Foundations for an Environmental Political Economy

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Commentary by Tom Walker

Tom Walker:

"In "Foundations for Environmental Political Economy," John Dryzek explored the prospects of an environmentalist economic subject, Homo ecologicus, as an alternative to the traditional rational actor or economic man. Dryzek criticized previous efforts at positing an ethical,environmentalist subject, saying they were flawed by wishful thinking and reductionism. The alternative Dryzek proposed instead was based on his interpretation of Elinor Ostrom's case study work on managing common pool resources.The new political economy, Dryzek argued, would be one that can account for instrumental rationality – even deploy it in its proper place – but that also can point to alternatives grounded in something firmer than wishful thinking. Dryzek's alternative wouldn't rely exclusively on subjectivity but also would take into account communication between people (other than purely economic exchange). Such a communicative model of economic behavior already exists in Ostrom's work. Communication and interaction between individuals was what distinguished the successful management regimes she studied from the unsuccessful ones. In the successful common pool resource management institutions, participants learned to distinguish whom to trust, discern the effects their own actions will have on others and on the shared resource, behave more straightforwardly toward each other and build institutional arrangements for resolving conflicts. Ostrom's framework for distinguishing different types of goods and services classifies them as either highly subtractable – meaning that one person's use of a resource leaves less available for others – or have low subtractability and as either more or less excludable, depending on how difficult or costly it is to exclude people from access to the good. Taken together, those two pairs constitute a matrix that specifies four ideal types of goods. Private goods are subtractable and excludable (that is it is not difficult to exclude beneficiaries). Public goods are neither highly subtractable nor excludable. The remaining sectors are common pool resources, which are subtractable but difficult to exclude and toll goods, which have low subtractability but are notdifficult to exclude people from." (