The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics

A Cautionary Tale

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Winter 2012 | Mark Sagoff,

Read a summary of this article here.

In September of 1982, a group of scholars met in Stockholm intending to reform -- even to revolutionize -- the study of economics. The new ecological economists saw the economy as embedded in, and supported by, natural systems; nature was not simply a factor in, but the foundation of, economic activity. By integrating models from ecology and economics, ecological economists sought to provide scientific arguments for preserving the natural world.1

The Stockholm meeting came at a critical time. During the 1970s, prominent environmentalists, encouraged by what they saw as a public awakening to environmental concerns, issued best-selling books and reports that predicted that if population, consumption, and with them the global economy continued to grow, the world would soon run out of food and other resources. By the early 1980s, however, these predictions had been discredited. The public worried more about unemployment and recession. They feared that the regulations environmentalists proposed would derail the economy or slow it down. Environmentalists faced a populist backlash.

President Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980 promising to get the economy moving again. Reagan had campaigned against "environmental extremists" who he said favored "rabbits' holes" and "birds' nests" over jobs and economic growth.2 He arrived in Washington determined to roll back environmental and other social regulations. He named anti-environmentalists to fill top spots at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the Forest Service. The president promptly issued an executive order that subjected every major regulation to an economic cost-benefit test.

The Reagan administration and other advocates of growth invoked mainstream economic science to justify pulling back regulations. Ecological economists responded by attacking mainstream economic science and contended that mainstream economists failed to properly acknowledge the value of the natural world and the services it provides.

The environmental movement quickly embraced ecological economics because it promised to reconcile ecology with economics in a new science that would be reliably on the side of environmental protection. The MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and other large foundations invested heavily in ecological economics. Leading environmental figures such as Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, and Al Gore, and popular writers like Thomas Friedman picked up its language and its concepts, as did the United Nations, European governments, and nongovernmental organizations.3

Ecological economics set out 30 years ago to be a redemptive science -- to "right size" the human economy for its natural infrastructure.4 But today, ecological economics finds itself at a political and academic dead end. Trapped in the amber of its mathematical models and conceptual constructs, ecological economics presents an object lesson for those who would appeal to scientific theories, rather than to popular concerns, to provide an intellectual and political basis for an effective green politics.

1.
Ecologists and economists made unlikely partners -- indeed, these disciplines have often appeared at odds with, and determined to ignore, each other. As Robert Costanza, the founding president of the International Society for Ecological Economics, acknowledged in the inaugural issue of Ecological Economics, "Ecology, as it is currently practiced, sometimes deals with human impacts on ecosystems, but the more common tendency is to stick to 'natural' systems."5 The modeling of ecological communities or systems seemed purposely to leave out the human economy.6 At the same time, economists either took for granted or ignored the principles, powers, or forces that ecologists believed governed the world's natural communities. The market mechanism, or competitive equilibrium, that mainstream economists studied assigned no role to the natural ecosystem.7 Ecological economics sought to embed the study of economics within a larger understanding of how ecosystems work.

Ecological economists also wanted to distinguish their scientific professionalism from the neo-Malthusian alarmism of the previous decade. The Club of Rome's 1972 best seller, The Limits to Growth, was associated in many reviews with dire projections: for example, that the world would run out of minerals, such as silver, tungsten, and mercury, within 40 years.8 In 1970, Paul Ehrlich, the neo-Malthusian author of The Population Bomb, predicted that global food shortages would cause four billion people to starve to death between 1980 and 1989 -- 65 million of them in the United States.9 Further warnings poured forth in the Global 2000 Report (1980) and in annual State of the World reports by Lester Brown and the Worldwatch Institute.

Neo-Malthusians argued that the world would not be able to grow enough food to keep up with population, but this assertion was simply wrong. In fact, world food production more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, and per capita food production during that period also increased.10 In 1981, economist Amartya Sen, who later won the Nobel Prize for his research, published a book that flatly and effectively contradicted the idea that famines occur because not enough food is produced. Sen showed that oppression, injustice, and destitution -- breakdowns in distribution, not shortages in production -- cause famines. With such "misleading variables as food output per unit of population, the Malthusian approach profoundly misspecifies the problems facing the poor in the world," Sen wrote, noting that as per capita food production increased, the world was lulled into a false optimism that famines would decrease. "It is often overlooked that what may be called 'Malthusian optimism' has actually killed millions of people."11

Ecological economists distinguished themselves from neo-Malthusian catastrophists by switching the emphasis from resources to systems. The concern was no longer centered on running out of food, minerals, or energy. Instead, ecological economists drew attention to what they identified as ecological thresholds. The problem lay in overloading systems and causing them to collapse. Costanza and colleagues wrote, "There may be close substitutes for conventional natural resources, such as timber and coal, but not for natural ecological systems."12

Ecological economists described ecosystems as evolutionary systems: "complex, adaptive systems... characterized by historical dependency, complex dynamics, and multiple basins of attraction."13 These communities or systems were assumed to evolve and, as a result, achieve an "adaptive" or a "dynamic equilibrium" that could be modeled mathematically. E.P. Odum, whose Fundamentals of Ecology was for decades the leading textbook in the field, pictured the natural world as a great chain or a "levels-of-organization-hierarchy" ascending from smaller to larger, more inclusive systems (e.g., from genes, cells, organs, organisms, populations, communities, to ecosystems). In an influential paper published in Science in 1969, Odum described the natural world as "an orderly process of community development" that is "directed toward achieving as large and diverse an organic structure as is possible within the limits set by the available energy input and the prevailing physical conditions of existence."14

In their 1967 Theory of Island Biogeography, Robert MacArthur of Princeton University and E. O. Wilson of Harvard presented a similar view of evolution as an orderly progression of natural communities toward a saturation of species. According to this theory, ecosystems exist in a state of equilibrium in which the colonization by a new species is balanced by the extinction of a resident one.15 Paul Ehrlich later updated the great chain metaphor to that of an airplane. "A dozen rivets, or a dozen species, might never be missed," he wrote with his wife Anne Ehrlich. "On the other hand, a thirteenth rivet popped from a wing flap, or the extinction of a key species involved in the cycling of nitrogen, could lead to a serious accident."16

Ecological economists drew from thermodynamic theory to supplement the ecological view that nature represents a constrained and constraining adaptive evolutionary system. In 1971, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian economist, published The Entropy Law and the Economic Process which argued, "The Law of Entropy is the taproot of economic scarcity."17 Herman Daly, an early proponent of ecological economics and the leading theoretician of what he called steady-state economics, built on the idea that a growing economy must eventually wear out the energy potential (i.e., the organization and integration) of the natural systems in which it is embedded. Optimism based on the "philosopher's stone of technology," he wrote, requires "suspensions of the laws of thermodynamics."18 In 1992, two prominent ecological economists argued that standard models of economic growth are problematic because "they ignore the fact that the human economy is an integral part of a materially closed evolutionary system."19

2.
Ecological economics also drew on theoretical methods and ideas that emerged at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee after World War II. Starting in the 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission employed scores of ecologists -- about 80 by 1970 -- in dozens of projects that eventually grew into a Big Science approach to computer-based modeling of what were then known as biomes. From 1968 to 1974, various agencies funded the International Biological Program (IBP); the federal government provided nearly $60 million.20 The IBP produced little of intellectual interest but created a large class of project managers, many of whom remain active today at governmental agencies funding big think ecosystem research.

Surrounded by physicists at Oak Ridge, ecologists adopted computer modeling and other conceptual methods that distinguish mathematical from less theoretical, and thus "softer," sciences. The most influential ecologist of the period, G. E. Hutchinson, insisted that theory was essential to science, declaring, "If we had no theory, there would be nothing to modify, and we should get nowhere."21

Hutchinson, along with his colleagues, posited what he called "formal analogies" to explain ecosystem structure and function in terms of equations drawn from many sciences, including statistical mechanics, logistic population growth curves, spectral analysis, circuitry, stoichiometry, thermodynamics, cybernetics, and chaos theory. This was make-work for mathematicians. Anyone with some mathematics and a metaphor -- typically borrowed from some other science -- could model the ecosystem.22

Ecologists of the period assumed "that ecosystems function in accordance to some overarching rules that control structure and/or function,"23 without checking that assumption against evidence.24 Princeton ecologist Simon Levin wrote, "One must recognize the powerful adaptive and self-organizing forces that shape ecosystems."25 These forces were modeled in silico (on computers) rather than observed al fresco (in the great outdoors). As ecology became a formal science, it mistook models for empirical evidence. "In studying the logical consequences of assumptions, the theoretician is discovering, not inventing," Levin wrote. "To the theoretician, models are a part of the real world."26

Theory-based mathematical speculation about ecosystem structure and function appealed to the academic and scientific community of the time. The more abstract and mathematical the theory, the more respect it commanded and the higher, albeit narrower, the threshold it set for professional success. Mathematicians enjoyed prominent academic careers without having to engage in empirical research or gain tenure in a department of mathematics.27 In 1974, the late Leigh Van Valen, a formidable University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, concluded that mathematical ecologists had formed a "clique" and a "new orthodoxy" that considered gathering facts a "waste of time."28

3.
Liberated from the need to test their theories empirically, ecosystem ecologists built their mathematical models upon ideas that can be traced back to Charles Darwin's contemporary, the British philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. The explicit purpose of the International Biological Program -- to determine "the biological basis of productivity and human welfare"29 -- was one that Spencer himself might have recognized. Spencer envisioned a theory of systems that would explain the evolution, not just of species, but of ecological communities and of human societies.

While Darwin's theory of descent with modification, for which the fossil record offered empirical evidence, explained the properties of species, Spencer's theory postulated a "universal law of evolution" which asserted that any collection of living things over time tends to self-organize in a "dynamic equilibrium" while dissipating energy.30 This principle became a program for interpreting everything. Spencer's theory of systems provided the critical bridge from 19th century community ecology not only forward to 20th century systems ecology but also backward to 18th century natural theology. As geographer Clarence Glacken has written, "I am convinced that modern ecological theory, so important in our attitudes towards nature and man's interference with it, owes its origin to the design argument. The wisdom of the creator is self-evident... no living thing is useless, and all are related one to the other."31

In 19th century America, naturalists who came of age at the time of the Civil War were educated in the tradition we associate with "intelligent design," the idea that God's fullness and magnificence is demonstrated in the perfect organization and replete diversity of the natural world. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope celebrated this idea, "Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroyed / From Nature's chain whatever link you strike."32 The scala natura or Great Chain of Being served as the organizing metaphor for what would become community ecology. This approach, according to historian of ideas A.O. Lovejoy, exalted the "sufficient reason" that put every species in its place and attributed self-sufficiency, self-organization, or "quietude" to natural communities -- an ability to arrange and sustain themselves as God made them if left undisturbed.33 The commonplaces of modern ecology, such as "everything connects" and "save all the parts," recall the neoplatonic view of nature as an integrated mechanism into which every species fits.

How were botanists, zoologists, entomologists, and other biologists able to reconcile their education in natural theology with their acceptance of evolutionary biology? Stephen Forbes, who headed the Department of Zoology at the University of Illinois, showed how this could be done. According to historian Sharon Kingsland, Forbes took from Herbert Spencer the belief that evolutionary forces will achieve and maintain adaptive dynamic equilibriums despite ever-changing relationships in ecological communities or systems.34

In a seminal article written in 1887, Forbes described a glacial lake in Illinois as a "system of organic interactions by which [species] influence and control each other [that] has remained substantially unchanged from a remote geological period." What could cause this system to organize and to maintain itself for thousands or millions of years? Forbes wrote:
 

Out of these hard conditions, an order has been evolved which is the best conceivable... that actually accomplishes for all the parties involved the greatest good which the circumstances will at all permit.... Is there not, in this reflection, solid ground for a belief in the final beneficence of the laws of organic nature?35

 

In this paper, indeed, in this paragraph, Forbes performed intellectual feats that remain impressive to this day. First, he assumed that there was an order, a dynamic equilibrium, in the lake he visited. He had no empirical evidence to show that the organisms he observed were ancient and enduring, nor did he consider any necessary.36 Forbes, like Spencer, relied on deductive argument based in a universal theory of natural history. The best-adapted or (as Forbes wrote) "adjusted" species will organize themselves into sustainable and resilient communities.37

Second, Forbes, like Spencer, called the dynamic force or universal law that organizes nature in ascending levels or scales of complexity not God, but Evolution. This substitution of nomenclature turned 18th century Great Chain of Being theodicy -- with its emphasis on pattern, scale, process, mechanism, hierarchy, resilience, and plenitude -- into ecology as it was studied throughout the 20th century.

Frederic Clements, the most influential plant ecologist of the early 20th century, who was also influenced by Spencer, agreed with Forbes that nature is progressive and beneficent. According to ecologist S. P. Hubbell,
 

Clements believed that the community was literally a 'superorganism,' and that species were its organs and succession its ontogeny. He argued that each species had an essential role to play in preparing the way for the next serial stage in the succession toward the equilibrium or 'climax' plant community.38
 

Because Spencer's theory of adaptation applied not just to species, but also to ecological communities, it allowed community ecology to hold on to its theological roots while it embraced a concept of evolution. By assuming that anything God could do, evolution did better, biologists leapt from 18th century natural theology to 20th century community ecology without missing a beat. But for the mantle of mathematics that ecologists had draped over it, mid-20th century community and ecosystems ecology could not be distinguished from the more openly theological framework that Forbes had adapted from Spencer and presented 80 years earlier.

4.
Ecological economists drew on the study of ecological systems -- systems ecology -- that developed after World War II in the context of Big Science and postulated that ecological systems or communities are unified or governed by a set of organizing principles. Nature itself, however, seems scandalously indifferent to this philosophy. Ecologists who engaged in empirical research found that the mathematical models devised by community and systems theorists were not supported by observation other than by examples cherry picked for the purpose.39 Had theoretical ecologists been interested in empirical evidence, according to ecologist John Lawton, they would have easily falsified any principle they tested; there are "painfully few fuzzy generalisations, let alone rules or laws."40

As early as 1917, however, American botanist Henry Gleason (1882-1975) had challenged the assumption that the living world is organized under enduring principles or by powerful forces. He argued instead that each association of plants and animals is unique, ephemeral, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, extemporaneous, and a law unto itself.41 The sites that ecologists study, he believed, should be seen as path-dependent histories rather than as rule-governed communities. From this point of view ecosystems do not evolve; they just change.

Gleason argued that no general law, principle, model, or theory gets any predictive traction on the comings and goings of species. In a recent article, Daniel Simberloff, a leading contemporary ecologist, refers to the "longstanding controversy stemming back to Clements, Gleason, and their contemporaries, over whether a plant community is anything other than the assemblage of populations co-occurring in a specific place at a specific time: that is, to what extent are communities integrated, discrete entities, and, if they are, what is the nature of the integration?" Underlying this controversy is "the question of whether community ecology itself actually has generalizations beyond trivial ones like the laws of thermodynamics, and whether seeking such generalizations advances the study of ecology at the community level."42 Simberloff concedes that there are no nontrivial laws, principles, or generalizations that predict events at the "system" or the "community" level or that explain the integration these concepts suggest. "Laws and models in community ecology are highly contingent, and their domain is usually very local."43

William Drury found no emergent properties, governing rules, or integration in the forests he studied.
 

I feel that ecosystems are largely extemporaneous and that most species (in what we often call a community) are superfluous to the operation of those sets of species between which we can clearly identify important interactions.... Once seen, most of the interactions are simple and direct. Complexity seems to be a figment of our imaginations driven by taking the 'holistic' view."44

 

Simply put, the evidence does not support the idea that evolution applies on a system-wide scale. New ecosystems appear all the time; the species found at a place rarely coevolved there. Nearly anywhere one looks one finds species coming and going -- many or most are recent arrivals. A group of 19 ecologists wrote in Nature, "Most human and natural communities now consist both of long-term residents and of new arrivals, and ecosystems are emerging that never existed before."45

If creatures just show up at sites for their own reasons, which is usually the case, the concept of evolution does not apply even as a useful metaphor at the scale of the community or the ecosystem. As Drury argued, self-organizing adaptive ecological communities or systems that achieve and sustain a dynamic equilibrium are figments of the theoretical imagination driven by taking the holistic view. Just because places change -- nature is continually in flux -- does not mean they evolve. There is no dynamic order, force, or principle of self-organization that makes every hodgepodge a system.

5.
If the ecological foundations of ecological economics rested upon shaky ground, the economic foundations were no less problematic. Ecological economists have argued that because they cannot guarantee that growth is sustainable -- that new technologies will save the day -- we should (to quote the literature) "degrow" the economy.46 "Given our high level of uncertainty about this issue, it is irrational to bank on technology's ability to remove resource constraints," insisted Costanza. "This is why ecological economics assumes a prudently skeptical stance on technical progress."47 Ecological economists argued that what they did not know about the ecological foundations of the economy could hurt us, and that we ignored their uncertainty at our peril. In other words, they appealed to their own ignorance about ecosystem structure and function to empower their "precautionary" position.

Mainstream macroeconomists -- those who deal with indicators of economic performance such as employment, inflation, trade, productivity, and national competitiveness -- generally reject this precautionary stance. Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate, spoke for many economists when he opined that if the future is like the past, "there will be prolonged and substantial reductions in natural-resource requirements per unit of real output." He asked, "Why shouldn't the productivity of most natural resources rise more or less steadily through time, like the productivity of labor?"48

By shifting the content of their warnings from resource exhaustion to system overload, ecological economists convinced few but themselves. Microeconomists swatted away the precautionary principles of ecological economists as easily as they had earlier dismissed the jeremiads of neo-Malthusians like Ehrlich. The answer mainstream economics gave to system overload was the same as its response to resource exhaustion: greater resource productivity and technological innovation.

By the 1980s, in response to some of the same challenges and opportunities that had inspired the creation of ecological economics, a group of mainstream welfare economists had founded the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. These neoclassical economists developed the field of mainstream environmental economics to provide their own analysis of and prescription for the environmental crisis. They rejected the thermodynamic theory of value ecological economists proposed -- the idea that the constraint on growth is "negative entropy," meaning "the degree of organization or order of a thing relative to its environment."49 Instead, environmental economists offered what they called "utility," "welfare," or "willingness to pay" as the central value for environmental analysis and policy.

Environmental economists defined and measured welfare or utility in terms of preferences or, practically speaking, the amounts people are 1) willing to pay (WTP) for a good or 2) willing to accept (WTA) to relinquish it. They did not describe pollution and other assaults on the environment in terms of entropic forces wearing down the resilience of holistic and integrated evolutionary systems. They diagnosed environmental problems as market externalities, that is, as uncompensated effects of economic decisions on third parties whose interests -- or whose WTP -- those decisions did not take into account. Economist Robert N. Stavins wrote, "The fundamental theoretical argument for government activity in the environmental realm is that pollution is an externality."50

Environmental economists had an advantage because they applied a framework that was already familiar in economic thought and therefore in policy analysis and political discourse. During the 1990s, environmental outfits and agencies staffed up with economists to attribute prices to externalities and discover market failures. Dueling cost-benefit analyses and opposing stories about WTP or WTA began to co-opt, infiltrate, and even replace moral argument and political persuasion.

In response, many ecological economists, including some who had criticized the framework of neoclassical welfare economics, adopted it. It was easy to argue that people are willing to pay a lot for nature and for the services it provides. Accordingly, ecological economists, rather than continuing to construe economic systems as embedded in ecological systems, reduced their ambitions to tweaking neoclassical cost-benefit models to assign higher existence values to nature and lower discount rates to its use.

For example, in the most cited and well-known paper written in ecological economics, Costanza and a dozen colleagues in 1997 applied what they considered to be the concepts of neoclassical utility theory to assign an economic worth of about $33 trillion -- much more than the value of the product of the global economy -- to what they called "The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital."51

Ecological economists ended up fully embracing the slogan of mainstream welfare economics that protecting the environment is a matter of getting the prices right. A discipline that just a decade or two earlier had insisted the market was embedded in nature had learned how to embed nature into the market.

6.
Having caved in to the normative framework of WTP or cost-benefit utility theory, ecological economists have been unable to confront the reasons that led Herman Daly, among others, to reject the market mechanism as an approach to understanding environmental problems. There are exceptions. A few ecological economists chided their colleagues for "commodity fetishism" and called for "conservation based on aesthetic and ethical arguments."52 They cited the article, "Selling Out on Nature" by Douglas McCauley in Nature magazine, which argued that "conservation must be framed as a moral issue," because nature has "an intrinsic value that makes it priceless, and this is reason enough to protect it."53 Costanza wrote in response, "I do not agree that more progress will be made by appealing to people's hearts rather than their wallets."54 Gretchen Daily, a prominent ecological economist, insisted that only by attributing instrumental or economic value to nature can conservationists influence public policy. "We have to completely rethink how we deal with the environment, and we should put a price on it," she said.55

Ecological economics, when it embraced cost-benefit and market-based valuation, abandoned the ethos of much of the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970s, which had rejected a market failure theory of pollution. These statutes, such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, were intended to protect public safety and health against toxic wastes and hazardous emissions. This legislation rests on the same principle as common law: the belief that one person should not injure or invade the person or property of others without their consent. Understood in this way, pollution represents an invasion of person and property and therefore is to be enjoined, minimized, or tolerated unwillingly until technology can do better. Environmental law is libertarian, not utilitarian, because it seeks to protect people and property against peril and trespass rather than to maximize utility. One person does not have the right to pollute and thus to trespass on another even when it is socially efficient to do so. Economists Maureen Cropper and Wallace Oates wrote in 1992 that "the cornerstones of federal environmental policy in the United States explicitly prohibited the weighing of benefits against costs in the setting of environmental standards."56

In response to the Reagan revolution, ecological economists had followed the cost-benefit bandwagon. But in doing so, they unwittingly played into their opponents' hands. By changing the political conversation from the question, "What is a cause of what?" to "What is a cost of what?" ecological economists substituted the technocratic framework of microeconomics for the ethical framework of responsibility.

John V. Krutilla, an influential environmental economist and strong environmentalist, demonstrated how pliable the idea of an ecological or environmental externality could become.57 He observed that people who contribute to environmental causes must (by definition) benefit from them. Therefore, ideological, political, and moral commitments could be factored into the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) that measures social welfare and thus justifies environmental policy. Once political views, ideological principles, and spiritual beliefs were treated as consumer preferences, environmentalism could be reduced to one more interest group battling for its piece of the economic pie -- for example, the aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual benefits of ecosystems.

The problem for environmentalists wasn't that they were losing the epic cost-benefit battles that raged through the 1980s and 1990s. They more than held their own in the dark art of creating social welfare functions to justify whatever it is that one wants. But, ironically, there is ample reason to believe that CBA has never significantly affected rulemaking or regulation at all.

Robert Hahn, an advocate of CBA, conceded, "The relationship between analysis and policy decisions is tenuous."58 He added, "There is little evidence that economic analysis of regulatory decisions has had a substantial positive impact" and argued that "the poor quality of analysis can help explain some of this ineffectiveness."59 But the poor quality of much cost-benefit analysis is arguably a function of the fact that cost-benefit arguments are mostly invoked as a kind of "open sesame" to defend or decry any governmental intervention. Advocates and policy makers, to borrow an old saw, use CBA like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination. After Congressional committees, administrative agencies, and the courts tear through them, the political battles that CBA is supposed to inform are settled in terms of liability, responsibility, authority, and legality -- not welfare maximization.

If CBA lacks an intellectual and legal basis and has only a tenuous regulatory effect, why is it done? One reason is that so many people can do it. As law professor Duncan Kennedy has explained, CBA or the compensation test it implies is "just as open to alternating liberal and conservative ideological manipulation" as is the political deliberation it is supposed to displace. However bad or mistaken cost-benefit accounting may be, it has a centrist effect, "supportive of liberalism and conservatism together, seen as a bloc in opposition to more left and right wing positions." In other words, by engaging in CBA, experts form a scientistic "centrist bloc" that agrees on "moderation, statism, and rationalism."60

When partisans and opponents of environmental causes adopt the discourse of market failure and social externality, they co-opt their political fringes and tamp down the moral fervor of environmentalism, making the political conversation safe for expertise. Ecological economics has evolved into the more pro-environment wing of standard environmental economics. This has depleted the discipline of its initial energy. As long as the vocabulary of microeconomics, including cost-benefit analysis, remains the lingua franca of environmentalism, properly credentialed and preferably academic participants will have the policy debate to themselves. Evidently, this temptation proved to be too much for ecological economists.

7.
Ecological economics aimed to be revolutionary, but it is now ignored by the sciences it had hoped to transform. Both ecology and economics have changed, but not because of the rise of ecological economics. The science of ecology could not draw indefinitely on its roots in 18th century theodicy. As contemporary ecologists have abandoned theory for empiricism, ecology has returned to the long-suppressed view of Gleason, as Hubbell put it, that species are "largely thrown together by chance, history, and random dispersal."61 Species come and go. Ecological sites do not have a structure or a function. They have a history.

The science of economics has moved on as well. Just when ecological economics caved in to the normative framework of neoclassical welfarism, empirical work in behavioral and experimental economics profoundly undermined that approach. Empirically-minded economists turned to studying the behavior of institutions and individuals, rather than continuing to model abstract utility functions.

Ecological economists today try to put prices on ecosystem benefits and services. This effort by environmentalists is self-defeating. If environmental decisions are fundamentally framed as questions of economic welfare, public officials and the public itself will opt nearly every time for whatever policy promises more economic growth, more production, and more jobs. Moreover, in a world where human influence is as ancient as it is pervasive, it may be helpful to recognize that the natural environment where we live is less of an input than an output of economic activity.

Ecological economics today, its ambitions greatly diminished, has reached senescence; it provides an academic assisted-living facility for "Great Chain of Being" ecology and cost-benefit economics. A hybrid discipline, ecological economics crosses closet creationism with market fetishism. When ecological economists dispute the relative importance of intrinsic vs. instrumental value, the hybrid reverts to type.

The scientistic and self-referential controversies in which ecological economists engage drain away the moral power that once sustained environmentalism. This moral power may return if environmentalists employ science not to prescribe goals to society but to help society to achieve goals it already has. Environmentalists may then shape the natural environment of the future rather than model and monetize the environment of the past. /

 

 


Further Reading

"A Price Tag on Mother Nature," The Breakthrough, Winter 2012


ACKNOWLEDGMENT: The author gratefully acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation, Award No. 0924827. The views expressed are the author's alone and not those of any funding agency.

1. For a history of the founding and early development of ecological economics, see Ropke, Inge. 2004. "The Early History of Modern Ecological Economics." Ecological Economics. 50: 293-314. (back)

2. Quoted in Kenski, Henry C., 1985. "The President, Congress, and Interest Groups. Environmental Policy in the 97th Congress", pp. 77-100 in Helen M. Ingram & R. Kenneth Godwin (eds.), Public Policy and the Natural Environment, Greenwich: JAI Press. 78. (back)

3. See, for example, Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins. 1999. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Back Bay Books; 1st edition (December 1, 2008). (back)

4. "The idea is to Right-size the Economy, to Find the Goldilocks Size That's Not Too Small and Not Too Big, but Just Right." CASSE, 2010. What Is a Steady State Economy?, Briefing paper. Accessed: http://steadystate.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/CASSE_Brief_SSE.pdf (back)

5. Costanza, Robert. 1989. "What is Ecological Economics?" Ecological Economics. 1: 1. (back)

6. "Traditional ecological research investigates ecosystems in terms of biophysical, ecological, and evolutionary processes unaffected by human influences. " Alberti, Marina, Marzluff, John M., Shulenberger, Eric, Bradley, Gordon, Ryan, Claire, and Craig Zumbrunnen. 2003. "Integrating Humans into Ecology: Opportunities and Challenges for Studying Urban Ecosystems." BioScience. 53(12):1169-1179, 1170.; R.V. O'Neill has written, "The ecosystem concept typically considers human activities as external disturbances . . . Homo sapiens is the only important species that is considered external from its ecosystem, deriving goods and services rather than participating in ecosystem dynamics." O'Neill, R.V. 2001. "Is It Time to Bury the Ecosystem Concept? (with full military honors, of course!)." Ecology. 82: 3275-3284. 3279. (back)

7. "If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no problem. The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe." Solow, Robert M. 1974. "The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics." American Economic Review. 64(2):1-14. 11. (back)

8. Meadows, Donella et al. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books. A lengthy review of the book in the New York Times ascribed to it the projection that reserves of many or most crucial minerals would be exhausted within the next few decades. The Limits to Growth had attributed a view like this to the Bureau of Mines. For discussion see Turner, G.M. "A Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality." Global Environmental Change. 18: 397-311. (back)

9. Ehrlich, P. R. 1970. "Looking Backward From 2000 A.D." The Progressive. 34: 23-25. (back)

10. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Washington, DC: Island Press. 13. The Assessment is careful to point out that food is not distributed equitably: "Despite the growth in per capita food production in the past four decades, an estimated 852 million people were under-nourished in 2000-02." (back)

11. Sen, Amartya. 1984. Resources, Values and Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 524; see also, Dreze, Jean and Amartya Sen. 1989. Hunger and Public Action. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 26-28. For a recent elaboration of Sen's findings, see: Keneally, Thomas. 2011. Three Famines: Starvation and Politics Public Affairs. (back)

12. Farber, S.C. et al. 2002. "Economic and Ecological Concepts for Valuing Ecosystem Services," Ecological Economics. 41: 375-392. 380. (back)

13. Levin, S. A. 1999. "Towards a Science of Ecological Management." Conservation Ecology. 3(2): 6. (back)

14. Odum, E.P. 1969. "The Strategy of Ecosystem Development." Science. 164: 262-270. (back)

15. MacArthur, R. H. and E.O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (back)

16. Ehrlich, Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich. 1981. Extinction. New York: Random House. xii-xiii. (back)

17. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1976. Energy and Economic Myths. 9. See also (1977) "Inequality, Limits and Growth from a Bioeconomic Viewpoint." Review of Social Economy. XXXV(3): 361-375. (back)

18. Daly, Herman E. 1995. "Reply to Mark Sagoff's 'Carrying Capacity and Ecological Economics.'" Bioscience. October 1995. 621-624. (back)

19. Common, Mick and Charles Perrings. 1992. "Towards an Ecological Economics of Sustainability." Ecological Economics. 6(1): 7-34. (back)

20. Boffey, Philip M. 1976. "International Biological Program: Was It Worth the Cost and Effort?" Science. 193(4256): 866-868. "Some 1800 American scientists engaged in IBP work, supported by $57 million in federal grants plus substantial contributions from other organizations." (back)

21. Quoted in: Hagen, J.B. 1992. An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 75.; Many ecologists took this position that "without a strong theoretical core . . . we [ecologists] shall all be washed out to sea in an immense tide of unrelated information." Watt, K. E. 1971. " Dynamics of populations: A synthesis." Eds. den Boer, P.J., and G.R. Gradwell. Dynamics of Populations: A Synthesis. Wageningen, Netherlands: Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation. 569. Ecology continues to confront a "constipating accumulation of untested models" (Schoener ,TW. 1972. "Mathematical Ecology and its Place Among the Sciences." Science. 178: 389-391) after indulging in "a feast of theory [that ecology] isn't quite ready to digest." Futuyma, Douglas J. 1975. Review, 50 Q. Rev. Biology. 217. (back)

22. Simberloff, Daniel. 1980. "A Succession of Paradigms in Ecology: Essentialism to Materialism and Probabilism." Synthese. 43: 3-39. See also, McIntosh, RP. 1985. The Background in Ecology: Concept and Theory. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.; Woodwell, G. 1976. "A Confusion of Paradigms (Musings of a President-Elect)." Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. 57: 8-12. (back)

23. Schugart, Herman. 2000. "Ecosystem Modeling." In Sala, Osvaldo E., Jackson, Robert B., Mooney, Harold A., Howarth, Robert W., Odum, E. P. 2000. Methods in Ecosystems Science. Springer. 384. (back)

24. For a discussion of the lack of testing of theory in ecology, see Belovsky, G.E., Botkin, D.B., Crowl, T.A., Cummins,K.W., Franklin, J.F., Hunter, M.L. Jr., Joern, A, Lindenmayer, D.B., MacMahon, J.A., Margules, C.R., Scott J.M. 2004. "Ten Suggestions to Strengthen the Science of Ecology." BioScience. 54(4): 345-351. These authors lament the development of "ecology as mathematics unimpaired by the bounds of nature." (back)

25. Levin, S.A. 1999. Fragile Dominion: Complexity and the Commons. Reading, MA: Perseus Books. 6. (back)

26. Levin, S.A. 1981. "The Role of Theoretical Ecology in the Description and Understanding of Populations in Heterogeneous Environments. American Zoologist. 21: 865-875. 866. (back)

27. A. O. Hirschman has explained this familiar phenomenon. "In the academy, the prestige of the theorist is towering. Further, extravagant use of language intimates that theorizing can rival sensuous delights: what used to be called an interesting or valuable theoretical point is commonly referred to today as a 'stimulating' or even 'exciting' theoretical 'insight.'" Hirschman added that in the United States, "an important role has no doubt been played by the desperate need . . . for shortcuts to the understanding of multifarious reality that must be coped with and controlled and therefore be understood at once . . . As a result of these various factors, the quick theoretical fix has taken its place in our culture alongside the quick technical fix." Hirschman, A.O. 1987. "The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding." Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look. P. Rabinow & W. Sullivan eds. 177-178. (back)

28.Van Valen, L. and F.A. Pitelka. 1974. "Commentary -- Intellectual Censorship in Ecology." Ecology. 55: 925-926. (back)

29. Mitchell, Rodger, Mayer, Ramona A., and Jerry Downhower. 1976. "An Evaluation of Three Biome Programs." Science. 192: 859-65.; See also: Aronova, Elena, Baker, K.S., and N. Oreskes. 2010. "Big science and big data in biology: from the International Geophysical Year through the International Biological Program to the Long-Term Ecological Research, 1957-present." Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences. University of California. 40(2): 183-224. The current example of massive waste of public funds on Big Ecology is the NEON Project (http://www.neoninc.org/) which layers a lot of expensive infrastructure on the cybernetic-engineering-biochemical-computer-modeling effort to reach the amorphous goal that the IBP and LTER were supposed to achieve of understanding how the ecosystem works. (back)

30. For a discussion of Spencer's Universal Law of Evolution, its grounding in Great Chain of Being theodicy and its stark difference from Darwin's much more limited view, see: Corning, Peter. 1995. "Synergy and Self-organization in the Evolution of Complex Systems." Systems Research. 12(2): 89-121.; For a statement of Spencer's a priori theory of universal biological self-organization and development, see: Spencer, Herbert. 1852. "The Development Hypothesis." Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative. Appleton, New York, 1892. (back)

31. Glacken, C. J. 1967. Traces on the Rhodian Shore. Berkeley: University of California Press. 243. (back)

32. Pope, Alexander. 1751. "Essay on Man." (back)

33. Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1936. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. (back)

34. For discussion, see: Kingsland, Sharon. 1995. Modeling Nature, Episodes in the History of Population Ecology, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 14. (back)

35. Forbes, Stephen A. 1887. "The Lake as a Microcosm." re-printed in the Bulletin of the Illinois State Natural History Survey, 1925. 15: 537-550. (back)

36. Paleoecological research has demonstrated the ephemeral nature of the kinds of places Forbes visited. According to Stephen Hubbell: "For example, the fossil pollen record from eastern North America and Europe reveals that many pre-Holocene, full glacial, and previous interglacial plant communities are very different from modern communities." Hubbell, S. P. 2001. The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. See also: Davis, Margaret B. 1986. "Climatic Instability, Time Lags, and Community Disequilibrium." in Jared Diamond and T.J. Case, eds., Community Ecology. New York: Harper and Row.; Overpeck, J., Webb, R., Webb, T. III. 1992. "Mapping eastern North American vegetation change of the past 18 ka: No-analogs and the future." Geology. 20: 1071-1074. (back)

37. Forbes, Stephen A. 1887. "The Lake as a Microcosm." reprinted in the Bulletin of the Illinois State Natural History Survey, 1925. 15: 537-550. (back)

38. Hubbell, S. P. 2001. "Chapter 1." The Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (back)

39. "Wherever we seek to find constancy, we discover change," ecologist Dan Botkin has observed. We find that "that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure, or proportion, but changes at every scale of time and space." Botkin, D.B. 1990. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Oxford University Press. 62. Donald Worster summarized, "Nature should be regarded as a landscape of patches, big and little, patches of all textures and colors, a patchwork quilt of living things, changing continually through time and space, responding to an unceasing barrage of perturbations. The stitches in that quilt never hold for long." He wrote, "Many have begun to believe [that nature] is fundamentally erratic, discon¬tinuous, and unpredictable. It is full of seemingly random events that elude our models of how things are supposed to work." Worster, Donald. 1990."The Ecology of Order and Chaos." Environmental History Review. Spring/Summer:13. (back)

40. Lawton, J. H. 1999. "Are There General Laws in Ecology?" Oikos. 84: 177-192. For an excellent discussion of the absence of general principles or rules in ecology, see: Lange, Marc. 2005. "Ecological Laws: What Would They Be and Why Would They Matter?" Oikos. 110(2): 394-403. (back)

41. The clearest statement Gleason gave to this view is found in: Gleason, Henry A. 1926. "The Individualistic Concept of the Plant Association." Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. 53: 7-26. (back)

42. Simberloff, Daniel. 2010. "Invasion of plant communities: More of the same, something very different, or both?" American Midland Naturalist. 163(1): 220-233. 221. (back)

43. Simberloff, Daniel. 2004. "Community Ecology: Is it Time to Move On?" American Naturalist. 163: 787-799. 787. (back)

44. Drury, W.H. 1998. Chance and Change: Ecology for Conservationists. Berkeley: University of California Press. 23. Similarly, conservation biologist Michael Soulé has written, "Certainly the idea that species live in integrated communities is a myth." He adds, "So-called biotic communities, a misleading term, are constantly changing in membership." By insisting on integrated systems, "the science of ecology has been hoist on its own petard." Soulé, Michael. 1995. "The Social Siege of Nature." Reinventing Nature? Responses to postmodern deconstruction. eds. M.E. Soule and G. Lease. Washington: Island Press. 143. (back)

45. Davis, Mark et al. 2011. "Don't Judge Species On Their Origins." Nature. June (474): 153-54. (back)

46. For a review of this literature, see: Kallis, G. 2011. "In Defence of Degrowth," Ecological Economics. 70: 873-880.<a href="#body46> (back)</a> </small> <br /> <br /> <small> <a data-cke-saved-name=" foot47'="" name="foot47" id="foot47" class="black">47. Costanza, Robert. 1991. "Ecological Economics: A Research Agenda." Structural Change and Economic Dynamics. 2:335-357. 339. See also: Costanza, Robert, Cumberland, John, Daly, Herman, Goodland, Robert, and Richard Norgaard. 1997. "Chapter 3." An Introduction to Ecological Economics. CRC Press. (back)

48. Solow, Robert M. 1973. "Is the End of the World at Hand?" in Andrew Weintraub, Eli Schwartz, and J. Richard Aronson, eds. The Economic Growth Controversy. White Plains, NY: Institute of Arts and Sciences Press. 49. (back)

49. Farber, S.C., et al. 2002. "Economic and Ecological Concepts for Valuing Ecosystem Services." Ecological Economics. 41: 375-392. 382. (back)

50. Stavins, Robert N. 2008. "Environmental Economics." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Second Edition. Eds. Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. (back)

51. Costanza, Robert, et al. 1997. "The Value of the World's Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital." Nature. 387. (back)

52. Kosoy, N. and Corbera, E. 2010. "Payments for Ecosystem Services as Commodity Fetishism." Ecological Economics. 228:1236. (back)

53. McCauley, D.J. 2006. "Selling Out on Nature." Nature. 443: 27-28. (back)

54. Costanza, Robert. 2006. "Correspondence." Nature. October 19. 443: 749. (back)

55. Gretchen Daily, quoted in: Petit, Charles. 1997. "Natural Environment Gets a Price Tag - $33 Trillion." San Francisco Chronicle. May 15. (back)

56. Cropper, Maureen L. and Wallace E. Oates. 1992. "Environmental Economics: A Survey." Journal of Economic Literature. 30: 675-740. (back)

57. Krutilla, J. V. 1967. "Conservation Reconsidered." American Economic Review. 57: 777-86. (back)

58. Hahn, Robert W. 2009. "An Evaluation of Government Efforts to Improve Regulatory Decision Making." International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics. 3: 245-298. 245. (back)

59. Hahn, Robert W. 2009. "An Evaluation of Government Efforts to Improve Regulatory Decision Making." International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics. 3: 245-298. 250. (back)

60. Kennedy, Duncan. 1998. "Law and Economics from the Perspective of Critical Legal Studies." The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law. Edited by Peter Newman, Macmillan Reference Ltd. (back)

61. Hubbell, S. P. 2001. "Chapter 1." The unified neutral theory of biodiversity and biogeography. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. (back)


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MARK SAGOFF


Mark Sagoff is one of the country's foremost environmental philosophers, and Senior Fellow at George Mason University's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy.



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