Ecological Economics

Excerpt from Rachel’s: Is It Time for A New Economics?

It is now time — long past time — for a Copernican/Darwinian
revolution in economics in which humans cease to be seen as the
privileged species, homo economicus — at the center of everything and
exempt from the limits of the biosphere. Instead, humans need to be
placed within the same systems that nourish every plant and animal on
Earth. In this case, however, there is a twist. Far from having to
realize how insignificant and unexceptional we are, we must come to
understand that we have evolved into a different species which
William Catton Jr. has dubbed “homo colossus,” a man-tool hybrid
capable of destroying the very habitat that sustains us and so many
other creatures.

The simple fact is that the economy cannot become bigger than the
biosphere. (There are, of course, some believers in Star Trek-style
fantasies who envision us exploiting and living on other planets. To
such people may I suggest that they get started on this project right
away since we are running out of time to turn things around here on
Earth). Humans already consume at least 40 percent of the
photosynthetic product of the Earth each year and, that’s an estimate
from 1986 when the population was 5.5 billion. Now it is 6.5 billion.
And it’s projected to be close to 9 billion by 2050. Could we
increase our share of the world’s photosynthetic product to 60 percent
as the 2050 projection implies and still survive? Would we wipe out
species upon whom we depend, but of which we currently know nothing?
Even if we could transition away from finite fossil fuels, would
finding a theoretical, but as yet unknown, unlimited and pollutionless
energy source really solve our problems? Or would it simply cause us
to bump up against other limits?

When you undergo the Copernican/Darwinian revolution in economics, you
cannot avoid such questions. The physical world and its limits must be
accounted for. To that end some researchers are proposing a
comprehensive biophysical economics. One outline of an approach to
such a problem can be found in an article entitled “The Need to
Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics.”

The field of study now known as ecological economics has been
working on the problem in a piecemeal fashion for a long time. But
even though a comprehensive biophysical economics may never be
possible — since it would require understanding everything about the
natural world — we must attempt the feat for two reasons: 1) to
expose the dire peril in which neoclassical economics has placed us
and 2) to suggest ways to build an economy that can operate
indefinitely on the Earth and not one that only functions until it
destroys the Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

The French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand is reputed to have
said, “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them.” It is
to this problem that economists must now turn themselves.

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