Disappointing effort on ecological economics

ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS: THE SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT OF SUSTAINABILITY Edited by R Constanza Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York Price: Not stated

By Abhijit Sen
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

This book is a collection of papers from the inaugural conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics held in 1990 in Washington. The society defines ecological economics as the study of "the ecology of humans and the economy of nature," and of "the web of interconnections uniting the economic subsystem to the global ecosystem of which it is a part."

An interesting attempt is made to define the area of "ecological economics" and distinguish it from other, conventional approaches. But the effort, replete though it is with catch phrases, such as that this is a "new transdisciplinary field of study" that focuses on "problems, rather than particular intellectual tools," is less than entirely successful.

The core point made is that given individual tastes and available technology, conventional economics is too narrowly focussed on the outcomes of interactions through the market of consumers and producers. Conventional economics takes the natural resource base to be limitless because of the possibilities of technological progress and substituability. On the other hand, conventional ecology focusses on the interaction of living species with nature and considers the resource base as limited. But it treats humans as just another species and therefore is unable to deal adequately with the whys and wherefores of the human impact on the ecological system.

Of course, this divide has narrowed somewhat in recent times, with ecologists drifting into policy issues through "environmental impact analysis" and economists spawning new specialisations: for example, resource economics (which has the opposite concern -- the study of the impact of economic activity on the ecosystem).

But in trying to set up a whole new field of study, the authors are clearly not satisfied with the outgrowths from their respective conventional bases. Their main concerns seem to be how to marry the evolutionary perspective of ecologists with normal economic analysis and accounting and how to move towards an institutional approach, since it is only collectively that human beings can translate their awareness of ecological problems into effective policy or actions.

However, beyond this statement of intent and some interesting insights, neither the introductory essay nor any of the other papers in the book provides a rigorous methodological perspective for the project.

Consequently, most of the book is devoted to issues relating to measurement, accounting and evaluation of data. The papers by Norgaard and Howarth; Serafy, Peskin, Heuting, Braat and Steetsskamp, and Feber and Proops go into issues from mainly an economist's perspective while Page, Hannon, Ulanowicz and Cleveland take points of view influenced more by other disciplines.

A dominant theme in the book is that centralised bureaucracies are no better at taking a "long view" and are prone to be less adaptive than decentralised structures. A glaring ommission in the book relates to the implications of any policy aimed at "sustainable" development for the distribution of income and command over natural resources between countries at different levels of development.

The only discussion on developing country problems is relegated to a few case studies (of China and Brazil) with the conceptual chapters largely skirting the central issue of what gives if sustainability requires that the rich must tighten their belts so that the poor can have more. The omission may come naturally to much of the academic community in the West, but it becomes conspicuous in a volume that is the outcome of a conference co-sponsored by the World Bank, which was then engaged in bringing out a World Development Report addressed specifically to the issues of environment and development.

Abhijit Sen is Associate Professor with Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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