A look at “Rational Ecology” in the context of climate change

Published online 3 September 2009.

This will be a short review of John Dryzek’s forgotten classic Rational Ecology in the context of the challenge of abrupt climate change.  Dryzek asks us to place ecological concerns first, and to look at these concerns in terms of the systems we use to make decisions.  If we were all to follow Dryzek’s logic, we might develop the will to take decisive action to address the problem, which we currently don’t have.  I will start by asking about climate change, summarize the book, and conclude by suggesting applications to the problem.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Perhaps the most serious barriers to satisfactorily dealing with climate change are ethical and political.  Who should do what, and what should be the goals?

-Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, from The Dominant Animal

How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?

John Lennon, from “How?


Book Review: John S. Dryzek, Rational Ecology: Environment and Political Economy. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

John Dryzek is now a professor of political science at the Australian National University.  This is one of his earlier books, which I’m reviewing because I think it contains a kernel of truth which we ought to explore.


Why haven’t we solved the abrupt climate change problem yet?

It’s not the deniers.  The deniers are running scared.  Yeah, James Inhofe, he’s got a ton of power in the Senate.  Not.  James Inhofe is a member of a minority party whose membership is quickly shrinking.  Even the sold-out mass media are getting wise to his schtick.

And it’s not for lack of government action.  A good chunk of the world has a “cap and trade” scheme in place: it’s called the “Kyoto Protocol,” and it has not stopped the acceleration of “greenhouse gas emissions” from human industrial society.  (If you want to see how the numbers on this one crunch, read Raupach et al., “Global and Regional Drivers of Accelerating CO2 Emissions,” PNAS, June 12, 2007   vol. 104  no. 24  10288-10293.

In a previous diary here on Orange, I suggested that even those who accept the theory of human-caused abrupt climate change are less than clear about the political transformation necessary to do something about the problem.

At any rate, I do think we need to go beyond the politics of shallow, symbolic measures such as ACES in order to understand what is going on here.  It’s not as if the leadership is confused, or corrupt, or evil, although (to varying degrees) it may be all of those things.  The problem lies in PRIORITIES.  Plenty of people believe that abrupt climate change is real.  The problem is in getting them to recognize that at some point they must clear away their desks and make it the only thing they’ve got in their “in-box” of things to do.  Abrupt climate change must, for at least a fleeting moment, then, be a PRIORITY.

How can we conceptualize our priorities in a motivating way?  John Dryzek’s book Rational Ecology suggests a way.

Now, Rational Ecology was published in 1987, before abrupt climate change was a prominent political issue within the purview of American politics.  The “prelude” to the book’s main discussion is about acid rain.  Nevertheless, it addresses the problem of how governments can be ineffective in their attempts to find solutions to ecological problems.  Here’s how Dryzek breaks it down:

  1. Dryzek looks for an “ecological rationality,” a “functional rationality” which will promote or produce the value of ecological sustainability.  Now, a “functional rationality” could be a form of reasoning directed toward any purpose — a “beer rationality,” for instance, would be a form of reasoning directed toward the acquisition of beer.  (And I know for a fact that I HAVE seen “beer rationality” in action.)  Once you get past all of the jargon, however, Dryzek is attached to “ecological rationality” because he values nature.  Now, I value nature too.  But it goes beyond that.  Dryzek explains:

Ecological rationality for the purposes of this investigation is the capability of ecosystems consistently and effectively to provide the good of human life support.  (36)

In short, we need to see to it that ecosystems provide this good, else we will not have our lives.  How we do this?  Dryzek suggests that we do this by acting as proper stewards of the natural world:

Ecological rationality requires, then, a degree of intervention in natural systems, but falls far short of extreme ecological engineering.  Man can make use of rather than seek to supplant the spontaneous self-organizing and self-regulating qualities of natural systems.  An ecologically rational man-nature system is one in which human and natural components stand in a symbiotic relationship.  (46)

Then Dryzek tells that ecological rationality is a “priority.”  What does this mean for him?

The preservation and enhancement of the material and ecological basis of society is necessary not only for the functioning of societal forms such as economically, socially, legally, and politically rational structures, but also for action in pursuit of any value in the long term.  The pursuit of all such values is predicated upon the avoidance of ecological catastrophe.  Hense the preservation and promotion of the integrity of the ecological and material underpinning of society — ecological rationality — should take priority over competing forms of reason in collective choices with an impact upon that integrity.  (59)

Let’s take a look at what this means.  Dryzek is arguing that the preservation of Earth’s ecosystems (“the material and ecological basis of society”) takes priority as a “form of reason.”  And we would adopt a “form of reason” when we make any collective choice which would have an impact upon the “integrity” of any of Earth’s ecosystems.

  1. What Dryzek is saying, then, is that ECOLOGICAL RATIONALITY has to COME FIRST if we are to SURVIVE in the long run.  All of our other broader social values — the economy, the society, the law, politics — are dependent upon the existence of an ecosystem which gives support to human life, and if we were to screw up that ecosystem in any broadly important way, then our pursuit of all of those other broader values will be of no importance.

OK, so ecological rationality has to come first.  What do we do about it?


  1. In charting a path of action, Dryzek wants to get us to think about the sort of mechanisms we use to arrive at social choices.  What’s important is not just what we do but how we do it, because our established modes of action coordination will largely determine which forms of reason we use.

On p. 64 of this book, Dryzek looks at nine forms of social choice, each typified by it own mode of social coordination.  They are:

a) Markets, which co-ordinate their actors through “price signals”

b) Administered systems, which co-ordinate through commands

c) Legal systems, which co-ordinate through formal rules and laws

d) Systems of moral persuasion, which co-ordinate through values

e) Polyarchic systems, which co-ordinate through partisan mutual adjustment (and here Dryzek is talking about legislative processes)

f) Systems involving bargaining, which co-ordinate through formal negotiation

g) Systems involving armed conflict, which co-ordinate through force

h) Systems involving radical decentralization, which co-ordinate through conditional co-operation

i) Systems involving practical reason, which co-ordinate through discussion.

(This is more or less a paraphrase.)

The great bulk of this book is spent on a rather abstract evaluation of each of these systems, as to whether or not they are eco-friendly — or, to use the book’s jargon, whether or not they would encourage or discourage the practice of ecological rationality.

The substance of these criticisms are that systems a) through g) do not work effectively to promote ecological rationality across the board, and that there are major flaws with each of them.  Markets promote the “tragedy of the commons,” administered systems promote megalomania, legal systems limit possible solutions to ecological problems, moral persuasion does not motivate people in the right way, polyarchies promote special interests, bargaining favors the powerful over the powerless, and of course armed conflict is a disaster.  In short, existing systems are rather poorly equipped to produce ecological rationality, because of the way they work.

  1. Lastly, at the end of the book, Dryzek FINALLY focuses in on what a real solution might look like.  We will, as he argues, have to design it ourselves.  Dryzek suggests that our primary tools for ecological reason are h), “radical decentralization,” and i), “practical reason.”  However, since these are not really systems, per se, but tactics, Dryzek has a concluding chapter on “innovations.”  We are to use radical decentralization and practical reason to put together our own organizations, and apply them toward problems as we see fit, in the context of existing society.

Under “practical reason,” Dryzek gives a serious look at Habermas’ theory of communicative action, connected to the real-life practice of environmental mediation.  The idea is to look at the extent to which people can solve problems through dialogue.

Under “radical decentralization,” Dryzek says: “this chapter will explore the prospects for radically reducting — perhaps even eliminating — hierarchy in social organization.” (236)  This chapter is, in short, an advocacy of small-scale, local, anarchist efforts at ecological wisdom.  Here is what Dryzek has to say about it:

Radical decentralization has substantial promise in terms of it mapping of ecological feedback signals onto social change, its facilitation of practical reason in collective deliberations and actions, and its coordination potential at the community level.  Its most problematic feature is fragility in a world of states.  (229)

If we are to have an eco-world, then, what we want is a world of small, decentralized, democratic communities in which each individual knows how to protect her “ecological rights” as Joan Martinez-Alier calls them.

So that’s how this book works.



This is a really abstract book, and I would have thought that a review of it would belong in an academic journal (say, Capitalism Nature Socialism) rather than in DailyKos.com , if I did not think that it would contribute to an important and vital debate going on here.

It appears as if Congress will do nothing of importance this term on abrupt climate change.  I say “nothing of importance” because I believe that ACES  offers planet Earth only symbolic protection against abrupt climate change.  Certainly Dennis Kucinich’s opposition to the bill is overblown, but his objections are for the most part correct.

If we were to take the perspective Dryzek adopts in Rational Ecology, we could say that we are doing two things wrong:

  1. We have forgotten to put ecology first.  If, as a world society, we plan indefinitely to continue to consume 85 million bbls./day of crude oil, amounting to about 3 1/2 billion gallons of gasoline (and this only 36% of industrial CO2 emissions), then we are signing the collective death warrant.  The problem, as one can see in the design of ACES, Kyoto Protocol, and so on, is that the number one priority of the designing bodies is “business as usual,” the continued operation of the capitalist system, and that the integrity of Earth’s ecosystems is really sort of an afterthought to the process.  This, of course, explains why both Kyoto and ACES rely upon “cap-and-trade” systems rather than, for instance, international agreements to phase out oil and coal production.  If you want to stop burning fossil fuels, leaving them in the ground is the most effective way to make that happen.  But that depends upon what you really want, what your priorities are.

The whole structure of each agreement is designed to give the financial speculators (the heart and soul of the neoliberal economy) a new field for investment (“Carbon credits,” “offsets,” “alternative energy”) while at the same time turning a blind eye to the real culprits, the fossil-fuel producers, and while regarding abrupt climate change and fossil-fuel burning as being an ecological problem SEPARATE FROM other ecological problems.

Sing C. Chew’s analysis of civilization and ecological problems properly situates “climate change” in the context of damages done to the ecology by organized, civilized life.  For Chew, climate change is merely the coup de grace — a civilization will take over an area and transform its ecosystems, weakening their resilience, i.e. their ability to adapt to changing conditions.  Climate change will reveal that weakness in resilience.  Chew argues, for instance, that Roman civilization imposed a pastoral model on the landscapes of Europe, which was revealed as resulting in the depletion of environmental resources, and thus in its collapse in the West, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries CE.

So this is the thing — if we wish to have to have effective action on abrupt climate change, we have to start from the matter of our “ecological footprints,” the accounting of EVERYTHING WE DO to change our planet from an ecological perspective.

  1. Moreover, we need to try to shift power in our society.  People focus upon Congress here on DailyKos.com because Congress has broad power to enact legislation.  As Dryzek reveals, however, our trust in Congress is likely to be misplaced because Congress is using the wrong set of decision-making systems to arrive at its decisions.  Congress decides things (as we are discovering with health care) because it does not wish to offend the powers which give its members campaign donations, because it must protect economic systems, because it is committed to specific ideologies, and so on.

Dryzek, then, would suggest that we start our own organizations to combat abrupt climate change, and that these organizations start by demanding a shift in power, away from big organizations reliant upon bureaucratic control and economic horse-trading, and toward the empowerment of people as they are situated locally, and with a view to protecting their rights to life on a planet Earth with stable, healthy ecosystems.


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