Alternative economists

Traditional neoclassical economics has missed the mark quite a bit in the past two years. There is the financial and banking crisis, of course; neoclassical economists haven’t exactly succeeded in explaining or “post-dicting” the crisis and recession through which we’ve traveled over the past year and more. But perhaps more fundamentally, neoclassical economics has failed to provide a basis for understanding the nuance and range of our economic institutions — nationally or globally. Contemporary academic economics selects a pretty narrow range of questions as being legitimate subjects for economists to study; so topics such as hunger, labor unions, alternative economic institutions, and the history of economic thought generally get fairly short shrift. Don’t expect to see the perspectives of Steven Marglin or Samuel Bowles in Economics 101 in most U.S. universities! The profession has a pretty narrow conception of what “economics” is.

And yet, when intelligent citizens think about the key problems of economics in a broader sense — the problems that we really care about, the problems that will really influence our quality of life — we certainly think of something broader than the mathematics of supply and demand or the solution of a general equilibrium model. We’re ultimately not as interested in the formalisms of market equilibrium as we are in an analysis of the institutions that define the context of economic activity. We want to know more about the ways in which features of economic organization and the basic institutions of our economy influence individual behavior; we are curious about how our institutions create distributive outcomes that fundamentally affect people’s lives differently across social groups. We would like to have a clearer understanding of some of the ways that non-economic factors — race, gender, age, city — influence people’s economic outcomes. We want to know how the institutions and incentives defined by our economic system bring about effects on the natural environment. And we are often curious about how it might be possible to reform our basic economic institutions in ways that are more favorable to human development. In other words, we are often brought to think along the lines of some of the great dissenters in the economics tradition — Polanyi, Dobb, Marx, Sen, McCloskey, and Dasgupta (An Inquiry into Well-Being and Destitution), for example. (In a very contemporary and topical way, Richard Florida takes on a lot of these issues; see his blog, the Creative Class.)

It is therefore pleasing to find that some publishers like Routledge are bringing out serious academic works in what they refer to as “social economics”. The Routledge series, Advances in Social Economics, has a list of titles representing recent work that is rigorous and insightful but that explores other points of the compass within the field of political economy. I certainly hope that university libraries around the world are paying attention to this series; these are titles that can add a lot to the debate.

One book in the series in particular catches my eye. My colleague Bruce Pietrykowski raises an important set of “alternative” economic issues in his recent book, The Political Economy of Consumer Behavior: Contesting Consumption. (Here is a preview of the book from Routledge.) The book is a valuable contribution and very much worth reading.

Pietrykowski has two intertwined goals in the book. First, he wants to provide a broader basis for understanding consumer behavior and psychology than is presupposed by orthodox economists. And second, he wants to help contribute to a broader understanding of the scope, methods, and content of political economy than is provided by mainstream economics departments today.

Here is his preliminary statement of his goal:

I argue that in order to arrive at a more compelling account of consumer behavior we need to transform the discipline of economics by opening up the borders between economics and sociology, geography, feminist social theory, science studies and cultural studies. (2)

The fact of consumption is a crucial economic reality in any economy. How do individuals make choices about what and how to consume? Pietrykowski makes the point that consumption behavior shows enormous heterogeneity across groups defined in terms of ethnicity, gender, region, and time — a point made here as well (post). So a single abstraction representing the universal consumer won’t do the job. The standard economic assumption of the rationally self-interested consumer with consistent and complete preference rankings is seriously inadequate; instead, we need to develop a more nuanced set of views about the psychological and social factors that influence consumer preferences and choices.

So it is important to develop alternative theoretical tools in terms of which to analyze consumer psychology. Here Pietrykowski draws on ideas from Karl Marx (fetishism of commodities), Amartya Sen, and other political economists who have attempted to provide “thick” descriptions of economic behavior. The point here is not that we cannot usefully investigate and theorize about consumer behavior; rather, Pietrykowski is looking for an analytical approach that operates at the “middle range” between complete formal abstraction and the writing of many individual biographies.

Second, Pietrykowski is interested in contributing to a “re-mapping” of the knowledge system of economic thought, by exploring some of the alternative constructions that have been bypassed by the profession since World War II. (These arguments are largely developed in Chapter Two.) Pietrykowski begins with the assumption that the discipline and profession of economics is itself socially constructed and contingent; it took shape in response to a fairly specific set of theoretical and methodological ideas, it was subject to a variety of social and political pressures, and there were viable alternatives at every turn. Here is how he formulates the social construction perspective:

The claim that economic knowledge is socially constructed allows for an understanding of the field as the outcome of interpretation, negotiation and contestation over the constituents of economic knowledge and the legitimacy of particular practices, methods, and techniques of analysis. (19)

Like Marion Fourcade, Pietrykowski argues that there is a great deal of path dependence in the development of economics as a discipline and profession; and there are identifiable turning points where we can judge with confidence that themes that were eliminated at a certain time would have led to a substantially different intellectual system had they persisted. Pietrykowski’s analysis of the fifty years of development of professional economics in the first half of the twentieth century is a very nice contribution to a contemporary history of science, and very compatible with Fourcade’s important work in Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s.

The discipline of “home economics” in the 1920s and 1930s is the example that Pietrykowski examines in detail. “This task … of defining economics as a distinct professional discipline involved both recruitment and exclusion” (28). Here is how Pietrykowski describes home economics:

Departments of home economics were quite diverse in the early twentieth century. Commonly associated with maintaining and preserving the cult of domesticity, home economics programs emerged from multiple sources including progressive political reform of public health, labor conditions, and household management. (35)

And, of course, home economics did not long remain a part of the professional discipline of economics. Pietrykowski looks in detail at the way in which home economics developed as an academic discipline at Cornell University; and he documents some ways in which the discipline of economics was constructed in a gendered way to exclude this way of understanding scientific economics: “The decision was made that women involved in the emerging field of home economics were to be excluded from the AEA…. Economics was to be concerned neither with women’s activities in the home nor with women’s activities in the workplace” (28-29).

Pietrykowski develops his full analysis of consumption by focusing on three heterodox approaches to understanding consumption: home economics and feminist analysis, psychological and behavioral research on consumer behavior (George Katona), and Fordism and the theory of mass consumption. He also gives some attention to the emerging importance of experimental economics as a tool for better understanding real economic decision-making and behavior (20-25).

After discussing these heterodox theories, Pietrykowski illustrates the value of the broader framework by examining three fascinating cases of consumption: the complex motivations that bring consumers to purchase the Toyota Prius, the motivations behind the Slow Food movement, and the choice that people in some communities have to engage in a system of alternative currency. These are each substantial examples of arenas where consumers are choosing products in ways that make it plain that their choices are influenced by culture, values, and commitments no less than calculations of utilities and preferences.

Between the theories and the cases, Pietrykowski offers a remarkably rich rethinking of how people choose to consume. He makes real sense of the idea that consumption is socially constructed (drawing sometimes on the social construction of technology (SCOT) literature). He demonstrates that models based on the theory of the universal consumer are not likely to fit well with actual economic outcomes. And he makes a strong and persuasive case for the need for academic economics to expand its horizons.

I find it interesting to notice that Pietrykowski’s account of the ascendency of neoclassical economics since the 1950s converges closely with prior postings on positivist philosophy of science. One of the explicit appeals made by neoclassical economists was a methodological argument: they argued that their deductive, formal, and axiomatic treatments of economic fundamentals were more “scientific” than case studies and thick descriptions of economic behavior. So many of the failings of mainstream economic thought today can be traced to the shortcomings of the positivist program for the social sciences that was articulated in the middle of the twentieth century.

What is Alsace?

It may seem like a strange question: What is Alsace? It is a region of France. It is a culturally and linguistically distinct population of 1.8 million people. Most visitors would observe that there is a distinctive Alsatian style in life, in architecture, and in culture. It possesses one great city (Strasbourg), many middle-sized cities (Hagenau, Wissembourg, Colmar), and hundreds of small villages. It is a beautiful collection of landscapes, villages, fields, forests, and vineyards. It is the homeland of Hansi and Marc Bloch. It is a region that has suffered acutely in warfare — eastern Alsace was the site of most of the battles of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and it was the site of the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge and the German counteroffensive, Northwind, with intense tank fighting and destruction in dozens of villages. The sufferings of World War II are still remembered by the octagenarians. It is a border culture, with influences from Germany and France establishing aspects of culture and social attitudes over several centuries. And there is always choucroute, kougelhopf, and Kronenberg. In short, Alsace has a history and a set of traditions that set its people apart.

So from the point of view of travel-writing, the question has an easy answer. But the social reality is more complex and fluid. The social reality of Alsace today is highly heterogeneous, within and across villages, towns, and cities. And ongoing processes of nation-building and globalization raise the question of its cultural survival.

Take the issue of language. Stop into any grocery store or hospital in rural Alsace and you will find elderly people gossiping and talking in Alsatian. For many of these people Alsatian was their native language; for some it remained their only language. But the situation is different if you pause to watch boys playing ball in the public square; their chatter is in French — or sometimes Arabic. So it is an open question whether the Alsatian language community will remain a vital one, or whether it will retreat into the archives. Current estimates indicate that fewer than 10 percent of children in Alsace are fluent in Alsatian. So the question arises, whether the language will reproduce itself into the the next several generations.

Or consider folkloric customs and cuisine — the colorful costumes and dancing that are still very much a part of village festivals. How long will these customs survive in an age of mass-based entertainment and a homogenizing media culture? How are the customs transmitted across generations? How long can tarte flambée persist as an Alsatian specialty in the face of an onslaught by Pizza Hut?

And how about the distinctive modes of class relations that you find in Alsace — the ways in which the local bourgeoisie dress and interact with each other, and how they relate to other social strata — farmers, bus drivers, shop clerks? In what ways are these class relations distinct from those of Bourgogne? And how distinct are they from their counterparts in the United States?

More fundamentally, consider the range of contemporary social problems that Alsace faces, in both its cities and its villages: drug use, youth unemployment and disaffection, hooliganism, poorly assimilated immigrant communities. How will Strasbourg or Hagenau deal with these problems? And will “Alsace” remain? Or will the national strategies of social services, public policy, and legislation lead to a more socially uniform Alsace — just a quaint set of historical markers on the autoroute?

So really, the question posed here has two distinct parts, both very interesting. The first is historical: what were the rich pathways of culture formation through which Alsace came to be Alsace? How did this particular mix of values, attitudes, modes of behavior, language, and culture come together?

The second part of the question is forward-looking: where is Alsace going? Will it preserve its cultural distinctiveness and its language? Or will it become simply another interchangeable part of France and the world? How much staying power does a traditional culture have in the face of the impulses of nation-building, mass communication, and globalization of consumption that the contemporary world imposes?

These questions are interesting in consideration of Alsace. But they are even more interesting in the context of thinking about globalization itself. Is it possible for local and regional cultures to successfully negotiate the challenges of the twenty-first century in ways that permit the survival of their cultural uniqueness? Or is the global world of the future destined to look more like a very large shopping mall, with the same foods, clothes, and ethics everywhere?

Transnational protest movements

We’ve seen a fairly large increase in the occurrence of large international protest movements in the past thirty years. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s drew a substantial following across Europe and to some extent North America. (Historian E. P. Thompson played a significant leadership role in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; see for example PROTEST AND SURVIVE.) Anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, and Davos drew substantial support from international organizations and participants. Major anti-war protests occurred in numerous European cities after the onset of the US-led war on Iraq. And now protests in London against the G20 meeting and in Strasbourg against NATO have drawn supporters and groups around Europe (post). (Here is a current account of the Strasbourg protests in the Dernieres nouvelles d’Alsace.)

These movements are riveting in a number of ways, from the point of view of sociology and international politics. We can ask questions at every edge of the phenomena:

Power and influence. How effective are mass demonstrations at achieving their declared goals? Do mass demonstrations influence government and multinational policies in the direction intended by the organizers and followers? For that matter — how much of an influence can a large demonstration in Rome have on a subsequent effort to mobilize over a similar issue in New York? What is the role of mass media in the timing, pace, and public impact of large demonstrations?

Mobilization. What processes of mobilization and organization are at work in these specific periods of mass mobilization? To what extent do modern transnational protests embody a significant degree of common purpose and political identity? (Here’s a recent post on the difficulty of defining a group mentality.) What organizations have the most influence in determining the strategy and tactics of the mass political actions that are called for? What networks of leaders and counter-politicians can be discerned in the period of mobilization leading up to the mass event? What is the nature of the networks that exist within the various communities of interest — environmentalists, anti-war activists, anti-globalization activists? What sorts of issues have proven most potent in mobilizing significant numbers of adherents and organizations from different countries? What motivates followers to heed the call and bring themselves to London or Strasbourg? What is the combination of commitment, identity, and adventure that results in involvement?

Internal politics. What factors internal to a movement — whether environmentalist, anti-globalization, anti-war, anti-nuclear — lead to cohesion and dissension within the movement? What factors lead to the occasional outbreaks of violence between protesters and police? (See an earlier post on this question.) Is violence a deliberate tactic on either side — militants or forces of order? What role do organizations such as anarchist groups and other radical, rejectionist groups play within the broader movement? Is it possible for small groups of rejectionists to “hijack” the large demonstration for their own purposes?

These questions overlap several distinct areas of research: resource mobilization theory, social movements, international relations theory, and comparative politics. (This is a point that McAdam, Tilly, and Tarrow make in Dynamics of Contention: there is much to be gained by studying these contentious movements across the traditional areas of study.) And the questions are probably further complicated by the availability of internet-based forms of communication and mobilization.

Sidney Tarrow has turned his attention to international protest movements as a particularly interesting form of “contentious politics.” His 2005 book, The New Transnational Activism, treats international protests and their movements from the point of view of the Tilly-McAdam-Tarrow framework of theory and analysis of contentious politics. Here are a few framing assumptions from the introduction:

Students of domestic movements long ago determined that collective action cannot be traced to grievances or social cleavages, even vast ones like those connected to globalization. Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware of and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets. If these thresholds constitute barriers in domestic politics, they are even higher when people mobilize across borders. Globalization is not sufficient to explain when people will engage in collective action and when they will not.

Nor does combating globalization automatically give rise to “global social movements.” For Charles Tilly, a “social movement” is “a sustained, organized public effort making collective claims on target authorities” that uses a well-hewn contentious repertoire on the part of people who proclaim themselves to be worthy, unified, numerous, and committed.

For one thing, forming transnational social movements is not easy. Sustaining collective action across borders on the part of people who seldom see one another and who lack embedded relations of trust is difficult. For another, repertoires of contention grow out of and are lodged in local and national contexts. Even more difficult is developing a common collective identity among people from different cultural backgrounds whose governments are not inclined to encourage them to do so.

Tarrow’s central hypothesis about transnational protest movements comes back to the core idea of “opportunity structures.” International organizations and networks have created a new set of opportunities for transgressive groups who have an interest in challenging the status quo.

Tarrow identifies several important types of sources of evidence and theory for his current work: international political economy, anthropologists and students of public opinion, specific studies of international protest events, studies of transnational networks and institutions, and theorists of the idea of “global civil society.” He explicitly locates the book as falling squarely within the research program established in Dynamics of Contention; his goal is to make use of this ontology of social mechanisms and processes to provide a sociology of transnational protest.

What I’m eager to see is some of the concrete empirical work that this approach suggests: specific empirical studies of the networks, organizations, and dynamic processes through which major transnational protests have unfolded in the past decade or so. It would seem that some important new tools helpful for such study are now much more readily available — essentially, using the internet to track organizations, announcements, and efforts at mobilization. Tarrow provides some of this research — for example, in his summary of research on the networks and localism of participants in the “Battle of Seattle”. But this level of analysis seems to be where the action needs to be at this point in the study of transnational social movements. But Tarrow is certainly right in thinking that this subject area is important, and it is one that follows very logically from the framework of analysis of social contention developed by himself, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly in the earlier Dynamics of Contention.

Intellectual leaders

In 2005 the Nouvel Observateur published a special issue devoted to “25 grands penseurs du monde entier” — 25 great global thinkers. (The issue was published separately as Le monde selon les grands penseurs actuels.) The selection of thinkers was excellent: Stanley Cavell, Souleymane Diagne, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Sudhir Kakar, Vladimir Kantor, José Gil, Ian Hacking, Candido Mendes, Slavoj Zizek, Jon Elster, Kwame Appiah, Giorgio Agamben, Axel Honneth, Martha Nussbaum, Carlos Maria Vilas, Simon Blackburn, Toni Negri, Charles Taylor, Peter Sloterdijk, Richard Rorty, Philip Petitt, Daniel Innerarity, Jaakko Hintikka, Amartya Sen, and Michael Walzer. The volume consists of smart articles about each thinker offering a brief but meaningful précis of the thinker’s main contributions, followed usually by a short impromptu interview with the subject.  (Here is a brief description available online.)

The volume begins with these words:

A l’heure oú l’on parle d’une communauté intellectuelle mondiale virtuelle, on pourrait croire que ce que la planète compte de penseurs originaux est connu de tous ou, à tout le moins, accessible et disponsible à tous. Et pourtant, le provincialisme intellectuel sévit un peu partout, ainsi qu’en témoigne chez nous le germanopratisme de la classe intello-médiatique. On continue d’écrire et de réfléxir ici dans l’ignorance la plus totale de ce que d’éminents penseurs étrangers ont produit là.

A very strong impression of polyglot global intellect emerges from a reading of the whole issue. The collection as a whole is a great antidote to the various forms of parochialism to which the intellectual world is prone — national assumptions, disciplinary assumptions, north-south assumptions. These thinkers are original, innovative, and usually boundary-crossing. And they are most frequently concerned with issues that are front and center in the task of understanding and improving the global world we collectively inhabit.

There are quite a few cross-cutting themes that recur across various groups of these thinkers. (It would be a very interesting exercise to “tag” each of these thinkers with a handful of topics and then map the relationships among them.) And certainly this is true: we will collectively do a better job of understanding and improving our global world, if we find ways of engaging with the thinking, issues, and frameworks of observers throughout the world. Sociology and philosophy both require new ideas — and a deep and sustained international conversation can be a source of ideas and corrections to old ideas.

It is very interesting to take stock of the ways that the Internet can now facilitate these international conversations. YouTube is a good example; mixed among the millions of videos of pets and birthday parties are invaluable snippets of insight from the world’s most innovative thinkers. Certainly it would be possible to conduct a transformative advanced seminar in social theory — perhaps online! — based on materials and videos available on YouTube. But it is interesting as well what we can’t yet find on YouTube: selections from intellectuals and theorists from the developing world. It is substantially more difficult to locate web-based resources documenting the thinking of intellectuals from Africa, Latin America, or China.

Here are some YouTube resources on several of the thinkers included in the Nouvel Obs list. Roughly half of the people on the list are featured with snippets of lectures or interviews on YouTube. Think of this posting as a “mash-up” of great ideas and critical thinking.

Amartya Sen, March, 2005

Martha Nussbaum, 2006

Slavoj Zizek – Rules, Race, and Mel Gibson 2006 1/8, European Graduate School

Anthony Appiah, commencement speech at Dickinson College, 2008

Tony Negri, 2008

Stanley Cavell, 2002

Candido Mendes

Giorgio Agamben

Peter Sloterdijk

Richard Rorty

Daniel Innerarity

Global cities — Saskia Sassen

I have mentioned Saskia Sassen in previous postings, as one of the world’s leading theorists of the global city. Here is an interesting lecture that she presented at the UrbanAge India conference in Mumbai in 2007. The lecture is very interesting, and it is also “self-illustrating,” in that its availability on YouTube illustrates the remarkable globalization of ideas and discourse that has been created by internet communications tools available everywhere in the world. She talks about cities as centers of “urban knowledge capital”, and refers to the mechanisms of communication through which these centers are linked, including especially the channels of internet-based communication and interaction. And the availability of the real-time thinking of leading scholars such as Sassen through YouTube, Google, and other tools — presented in Mumbai, equally and almost immediately available in Mexico City, Lagos, and London — is a dramatic illustration of the potential for diffusion and infusion of knowledge that the internet presents to the global world.

Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 1

Urban Age India: Saskia Sassen Cities in Global Context Pt 2

The world food system

Here is one very concrete way in which we live in a global world: the most basic need that we have — food — is satisfied on the basis of a system with global reach and global price and production interconnections. The planet’s 6+ billion people need a daily diet of grains, oils, and protein, and the most important of these foods are produced within the context of a global trading system. Current estimates of malnutrition indicate that a significant percentage of the world’s population live in hunger (Facts about Hunger, PRB). And, after a decade or so of relative stability in this system, changes in the world market are threatening major disruptions of food supplies. (See an earlier posting on the recent sharp rise in rice and wheat prices.)

Consider grain production and consumption. Here are a few websites with useful information about the world grain trade in the past decade: USDA, providing a lot of data on grain production and consumption; UC-Davis, a simple introduction to the global and US rice markets; UNCTAD, a thumbnail of the basics of the global rice trade over the past two decades; FAO, a compendium of data on food production; and IRRI, a compendium of data about rice production. One thing that becomes clear in reviewing some of this data is that the current crisis in grain prices should not have been a surprise. The forecast provided in the USDA report is based on 2006-07 data — and it gives a clear indication of the supply and price crisis that the world is facing today.

This system is interesting for UnderstandingSociety because it provides a nice example of a complex and causally interlinked social system that invites careful analysis. And it is a system that has the potential for stimulating explosive social upheaval — given the political volatility that food prices and hunger have had historically.

We ought to ask a whole series of questions about how the food system works:

  • Technology — how extensive and widespread are the forms of technology innovation that are changing the food system? Is there a Green Revolution 2.0 underway?
  • Productivity — what are the trends in productivity in agriculture? Output per hectare, output per unit of input, output per labor-day
  • International trading institutions — corporations, commodity and futures markets, flow of incomes to stakeholders. What effect have free-trade agreements had on grain production and prices — WTO, NAFTA?
  • Social institutions of farming. What are the various institutions through which grain is produced — peasant farming, family farming, large-scale corporate farming
  • Social effects of agrarian change — how do rural conditions and quality of life change as a result of technology change in agriculture?
  • Macro-stability — does growth in food supply match growth in population?

If we want to know how the global world works as a system, then we need to understand agriculture and agricultural trade better than we currently realize.

(Here is another New York Times story on the subject, highlighting the tension between food production and greenhouse gas emission reduction. See my earlier post on sustainable agriculture as well.)

What is global about globalization?

Of course we live in a globalizing world. But what does that really mean?

One point that might be made emphasizes the local and the regional rather than the global. This is the observation that every part of the world is undergoing its own process of social change in a distinctive way. China, Brazil, and Nigeria are experiencing very different processes of economic growth and change. Mexico, Kenya, and Sri Lanka are coping with different forms of insurgency and ethnic conflict. India, Spain, and Guatemala witness very different social processes affecting peasants and rural society. So we might say that the whole world is changing — but with different processes and dynamics everywhere. On this line of thought, the global world is really just a patchwork of the many peoples, regions, and processes that are found in various countries.

What is genuinely global is the working of a handful of large social processes of change that have effects in virtually every part of the globe. These mechanisms serve to convey causation rapidly throughout the globe — sometimes with integrative effects and sometimes with the effect of creating new sources of conflict. International trade and investment, and the international institutions that support these, are the most obvious such processes. But the cultural interconnections that are facilitated by new technologies of communication, transportation, and entertainment represent another factor with global influence. The fact that people in virtually every country on the planet can interact in the blogosphere is one manifestation of the global reach of the internet. The fact that missionaries, revolutionaries, and executives can travel easily from Los Angeles to Seoul and La Paz is a token of the rapid transmission and diffusion of ideas. And the transmission of the carriers of violence and aggression is likewise a global phenomenon — from Pakistan to London and from Washington to Baghdad. And the websites that serve as the nucleus of extremist groups demonstrate the global reach of small groups of violent activists.

Another source of global integration is the seriousness of the problems the world faces as a whole: climate change, new epidemic diseases, financial system insecurity, social violence, and warfare. Global warming and avian flu pandemic will plainly demonstrate interdependence — even as these disasters will predictably have very different consequences in different parts of the world.

So there are real strands of social connection that justify us in saying the world is becoming more global. But still we might say that the language of globalization is sometimes overdone. It is true that there are significant international forces that operate to bring the peoples of the world into closer contact and interdependency. But it is also true that cultures, societies, and peoples are historically situated and particular. And if we are to understand these particular processes, we need to consider the particular social fabric in which they unfold.

Is industrial agriculture sustainable?

The world’s food system depends largely on a farming system with post-green-revolution techniques: new seed varieties, substantial use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large-scale irrigation, machine-based cultivation, production for large markets, and separation of production from consumption by long distances. This system shows the highest productivity the world has ever seen, whether measured in terms of labor, land, or cost. And the system does a fairly good job of producing enough food for the world’s 6 billion people.

But is this system sustainable?

Several large issues arise. First, the system is energy-intensive, so it poses significant demands on the petroleum economy. The use of petroleum and energy pervades the process: fuel for cultivation and transport, energy and inputs into the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, energy consumed in irrigation. So a part of the sustainability question has to do with the energy challenge the globe faces.

Second, industrial agriculture has massive environmental effects. Fertilizer and animal waste runoffs lead to groundwater and river pollution (extending into the Gulf of Mexico). Degradation and loss of topsoil is another large and longterm environmental effect with serious consequences for future agricultural productivity. And methane produced by large-scale cattle- and swine-rearing represents a measurable component of global warming. So the environmental effects of industrial agriculture are very large–once again raising the question of global sustainability.

Finally, industrial agriculture, and the integrated global commodity markets from which this system is inseparable, have large and destructive consequences for traditional agriculture and the communities built around traditional farming. The effect of NAFTA and the export of US corn to Mexico has been massive in its disruption of maize-based culture and communities in Mexico.

Three questions are central. First, is this system sustainable in the narrow sense, or will it collapse of its own burden of soil, water, and air pollution in the next 50 years? Second, is it a potential part of a larger sustainable global system of production and consumption from an environmental point of view? Or does global sustainability require radical change in agriculture? And finally, are there feasible alternative systems that would be less environmentally harmful, more sustainable, and less disruptive of agrarian communities? Are these alternatives scaleable to the needs of mass societies, large cities, and a global population of 6-8 billion? Can alternative systems achieve the productivity needed to feed the world’s population?

Environmentalists, global justice activists, and food activists have argued that there are alternatives. The Fair Trade movement is trying to get first-world consumers to favor fair-trade-certified products in their consumption–giving greater security and income to third-world farmers. Organic farming advocates argue that a system of smaller farms, organic fertilizers, innovative pest control, and farming techniques more suited to the local environment would have a smaller environmental footprint. “Local food” activists support the idea of shifting consumption towards products that can be grown locally–thus reducing transport and refrigeration and giving more of a market for small farmers.

So there are alternatives in technique and policy that could result in different farm characteristics that are more favorable from the points of view of justice, sustainability, and community. The hard question is whether these alternatives could be scaled to the volume needed to feed a mass population. And this is a question that demands careful scientific analysis.

(An excellent current critique of industrial agriculture is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.)

Is globalization unjust?

Globalization has many aspects. But consider this narrow definition: extension of international economic interdependence through unfettered international trade and investment. This process leads to a shifting of centers of economic activity as investors and entrepreneurs seek out favorable locations for business activity–mining, manufacturing, financial services, transportation and logistics, etc. Businesses will seek out low-cost environments for doing business activities. Among other factors, labor costs, environmental costs, and resource availability will drive patterns of investment. The process results in economic growth — that is, an absolute increase in the wealth and income created by the system as a whole. The resulting patterns will have consequences for incomes, environmental effects, and the flows of wealth among places on the planet.

Neo-liberal trade theory asserts that this international trading system will be welfare-enhancing overall: the gains to winners will exceed the losses to losers. The theory also disaggregates: a poor country will make better use of its resources and will be better off than before globalization. Let’s take these points as true for the sake of argument — though many critics of neo-liberal economic theory would dispute the assumptions that this assessment makes.

So, once again, is this process just, or does it simply perpetuate the debilitating effects of past injustice?

Before we can even begin to answer the question, we have to decide what we mean by “justice” in a global economic setting. Is a just system one in which everyone gets what he or she deserves? Or one in which everyone’s outcome corresponds to his or her contribution to the product? Or one in which everyone’s outcome is sufficient to permit him or her to satisfy basic needs for human development? Might we say that a just system is one that treats all parties fairly? And where does “fair equality of opportunity” come into the formula — would we want to say that an outcome is just whenever it has resulted from a non-coercive, rule-governed process in which conditions of fair equality of opportunity have been assured for all participants? And, of course, what do each of these formulas come down to in practical terms?

One reason why problems of justice are so difficult to think about in the context of global development, is the fact of the extreme inequalities that existed, and continue to exist, internationally — both before and during the processes of globalization. Many of these
inequalities were manifestly unjust — because they derived from coercive and unfair relations between countries of very unequal power (colonialism and conquest, for example). So what would be a just pathway of transition, from an unjust prior distribution of wealth and
power, to a later more just distribution of wealth and power?

We might also say that the situation of global justice is a bit similar to the situation of bargaining among parties with grossly unequal prior assets. Some people would judge that an unforced agreement between two parties is guaranteed to be fair by the fact of consent; the fact of consent implies that each party judges that he/she is better off with the agreement than without it — so each has improved his/her welfare. (This is what underlies the theory of Pareto-optimality.) But if the bargaining situations of the parties are significantly unequal, then it is easy enough to see how the stronger party can “take advantage” of the weaker party (the central result of bargaining theory). The division of the benefits of cooperation will be tilted towards the more well-off party; so is this a fair division of the fruits of cooperation?

So consider three different answers to the question, is globalization unjust?

* No, globalization is not unjust in the ideal circumstance in which every country and region can make free choices about the use of its resources and the agreements it makes with other parties. Each country will strive to make the choices that maximize the creation of
wealth and income it produces within the global system. What would make globalization unjust is if the process depends on coercion, corruption, and fraud.

* Yes, globalization is unjust, because the benefits of global cooperation are enormously biased to favor the interests of the rich and powerful. And even if the rules of international cooperation are unbiased (a claim that is often disputed), the superior bargaining situation of the wealthy nations guarantees a division of the benefits of cooperation that favors the wealthy over the poor.

* It is too early to say either way. The answer depends on what the outcomes are in fifty years. If international trade theory turns out to be true; if every region is able to develop its resources and human talent; if every region experiences significant economic growth and improvement of human development — then we may judge that globalization was a just process. If inequalities and human deprivation are even greater in some parts of the world in fifty years, then the process has proven to be unjust.

A world sociology?

Contemporary sociology developed in consideration of western social processes and western ideas about science. Central defining problems included state formation, social solidarity and cohesion, urbanization, and the politics of class. (The experienced reader will recognize the imprint of the classical social theorists here–Weber, Durkheim, and Marx especially.) But it is worth considering that sociology might take a very different course if we placed the problems and processes of the developing world at the center rather than the periphery of sociological inquiry. Would we arrive at the same central concepts? How would the paradigms change?

This question is not purely hypothetical. It is very reasonable for social scientists in developing countries to take a fresh look at the basic problems and concepts that can give future direction to a sociology for the twenty-first century. We ought not assume that existing paradigms will provide the resources necessary to understand and resolve the problems of social behavior and process found in China, Indonesia, or Mexico today. And it is likely enough that the new insights and theories that emerge from this new thinking in Shanghai or Mexico City will in fact provide new ways of looking at Chicago and New York.

One likely result will be that next-generation “world” sociology will be less interested in formulating master theories of large social processes–urbanization, ethnic conflict, demographic transition–and more interested in disaggregating large social processes into smaller component processes. The processes creating mega-cities in Africa, Brazil, or the Philippines have numerous dimensions and tempos. And it seems plausible that the best sociological investigations of urbanization of the future will result from an eclectic effort to discover the multiple social causes that lead to social behavior resulting in rapid urban growth.

So this is a critical time for sociologists and political scientists in the developing world. Will they seize this opportunity to refocus the research agenda and the tools of theory that will give rise to a more adequate sociology for a global world? Or will the paradigms and methods of positivist sociology continue to define the social-science agenda?

A paradigm shift along these lines is already underway–in the field of economic history. A current generation of economic historians of China has argued for a non-eurocentric comparison of Europe and Asia, with the view that both historical experiences have distinctive mixes of institutions and economic imperatives. Historians like Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz argue that both Europe and Asia can be understood better on the basis of a more balanced consideration of the other. (See “Eurasian Comparisons” for some relevant discussion.)

There is also an important precedent for the creaton of a new sociology for a changed world, in the experience of the Chicago School of sociology in the early twentieth century. Chicago school sociologists stepped away from the certainties of classical sociology, in order to formulate theories and methods that worked better for handling the messy, complex realities of a great city. The results were more eclectic, more middle-level, and more open to the idea of innovations in sociology than the master paradigms of classical sociology. Sociologists in Beijing, Manila, and Mexico City can do the same.

%d bloggers like this: