Meaning and ethics in ecological economics

By Haydn Washington

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We need to know what we mean by ecological economics (EE) and we also need to consider its ethics. EE has a problem – pluralism is out of control, to the extent that it runs the risk of meaning all things to all people. Hence we need to confirm what we really mean by EE. The original thinkers in EE such as Herman Daly were clear that EE was an economics that operated within ecological limits. However, recent models associated with EE do not make this clear.

Model associated with EE Focus on population?Focus on reducing resource use?Focus reducing consumerism and advertising?Focus on equity?Refuses to be  an ‘engine of growth?’
Steady state economyYESYESYESYESYES
Circular economyNOYESNOYESNO

The key problem here is in regard to population and consumerism, where many so-called EE models do not foreground either. Discussion of population seems to be a taboo. All models want to reduce resource use, yet many fail to discuss or seek to change consumerism. All models agree on the need for greater equity (at least for humans). However, only two models are clear that they are not an engine for further growth (the steady state economy and degrowth). Environmental scientists use the equation: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology to assess environmental impact. Accordingly, society cannot live within ecological limits if it ignores population as a driver of impact. Similarly, seeking to reduce resource use without tackling the worldview of consumerism is bound to lead to failure. Hence many models (loosely described as being within EE) fail to promote an economy that can actually operate within ecological limits. We now need to confirm that operating within ecological limits is the clear and unambiguous meaning of EE. That means stopping the denial regarding population and consumerism.

The other major problem EE must face is in regard to its worldview and ethics. Ecological economist Clive Spash notes that EE has had historical problems with developing a coherent theory of value, and that an encompassing pluralism has led to a resulting incoherence, and a brushing over of fundamental conflicts between different worldviews. EE should now break-free from neoliberalism, including the commodification of nature. It is time for a ‘new’ ecological economics which foregrounds ecocentrism, ecological ethics and ecojustice. These can assist society to reach a sustainable future where it accepts nature’s intrinsic value and extends respect to, and an obligation to protect, the nonhuman world. Considering the models in terms of their ethics, the model that comes close to foregrounding ecological ethics is the steady state economy. Most of the others explicitly (or implicitly) retain a strong anthropocentric bias. I suggest four approaches to ‘moving forward’, being: achieving ecocentrism; advocating Earth jurisprudence; supporting ecojustice; and dealing ethically with the commodification of nature. A rejuvenated EE should de-commodify nature and focus on sustainable and ethical relationships between the human and the nonhuman worlds. The idea of ‘People’s Contributions to Nature’ needs to replace the anthropocentric ‘Nature’s Contributions to People’ (= ecosystem services). For both practical and ethical reasons, I believe that EE needs to reevaluate its worldview and ethics. A possible research agenda is:

  • Adopting ecocentrism and ecological ethics to give EE the overall coherent vision that it has lacked since its inception.
  • EE should undertake a research agenda to consider to what extent it has been influenced by anthropocentrism and subsumed into using neoliberal ideology.
  • EE should foreground ecological limits, plus foreground ecological ethics and ecojustice. Part of this is considering the key drivers of unsustainability such as overpopulation and overconsumption.
  • EE should explore connections with Earth jurisprudence, particularly the broader call for systemic change to modern society’s governance systems.
  • EE should adopt ecojustice and the need to integrate this with social justice.
  • EE should urgently research what the economics of an ecologically-sustainable (or regenerative) agriculture might be (organic farming, agroecology, permaculture, etc.).
  • EE could apply ecojustice to the issue of nature conservation through the support of the ‘Nature Needs Half’ vision where half of terrestrial lands are protected in conservation reserves (
  • The commodification of nature is in full swing, indeed it is promoted by some ecological economists (and even some ecologists). EE should examine to what extent this is driven by anthropocentric and neoliberal ideology and ethics.
  • EE should expand existing research about the deep denial currently operating within both society and orthodox economics (and also perhaps EE) in regard to the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet.
  • EE could research why society and governments – if they speak of ‘justice’ – speak only of social justice, and ignore the need for ‘ecojustice’ for nonhuman nature. If ecojustice was commonly accepted by academia as being entwined with social justice (as society is fully dependent on nature) then economics (of whatever type) would be more likely to treat nature in a respectful and sustainable way. There are thus very practical aspects (in terms of sustainability) as to why we need to operate from an ecojustice approach.
  • One topic of interest for EE to research is the growing idea of ecodemocracy (, where nature is given representation in governance systems.
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Haydn Washington is an environmental scientist and writer who also writes extensively on ecological economics and ecological ethics. He is Co-Director of CASSE NSW, and is an Adjunct Lecturer at the PANGEA Research Centre, BEES, UNSW. Haydn is the author of 7 books on environmental issues.