Polanyi and the Environment
Karl Polanyi’s “Great Transformation” is a critique of the, supposed, free market system. He argues that free markets aren’t free or natural, and they don’t protect those without power. His arguments were centered on economics but his logic also extends to the natural environment. Polanyi writes,
The economic argument could be easily expanded so as to include the conditions of safety and security attached to the integrity of the soil and its resources—such as the vigor and stamina of the population, the abundance of food supplies, the amount and character of defense materials, even the climate of the country which might suffer from the denudation of forests, from erosions and dust bowls, all of which, ultimately, depend upon the factor land, yet none of which respond to the supply-and-demand mechanism of the market. Given a system entirely dependent upon market functions for the safeguarding of its existential needs, confidence will naturally turn to such forces outside the market system which are capable of ensuring common interest jeopardized by the system” (pg 193).
Who defends the environment and ensures this ‘common interest’? It doesn’t get to elect powerful people in congress. Nor is it able to participate in the free-market system to look out for its own interests or enter into a ‘voluntary exchange’. In theory, it stands outside the economic system, but we all know that’s not the case.
The free-market’s toll on the environment is well documented. All you need to do is watch the nightly news. The smog in China is so bad it’s been termed “Airmageddon,” and the “Airpocalypse”. Dead zones from fertilizer and other nutrient run-offs exist in the Gulf of Mexico, efficiently ensuring that life will not grow there. The environment is a mess.
Who are some of the folks ensuring this ‘common interest’?
Over the past couple of years, there’s been a show on Animal Planet called Whale Wars. It shows the efforts of the Sea Shepard Conservation Society to protect whales from slaughter because of the free market. Their efforts have brought worldwide attention as they sought to defend certain types of whales from extinction.
What would have happened if our National Parks were left to the free market? Would the Grand Canyon become a million dollar housing project? Would Yellowstone’s trees be harvested to the point where nothing is left? Would all beaches be considered private property? Would some of the most beautiful parts of creation be left to fend for themselves? Fortunately Roosevelt realized the need to protect our national treasures and sought to improve them with Civilian Conservation Crops.
Here in Little Rock we’re having our own mini-environmental crisis. The Maumelle watershed is our city’s main drinking water source. Several corporations have been lobbying for changes that would allow new subdivisions around the lake and its feeder streams. Obviously having more people and more pollutants around our drinking supply greatly increases the chances that we’ll not be able to drink our water supply! A group of concerned citizens is fighting the corporations for every inch of land and deregulation.
Where is the US evangelical, especially Baptist, voice on these issues? Are we defenders of the common interest? To be honest, I believe we’ve been too silent and haven’t made issues of land/water/sky/trees/land etc. enough of a focus. We haven’t been focusing on the common good, but something else. How then should we as followers of Jesus and co-creators with God, protect creation from the ‘free’ market? How can we ensure that creation’s value isn’t only seen in dollars and cents but is viewed in a lager narrative, as part of the gospel? Christians should be the first in line to ensure the ‘common interest’, not the last.