You want it quick, good and cheap? Choose two

By David Hay

Share article

My engagement with ecological economics began in 2007 when I worked as a policy adviser at Manukau City Council, in Auckland. I was asked to respond to a citizen's question: “What is the sustainable population of Manukau City?”

My answer was that it depends: Population size, Standard of living, and the Carrying capacity of the ecosystem are three interdependent variables.  It’s like a poster I once saw on the wall of a garage mechanic, which said: “So you want it cheap, quick and good? Choose two.”

When I called the citizen to respond to their question, it turned out they were only concerned about whether new immigrants would pay their fair share of rates. Oh well.

Nevertheless, I became interested in the issue and soon came up with the idea of a “Strong sustainability Equation” which was very similar to the well-known I=PAT identity (the human Impact on the environment is a function of Population, Affluence and Technology).

Only I hadn’t heard of I=PAT yet, so I put E (the number of planet Earths) on the left side of the equation, following the work of the Global Footprint Network. I used GDP per capita instead of “affluence”, and subsumed Technology into the production function for GDP (or Y).  And I made it into an inequality, because E is a ‘hard budget constraint’.

So now I had as the Strong Sustainability Equation: E ≥ Y/P.P. I also had graphic from the Global Footprint Network illustrating that E was currently less than the impact of human economic activity, showing the trend over time.

So I extended that, by adding three scenarios, showing how sustainability might be restored, and gave a presentation to the Executive Leadership Team at the city council. Nothing much came of it (except I was not invited to give presentations to ELT meetings after that).  I used the presentation a couple of times after that in Green Party seminars, but nothing much came of that either. Many Green Party members had a deep mistrust, and little understanding, of economic theory.

In about 2016, I came up with the idea of introducing Ecological Economics into New Zealand’s high school curriculum. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority provides clear guidance, and a seemingly straightforward process, for formulating “Achievement Standards” for the “National Certificate of Educational Achievement” and including them into the curriculum.  I wrote up an idea for a project to do that, which I titled “Therefore Change”, acknowledging a quip attributed to John Maynard Keynes.

Earlier this year I pitched that idea to Dr Boyd Blackwell, Chair of ANZSEE, and was promptly co-opted onto the ANZSEE executive.

My 2019 conference presentation covers both of the topics above: the project to introduce Ecological Economics concepts into the mainstream teaching of high school economics in New Zealand, and my proposal to use the Strong Sustainability Equation as a basis for doing that.

David Hay has a Masters in Public Policy from Victoria University of Wellington and conjoint bachelors degrees in Commerce and Arts. He has 25 years experience as a policy analyst in central and local government, and as an independent consultant. David stood for parliament, for the Green Party, in 2008 and 2011, and was a member of the party’s policy committee from 2007 to 2013. He has a deep interest in how economic theory influences public policy decision-makers and their decisions.