A Price Tag on Mother Nature? A Cautionary Tale

Winter 2012 | Breakthrough Staff,


By Breakthrough Journal Staff

The early 1980s were a period of crisis and change for the environmental movement. President Ronald Reagan had swept to power by campaigning against "environmental extremists" who he said favored "rabbits' holes" and "birds' nests" over jobs and economic growth. In office, Reagan filled his cabinet with anti-environmentalists and subjected environmental regulations to cost-benefit tests.

Greens were challenged intellectually as well as politically. In 1981, a 48 year-old Indian economist named Amartya Sen published a ground-breaking book showing that famines occur not because of failures of production but failures of distribution due to things like poverty, war, and political oppression. Sen's work, for which he eventually won the Nobel Prize, combined with the fact that per capita food consumption rose through the 1970s, discredited the Malthusianism that had been promoted by prominent ecologists such as Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich.

A new scientific case for environmental action was needed, and a new discipline -- ecological economics -- emerged to fill the role. Over the next 30 years, the concepts of ecological collapse, tipping points, and putting a price on nature would fleck the discourse of global political elites in the halls of McKinsey, Davos, and the U.N. Popular figures such as Thomas Friedman, Al Gore, Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Bill McKibben would draw on concepts developed by the ecological economists Herman Daly and Robert Costanza to claim that economic growth undermines the planet's capacity to support human civilization.

In a sweeping new history of the era written for the Breakthrough Journal, the esteemed environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff writes:

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.

But outside the limelight, working ecologists were rejecting the idea of nature as closed, rule-bound "systems" existing in varying states of equilibria. "There is no dynamic order, force, or principle of self-organization that makes every hodgepodge a system," writes Sagoff. Species come and go, and the "systems," "progressions," and "equilibria" are mental constructs. Empirically-oriented ecologists returned to the work of scientists like Henry Gleason who in 1917 described "each association of plants and animals as unique, ephemeral, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, extemporaneous, and a law unto itself."

The radical ambitions of ecological economists to subject the economy to the laws of nature diminished greatly. Many joined the prosaic efforts of neoclassical economists to price ecosystem services; Costanza put the total value of the earth's ecosystems at $33 trillion.

"The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics" is a cautionary tale. "If environmental decisions are fundamentally framed as questions of economic welfare," Sagoff concludes, "public officials and the public itself will opt nearly every time for whatever policy promises more economic growth, more production, and more jobs." In their obsession to model and monetize nature, ecologists and environmentalists lost their way. Says Sagoff, a former Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment:

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.

Read the full article here.