Geo-Mutualism and Ecology, or Sustainability and Internalizing Costs

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Introduction

Geoanarchists and mutualists often face the claim that their preferred system would fail in matters of conservation and sustainability. “Without government,” many suggest, “there is no way to protect the environment.” Well, how would a Georgist, mutualist, or— as I will be treating in this paper— a geo-mutualist society prevent ecological catastrophe? In order to answer this question, we will first take a look at what geo-mutualism is, getting a basic flavor for the geo-mutualist position, before taking a look at what sustainability is, and what it entails. Finally, we will analyze the manner in which a geo-mutualist political economy would promote sustainability.

 Geo-Mutualism

Geo-mutualism is a strain of anarchistic thought that exists at the mean of left-right thinking. Rather than viciously promoting positive rights, as in communism, or negative rights, as in capitalism, geo-mutualism promotes the synthesis and proper application of these worldviews. Geo-mutualism treats land in terms of positive rights, believing rights to land to originate in the community. It treats labor, however, in terms of negative rights, believing rights to labor to originate in the individual. Capital, of the three classical factors of production—land, labor, and capital—, is the mixture of the other two. Communism treats them all the same, suggesting that they are all matters of collective concern. Capitalism similarly treats them the same, suggesting they are all matters of private property. Geo-mutualism treats labor as a matter of personal possession, and land as a matter of common concern.

Geo-mutualists promote a panarchic confederation that acts simultaneously as a mutual bank and a community land trust. The institution would charter subsidiary units, to whom it would issue a line of credit without interest, and to whom it would lease land. These subsidiary units would likely have many subsidiarity units below them, to whom they’d perform the same function. Each unit would have a service area or coverage range, but membership in them will be voluntary. Jurisdictions would overlap in a panarchic system of polycentric law. As a simple example, one can imagine voluntarily joining a community, whose agents would appraise their land and offer a member lease -rate (to be set at economic rent), in exchange for community protection of their property. The community would be part of a larger network, which would lease the land in a similar manner to them. The network would be leased the land by the confederation, perhaps. Credit would be issued similarly, in a system of credit-clearing networks, but would be lent according to departments of industry, and finally to firms. Firms themselves would be democratic, taking the form of guilds, cooperatives, or mutual associations. Land would be a matter of common law. Anything that does not impede on another’s right of non-aggression and fair-regard would be considered one’s right, according to conditions of equal liberty. Prices in such a society would approximate cost.

Sustainability

People like to talk about sustainability a lot, but what does sustainability actually mean? Sustainability is tied with the ability to last. If something will not work for long, or leads to the detriment of surroundings on which it depends, that thing is not sustainable.

In many ways, sustainability—when seen as staying power— seems to contradict the rules of nature. After all, “change is the only thing that is constant.” And yet, sustainable programs, such as permaculture, promote working with nature. What gives? While looking to preserve individuals as well, sustainability is much more concerned with the longevity of systems than with preserving individual organisms. This is much more in line with modern biology, which works to preserve the species, occasionally at the expense of the individual.

When we think of sustainability, we are quick to think of lush green gardens and conservation of endangered species, but— while it is true that we should work to conserve the ecology of desserts as well— we are less quick to think of the Sahara sand dunes, or the plateaus of the Atacama. Being concerned with biology and ecology, sustainability is more concerned with syntropic, living systems, than entropic, dead systems. In ways many, sustainability can be understood as the project of dismantling entropy. Living systems, which we wish to restore and support, move toward an experience of pure being, though they are not yet this being. As flowers are drawn by the light of the sun, as tree branches extend themselves towards its rays, biological systems flow forward to the Omega Point. We want to preserve the process of growth, emergence, and transcendence that is inherent in life, the systems that lead to pure being. While we ultimately may not preserve the individuals involved, we can work to promote the synergistic systems that support their longevity.

In more practical terms, we can understand sustainability as the good stewardship of the land, using polycultural systems of horticulture, conserving natural capital, appropriately using technology, existing in local webs of interdependence, surviving on renewable resources in our area, and more. These practices may be guided by principles or motives, such as the desire or the felt necessity to reduce, reuse, and recycle, or to live according the tenets of permaculture— Care for the Earth, Care for People, and Return of Surplus—, or to apply its twelve principles. People who care about sustainability generally have a strong interest in alternative sources of power, want to source their food locally and organically, recycle and compost, have an interest in voluntary simplicity, and other similar interests. These are all ultimately meant to reduce energy needs, reuse energy in the system, and to recycle it back into nature, and to promote healthy ecology, as well as to provide people an increase in their freedom and well-being.

Sustainability is a wonderful idea. It’s basically a no-brainer. Still, there is something that keeps sustainability from coming into fruition. All of these wonderful ideas, like geothermal and passive solar heating and cooling, local power sourcing, community garden programs, village-scale economies, etc. are kept, somehow, from setting the standard. Many attribute the problems to mismanagement. Indeed, this can be the case at times, but I believe there is something more to it. I think the problem has to do with our system of money and land distribution, which is further a product of poor decision-making structures in government.

Capitalism

Sustainability faces a great challenge today. It faces the surpluses of capitalism. “Surpluses!?” A worker might not know whether to ask such a question or to exclaim it sardonically. “I feel no sense of surplus under capitalism,” they may fairly continue. Yes, but let’s not be too hasty. The surplus of capitalism is not a social surplus from which all may draw, but a private[1] surplus, from which only the ruling elite may gain satisfaction.

Capitalism is characterized as a supply-side economy. This means that it creates surpluses. At an equilibrium price, supply and demand meet, and the most possible exchanges are possible, having no scarcity or surplus. If prices are too low, and demand controls the price, scarcity will ensue, but if prices are too high, and supply controls the price, surplus will develop. These surpluses, by their very nature, are not passed down to the worker. Indeed, Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages suggests that they never will be.

Surpluses are unsustainable. It leads to waste, pollution, and overproduction. Indeed, this is why one of the core concerns of sustainability deals with a reduction of needs, both material and energy. Surpluses have the potential to drain systems, to boost desertification, and to pollute ecosystems with waste. They are driven by overly-materialistic values that ultimately bring society down. There is nothing sustainable about this.

Capitalism is characterized by state-regulation of otherwise freely-operating markets, federal control of all banking, and strong corporate and private hierarchies in industry. The economic struggle under capitalism has largely been between employers and employees, between government and small business, and between private landlords and tenants. These problems all exist by the fact that the state creates a tiered-hierarchy, similar to the systems of feudalism, wherein banks hand privilege down to landlords, landlords to capitalists, and capitalists to management. Workers, under capitalism, are left surviving on property that they do not legally hold title to, which is used to extract profits from them greatly exceeding its cost. Tenants are left to live under the roofs of houses that they have no legal claim to, but which they have more than paid for in their time paying rent. Decisions under capitalism, while having some democratic elements—such as the power of purchase, and the right to elect politicians and vote on certain referendums—, is not democratic enough. The majority of decisions under capitalism are made by politicians, private creditors, landlords, employers, licensed professionals, and the managerial classes. For this reason, the project of geo-mutualism is to make everyone their own politician, their own banker, their own landlord, their own employer, and their own manager.

Green politics are not enough to solve the problem. There have been people all through time trying to form community gardens, trying to appeal to the state to make changes in zoning ordinances, trying to create new legislation. This has all been, with few exceptions, to little or no avail. Others do not understand the benefit, and, sadly, this is because they cannot materially feel one. They do not feel an increase in their satisfaction when they spend time on community projects, though they are meant to be enriching. Why is this so? Costs, under capitalism, are not internalized.

When people try to start community gardens, they fail to beat the costs and prices of the monoculturalists. Those who garden long-term generally do so as a hobby. Those who garden for economic benefit soon learn that they cannot beat the prices of subsidized monoculture. Some will suggest this shows that community-scale gardening is inefficient. Well, if we are measuring efficiency by costs and prices under the reign of the U.S. dollar, this is certainly so. The fact of this is obvious to the situation just sketched. However, it cannot be reasonably suggested that polycultural growing is less efficient in providing actual nutrition to people, or that it actually takes more labor. Monocultural systems are grown far distances from their locations, and must be shipped across the Earth. Labor used in these systems is typically under-compensated. Corporations like Monsanto benefit from state-protection of their interests and from subsidies to continue their projects. Local polycultural systems of growing are, hands-down, more efficient in terms of actual labor and energy exhausted, but the dollar distorts this fact, by the nature of its flow, which creates and sustains hierarchical interests. Subsidies, loans, licensing, underpaid labor, and state-protectionism (and many other factors), which externalize costs, keep communities in the United States from being able to beat the costs or prices of the megacorporations. Similarly, with gas subsidized like it is, the costs of transportation are not felt by those creating the need for transportation and wasting the fuel. They are socialized. When costs are socialized, or externalized, people are quick to waste, and to claim an unfair share for themselves.

Another issue is that landlords keep tenants from starting gardens. They see it as bringing down property values, or creating a nuisance. Even if landlords allowed gardening, tenants— who are constantly moving, and chasing work as laborers— have no incentive to partake in anything more than simple vegetable gardening; with a focus on annuals, which are much less sustainable than perennials. Nor do tenants have any real concern for good stewardship, or the longevity of the land. They are divorced from their relationship from the land, receiving the majority of their produce from the monoculturalists, even when they have the gumption to keep up with their own gardens. Surely, few worker-tenants have the time and money to subsist exclusively on community-produced food. Subsidies, zoning, other state-regulations, and the fatigue laborers face in their daily lives ensure this fact.

How Geo-Mutualism Promotes Sustainability

Geo-mutualist panarchism, by upholding the cost-principle, indirectly promotes sustainability. Geo-mutualism internalizes the costs of land-holding, by disallowing absentee-landlords, and by removing the externalization of surplus land’s protection by the state. As it is now, land is often inherited, or gained by some other form of privilege given under capitalism. The state protects landlord’s interests, supplying them with the means of force, should squatters build a shantytown on their vacant property. It is not the landed who pay for this service, but society itself, and more particularly, workers, by way of taxes. A geo-mutualist society would distribute land more equitably— suggesting everyone has a right to the use of the Earth—, and would actually use up less land because of this.[2]

“Workers pay little taxes,” it may be suggested. Ah, yes, so it may seem. That is, until one understands the manner in which capitalists price their goods: Every cost that comes up is tacked onto the price. If taxes go up, it will generally follow that prices follow suit. Business taxes are paid by the consumer, when they make their purchase. Landlords do the same when it comes to their rent. Workers pay all of the taxes, interest, rent, and profit in the economy, though indirectly so.

A geo-mutual panarchist society is one without private claims to rent, interest, or profit, and which lacks in involuntary taxation. Instead of allowing people to go homeless, allowing the fields to go fallow, geo-mutualism provides land to all to work and to live. It provides credit to any and all willing to labor, or with something to use as collateral. A geo-mutualist society is truly based on the equality of economic opportunity. All costs are internalized.

Geo-mutualism internalizes the costs of labor. By providing interest-free loans to all willing to work, and access to land (as well as a share in its surplus), geo-mutualism perpetuates self-employment. People who employ their own labor are much freer to make ethical, humanitarian, and sustainable choices. They can no longer say, “I am just doing my job,” or “what I am told.” They have responsibility in what they do, and cannot “pass the buck.” It’s easy to command others to commit atrocities, and to reap the profits, but when the costs are internalized it’s another story. In a geo-mutualist society just about everyone is self- or co-employed, so the costs of every decision are internalized. When costs are internalized, people waste less.

When the costs of labor are internalized, society allocates it to more productive uses. If Americans had to pay the actual cost of labor involved in all of our fancy packaging, which we just throw away, we’d be quicker to find better ways of doing things. Much less would be wasted if workers the world over could demand better wages. Production would be allocated to necessities, not privileges that exist at the expense of others, and which we are so quick to waste because we do not feel its true cost.

Due to the nature of geo-mutualism’s approach to land, which suggests that society has positive rights to control of the Earth, geo-mutualism internalizes the costs of extraction. There are many possibilities for land-trusts to be arranged, which could replace state-mismanaged parks. A geo-mutual panarchist confederation, or a trust established within it, could demand approval for extraction of scarce and nonrenewable resources, and charge for that extraction, and could demand standards and practices of conservation.

A geo-mutualist society would internalize the costs of distribution. Fossil fuel would be held as a common asset, to be dipped into only when necessary. This would promote village-scale living, transportation by foot or bicycle, and common means of transportation. Large, wasteful, and monocultural factories would find themselves obsolete, and cottage-industries would run rampant with culture. Technology in a geo-mutualist society would likely be human-scaled, appropriate technology, which would ensure full-time, and much more sustainable and free, self-employment. Geo-mutualism would localize decisions to native bioregions, who better know how to manage their resources. Land would be sustainably worked, and would be respected for its limitations, while driven toward maximum output according to its most productive use.

Geo-mutualism would internalize the costs of disposal. With land treated as a common trust, or a personal leasehold, any form of pollution, dumping, or any other sort of waste, would be treated as property-infringement, which would be a suable offense. This being so, trades would arise for the sake of managing waste on their own leaseholds, and would charge for dumping. With this being so, demand for readily-recycled and easily-maintained technologies, which would decrease the need for disposal, would rise. Supply would start to meet this demand by providing technologies that are simple to understand, easy to fix, and which can be disassembled for easy recycling. Rather than paying to throw things away, consumers would seek products that would maintain sellable scrap-value. Recycling and composting would become the norm, as the idea of “trash” slowly fades from public thought.

In a geo-mutualist society, nobody would be working in third-world nations for American pocket change. There would be no landlords, sitting on wasted land, or working the lands to death, spraying them with chemicals, and diminishing their soils with monoculture cropping. There would be no mountain-top mining or clear-cut forestry. Communities would be local, technologies would be sustainable and liberating. Everything would be created to last, to be fixed, or to be easily disassembled and sold as scrap. In other words, needs would be reduced, and things would be reused and recycled. All of the costs of land-holding, labor, extraction, distribution, and disposal would be internalized. Materialistic, quantitative values of production would be challenged, and complimentary, qualitative ones affirmed. Humanity would once again have a reverence for nature, coupled with a profound desire to cooperate with it.

[1] It’s important to note the distinction here between private and personal. Personal describes direct use or possession of rightful individual claims, while private describes individual control of something which is more properly social.

[2] When people have to pay for good land, they use less of it, and use what they do have at its full potential.

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