Ecological Economics for the Anthropocene: An emerging paradigm

| October 27, 2017 | Leave a Comment

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Media Type: Book - Recent

Year of Publication: 2015

Publication City: New York, NY

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Author(s): Peter G. Brown, Peter Timmerman

Categories: , , ,

Editors Brown and Timmerman bring together a comprehensive look at the origins of ecological economic, how the field has developed and diverged from its original aims, and finally how an increased consideration of ethics, justice, and liberty are required for the field to adequately respond to the challenges of the anthropocene. Brown and Timmerman describe the explicit objectives of ecological economics as “being concerned with three issues: scale, distribution, and efficiency” (p4). Whereas ecological economics was critical in pushing for the inclusion of scale in these objectives, and for scale to be defined by the realities of thermodynamics and ecology, throughout the book authors call for greater incorporation of ethics. Erickson writes in the Foreword, “Natural science must help ecological economists define the boundary conditions of sustainable scale. Ethical debate and public process must negotiate just distribution. Sustainability and justice then frame the design of well-regulated markets to achieve genuine economic efficiency” (p xi). This book pushes ecological economists beyond the comfortable territory they have settled into applying mainstream economics to the existing agenda of ecologists and environmentalist: seen in efforts to get the price “right”, assign market-value to ecosystem services, and incorporate externalities. Erickson notes that bolder conversations occur among ecological economists, but that they have largely “grown content to talk to one another but are unwilling to step outside [their] comfort zone to articulate and lobby for change in policy circles” (p xii).

In contrast to claims that as a value-neutral approach economics should remain separate from ethics, Brown and Timmerman argue that ethics reside at the very heart of economics. “Two important elements of the current economistic approach are often overlooked: (1) it not only provides an explanation of how markets, transactions, and so on function, but it also contains (in spite of its value-neutral rhetoric) a powerful ethical formulation of what it is to be a human being in search of well-being; and (2) at its heart is an abstract, ideal model –a set of quasi-scientific claims about the operations of a social system” (p1). In Chapter 1, Timmerman provides examples of alternative economic theories to demonstrate that standard economic theory “is based on a specific range of assumptions drawn from a specific period in modern history –a historical artifact of a particular period of thought and time rather than a universal truth” (p22). Timmerman goes on to explain how standard economic theory goes about taking “elements of how people might act and then does what it can to prove that that is how they do in fact act –or if they do not act in that way, they are somehow wrong or misguided” (p23). Taken together, the Introduction and first chapter prove precedent for inclusion of ethics in economic theory.

Brown goes on in Chapter Two to present an ethics for economics in the Anthropocene. Brown’s discussion touches on what both justice and liberty mean in a world with natural resource constraints. “One prerequisite for shifting from the existing economy to an ecological economy would be to provide an accounting of the injustices we do in exercising free choice” (p106). This discussion is carried into Chapters Four and Five, in which Goldberg and Garver consider the possible measurements, indicators, and boundaries that should be standard to ecological economics. Goldberg and Garver agree that the scale of these boundaries needs to be derived from natural science, but that ethics-based decisions are also necessary in terms of distribution and pursuing efficiency.

Jennings expands upon this discussion in Chapter Ten in considering an ecological political economy and liberty. Jennings defines the ecological political economy as the activity system, whereas an ecological political philosophy is the conceptual and normative order needed to achieve it. In contemplating liberty, Jennings argues:

“…our task is to reclaim and reconstruct the concept of liberty so that, in our moral imagination and our public philosophy, ecologically destructive behavior would not be seen as a manifestation of freedom at all; rather, it would come to be repudiated as a manifestation of ignorance, irresponsibility, and alienation that negates freedom” (p295).

In Chapter Eleven, Harvey expands on Jennings call and explicitly looks at how such fundamental changes to culture can be accomplished. Harvey presents the process as fundamentally discoursive and goes on to outline two conditions under which challenger discourses achieve cultural acceptance: genuine accommodation to some extent of competing ideologies and expectations (limited to secondary principles), and resonation to some degree with the subconscious “common sense” of popular culture. “…there is a gap to be filled between analysis of the problem –the ecological crisis– and the solution, an ecological political economy. This gap is a systematic consideration of the process by which the solution may be realized –and most importantly, the levers and interventions available to change agents and how they be used to best effect” (p350).

The book concludes with an overview of future research opportunities and a fresh vision for the human prospect. Areas for future research are far reaching and include: rethinking ethics, rethinking agency, rethinking rationality, rethinking the human, changing our relationship to the community of beings, reconsidering justices and distribution, recasting education, rethinking price, embracing a plurality of values, measuring economic production as a biophysical process, modeling and growth, fitting the economy to the earth, developing the field of ecological finance, trading in the language of “free” trade, rethinking transactions, and rebuilding governance and law. Clearly, the authors believe that ecological economics in the context of the Anthropocene cannot continue to be a side-shoot of the traditional market-based economic system, but instead must fully embrace systematic changes to our economic, social, and ethical ways of being.


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