Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck
Toward an Environmental Rationality
By Enrique Leff
The conflict between economy and ecology and that impossible goal that is “sustainable development” give rise to concern over the feasibility of an alternative economy, writes Mexican environmental researcher Enrique Leff in this exclusive column for Tierramérica.
MEXICO, Jan 12 (Tierramérica).- Rejecting the commodification of nature is not enough. The existing real economy must be dismantled and a new one, founded on environmental rationality, must be erected in its place. What does this mean?
This assertion stems from the realization that the root cause of the world’s environmental crisis, ecological degradation, and global warming is to be found in an economic process that operates as an entropic force, driving the planet rapidly to its death.
Moreover, with the current economic structure in place, it is not possible to slow down growth, as this structure stimulates economic expansion, increasing its entropic consumption of nature and destroying the basis of sustainability of both the economy and life.
If these assertions are correct, then they put into question the possibility of reconstructing the economy by incorporating environmental regulations, technological innovations and distributive balances. In other words, is it possible to rebalance the economy within the same rationality -- theoretical and instrumental, economic and legal -- that it rests on?
The conflict between economy and ecology and that impossible goal that is “sustainable development” give rise to concern over the feasibility of an alternative economy. Is it possible to create an alternative production rationality, founded on different production principles and different social values?
For more than three decades we have called for a reconstruction of the economy founded on the principle of sustainable eco-technological productivity, on a production rationality grounded on the potentialities of ecology, technological productivity, and cultural creativity.
This conjunction of processes would replace the economy founded on capital, labor and technology as the basic factors of production, which has ignored the ecological conditions that underpin economic sustainability, and has “externalized” and devalued nature, commodifying it and turning it into natural resources, raw materials, and work objects -- simple matter and energy to feed the process of production.
The concept of entropy is taken from thermodynamics and refers to the fact that the amount of free energy that can be transformed into mechanical work decreases irreversibly over time.
The transition toward sustainability entails going from an entropic economy to a “negentropic” economy, that is, an economy based on the principle of life, on the planet’s photosynthetic capacity, on the ecological organization of each ecosystem, and on the cultural organization of every field of life. That would lead to a balance between entropy and negentropy in productive processes.
Environmental rationality guides the construction of an economy founded on photosynthesis, on the transformation of solar energy into biomass. But it is not merely a solar economy based on a more intensive use of solar technologies and collectors.
The idea is to utilize the principle of negentropic productivity and amplify it through the eco-systemic organization of the planet, and to steer innovations toward technologies adapted to productive conservation and the ecological supply of ecosystems.
But it would not be an economy that has shifted from technological efficiency to eco-efficiency. It is not an economy governed by an ecological rationality, but by other principles and values.
An economy based on ecological productivity is an economy that preserves nature, that links nature, as the source of life and production, to an ethics and an aesthetics of nature. It entails moving from a mystification and adoration of nature to an awareness of our human nature and an ethics of responsibility toward life.
The reconstruction of the economy is a process of re-signification of life and human existence.
Building sustainability is not, then, simply a way of ecologically managing nature’s productive potential. It entails a re-appropriation of nature, and not just a productive re-appropriation. Cultural creativity cannot be reduced to achieving efficiency in production. Cultural creativity has to do with the meaning and the values ascribed to nature as a territory of life and as a space for recreating culture.
Environmental rationality is much more than the greenification of how we think and the provision of a set of instruments to efficiently manage the environment.
It is a theory that guides action by subverting the principles that have governed and legitimized the theoretical and instrumental rationality of modernity.
It is a rationality that incorporates thought and values, reason and meaning, that is open to difference and diversity, that seeks to break down the unitary and hegemonic logic of the market to build a global economy formed by local economies based on their specific relationships between the material and the symbolic, between culture and nature.
* Enrique Leff is an environmentalist, writer and former coordinator of the Environmental Training Network for Latin America and the Caribbean for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Copyright Tierramérica. All rights reserved.