January 20, 2013

The future of Ecological Economics

Blake Anderson and Michael M'Gonigle accuse the journal Ecological Economics of being too mainstream (Does ecological economics have a future?: Contradiction and reinvention in the age of climate change). They say that Ecological Economics has become dominated by "neoclassical methodologies" that justify economic growth and capitalism and that conflict with the field's founding vision of a no-growth, sustainable society. They advocate that the field and its flagship journal should instead focus on "critical analysis".

Anderson and M'Gonigle are right in their diagnosis of the journal. Much of what is published in Ecological Economics (or in Ecology and Society) is standard environmental economics that follows the scientific method and studies what people do and its implications for environmental policy, while paying lip service to ideological dogma by using vacuous "sustainability" (or "resilience") language. I also think that the scientific knowledge of human behavior, and nature in general, leads to the conclusion that human affairs are better served by private, competitive enterprise and individual choice than by forced collectivism. And that when given the choice people strive for a better life and not for a steady-state. And that this doesn't necessarily bring the end of the world. Therefore, I agree with Anderson and M'Gonigle that standard science, as it appears in many papers of Ecological Economics, is bound to contradict the founding principles of Ecological Economics.

I agree with Anderson and M'Gonigle that to preserve the founding principles of Ecological Economics, Ecological Economists and their journal should focus on "critical analysis". In this context "critical" means anti-capitalist. And "analysis" apparently consists of making discourses about other discourses. For the purpose of "analysis" a discourse, narrative or text can be produced obviously by people but also by such entities as capitalism, the South, the North, wealth, poverty, democracy, neoliberalism, money, power, diasporas, markets, globalization, discrimination, gender, machines, cultures or nature. Even people and these other entities can be interpreted as narratives themselves. Focusing on "analysis" avoids the empirical distractions that might question the founding principles of Ecological Economics.

It might be said that "critical analysis" is already the matter of many humanities journals. For example, Anderson and M'Gonigle take inspiration from papers published in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Capitalism Nature Socialism, European Journal of Sociology, Geoforum, The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, New Political Economy, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Progress in Human GeographySecurity Dialogue and Socialist Register. But there may be no practical "limits to growth" in discourses. And, as a plus for Ecological Economists, "critical analysis" might even absorb some entropy. So, there is probably a niche for a critical analytical Ecological Economics.

All this is more or less true, at least on "spaceship Earth" and "in the age of climate change." But let me point out some things that are not true.
Neoclassicism rejects the notion that there are absolute limits to growth, putting its faith in the ability to address temporary resource scarcities through rising prices that change economic behaviors, technological innovations that allow for greater efficiencies, substitutions away from declining resources, and so on. The field points to the history of ever-increasing global production and wealth despite the ‘limits to growth’ debates of the 1970s (to which some early ecological economists were contributors).
Not true. Neoclassicism does not reject absolute limits to growth. Growth limits and practically unlimited growth are both compatible with neoclassical approaches. And "the field" hasn't pointed to anything, because "the field" can't argue. Only people can.
[...] Stern's chosen target [500 ppm CO2] still vastly exceeds the 350 ppm level that the scientific community, including Costanza (2009b), has settled on as necessary for stabilization.
There is no such settlement.
Economic growth is an imperative for the survival of capitalism.
Not true.
We have experienced three decades of free market fundamentalism during which public understanding has been reduced to ideology extolling markets while government agencies have been denigrated and their budgets shrunk.
Not true.
[Steady-state] markets exchange tomatoes for wheat not for profit but to provide food for both parties (a tomato sandwich) and, in so doing, to support the livelihoods of both farmers.
Not true. We profit from eating food (that costs less to produce than it benefits the person who eats it).
[In modern capitalism] one does much better buying tomatoes not for a sandwich but to turn around and sell them again for more money than one had initially.
Not true, unless one is a tomato middleman.
Capitalism prizes the middleman and the ‘value-added’ processor; its momentum ends with final consumption and it is positively threatened by the self-provision and thrift that eschews exchange per se.
It would be great if a tomato were still valuable after its final consumption. But the bad news affect capitalism and its alternatives alike. Self-provision and thrift are, like most things, good when exercised in moderation. Too much or too little threaten well-being in all realistic systems.
[M]arkets driven by capital needs are designed for one end, to seek returns to capital, that is, to maximize ‘exchange values’ that can grow the quantum of capital. [...] No relationship needs to exist between increasing welfare (‘use values’) and increasing capital (‘exchange values’).
True for some markets designed and enforced by governments or mafias. Not true for peaceful, competitive markets.
These markets must grow by their nature because the point of any investment of capital is to return more capital to it [...]
Not true. Capital returns depend on earnings, not on market growth.
[G]reenhouse gas emissions keep going up—except when economic activity itself contracts.
Not true for developed countries.

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