“On being black and green” –anticipating unforseen consequences

Marcellus Andrews is guest blogging at On the Commons and has a nice essay on how the world looks to an economist who’s “black and green”–an African American with a passion for the environment. “Somewhere along the way, I became a bit green in my views on economic life and policy, though my ‘greenness’ has a distinctly black undertone.”

Further down in his essay, Andrews raising the question of how unequal racial power might force its way into scenarios that seem to be so wonderfully egalitarian, like the proposed “Sky Trust.” (See this previous Econ-Atrocity.)

…Yet, even as I struggle with mathematical models exploring all the ways that such “sky trust” type systems reconcile efficiency and justice in a narrow sense, my studies evade the ruthless bio-politics of inequality bound to turn “the commons” into another hierarchy of the powerful over the vulnerable. The vulnerable forever stand apart and below the powerful ““ even green, progressive power ““ objects of charity or even redistributive justice, but objects nonetheless. Charity becomes thin, stingy, evincing slight degrees of sadism when, when the vulnerable are the wrong color.

Green power, like all power in divided societies, will balance the needs of rulers and ruled, whether the rulers are a clique, a board of directors, or a voting majority with blood-based antagonism toward the Others. Green power ““ the use of public and private power informed by scientific, particularly ecological, and economic reason ““ is far more likely to be humane than other forms of power precisely because it is imbued with a sense of limits and balance. Indeed, green power, at its best, constructs better ways of pricing and managing collective risks, thereby mitigating the destruction of natural capital.

But our individual, family and communal access to resources and the resulting unequal control of development are shaped by the bio-political facts of society: we are born into families and communities of color, class, region, religion and language, inheriting access to resources and levers of power or the abyss of powerlessness. We inherit and the bequeath the social wars that grant us access to power or leave us in weakness, even the power to shift policy in a green direction.

As you can see, I am struggling with the uneasy relationship between sustainability and equality in a market and technology driven world economy, where economic and social innovation must now redesign capitalism to make it cleaner and ecologically viable, yet where the mechanisms of social/racial inheritance threaten to reinforce bio-political and social power in unacceptable ways. I ask your patience and your help as I work through the problematic economics of equality and sustainability, hardened as I am by my American blackness. I want to think about the economics of the commons in light of the fact that green power is unlikely to be shared across American color lines, even as it reconciles the way we make a living to the life process of the Earth….

More power, so to speak, to Andrews for his willingness and ability to face the demons we might wish away. A sky trust will be a great institution for many reasons, but it will not only change society, but be affected by the pre-existing features of society in a give-and-take sort of way. Not all of them will necessarily be for the best.