A plea to the profession of Ecological Economics

[This is a post that I wrote to an email list that is subscribed to by those interested in the field of Ecological Economics. This field has personally inspired me to return to teaching economics — but only environmental economics, because it represents a crack in the door to let the message of Ecological Economics get through to our existing institutions — which sorely need to hear its message.]

Thank you Mr John Veitch.

Your reply is, to my mind, what this email list is for: to inform and educate each other, and I appreciate this quick sketch of the milestones in the background thinking that underlies modern thinking in ecological economics.

While I don’t wish to discourage easy camaraderie among its subscribers, the more I see uninformative posts that simply take up cycles of my time, the less inclined am I to take this list seriously; but I see Mr Veitch’s post as an opening for a plea that I have been wanting to post to this list for some time.

I am just a beginner in the field of ecological economics myself, and much appreciate these kind of sincere efforts to challenge each other to stimulate new and original thought, which I genuinely believe are needed — especially within the emerging profession of ecological economics. My (quick) background is that I am going into teaching environmental economics at a local community college in Colorado (frontrange.edu) for my fifth semester. I attempted to introduce a course in Ecological Economics there, but have given up, due to lack of support within my department; otherwise, I earn a living primarily as a database programmer in an academic research center (at CU Boulder).

Given the dark clouds on the horizon, I believe the small band represented by ecological economists has a certain list of duties to perform (and here I will reveal my own activist bent): (1) to develop the new ideas and empirical studies with ecological economics to mature its stature as a scientific field of knowledge to be taken seriously, (2) to challenge the existing economics profession to fully embrace ecological economics for its advancement of the overall field of economics and accept that reality, (3) to thoroughly reexamine old ideas (particularly the prominent examples among classical economists who long ago challenged the premises of basing an economy on unlimited growth or materialism) so that we can point out to the ‘old regime’ where they have ‘gone wrong’ but were warned earlier, and (4) develop new bridges of thought between mainstream economics and mainstream ecology (a truly new area of investigation).

The further challenge will be to (5) communicate this to the public and to the policymakers. In these charged political times, I do not expect this to be a high priority for the field; but perhaps there are those among us, young and indomitable, who would wish to take on that duty. For myself, at age 57, I am focusing on my own professional development as an ecological economist, at my level, and working on other political change.

In these pressing times, when we, as economists, can perceive a bit more into the future and know what lies ahead, while uncertain in its exact dimensions and form, portends certain harm unless action is taken, dictates a certain moral responsibility. I much admire figures such as Paul Hawken and Bill McKibbon who are some of the more leading moral figures in our times, who attempt to point out the need to change our economic ways.

I look forward with interest, and expect to learn, from others’ replies.

Respectfully submitted,

Rick Casey

Boulder, CO

[Below is Mr Veitch’s original message….to give my reply some context….]

The new economics has to deal with these facts. (Which I listed with links in a previous post.)

Keynes had no idea what long term damage his theory would create. We do have that knowledge.

Our New Knowledge

In the 1970’s Nicholas Georgescu-Roegan, demonstrated that an economy didn’t depend on money at all. All economic processes involve a transfer of energy. Whatever we do, we take some high quality energy and we dissipate it into the environment. There are real limits to economic practices, that are determined by the rules of physics, not the rules of the market place.

In 1972 Dennis Meadows and associates published Limits to Growth. This book was widely ridiculed at the time, but it’s proven to be a remarkably good guide to what’s happened in the last 40 years. Meadows understood nothing about climate change, but he did anticipate peak oil, and shortages of water.

In 1992, with Agenda 21, the nations of the world agreed to save the biodiversity of the world and to take active steps to protect the environment. But since then little has been done. In the USA, attacks on the principles of Agenda 21 (more American irrational madness), were widely supported.

In 1980 the Brandt Commission reported that there were serious problems the world needed to address. Four areas: Environment, justice, economics and social conflict.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has now produced four reports. The bad news is that the way we have developed our economies is destroying the planet’s climate system. We MUST, reduce and where possible STOP our use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. No effective action so far.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine planetary boundaries that are likely to have tipping points that when crossed could have devastating consequences for the Earth. They believe that we have already crossed three of those.

We now have a problem called jobless growth. In modern economies, new businesses employ very few people. This is particualrly evident in high unemployment for young people.

Keynes and Hayek knew nothing about any of the new knowledge above. Keynes and Hayek produced an economic proposal for the 20th Century, and those ideas served us well. But like Keynes and Hayek, themselves, those ideas are now inappropriate (dead). Why are we still debating those principles? Here’s James Gustave Speth’s proposal for Eight Necessary Transitions, to solve our 21st Century problems.

Here’s the brutal truth. No modern economy can employ all it’s people. Gross Domestic Product, is a poor measure of economic performance and the pursuit of GDP, is the prime cause of climate change and environmental destruction. We cannot solve 21st Century problems with 20th Century economic principles. We don’t need to be trapped in the past. That’s a choice we make.

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