In "Economism or Planetism," John B. Cobb, Jr. (Herman Daly's coauthor in For the Common Good, Beacon Press, 1989) suggests that it is time to reassess our current "non-ideology ideology" of consumerism. Cobb argues that we ought to address both consumption and production as part of a broader whole that interrelates the human economy with the larger natural economy functioning in the biosphere. One aim is to encourage values in addition to, and sometimes in conflict with, consumerism--especially those associated with human community and a sense of belonging to the larger world. Cobb does not deny the efficiency of the market, but champions its role (where appropriate) as a means toward achievement of socially/politically/biologically determined ends. But neither does Cobb believe that markets, and market mechanisms, are a panacea for all our problems. Whether you see his prescriptive remedies to be common sense or nonsense, Cobb's ideas are worth reading and discussing every bit as much now as when first presented in 1991.
ECONOMISM OR PLANETISM: THE COMING CHOICE
John B. Cobb, Jr.
Contemporary economic theory, with its goal of ever-increasing material growth, is the dominant ideology of our time. But earthly limits, once imagined away, now assert themselves, visibly and persistently. A new ideology, one based on concern for the well-being of the planet as a whole, is called for. Theologian John Cobb describes the coming choice and the changes it could bring. Cobb, professor emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, is the coauthor, with Herman Daly, of For the Common Good. An expanded version of this article will appear in Good News for Animals? Contemporary Christian Approaches to Animal Well-Being, forthcoming from Orbis Press in 1992.
There is an inherent tension between the science of economics as it is practiced today—with its goals of endlessly expanding markets and consumption—and the welfare of the planet, its inhabitants (human and nonhuman), and their communities.
The problem with contemporary economic theory is not its science as such. This can be taken as descriptive of what goes on in exchange of goods and services. As a science there is no question of its predictive success in many, many areas. It provides invaluable information about what results will occur from the adoption of particular policies. Even in these respects it is limited and fallible, since features of the situation from which it has abstracted sometimes play an unanticipated role. But that is not a major criticism. To be a science it must abstract, and its abstractions have proved extremely fruitful.
The problem is that it has ordered its research and theory-building to an end. This is the end of increasing human consumption. One can argue that as a science economics merely tells us what policies will produce which results and leaves to others the decision as to the type of results desired. But that is deceptive. If one approaches an economist and asks what economic policies will result in the improved condition of animals, say, the economist is likely to have nothing to say. Economists have not hypothesized a series of diverse ends and examined the policies that would attain them. They have assumed that the end is growth of total product, and generations of scholars have studied, with great success, how to attain that. Needless to say, they do not as a group merely provide neutral information. They vigorously support and promote those policies that will lead to greater growth.
We see here a problem with the very organization of knowledge in the modern world. Particular aspects of reality are assigned to particular academic disciplines. In order to get on with the constructing of a science, the practitioners of the discipline must make some simplifying decisions ordered to whatever purpose commends itself to them. There is nothing wrong with that. But then the practitioners also claim the turf as their own. Of course, there may be disputes, as between Marxists and neoclassical schools. But most of the assumptions, most of the goals, are held in common between them. If one proposes that the economic subject matter be investigated for quite different purposes, one is told that this would not be economics. Yet no one else is recognized as authorized to investigate this material.
This identification of a "science" with research aimed at a particular end would not be so serious a problem except for profound changes that have occurred in the ethos of the North Atlantic nations. Prior to this century this ethos was dominated by religious and political ideologies. Religion dominated down through the 17th century. Since then nationalism become triumphant. One lived and died for one's nation as one had earlier lived and died for one's faith.
Nationalism came to its peak in the middle of the 20th century in what might be viewed as a caricature. Naziism made of German nationalism an absolutistic religion pursuing the consequences of its ideology with unstinting consistency. The nationalism of other peoples played a large role in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany, but that whole episode spelled the beginning of the decline of nationalism as a spiritual force.
Following on the earlier decline of religion, this decline of nationalism has sometimes been hailed as the end of ideology. Ideology is now replaced by pragmatism. The task is to identify problems and solve them without commitment to any overarching goals. Much that is very positive has occurred in this context. Western Europe, which had been torn by religious and national fighting for centuries, is now almost free from the danger of a recurrence of this madness. Religious passion and national pride are spent.
But it is not quite true that there is no overarching goal. The goal is economic growth. That goal is taken as obvious and simply rational. And indeed it does not involve the call to heroic personal sacrifice that characterized both religion and nationalism in their heyday. On the contrary, one serves the new goal by attending to one's own economic interest. For the first time in history, it is now established that the best way to serve one's neighbor is to act in perfect selfishness! One can indeed forget all ideology and go about one's own business of gaining as many of the world's goods as possible at the least cost in labor. The market will take care of the rest.
This non-ideological ideology has hardly received a name. I will call it "economism." Religious people have not failed to criticize it, but thus far ineffectively. They have complained about its materialism, but they have shared its goal of providing goods for all. They have complained about its selfishness, but since this selfishness leads to the benefit of all, the complaint is difficult to make credible. They have complained also that the market does not implement justice, that is leads to great inequities. And here they have had some success in the political arena. All North Atlantic countries have taken action to mitigate the suffering engendered by the market and to spread the benefits of the increased production it makes possible.
But as long as religious people shared with economism the goal of economic growth, they could do little to weaken its hold. They preferred its neutrality with respect to religion to the active opposition of the Communists. They supported its progressive weakening and displacement of nationalism. And they contributed to the educational system and the social ethos that enabled economism to dominate.
Economism has also had the acquiescence and support of political leaders. At times their continuing nationalism has led them to resist particular policies that obviously weakened national sovereignty. But on the whole they were persuaded to identify the national interest with growth in Gross National Product, and they accepted the view that GNP would grow faster as markets become larger.
Thus in the North Atlantic countries, economism has gained the support of the remaining strength of both religious and national feeling. It is now almost undisputed master of the world's most powerful peoples. It is because of this enormous power that this "science" must be so carefully criticized. If economism is to give way, like religion and nationalism before it, it must be to something else. Society cannot do without some ordering principle. But what might that be?
The most promising candidate today is reverence for the Earth. This is taking many forms. The Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock has elicited a surprisingly favorable response. Native American spirituality is popular. Some ecologists and environmentalists give themselves sacrificially to saving the planet without any obviously religious expression of their concern. Among Christians there is a renewal of creation spirituality. The picture of the Earth from the moon has become a moving symbol of this new attitude and orientation.
Although almost everyone gives lip service to a concern for the well-being of the planet, and especially its biosphere, thus far this is subordinated to economism. George Bush announced his intention of becoming our environmental president, but he has made it clear that this is not to interfere with economism. The result, of course, is that his environmental record is poor. There is an inherent tension between economism and environmentalism that will not go away by virtue of minor gestures in the direction of the latter. "Planetism," to coin a name for the emerging ideology, has not yet been able to affect basic policy.
Fortunately, the "yet" in the previous sentence is realistic. As our social and environmental problems get worse, and as the negative consequences of economism become better known, leaders will arise who are truly willing to change course. The opposition will be enormous and the temptation to sacrifice planetism for modifications of economism will be great. But there is a chance that the choice will become clear and that people in large numbers will choose for planetism.
Planetism will not succeed unless it can project the possibility of a viable economy. It must show that although there is profound tension between economism and planetism, there is no opposition between planetism and meeting the economic needs of all. Otherwise, however much they regret the losses, most people will remain committed to economism. Economism will still come to an end, but it will be a catastrophic one.
For the planetist the goal of the human economy is to meet physical needs with the smallest possible disruption of the larger, natural, economy. Further, the aim is to do so in ways that encourage other human values, especially those associated with human community and a sense of belonging to the larger world. The intention is to accomplish all this in ways that inflict as little harm as possible on human beings, or other animals and life forms.
The assumptions underlying this goal are clearly different from those underlying economism. One assumption here is that human beings are fundamentally communal. That is, their relations to one another are extremely important, more important than consumption of goods beyond a quite minimal level. Economism assumes that individuals are not relational, so that if their consumption is increased their lot is improved even if their communities are destroyed in the process.
A second assumption is that while human well-being is important, the well-being of the rest of the planet is also--independently of its apparent value to us. All life has intrinsic value, and planetism holds that human beings should adjust their lives in light of this truth.
A third assumption is that individuals count. Economism already affirms this, too one-sidedly, with respect to human beings. Planetism extends it to all sentient beings. The infliction of unnecessary suffering is wrong. Much suffering is unavoidable, and efforts to avoid it are likely to make matters worse. But much suffering inflicted by human beings on other human beings and on other animals is avoidable. Planetists assume that human beings can and should meet their physical needs in ways that cause as little suffering as possible to one another and to other animals.
A fourth assumption is that labor is not inherently evil. Certainly much labor is boring, painful, demeaning, and in general intrinsically unrewarding. Planetism agrees with economism that this should be minimized. As little as possible of such labor should be imposed on other animals also. But reducing the hours of labor in general is not the only way of reducing the evil involved in labor. It is also possible to make labor itself more enjoyable and fulfilling. The ideal is to produce the goods people need with as little disruption of the natural economy as possible, and also with human labor that is as enjoyable as possible. Sometimes more labor-intensive modes of production are both less damaging to the environment and more enjoyable. From an economistic perspective, to shift to such modes would be a backward step. For the planetist, it can be a gain.
That markets are the most efficient means of allocating resources—of adjusting production to consumer preferences--has been demonstrated again and again both theoretically and practically. Planetism supports market economies. But whereas economism seeks to minimize non-economic restrictions on markets and to maximize their size, planetism seeks to minimize their size and to establish rules for each market about the conditions of labor and the impact on the environment. The allocative efficiency of the market is not harmed by such rules as long as they apply equally to all participants. The only "losses" are in productivity and total product, and these are not the goals of planetism. Of course, those who produce under these rules should not be forced to compete with others who are not so restricted. Each market should be protected from outside competition to the extent necessary.
Whereas economism makes each local area dependent on goods produced elsewhere and capital derived elsewhere, planetism seeks local self-reliance and relative self-sufficiency. There is no harm in trade when the trade involved is not essential to local survival. Such trade is truly voluntary and mutually beneficial. But so-called "free trade" today is compulsory. Countries trade on terms laid down by others on pain of starvation. Planetism would have none of that.
Planetism's goal of self-sufficiency includes the field of energy. A planetist society would price imported energy high so as to provide maximum incentive for the market to engender the urgently needed changes. The first step would be shifting to highly energy efficient equipment to reduce the need for imported fossil fuels. The second step would be some shift from energy-intensive mass production to labor-intensive handicrafts and small-scale diversified family farming. The third step would be building homes, offices, and even whole cities that meet their energy requirements from direct solar energy alone. The fourth step would be developing new technologies for more efficient transformation of solar energy into electricity. The fifth step would be building cities that do not require use of motor vehicles. These changes would all take time, but reduction in dependence on imported energy could be begun quickly.
Economism has compromised with land use policies that place some land outside the market. However, even federally owned lands have been exploited for commercial purposes. Planetism aims at reduced use of the land. Other forms of life, including animals, would be major beneficiaries of such a policy.
Under planetism, much land now in national forests would be classified as wilderness, which is the single most important contribution human beings could make to the well-being of other life forms, including animals. Similarly, much land now overgrazed by cattle would be returned to buffalo and deer. Much land now used for crops would revert to pasture. The result would be the reduction of cropland. But this need pose no problem in respect to adequate supplies of food. If livestock were raised almost entirely on grass, far less land would be needed to grow grains. The remaining lands would more than suffice for direct human consumption.
It is clear that the result of these changes would be a reduced production of meat, especially beef. Some of this reduction could be compensated by increased supplies of wild meats, especially buffalo and venison. But a diet for planetism would involve a substantial reduction in red meat.
A planetist economy would move quickly to end the pollution of lakes and rivers, the destruction of wetlands, and the overfishing of the ocean. Some species might recover and rather large-scale sustainable fisheries might become possible in areas where they have been abandoned.
These brief reflections on a planetist economy have had the United States in view. The scenario would be different in other places. Precisely since economies would be local, their problems and responses would be different. But in general they would all aim at a sustainable relationship to their local environment that maintains as much diversity of life there as possible.
From: Earth Ethics 3(1), Fall 1991.