity of things they possess rather than the quality of their capacities, and encourages forms of accumulation in which wealth and productive forces are concentrated. Economic subjects acquire rights to use and abuse of things with no guarantee of their conservation and permanency.
Understanding that the sources of ecological degradation are present in aspects so central to each of the phases of the economic process as it is currently organized leads to the conclusion that this mode of economic activity is not ecologically viable: it must be replaced at some point, when the degradation of the environment becomes intolerable or excessively costly in terms of well being and quality of life.
But it is not necessary to wait for this limit to be verified in the extreme before starting to go a different direction. On the contrary, the longer the change is delayed, the more severe the consequences will be and the more difficult recuperation will become. But, out of the concern for ecology a new road emerges, a road for those searching for new forms of economic practice, new ways of producing, distributing, consuming and accumulating oriented by a perspective of solidarity economy. This brings us to our second question: what demands does ecology place on the economy and how can the solidarity economy meet them?
The solidarity economy: an ecological form of economic practice
When solidarity is introduced into the economy and placed at the center of the processes of production, distribution, consumption, and accumulation, economic activities become ecologically sound. In order for the economy to entail not a degradation of the environment but rather a transformation that is both humanizing and harmonious with nature, it is necessary that when producing and working, when using natural sources and energy, when appropriating wealth and distributing it socially, when consuming the products needed for our satisfaction, when generating and accumulating surpluses to serve us in the future, we be concerned with the effects our decisions and activities have on others and take responsibility for the needs of all the community, including the generations to come.
People who have understood the origins and the depth of the ecological problem and seek effective means to overcome it have begun to experiment along these lines. The path of their searches has come to coincide with the direction pursued by solidarity economy, which tends to reverse, in fact, each of the practices by which the current economy generates environmental imbalances. Let us see how this is being to be done.
Privileging the human scale in production, and organizing activities that are small enough to be controlled by the people and communities that organize them, generates a process of de-concentration of production. Productive activities are not concentrated in limited spaces of high energy density but disseminated throughout homes, neighborhoods, and communities. These spaces also constitute the environment in which the people who organize and carry out production live, so the environmental effects fall directly on those who cause them, leading them to be concerned and take responsibility; they feel, suffer, and perceive the effects in their own bodies.
Production that is dispersed and carried out on a small scale implies a different use of natural resources and energy sources. On the one hand, the material elements of production are no longer used indiscriminately and massively but put to careful use with attention to their particular characteristics and qualities. On the other, the production process is effected by means of transformative processes of less mechanical and chemical intensity and the use of renewable and alternative energy sources becomes feasible. Moreover, there are fewer emissions and less production waste in each location and they can be monitored and channeled in the best way, or directly recycled. Productive activity is better adapted to the local environment, taking advantage of microclimates without altering them.
The needs for transportation, always a prolific consumer of polluting energy resources, are notably reduced either because the resources and inputs tend to be found in the local area, or because a large part of the products is destined for use by consumers close to the place of production. Workers in the small economic units may also live nearby and can come to work on foot or bicycle.
In the same way, when important elements of solidarity are introduced into the process of distribution wealth is more equally distributed, reducing the possibilities of excessive enrichment of a few and extreme poverty of the many, both of which, as we have seen, have harmful environmental effects.
When people make economic decisions not on the sole basis of individual utility but considering the needs of others and taking responsibility for the effects of their own decisions on the community – when externalities are internalized, as economists say – the demands of the environment and the ecology are safeguarded.
Moreover, when an important part of the economic flows and transfers are effected on the basis of relations integrating reciprocity, conviviality, and cooperation, the common good tends to be privileged over the individual interest and personal well-being becomes intimately associated with the quality of life reached by one’s community.
Making decisions in a participatory way reveals to people that each in their liberty must respect the liberty of others, that personal utility can not be allowed to impinge on collective well-being, that we are all in the same boat in which our destinies are united and for which we are all responsible. The balanced exchange we create between people and community leads us to comprehend the necessity for balance in our vital exchange with nature; that if we extract from nature that which we need to live we also have to act with reciprocity so that nature too can live, respecting, caring for, compensating, and nourishing nature according to its own needs.
As for the process of consumption, ecologically important because on it depends the quantity and type of waste and objects which we return to nature after using them to satisfy our needs and desires, the solidarity economy manifests a rationality that is perfectly coherent with the requirements of a healthy and balanced environment. Ecology makes several demands of us in this area. Basically, the need for a reduction in the levels of consumption of certain types and goods, and also a change in our mode of consumption. These aspects are related and only if we see them in their connection can we understand that reducing our consumption of certain products does not necessarily imply a reduction in our well-being and may even bring us a better quality of life. Understanding consumption this way is crucial, because if the changes are to be significant and enduring it is essential that they not be formulated in negative terms, as simple restrictions, sacrifices, or limitations of consumption but rather framed by a search for a better quality of life through the development of new forms of consumption. In this sense, solidarity economy postulates a good consumption that is a more advanced form of consumption: more human, healthy, and ecological.
If consumption is the satisfaction of people’s needs and desires through the utilization of goods and services produced economically, improving consumption implies first of all exploring the needs and motivations of the people and social groups that constitute themselves as consumers. As creatures of infinite needs and aspirations, our needs are not determined and fixed. Given our inherent spiritual dimension, humans are always open to new and broader perspectives. Inherently called to liberty, we are called to find the combination of needs and desires – physiological and cultural, self-preservation and conviviality – which signify a superior quality of life and a fuller self-realization. A process of maturation along these lines must lead us to grasp that the needs and desires that we satisfy when we become obsessed with consumption signify nothing resembling a reasonable state of well-being. Experience teaches us that greater integration of the personality leads to a simplification of those needs and desires that seem to be satisfied with the possession and use of material goods; a certain moderation and balance in the consumption of various types of products thus leads to greater satisfaction. Our needs and desires can turn out to be poorly satisfied as much by excess as by lack, as shown by the universal experiences of feeling bad when we do not get enough to eat and feeling bad when we eat too much. This is true, actually, of the consumption of any type of goods.
Good consumption also implies better matching of goods and services with the real needs, aspirations, and desires that move us, making goods serve us rather than becoming servants of the market, scrambling to possess and consume every new thing it offers us. Above all, it implies not stuffing ourselves with objects and artifacts whose excessive use harms our health and the production of which harms nature, and spending time and resources searching for and putting to use goods and services which satisfy relational, cultural, and spiritual needs to which we now pay too little attention.
Another way to accomplish the perfection of consumption is to use goods in a more complete and efficient manner, avoiding their premature and unnecessary replacement, such that we obtain from each the maximum satisfaction of our needs. A more complete exploitation of goods can usually be had through communal consumption: sharing the same good, many people can satisfy their needs and the product can more fully share its potential utility. A little parsimony and a lot less squandering can lead us to much higher levels of quality in consumption with positive real impacts for our health, economy, and environment.
The solidarity mode of accumulation, too, is ecologically appropriate, resulting in a type of economic development that respects the exigencies of nature and the environment.5 Accumulation consists, basically, in incrementing the productive resources and forces in order to reproduce productive processes on an expanding scale and assure the satisfaction of future needs. But we can assure the future in different ways, accumulating and developing different types of goods and forces.
One way to assure our future is through accumulation of wealth and material goods or by concentrating power, but there is another path: to develop our capacities and participate in communities and organizations that protect us. Alone and isolated our lives depend nearly completely on what we ourselves possess as individuals; exaggerated individualism contributes to our insecurity by placing us in competition with others who threaten us and we them. It makes us turn toward individual accumulation of things, wealth, and power. The existence of a higher level of solidarity among people and in the society, on the other hand, considerably reduces our uncertainty and insecurity with regards to the future. Integrated into communities of solidarity, we see our insecurity shrink and we naturally tend to emphasize the development of human capacities and resources and the integration of social relations over the possession of things and the accumulation of power. Paradoxically, by building more solidarity into the economy we make the future less uncertain for us and for others. With our attention centered on the present, the future of each and all of us is better assured. On the other hand, when individualism exacerbates our preoccupation with the future we are induced to accumulate today much more than we will later need, and, in fact, both our own futures and those of generations to come are menaced by our immediate insatiability.
The incorporation of greater solidarity in the distinct phases of the global economy and the development of economic forms that produce, distribute, consume, and accumulate in a manner that more substantially integrates solidarity, show the way forward, opening a real road to ecology.
1 The first six paragraphs of this chapter have been updated for this translation. – MN
2 See the 2015 papal encyclical Laudato Si’ On the Care for our Common Home. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html -MN
3 See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. 2008. Harper Perennial. https://archive.org/details/ThePhenomenonOfMan/page/n135
4 Lolium temulentum, a weed that grows with and resembles wheat. See Matthew 13:24-26 - MN
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Luis Razeto Migliaro (2019). Solidarity Economy Roads: Chapter 8 - The Road of Ecology. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/solidarity-economy-roads-chapter-8