Monday, November 2, 2009

Changing the Subject: Beyond Wishful Thinking

John Dryzek, Professor of Social and Political Theory at the Australian National University, wrote an article published 13 years ago titled "Foundations for Environmental Political Economy: The Search for Homo Ecologicus." Dryzek's article speaks directly to the central concern of my own book: to identify an alternative economic actor to Homo economicus. A copy of the article was one of only two supplementary sources I brought with me to Saturna Island two weeks ago when I went to (nearly) complete the first draft.

While waiting for the ferry, I retrieved the article from my bag to pass the time. There, on page 29, I was surprised to find that I had several weeks earlier scrawled "OSTROM!" in the margin. My ferry trip to Saturna took place the afternoon of the day her Swedish Bank Prize ("Nobel") was announced. So the name in the margin suddenly took on an unexpected resonance. Serendipitously, Dryzek's interpretation (at least) of Elinor Ostrom's work on common-pool resources dovetails quite nicely with what I'm trying to achieve in The Gift of Prosperity. It also addresses Brenda's and Carl Rogers's call for a "new kind of person."

Dryzek himself is critical of the results of eco-philosophical efforts to specify the features of this new kind of person. He cites E.F. Schumacher, Theodore Roszak and others. "The ecophilosophical house is an attractive dwelling," he writes, "but nobody has any idea how to build it." Dryzek's sketch of an alternative relies not so much on positing an ideal as on searching for precedents. It is in Ostrom's Governing the Commons that he finds the rudiments of that "alternative, beyond wishful thinking." In Gift I believe I take this alternative a crucial step forward, addressing human labor as a Common Pool Resource. Waged work is, after all, the primary source of income for an immense portion of the earth's inhabitants.

Mischievously, I've decided to call this labor-as-CPR, "The Lump" or, more formally, the lump of labor. My rehabilitated lump of labor, however, is not a fallacious belief in a fixed amount of work to be done. That is grammatically awkward anyway. My new lump is about a finite amount of labor that it is prudent (and sustainable) for workers collectively to offer on the market at any given time. I think a case can be made that this new lump is not that different from what workers traditionally had in mind long before the economists, journalists and propagandists raised the lump-of-labor fallacy banner as a gesture of ridicule and disdain.


gordon said...

"Dryzek's sketch of an alternative relies not so much on positing an ideal as on searching for precedents".

That's not a bad thing. If you want to prove that something can be done, showing that it has been done before is a pretty good (though not entirely conclusive) strategy. And if it subsequently collapsed, you have a place to look for the reasons why.

Though sympathetic to your project, I worry about population growth. "Spaceship Earth" is a pretty Malthusian craft. But I may misunderstand what you are trying to do.

Walker said...


"Spaceship Earth" is in better shape if we try to manage it as a common resource pool than if we treat it as something to be exploited at an ever growing rate.