What's in a Name?
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Watch out for "Ecological" Economics.
Students in my Environmental Economics course often ask me, with great enthusiasm, how I feel about Ecological Economics—known to them as an exciting new discipline that merges the social insights of economists with the scientific knowledge of ecologists to point the world toward a sustainable future. I tell them I don't believe in it. I don't mean this the way one would say, "I don't believe in capital punishment", or "I don't believe in prayer in the schools." It's more like "I don't believe in ghosts", or "I don't believe in Santa Claus." That is to say, I do not believe this thing you refer to actually exists.
I admit that in terms of standard forensic evidence Ecological Economics is on a lot firmer ground than ghosts. There are, after all, several academic journals of Ecological Economics; an International Society for Ecological Economics, regional societies in Europe and Africa, as well as national societies in the U.S., Canada, Russia, Australia and New Zealand. Two institutes for Ecological Economics, one in Vermont, the other in Sweden, would resent my blithely dismissing their existence. (The latter was founded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – I guess I can kiss my Nobel Prize goodbye.) Still, this is my position and I'm sticking to it: there is no such thing as Ecological Economics.
Such hostility would surely hurt economists' feelings, if we had any feelings, which popular opinion holds we do not.
Why do I draw such a distinction between Environmental Economics (which I teach) and Ecological Economics (which I heretically refuse to believe in)? According to Wikipedia, Ecological Economics considers mainstream economics "myopic and closed-minded," and "distinguishes itself from [mainstream] economics … primarily by its assertion that economics is a subfield of ecology." Now does that sound to you like the merger of two academic disciplines—or a classic, hostile Wall Street takeover? Wikipedia may not be an authoritative source, but there is plenty of evidence that environmentalists under the ecology banner want to get rid of us economists.
For example, in the journal Science Matters, the eminent biologist David Suzuki, coauthor of the book and PBS series, The Sacred Balance, said "perhaps the most destructive agent of our sense of interconnectedness [with the environment] is economics. Economists assume that when resources are exhausted, human intelligence and creativity will always enable us to exploit or create new materials." Then there is Sir Crispin Tickell, an international authority on climate change, who was quoted in The Economist as saying that the Dismal Science is "not so much dismal, as half-witted." Indeed, whole books have been devoted to trashing us. There is Robert L. Nadeau's The Wealth of Nature: How Mainstream Economics Has Failed the Environment, A Guide to What's Wrong with Economics, edited by Edward Fullbrook, and Steve Keen's Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor of the Social Sciences. In June of 2000, a formal protest against the mathematical "autism" of mainstream economics was launched by a group of French students. Of course protest is hardly unusual among people who are both a) French and b) students, but it shows how much flak we have to take. Such hostility would surely hurt economists' feelings, if we had any feelings, which popular opinion holds we do not.
Why is everyone mad at us? Was it something we said? Probably. Economist Larry Summers, who joined the Harvard faculty at such an early age he had to drop out of charm school, has certainly annoyed environmental types. In an infamous 1991 World Bank memo he suggested that Africa may actually be under-polluted. Can there really be such a thing as too little pollution? In places where industrialization might raise income above $1 day, yes, we think there can be. Likewise, the late Julian Simon embarrassed Stanford Ecologist Paul Ehrlich by winning a highly-publicized bet that, in spite of soaring population and surging industrial output, the price of "scarce" minerals would go down, not up. It is rude to be publicly correct when you're defying common sense. And, of course, anyone with environmental sensibility has the attitude that we don't own the Earth, we borrow it from our children. Precisely wrong, say economists Terry Anderson and Donald Leal in their radical treatise, Free Market Environmentalism. Human beings, even nice ones, tend to take much better care of things they own than things they merely use – nobody washes their rental car. Maybe there should be more private ownership of environmental resources, not less.
What, you might wonder, do I think should be done to quash this nefarious conspiracy against economics? Clearly, the war on terrorism has tied up all the federal law enforcement agencies; we can expect no help from them. Possibly, a legal action, along the lines of the Napster suit, could compel users of the phrase "Ecological Economics" to pay a licensing fee to the American Economic Association. Or we could hire some French students to help organize a protest. Alas, however, in addressing this crisis, mainstream economics is hoisted by its own petard. Competition, we preach, is a good thing. Economic theorizing, we would say, takes place in a "contestable market" and takeover threats by other disciplines will only serve to increase efficiency. Market forces may compel us to make our models more realistic and more accessible, and to incorporate the insights of natural scientists. We may even have to admit—grudgingly and through gritted teeth perhaps—that this has improved the quality of our analysis. In the meantime, however: I don't believe in ghosts.