Prompt: Consider one of the serious problems that society faces today. Is there a relationship between this problem and conventional market economics? Does ecological economics offer useful insights into this problem? Would this problem have emerged if society had adopted an ecological economics perspective 100 years ago? Why didn’t we adopt ecological economics 100 years ago? Why have we still failed to adopt it today?
Global climate change is among the most serious problems our society must address. Conventional market economics has not only failed to address the problem of climate change, it has spurred it onward. Our economies are highly dependent on cheap fossil energy for growth, and conventional economics sees growth as the ultimate goal. Thus, the more energy used, the better. To this end, not only have costs associated with fossil fuel extraction, transport, preparation, use, and waste handling been externalized from the companies carrying out those activities, but the US government, among others, has actively subsidized energy industries and has repeatedly deployed the military to further those industries’ access to fossil fuels.
Ecological economics (EE) offers multiple insights into the problem of, and solutions to, global climate change. In contrast to conventional economics, EE recognizes that the economic system is a subsystem of the global ecosystem. Therefore, the waste from the economic system, including greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, end up in the ecological system. The blatant fallacy of conventional economics’ notion that the economic system is the whole is readily apparent when one considers what happens to waste from that system: where can it go?
Furthermore, ecological economics prioritizes an appropriate scale of the economy and a just distribution of its resources. By asking, what is an appropriate size for our economic system? EE suggests that we should consider how much fossil energy the economy should use before asking how we can most efficiently use it.
Concern for just distribution of resources in EE extends to intergenerational distribution. So, as we continue to burn fossil fuels at a rate that provides each of us in the rich world with the energy equivalent of hundreds of slaves, the ecological economist asks whether that is fair to a Bangladeshi whose home will be flooded as sea levels rise or to a child born in the Chihuahuan Desert in 2100 who will face warmer temperatures and less precipitation than they would have if we had lived more modestly.
Had ecological economics guided our actions through the twenthieth century, we would undoubtedly be in much less of a predicament. It seems to me that considerations of sustainability and justice would have prevented the much, if not all, of the extraction fossil fuels, obviating all concerns regarding climate change. For example, residents of Appalachia who live near mountaintop removal coal mining have higher rates of birth defects, die younger, and are poorer than other residents of Appalachia. If justice were a primary concern of economists for the last 100 years, it is hard to imagine that this type of mining would ever have been practiced.
Of course, we didn’t adopt an ecological economical paradigm 100 years ago, and we still haven’t today. That made more sense 100 years ago, when there were “only” a couple billion people on the planet and vast areas of land and sea were untapped and still fecund. Now, however, we have filled the world with humans, depleted non-renewable resources, hyper-exploited renewable resources, and filled waste sinks. It is clearly beyond time to adopt a full world paradigm. I suspect we haven’t for three primary reasons:
1. Inertia. We have been doing industrial capitalism under an empty world/conventional economical paradigm for a long time. Our systems are so large that they cannot change course rapidly.
2. Entitlement. We quite naturally enjoy having tomatoes in January, air conditioning in July, and jet travel whenever we want it. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem to have the maturity level of a toddler regarding getting what we want when we want it.
3. Power structures. Those who benefit most from the systems that are in place are those who have the most influence on those systems. Conversely, those who have the most to gain from adopting an ecological paradigm—the global poor, future human generations, and almost all non-human beings—have very little influence on our systems.
The situation is dire; we urgently need to adopt an ecological economical paradigm. I think we have begun to move in that direction, but we have already done a great deal of damage. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to get our act together before we hit powerful tipping points – points at which feedback loops strengthen to cross points of no return.