Economizing on Economics

Kelman, Ilan | July 26, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Currencies by 16:9clue  | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Where does economics sit within sustainability? In many instances, it appears as a separate entity.

The standard ‘triple bottom line’ comprises economics, society, and the environment, sometimes expressed as profit, people, and planet. The sustainable development triangle is portrayed with three sides of social (or societal), environmental (or ecological), and economic.

Economizing on Economics | Ilan Kelman
Does money make society and the environment go round? Photo by Ilan Kelman

Economics, though, is simply a constructed human idea, applied by human beings. It generally describes how goods and services are produced and used, involving elements such as decision-making, material and financial flows, and asset calculations.

All these elements are from, by, and for humanity. Everything involving and related to economics emerges from and is part of society. So why is economics separated from society?

Rather than artificially creating a new category for the nebulous and ethereal entity called ‘economics’, we should place it within society. Recognizing economics as a subset of society might even humanize it more.

The sad situation is that, far too often, economics dominates sustainability discussions, policies, and actions. We should instead consider primarily society and the environment, particularly regarding their connections and overlaps–even their integration as part of sustainability.

Let’s put economics and profit in the right place: Within society, as one consideration of society amongst many, and not necessarily the first priority.

Ilan Kelman is a reader in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at University College London. You can follow him on Twitter @IlanKelman.

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  • JohnJBarry

    One of the main problems within dominant orthodox economic thinking (the free market ideology of carbon-based consumer capitalism) is the infinite ‘economic growth’ dynamic this ideology dictates as the overriding objective of economic policy and indeed almost all other policies (see how culture, education etc are increasingly justified and framed in terms of their contribution to economic growth). The idea of undifferentiated GDP/monetary economic growth as a permanent (as opposed to a contingent or historically specific) feature of the human economy is at the heart of the reality of ‘actually existing unsustainbaility’ – . Orthodox economics and economic growth also a) increases and manages socio-economic inequality rather than creating a less unequal society and b) after a threshold, one long since passed in most ‘developed;’ countries , more growth does not add but begins to detract from human wellbeing and flourishing. The bottom line is that the transition from unsustainability requires a different economics, a post- growth one, one which focuses more on non-monetary forms of productive activity (such as housework, community volunteering,the social economy etc.). Basically a ‘paradigm shift’ in our economic thinking and policy-making as a necessary part of re-embeddeing the economy within society and both within the ecosystems that sustain them.

    • Kathryn Zimmerman

      Thank you JohnJBarry for your remarks. With response to your comment on a paradigm shift, there is a specific, functional methodology to create true paradigm shifts: “second-order change.” If interested, this change theory is discussed and exemplified within the research thesis (chapter 3: introduction & conclusion) mentioned in my posting yesterday: “Sustainability policy’s inherent dilemmas….”

  • Kathryn Zimmerman

    Economics is an ideology, like religion, that is constructed by social systems to maintain society through social power. The current global society is using the economic ideology constructed by Milton Friedman’s “free”-market ideology to maintain global systems of power. The systems constructed by this ideology are addictive systems of consumerism that destroy ecosystems and are not sustainable. These addictive systems are maintained by societal leaders who withhold knowledge by avoiding problems and focusing instead on “opportunities.”

    For more discussion, see this 8-year research analysis in resource management: “Sustainability policy’s inherent dilemmas:exemplified by critical analysis of the Las Vegas metropolitan sustainability campaign”

  • Charles Hall

    I agree with Kelman and raise him.

    For many professionals interested in economics but not toilet trained on their methodology, the main question is “why is economics a social science” when, to most of us, real economics is about food on our plate, a roof over our heads, transportation, schooling and so on all of which are generated in the material world using energy. More important, we natural scientists find that conventional (neoclassical ) economics: violates the laws of thermodynamics, uses incorrect boundaries and operates on givens rather than tested hypotheses. I would not accept their assumptions from a Freshman in Natural Sciences, but they get away with it. We are teaching a million young Americans a year fairy tales rather than the truth about how real economies work.

    We have created an International Society for BioPhysical Economics which has had 7 annual meetings, have a good Journal (BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality (Springer-Nature) and provide a forum for those attempting to generate a natural science (vs social science only) basis for economics. If you would like to join this effort contact me (Charles Hall or/and Ram Poudel ‎[]‎ . The book by ecologist Charles Hall and Economist Kent Klitgaard “Energy and the wealth of nations” (Springer) is the place to start.

  • CraigHarris

    most of the societies where sustainability is currently under discussion are social formations where the structure and organization are very strongly influenced by the dominant economic mode, generally some form of private wealth accumulation capitalism . . . so to pretend that the economy is just one part of the social, on a par with religion or family, makes it impossible to do valid analysis of the social formation, and thus impossible to understand barriers to sustainability and sustainability transformations . . .