It is time for a new research agenda to examine the worldview and ethics of ecological economics. Ethics must be central to any economic theory, and, if not addressed, our economy (and society) will stay on its present, destructive course and we will be unlikely to reach a truly sustainable future. An ecological or Earth ethics is now vital for the survival of life on Earth.
Early scholarship on ecological economics (EE) accepted that the economy must operate within ecological limits. Its most thorough proponent is Herman Daly, who proposed a steady state economy focused on sustainable scale, an ecologically sustainable population, low resource use and greater equity. This focus on operating within ecological limits seems to have weakened over time in other, subsequent ecological economic models.
What is the ethics of ecological economics?
Originally, economics started as a branch of ‘moral philosophy’, and ethics was at least as important as the analytic content. However, economic theory became weighed down with abstruse mathematical modelling, with little relationship to the real world. Neoclassical economics accepted no limits and did not ascribe nature any intrinsic value, hence limitless growth became the goal.
So what about EE? Several definitions of EE centre around the economy having to operate within ecological limits, consistent with its early iterations. Yet, the meaning of EE seems to have changed over the years, diverging away from the early vision. Some recent models in EE no longer reflect a key focus on ecological limits. Six models are compared below.
It can be seen that only one (occasionally two) models openly discuss population, a key driver of unsustainability. All focus on reducing resource use, however only two include combating consumerism (the steady state economy model also considers advertising). All focus on greater equity (for humans) but only two unequivocally define themselves as not being ‘engines of growth’. The focus on ecological limits is thus not strong in most of these models (despite the fact that doughnut economics includes ‘planetary boundaries’, it still avoids foregrounding population). What about ecological ethics?
As you can see in the above, most models of ‘ecological economics’ remain firmly anthropocentric (even if only implicitly so through their assumptions and language). The only model that overtly accepts the intrinsic value of nature is the steady state economy. Intrinsic value is not discussed by the other models, and justice and equity are seen as being purely for humans. Though EE did discuss ecological ethics early on as part of the steady state economy, this has been virtually absent in other models. However, ecological ethics could be resurrected.
A new research agenda to bring ecological ethics into ecological economics
If EE were to operate based on the acceptance of ecological ethics, there are various things its research agenda could work on:
- EE can foreground its commitment to ecocentrism, ecological ethics, and ecojustice. Rather than ecological ethics being a hidden taboo, it could become the common ethical underpinning of EE.
- If EE were again to foreground ecological limits (in addition to foregrounding ecological ethics), it would have to consider the key drivers of unsustainability. Environmental science has long referred to the formula, Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology, which foregrounds overpopulation and overconsumption as drivers of unsustainability. Neither EE nor ecological ethics can afford to ignore or deny the centrality of either.
- EE should develop a research agenda to consider the extent to which it has been indoctrinated by anthropocentric and neoliberal ideology.
- The commodification of nature via ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ is in full swing; indeed it is promoted by some ecological economists. EE could examine whether and how much anthropocentric and neoliberal ideologies drive this commodification of nature. It has been suggested that the entrenchment of a strong anthropocentrism has caused ecocide.
- EE could apply ecojustice to the issue of nature conservation through the support of the ‘Half Earth’ vision, where half the world’s terrestrial surface is protected in conservation reserves.
- EE could research the ‘Rights of Nature’ and Earth jurisprudence.
- EE could research why economics remains stuck in the ‘endless growth mantra’, when clearly we live on a finitely resourced planet.
- EE could research the deep denial currently operating within both society and mainstream economics (and also perhaps EE) regarding the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet.
- EE could research why society – if it considers ‘justice’ – speaks only of social justice, ignoring the need for ecojustice.
- One expanding topic of interest that EE should research is the growing idea of ecodemocracy, where nature is given representation in governance systems (see www.ecodemocracy.net).
Economics was once considered part of moral philosophy. Since then, economics has become dominated by anthropocentrism. Surprisingly, EE also rarely considers its worldview and ethics. It is time this changed. An ecocentric worldview that accepts a duty of care towards nature is far more likely to practically retain functioning ecosystems capable of supporting human society. Similarly, ecological ethics sits far better with an ecological economics that accepts the reality of ecological limits. Accepting this reality, EE cannot rationally support the mantra of endless physical growth on a finite planet. Hence the ethics of EE needs to embrace keeping the living world intact. Accordingly, EE needs to foreground the elephant in the room – worldview and ethics. Society’s current anthropocentric and neoliberal worldview has pushed society way beyond the sustainable ecological limits that EE originally argued for.
- Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Braat L., et al., ‘Twenty years of ecosystem services: How far have we come and how far do we still need to go?’ (2017) 28 Ecosystem Services 1–16
- Daly, H., Steady State Economics (Washington: Island Press, 1991)
- Daly, H., From Uneconomic Growth to the Steady State Economy (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2014a)
- Daly, H., ‘The use and abuse of the “natural capital” concept’ (November 13, 2014b) The Daly News https://steadystate.org/use-and-abuse-of-the-natural-capital-concept/ (accessed 13th July 2018)
- Rolston III, H., A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth (New York: Routledge, 2012)
- Twomey, P. and Washington, H. ‘Relating the Steady State Economy to the Green, Circular and Blue Economies’, in A Future Beyond Growth: Towards a Steady State Economy, H. Washington and P. Twomey, eds (London: Routledge, 2016)
- Washington, H., A Sense of Wonder Towards Nature: Healing the Planet through Belonging (London: Routledge, 2018)
- Washington, H., ‘Ecosystem Services – a key step forward or anthropocentrism’s ‘Trojan Horse’ in conservation?’ in Conservation: Integrating Social and Ecological Justice, Kopnina, H. and Washington, H., eds (New York: Springer, 2019 forthcoming)
- Wilson, E.O., Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (New York: Liveright/Norton, 2016)