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 Ostrom’s case study work on managing common-pool resources.
The alternative political economy 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 doesn’t rely exclusively on subjectivity but also considers inter-subjectivity and communicative rationality. In Ostrom’s work, what distinguished the successful case studies was communication and interaction between individuals. Participants learned to identify whom to trust, discern the effects their actions will have on others and on the shared resource, behave more “straightforwardly” toward each other and build institutional arrangements for resolving conflicts. This alternative subject, then, is habitually inclined toward social cooperation rather than atomistic individualism.
Successful institutions of the type identified by Ostrom rarely come into being through explicit contracts. More often they evolve through long periods of informal, collective learning about what works and what doesn’t. Another approach to these institutions would involve more deliberate experimentation with institutional innovations. For such institutional reconstruction to take place, however, it is essential, Dryzek cautioned, that participation “move beyond the narrow community of political economists and political theorists and into society at large.” Evaluating disposable time as a common pool resource could be one such deliberate experiment.