Dollars & Sense, July/Aug. 99

Greens and economic Progressives are seen as uncertain, uneasy allies - and perhaps not allies at all. Think of those spotted-owl-loving, middle-class activists clashing with blue collar loggers in the Pacific Northwest. Or the clash between liberal economists who still count progress in terms of jobs created, growth generated, and increases in consumption, and environmental activists who challenge those very ways of measuring progress. "Growth" to these activists is part of the problem, not the solution.

But do green politics necessarily conflict with progressive economic goals? Or can environmental protection live and thrive in a world dedicated to eradicating poverty, nurturing equality and economic security, and the continued advancement of productivity and technology?

In a word, yes. An environmentally "sustainable" economy is one that neither depletes natural resources nor pollutes at levels that overwhelm the ability of ecosystems to absorb waste. Such an economy would almost certainly need to overlap with many of the traditional goals of economic progressives, allowing us to envision an ideal world that is both socially and ecologically sustainable. What would that world look like?

First, it would provide economic security for individuals and communities. So long as most citizens less than six months' paychecks away from insolvency, and so long as they worry that their income may be taken away, economic expansion (i.e., growth) and job creation will, most of the time and for most people, always be a higher political priority than environmental protection.

The link between economic security and sustainability runs at a deeper level as well. In a highly inegalitarian society such as ours, where the quality of public goods like neighborhood safety and public schools varies widely, individuals and families are pressured not just to subsist, but to earn enough to live an ecology straining middle-class lifestyle.

At the community level, if localities remain dependent on the investment decisions of private businesses for their economic health, protection of the environment will tend to take a back seat. Just look at the way poor, deindustrialized cities such as Chester, Pennsylvania, court particle-spewing trash incinerators for the modest revenue they provide.

If we want to move to a society in which acquiring more and more goods is not the highest priority for individuals, and "growth" is not the highest priority for most communities, then we need a baseline of economic security.

Second, we must create a sense of self based on some besides consumerism. Of course, economic insecurity is not the only reason Americans are driven to consume at extraordinarily high levels. As

Thorstein Veblen first argued in 1899, and as Juliet Schor documented in the 1990s, consumption is often used to mark social status, particularly with regard to goods that can be made visible to one's peers, such as cars, clothes, and lipstick. As workers, most Americans are provided with littles cope for individual expressiveness, but as consumers, they feel free to follow their wishes in making decisions- decisions which then form a critical part of American identities. The result is a nation of individuals shaped by a compulsion to consume goods and services, and to increase that consumption over time. By contrast, in an ecologically sustainable society, people's core satisfactions could not come from buying decisions, and they would need to have a sense of when enough is enough.

Third, producers who damage the environment must also bear the costs of their damage. As it stands, private enterprises force the public to pay the costs of their polluting and depletion of natural resources. Since the true costs of production are not reflected in the prices of goods on the market, firms benefit by shifting costs such as pollution cleanup to the public. This system gives businesses an incentive to "externalize" environmental costs off their own balance sheets if they can get away with it - and to resist attempts by governments to minimize the costs through regulation. Advocates of ecological sustainability thus argue that firms should bear the full cost of their activities. A major question, of course, is how to best accomplish that goal.

Fourth, we must also use as much environmentally friendly technology as we can in our new world. Unfortunately, over the course of this century, the U.S. government intervened in the economy to promote ecologically inefficient and destructive economic practices. While giving a pittance to the development of solar and wind power, the government sank about $ 100 billion of subsdies into nuclear power between 1950 and 1990. Similarly, the government lavished funds upon the Highway Trust Fund and created the interstate highway system while allowing public transit of all types to decay. To this day, over 80% of federal transportation spending supports automobile- related infrastructure, leaving less than 20% for mass transit. Such spending patterns, along with additional subsidies like tax write-offs for home mortgages, help generate suburban sprawl (and thereby exacerbate the ecological damage caused by cars). At the same time, regulators often tackle problems at the "end of the pipe" instead of seeking to change the productive processes themselves.

In any sustainable society, these sorts of choices will need to be reversed and priority given to implementing the most environmentally friendly technology possible. Environmental technology, in fact, could be the source of millions of new jobs in the next century - and jobs building high-speed rail cars would likely pay just as well as jobs making automobiles. Similarly, labor-intensive public works projects could be undertaken in support of ecological goals - to beautify cities, build bike paths, install solar panels, remove lead paint, and insulate buildings. Governments could also aggressively use their purchasing policies to help promote the development of cutting-edge environmentally sound products.

Within the current structure of power, however, the private interests that stand to lose public funds - such as the oil and car companies - thwart any shift in public spending toward more ecologically and socially rational goals and resist any laws that would mandate certain kinds of production processes. They have the money to intervene in elections and (even more importantly) shape legislation - and they are aided by the fact that few politicians are eager to support measures that may damage companies in their districts. Just look at the way the energy lobby thoroughly discredited and defeated Vice President Al Gore's modest proposal for an energy tax in 1993. In contrast, an ecologically sustainable society would require that politics not be dominated by corporate or private interests - a very tough structural requirement rarely mentioned in the conventional policy debate about the environment.

Finally, a world where ecological and progressive economic goals are unified would be one where growth is no longer the top priority. In our corporate capitalist economy, banks and investors consider whether profits and the economy as a whole will grow before sending their capital the way of any business. In contrast, an environmentally sustainable economy would not need high rates of growth to function in a healthy manner. Growth would not be the goal of a sustainable economy, nor would the fair distribution of economic goods depend on continual growth. Instead, with every individual and community guaranteed a stake in the economy, it would not be necessary to focus so much on expanding production. Also, the gains from more efficient production would be distributed to people as reduced work-hours or more stringent environmental protection.

Still, even in a sustainable economy, economic growth per se need not be eliminated entirely. While one way to cut the use of resources and pollution is to cut production and shrink the economy, another is to make productive systems more efficient. We also might choose to produce those goods that cause less ecological damage. There is no inherent reason why a society that commits itself to ecologically efficient production, both in the actual production process and in the kinds of goods created, might not generate what we today call economic growth. For instance, if we decided to hire more elementary school teachers - and at the same time to consume fewer lawn care products - ecological damage would drop even as. the size of the economy stayed roughly the same. The difference is that economic growth as a good in itself would not be the central aim of such an economy.


Ecological problems might be very easy to solve if we imagine an all-powerful state that enforces strict ecological standards on both individuals and businesses. Not only is such a vision unattractive on its own terms, it probably provides only a temporary solution to the ecological problem. Sooner or later, an ecofascist regime that tried to impose sound ecological practices without the support of its citizens would probably be overthrown, leading us back to square one: how to make the goals of democracy, economic justice, and ecological sustainability fit together.

How would that be possible? Is it possible?

At the community level, perhaps the fundamental questions to consider are: Who owns capital?, and, Who gets to make basic decisions over how production is carried out? The usual answers -small businesses, corporations, the government, or workers - would all have the incentive to pollute or use ecologically wasteful production strategies. A fifth possible solution is local community ownership. To see why, it's worth reviewing the shortcomings of the other possible answers.

Styles of regulation that allow private businesses to organize production as they see fit will always face an uphill struggle in trying to get businesses to pay for the ecological costs they generate, a hill that is especially steep in the case of nations like the United States where social democratic politics are weak. Moreover, even the success stories associated with social democratic- style environmental regulation have limitations. For example, no industrialized country has yet succeeded in constraining the growth of the automobile/highway complex, as we must to reduce greenhouse gases.

Worker-owned firms are an attractive solution, it seems, since workers may be less likely to pollute their own communities (or risk their own health in the workplace), and more subtly, because worker firms (as Douglas Booth argues) will have less incentive to grow than capitalist firms. Perhaps, but workers within a given enterprise still may have interests different from the public's. Given the reins of management, workers may come to see ecological responsibility as a threat to the bottom line, as Gar Alperovitz and Herbert Gintis have each suggested - especially if they can send the pollution from their plant downstream or to the next town.

State ownership of firms also poses problems. When government officials are not held accountable and when ecological values are subordinated to other aims, both state-owned enterprises and general government operations are capable of doing disastrous damage to the environment. Even in the most favorable circumstances, public companies may find it rational to compromise the needs of local ecosystems in the name of some larger public interest. At worst, we've seen the Energy Department contaminate desert stretches of Nevada from nuclear weapons tests carried out in the "public interest".

This brings us to a fifth possible answer to the "who should control capital?" question: local- level community ownership. "Community-owned" firms might include municipally owned enterprises, firms owned by nonprofit organizations that represent community interests (such as community development corporations), or companies whose stock can be owned only by local residents (as in Michael Shuman's concept of "community corporation.") In theory, community-owned enterprises are more likely to take full responsibility for the ecological costs of their activity to the degree that they are made accountable to the community. If the managers of a community-owned firm chose to sacrifice ecological goals for the sake of higher production, citizens would have the opportunity, via the political process, to remove them.

Moreover, profits from a community-owned firm could be distributed to citizens as a second income, thus helping to meet the economic security requirement previously noted. And perhaps best of all, there is no threat that a community firm would move away - removing the sword hanging over towns that want tough ecological standards but not at the cost of jobs.

The most widespread form of community ownership in the United States in the 20th century are the roughly 2,000 local-level, nonprofit, public, electric utilities, which offer lower rates, more public accountability, and a better (although far from perfect) environmental record than their private counterparts. But many other forms of community ownership have sprouted up in the past two decades as well. These include businesses owned and operated by community development corporations, community land trusts, community-supported agriculture operations, community credit unions, and municipal enterprises.

Community firms, then, would appear to be the best answer to the question of "who should control capital," at least within medium-size and large firms, and the recent growth of various forms of community ownership indicates this is a plausible solution. This does not mean that other forms of ownership need to be obliterated; on the contrary, community-owned firms could coexist along with small businesses, worker firms, joint public-private enterprises, and some larger scale public enterprise. The key is that the local community must have substantial control over the practices of enough enterprises to anchor the local economy and set a tone for overall production practices.

Community control of land - especially downtown land and undeveloped land - would also be important to optimizing local communities' ecological health. Patterns of land development driven by private developers have resulted in auto-dominated, sprawled out forms of urban development. Community ownership of land would make shifting to ecologically friendly, resource saving urban designs far more plausible - and rents collected from leases to downtown businesses could also be directly distributed to residents or given to them as services to help solve the economic security problem.

A picture thus emerges of a local economy characterized by a critical mass of community ownership, along with substantial community ownership of land, allowing local level democratic politics to steer firms toward ecological goals and allowing any community dividend to be distributed to citizens (enhancing their economic security). Even if this vision could be achieved within every locality in America, would such an achievement be enough to create a sustainable society?

Hardly. We'd still need mechanisms at the state or perhaps regional level to ensure that one community does not dump on another and meets ecological standards. There would also need to be a planning mechanism to allocate enough capital to each community to guarantee local-level full employment and to help communities adjust when some industries decline due to market shifts.

Governments would also provide important public goods relevant to sustainability, including rail and public transit, the development of alternative energy sources, oversight of needed ecological clean-ups, and coordinate the overall macroeconomy. But by essentially removing the private corporation with its disproportionate sway over the political process, and replacing it with firms directly tied to community interests, it ought to be easier to decide how to spend the public works budget, how long the standard work week should be, and so on in an ecologically rational manner. Continental or global forms of ecological governance may be appropriate on specific ecological issues such as greenhouse gas emissions. (Gar Alperovitz offers an overview along these lines involving economic institutions at the local, regional, and national levels).

This kind of system would have a far better chance of meeting the needs of a sustainable society than any industrial society that exists now (be it capitalist, social democratic, or state socialist.)

But can it be said that this proposed system is inherently sustainable? No - or, at least, not exactly. In fact, it is probably impossible to design a modern economy that could guarantee ecological sustainability while also preserving other crucial norms such as liberty, equality, and democracy. The best we can hope for is an economy that meets the logical prerequisites for a sustainable society and permits citizens to make democratic social choices about what sort of world they wish to live in.

Some citizens may chafe at any state-mandated shifts in their lifestyle and consumption habits (such as one bag of garbage per household per week) while others will believe that the trade off is worth it. The outcome of such political struggles is uncertain, and from time to time the public no doubt would make the wrong choices from a rigorous ecological point of view. But at least such bad choices would be made in the name of the public interest, not in response to private interests or as steps needed to grease the wheels of a growth-oriented economy.

To be sure, in the long interval before a truly sustainable society is built, there will continue to be episodes in which zero-sum tradeoffs between the economy and the environment must be made. But those episodes should not blind either greens nor economic progressives; to the common ground both groups share and will no doubt need to share if either group is to achieve its political aims in the 21st century.

Resources: Ted Howard, "Ownership Matters," (National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives, 1999), www.ncesa.org; Mark Hertsgaard, Earth Odyssey (Broadway Books, 1999); Gar Alpcrovitz, "Sustainability and the System Problem," PEGSjournal, 1996

Thad Williamson, a doctoral student in political theory at Harvard, is the author of What Comes Next? Proposals for a Different Society and is a member of the D&S editorial collective