Thursday, September 30, 2010

Early Anthropological Economics

     Neoclassical economists take Euro-American economies as their principal subject of study, just as musicologists take Euro-American music as theirs. And just as it is short-sighted for musicologists to take Western music to stand for all music (see this blog, Feb. 6, 2009 entry), so in the context of my continuing exploration of ecology/economy, it would short-sighted to think Euro-American economies are fully representative of all economies. Looking at economic thought and behavior in non-Western (and early Western) societies should offer alternative possibilities and strategies for sustainability, both natural and cultural. This includes music, and it brings me to economic anthropology. 

     Economic anthropology as a sub-specialty within cultural anthropology developed in the US beginning around the time of World War II. Economic transactions in so-called primitive societies were an important topic for early twentieth-century anthropologists, especially because economic behavior of then-called primitive societies sometimes puzzled them. Malinowski's Trobriand Islanders and the Native Americans of the US Northwest Coast appeared to waste resources uneconomically. Western economists had assumed (and still do) that human beings always try to act in their economic best interests, to grow rich with the least amount of effort. “Economic man” came to be associated with rationality, self-interest, and the accumulation of material wealth; in John Stuart Mill’s words, “as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” (See J.S. Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It," 1836.)

     As anthropologists studied their ways of life, information on indigenous economic thought and behavior accumulated. Some behaved as “economic man” did in the West; some did not. One of the first attempts at a comparative economics was Melville Herskovits’ Economic Anthropology: the Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940, 1952). He came to comparative economics with Cold War era questions concerning collectivity and economic determinism: whether “primitive” (by 1952 he was calling the societies “non-literate”) economies were based chiefly on individual or collective efforts; and the degree to which economic choices determined the rest of a people’s way of life. But he also considered sustainability in terms of tribal practices that seemed uneconomic or wasteful, such as the deliberate destruction of property, and not in the best interests of economic efficiency. As an anthropological relativist, he concluded that cultural reasons trumped economic ones: “economic considerations will not prevail over mythological ones if the latter are strong enough” (Herskovits, Economic Anthropology (New York: Norton, 1952), p. 492.)

     Neoclassical economists, not surprisingly, faulted Herskovits' understanding of economics. For them, the science of economics must apply to all cases; otherwise it could not be a science. There could not be one science of economics for developed economies and another for non-literate societies. Economist Frank Knight argued that Herskovits failed to comprehend that economics is a theoretical science based on principles which describe ideal, not actual, economic behavior. “Economic man,” according to Knight, is not meant to describe how people do behave; it aims at describing how, in the abstract, absent other considerations, they would behave. The behavior of economic man in an ideal world is analogous to the way an object would remain in motion in the physical world were it not for friction. Herskovits replied that, to an anthropologist, the facts on the ground, actual economic behavior, must be the starting point—that anthropological economics must be an inductive and practical science, deriving principles from actual behavior, and not the deductive science that Knight postulated. Actual economic behavior among non-literate peoples was not always rational in the Western sense; if one wanted to understand the economies of non-literate peoples, one needed to understand how “mythology” directed economic behavior. This was a different goal than Knight's.

    Separating the mythological (or ideological) considerations from the economic ones is no longer so simple, if it ever was. Veblen’s famous early twentieth-century work on “leisure class” economics showed that waste, or conspicuous consumption, did have economic advantage, in that a conspicuous consumer would be regarded as a wealthy, powerful person and be treated with due respect. In understanding the apparently inefficient behavior involved in the economics of art, it’s important to take into account social capital (roughly, a storehouse of trust and reliability among people who interact with one another) and cultural capital (roughly, a storehouse of taste, which includes appreciation of the fine arts, and which enables one to travel among the refined and wealthy.)  All of this “mythological” activity, this accumulation of social and cultural capital (knowledge, reputation, authority), is critical to any understanding of the ways in which musical cultures may be sustained, for behavior in relation to music cannot always be explained by recourse to the “economic human.”

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ecological Awareness

From ecological economics we move (temporarily) to ecological awareness. Many Americans and some Europeans reading this blog will remember playing “cowboys and Indians” when growing up. Some merely imagined themselves one or the other; others donned a bit of costume such as a buckskin shirt and moccasins, or they wore a cap pistol in a holster. (Interestingly, my Native American friends have told me that they, too, played cowboys and Indians when growing up.) The Indian stepped silently through the woods in his or her moccasins, with senses keenly attuned to nature. Young Boy and Girl Scouts learn woodsmanship: how to get along in the wilderness. Hunting, fishing, building a fire, making shelter, survival skills: all these require a kind of ecological awareness of the natural world unavailable in the course of ordinary life to youngsters living protected lives in cities and suburbs; and so for some it becomes a kind of serious recreation. Euro-American culture values ecological awareness, as it values nature.

Do (or did) native or indigenous peoples acquire ecological awareness that leads to sustainability practices? If so, there is something to be learned from them. Anthropologists who study the pre-European contact lifeways of tribal societies agree that their peoples are ecologically aware; indeed, this feature is oft remarked on in popular anthropology, whether it is the Eskimos’ forty or so different words for different snow conditions, or the Australian natives’ intricate mental mapping of the landscape. But whether their ecological awareness led to practices that we would call sustainable turns out to be a more difficult question to answer.

It is more difficult because it is unclear whether their traditional economies were maintained over thousands of years prior to European contact because ecological awareness led to sustainable practices, or because the available technology was unable to exploit the resources to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, if resources such as game grew scarce, a smaller human population was supported until the resources were renewed. Anthropologists have looked hard to find instances of ecological awareness among tribal peoples leading to conservation and sustainability practices, but a recent review of the scholarly literature concludes that except in a few cases, indigenous groups exploited resources to exhaustion when new technology (e.g., guns, horses) made this possible. Of course, one could argue that new technology and contact with European cultures may have caused the disequilibrium, but whatever the cause, it would appear that the indigenous peoples’ ecological awareness did not lead to sustainable practices. Seymour Krech’s The Ecological Indian (1999) concluded, for example, that “little or no evidence could be found for conservation among Native Americans prior to contact and plenty of evidence demonstrated a lack of conservation during the contact period. . . . This view is consistent with major reviews of the conservation literature in the ethnographic world” (Raymond Hames, “The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2007, p. 178).   

Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned about sustainability from indigenous ecology? I would not rush to such a conclusion. For one thing, in the midst of the current sustainability debates, indigenous cultures have mounted legal actions based on the relation between ecology and cultural property rights, viewing nature in terms of what my friend Nathan calls a “sacred ecology” and claiming property rights to various natural resources on the land, basing those claims on traditional beliefs and practices which may be and often are in a revival phase within the native groups. In the midst of these debates, indigenous peoples, even if they did not practice sustainability in the past (when perhaps they felt no need to do so), are acutely aware of sustainability issues today. Further, it’s inconceivable to me that the more tradition-minded among them did not ponder and enact strategies for sustaining their traditional cultures in the face of Western colonial and cultural onslaught. To deny them deliberation in this way—that is, to deny that they thought about sustainability—is to perpetuate the myth of the unself-conscious, unreflective, savage. The strategies they adopted, and are adopting, in the face of such difficult odds, would indeed repay study.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Sustainable Development Must Be Abandoned

The ecological economist Herman E. Daly insists on a basic distinction between “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development.” Sustainable growth is impossible because continual growth is impossible; as an economic goal it is bad policy. Sustainable development, on the contrary, is for Daly both possible and desirable. Let’s look at Daly’s argument in his own words:

“Because qualitative and quantitative change are very different it is best to keep them separate and call them by the different names already provided in the dictionary. To grow means ‘to increase naturally in size by the addition of material through assimilation or accretion.’ To develop means ‘to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring gradually to a fuller, greater, or better state.’ When something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different. The Earth ecosystem develops but does not grow. Its subsystem, the economy, must eventually stop growing but can continue to develop. The term ‘sustainable development’ therefore makes sense for the economy but only if it is understood as ‘development without growth’ — i.e., that qualitative improvement of a physical economic base that is maintained in a steady-state by a throughput of matter-energy that is within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Currently the term ‘sustainable development’ is used as a synonym for the oxymoronic ‘sustainable growth.’ It must be saved from this perdition” (“Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT Press, 1993, pp. 267-8).

Can the term "sustainable development" be saved? (And is it worth saving?) My own view is that it is more difficult now than ever to do so. As a scientist, Daly understands that scientific terms have correct and incorrect definitions, and that their meanings may be controlled by a community of scientists granted such authority. In science this is indeed the case; terms like “force” and “energy” do have precise scientific meanings, and one of the goals of science education is to make certain that students understand exactly what these terms mean in the world of physics. But in the world of public debate, as Daly also understands, it is very difficult to patrol the borderlands of word meanings, particularly when words become laden with values. (He writes elsewhere about this ability of certain words to contain both themselves and their opposites.) Sustainability itself is one such word. Development is another.

Daly made a mistake, I think, in turning to “the dictionary” as he did. Perhaps he went to a dictionary and found the definition of development that suited his meaning. However, there is more than one current definition; Daly’s is not the only one. Indeed, the definition of “develop” has, itself, developed. The Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (OED) tells us that the English word “develop” comes from the Old French, desveloper, literally to un-enclose, to unwrap, to expose. In England "develop" was first used in the 18th century and it had this same meaning: to unfold and bring out a potential that was already latent. It still has this meaning, and this is the meaning that Daly takes from the word. Daly writes that “Sustainable development [is] development without growth—that is, qualitative improvement without quantitative increase” (Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, p. 3).

But the OED recognizes another meaning for development, involving evolution and growth. Identification of the word development with growth came by the mid-19th century through botany (a plant develops and grows through its life cycle) and evolution (a progressive movement from simpler to more complex life forms). And in the late 19th century the word began to take on a growth orientation for property as well as for organisms. Development came to mean to realize the potentialities and value of a site, estate, property, and so forth by converting it to a new purpose or making it suitable for residence, industry, or business. By 1966, my first year of graduate school, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defined “develop” both in the sense of “unfolding” and in the sense of growing. To develop was “to evolve, differentiate; broadly, to grow.” Today’s most frequently used on line dictionary,, also invokes the earlier definition, “to bring out the capabilities or possibilities”; but its usage example suggests growth: “to develop natural resources.” also identifies development directly with growth: “to cause to grow or expand.”

In short, as much as Daly would have us understand the term “sustainable development” as sustainable change without growth, it is impossible for him or anyone else to fix its meaning. Those who wish to think of sustainable development as synonymous with sustainable growth have dictionary authority to do so, just as Daly has for its opposite. No one has the authority to impose a single meaning on this word today. Just as human beings run into trouble when we try to dominate or “master” the natural world, so we cannot “master” the meanings of words. We are, at best, their stewards.

Lewis Carroll, author of Through The Looking-Glass (1872), understood this more than one hundred years ago. In a famous passage from that book, Humpty Dumpty has this conversation with Alice:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice observed.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

But much as Humpty Dumpty would have it otherwise, it is the words that are masters. It is a mistake to think that one can control the meaning of words in public discourse. One can, of course, try to shape public understanding, but doing so with words that signify in unfortunate ways strikes me as being what Daly would term “uneconomic”; that is, cost outweighs benefit. And so it is time to abandon the term “sustainable development” and look for others, such as continuity, whose meanings are more congruent with the dynamics of tradition. Otherwise sustainability, in music as elsewhere, will become captive to the destructive idea that music cultures must grow in order to sustain themselves.

Sustainable Growth as an Oxymoron

Many of the big players on the international stage think that "smart" or "sustainable" growth is the best solution to the big problems today. Not only a bigger pie, but a smarter recipe. Is sustainable growth indeed possible? Or are the terms self-contradictory, an oxymoron? Several years ago Tom and Ray Magliocci, the “Click and Clack” of the NPR radio program Car Talk, talked about morons and oxymorons. One of them had said that such and such a thing, such as an inexpensive Mercedes-Benz, was an oxymoron. “Who are you calling a moron?” replied the other. Yet there is something moronic about an oxymoron, particularly one like sustainable growth.

Herman E. Daly’s ecological economics places the world of economic production and consumption squarely within the constraints of the natural world ecosystem, and in so doing he critiques today’s economists’ emphasis on growth. If anyone doubts where contemporary economists stand on growth, they have only to review current government policy regarding the so-called great recession. Economic policy makers such as Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke view growth as the remedy for the problems supposedly caused by a contracting economy. (The causes, of course, are far more fundamental, and they are bound up in the way people think about human beings, the natural world, property, rights, production, consumption, wealth, money, work, life, ethics, pleasure, and leisure, among other things.) Indeed, economists frame recessions in terms of growth versus contraction in the gross national (domestic) product. We must produce and consume our way out of this predicament, according to the economists. Produce more! Buy more! Spend more! Save less! Put people back to work making more product so that the cycle of growth and progress can continue. This is  neo-classical economics in action, dominating contemporary policy.

In his early writings, Daly argued that the economic world ought to be viewed as tending toward a steady-state (equilibrium) rather than continually progressing and growing. In so doing, he was following the consensus among ecologists that ecosystems tend toward states of equilibrium. (As I wrote earlier in this research blog, this consensus among ecologists eroded in the last decades of the twentieth century; but more on that later.) After the Brundtland Report, Daly began using the increasingly common term “sustainable development.” He did so in an interesting and characteristic way.

To back-track a bit, one of the reasons the term sustainable development has gained popularity is that its meaning can be understood broadly; that is, because it is capable of many interpretations, policy makers can find ways in which it suits their inclinations. The Brundtland Report did not define sustainability in detail, saying only that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (This, of course, makes the strange assumption that the needs of future generations can somehow be known in the present.) In the nearly 25 years since the Brundtland Report, economists, environmentalists, ecologists, and to the dismay of many, corporate conglomerates have jumped on the sustainable development bandwagon.

Everyone wants to be green, today. My state public radio network, a non-profit corporation with employees and a Board, instituted an “evergreen friend” category of support. If instead of sending in a check after a telephoned pledge you agree to have a certain amount of money deducted monthly from your charge cards, you will "save a tree." It turns out that the trees saved would otherwise have gone to paper for fundraising letters, checks, and the like. How many trees can be saved by a few thousand evergreen friends? Ten? Two? I guess the idea is to have everyone do their part, however small. But the problem is much bigger than this.

Daly, predictably, has little use for such imprecision. In his textbook Ecological Economics, he explains what he means by “sustainable” in the context of “yield”; i.e., sustainable yield, as in a forest in which the re-growth exceeds the amount harvested or lost for other reasons such as disease and fire. In his more popular writings he takes great pains to define sustainable development in contradistinction to sustainable growth. He writes: “The term ‘sustainable growth’ when applied to the economy is a bad oxymoron” (“Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT Press, 1993, p. 267). Obviously, if the economy is enveloped by a finite ecosystem there are limits to economic growth; when these limits are reached and costs of growth are greater than benefits, growth becomes “uneconomic.” But what about sustainable development? Daly thinks sustainable development is both possible and desirable. His argument is both subtle and clear, and it is worth taking some time to explore. I will do so in the next entry.