Ecological Economics

This post continues a sequence of posts on the numerous changes required to create a Macroeconomics for the 21st Century. See also, related lecture on Economics for the 21st century.

Eurocentric history portrays the West as advanced, rational, scientific, and democratic, while the East is superstitious, unscientific, autocratic, and backwards. This poisonous philosophy was developed to justify the incredibly brutal and ruthless violence required for the conquest of the globe, and continues to sustain extremely exploitative economic systems. A partial antidote is World Systems theory which portrays all human beings, nations, and cultures, as joint participants in weaving the rich fabric of human history. Ecological economics goes further to take the entire humanity as one element of the biosphere and geosphere of our planet. All of the biological species have their “economics” where they consume and produce, directly or indirectly affecting other species. All of these economies are closely interlinked. Viewed in this light, the environment crisis is easily seen as being due to human beings’ predatory consumption of vast proportions of the biosphere and the geosphere, without any compensatory productive replenishment.

Conventional economics assumes that ever-increasing GDP is desirable, possible, and that everyone benefits, because it does not take into account costs inflicted on the biosphere and geosphere, which will ultimately be borne by human beings as well. For a more detailed discussion, see Evaluating the Costs of Growth. Ecological economics takes a broader perspective and recognizes that there are more things that contribute to human well-being than just the amount of stuff, such as health and education (human capital), friends and family (social capital) and the contribution of the earth and its biological and physical systems (natural capital). Its goal is to develop a deeper scientific understanding of the complex linkages between human and natural systems, and to use that understanding to develop effective policies that will lead to a world which is ecologically sustainable, has a fair distribution of resources (both between groups and generations of humans and between humans and other species) The related field of Green Economics is in general a more politically applied form of the subject.

Doughnut economics is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The centre hole of the model depicts the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials (healthcare, education, equity and so on) while the crust represents the ecological ceilings (planetary boundaries) that life depends on and must not be overshot. Consequently, an economy is considered prosperous when all twelve social foundations are met without overshooting any of the nine ecological ceilings. This situation is represented by the area between the two rings, namely the safe and just space for humanity. The diagram was developed by Oxford economist Kate Raworth in the Oxfam paper A Safe and Just Space for Humanity and elaborated upon in her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

5 thoughts on “Ecological Economics

  1. Hi Asad,

    I have in my in-box a post on ‘complexity economics’ beginning:
    “This post continues a sequence of posts on the numerous changes required to create a Macroeconomics for the 21st Century. See also, related lecture on Economics for the 21st century.
    Classical Physics, the model for modern economics, was based on the ideas of stability and permanence of astronomical orbits; see Mirowski (1992)”.

    It has some typos and I can’t find it on this web site, so I’m commenting here. If it re-appears I have some substantive comments that may be useful.

    Regards, Dave (mathematician)

      1. Thanks, I shall be patient. Meanwhile, I hope you don’t mind me commenting on “This poisonous philosophy was developed to justify the incredibly brutal and ruthless violence required for the conquest of the globe, and continues to sustain extremely exploitative economic systems.”

        As as a Brit, I kind of agree, but with some quibbles.
        1. I was told (by my maths teacher) that the poisonous ‘philosophy’ dates back to Plato and Pythagoras, when teaching plebs mathematics was a capital offence. I’ve heard similar since from non-whites, so it could be true: maybe you might omit “of the globe”, which might suggest that it is a British innovation.
        2. My own appreciation is that many of those complicit in developing the poison had, in effect, been brain-washed. Again, not unique to any time or place: maybe you could say ‘to justify the prevailing beliefs, despite the incredibly brutal … ‘ or something similar that is less suggestive of motivation. (I’m not arguing that all or even most were naïve – just that maybe some were.)
        3. An argument I have often heard – mostly from those who thought they benefitted from the poison – was that while it disadvantaged some (visible to me) it advantaged many of the poorest in far-away lands. I’ve never been in a good position to argue either way, and am inclined to leave it to others. But I do challenge such views when I can, in so far as my own reasoning and experience will support, mostly for the sake of my peace of mind and my children.

        As a mathematician, it seems to me that non-westerners aren’t the only ones who have suffered under the ‘poison’. You generally seem more careful than some in aiming your critiques. Thanks.

      2. This is just a one sentence side-note, very peripheral to main topic, and hence not chiseled out to perfection. However, I am referring to material from Edward Said Orientalism, and Shashi Tharoor An Era of Darkness in this one brief sentence

  2. Asad (& Dave) – Thanks again. Very important issues. Yet, again, this little post prompted another recollection that there are major hurdles caused by inadequate knowledge of actualities & real possibilities in the ‘doughnut economics’ (DE) camp. For example, since my introduction to the real-world actualities of the construction, architecture, engineering, finance, real-estate marketing sectors and design science (as a pro trainee)–back in the early-mid-60s–I noticed, increasingly, what most outsiders don’t know or understand about conventional industry, mass-psychology, waste, actual limits and possibilities.
    >
    For example, because status quo ‘education’ and financial duress & threats tend to cause + enforce subliminal fear, denial, self-deception, normative delusion, selective inattention (deliberate ignorance), and more or less foolishness, most humans are unaware of what has been accomplished by the most brilliant ‘outsider’ pioneers, innovators, inventors, and scientists. Typically, normals are also not generalists, thus being unaware of the actual extent of waste required by conventional (anti-ethical) industry & kleptocracy. Normals are also usually unaware of the real potentials of next-gen design science, thus remaining ignorant of real possibilities of a post-modern, bio-ethical (non-ecocidal) civilization.
    >
    Consider a few other examples, a) the sane alternative to big AgriBiz uses 15% less water yet can produce up to around 4000% more food/meter^2, without poisoning the biosphere or wasting any energy, b) to mitigate future human GHG emmissions + avoid a worst-case global heating & polar meltdown scenario & dystopia, we could increase plant-cover of bare land, initially by 0.4%/year, then increase that & habitat restoration by an additional 10% of that rate yearly, c) there are vastly superior yet virtually suppressed/ignored ‘renewable’ energy/power technologies available now, d) we could deconstruct & recycle ecocidal urban+suburban infrastructure (etc.), to build non-ecocidal habitats for all generations, and e) we can R&D a nontoxic post-modern monetary credit ecotecture & expert bio-ethical AI-Auditor+accounting & ‘mint’ management system that enables real equity & economic stability for all.
    >
    However, if economics lacks a humanely axiological paradigm, its metatheory will be lacking or impossible. If macroeconomics lacks a sound, bio-ethically valid metatheory of integrative meta-economics, then would be neither holistic nor realistic. In fact, without a sane, humane paradigm and unitive metatheory, I doubt we will survive the consequences of anti-ethical plutonomics & kleptocracy. Yet, I accept the slight possibility that the now exponential progress of polar meltdown + sea-level increases + super-storms (etc.) may force currently unforeseeable increases in realism, globally, enabling truly appropriate response, finally.
    >
    For instance, if –as French Interior Min. LaFolle pointed out, just increasing plant cover by 0.4%/y can absorb future CO2 emissions over 20 years — we could halt or reverse runaway heating & ice-melt, globally, by more progressive reforestation & habitat restoration. Yes, if we R&D a sane Civilization 3.0, we can save the oceanic habitats and enjoy a quasi-ecotopian Heaven on Earth, at least theoretically. The ‘devil’ is in the inhumane ‘human’ factors. So, I wish us good luck, etc.

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