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Thinking ecologically with economics

Alison's picture

Thinking ecologically with economics

Economics and ecology has the same word root, but their meanings and applications are divergent. Ecology is “the study of the relations of animals and plants to their organic and inorganic environments”, and economics is “the study of how humans make their livings, how they satisfy their needs and desires.”(Common and Stagl, 1) Based on these concepts, thinking with economics concepts partially means that the priorities for humanity to take every actions are efficiency and self-interests as economists regard people as rational men who autonomously behave in exact accordance with their rational self-interests. In opposite, thinking with ecological intelligence requires human to "takes account of relationships, contexts, as well as the impacts of ideas and behaviors on other members of the cultural and natural systems" (Bowers, 45). From this perspective, thinking ecologically and thinking economically seems contradicted to each other. However, economics helps to publicize ecological intelligence because of the application of economics in real world, even thought they seems to be against each other in some perspectives.

It is true that there are not enough ecological intelligence in economics, especially in the elementary stage, and my economic class proves this fact. We learned some linked effects such as how does actions of individuals change the overall economic environment and the following subsequences, but the ecological intelligence is still too small to omit it. In economics, people interconnect with each other but not interconnect with other components in the world such as environment. According to the conversation with my professor, environmental economics that discusses economic effects of national or local environmental policies around the world will not be taught in an introduction class of economics. This idea that Environmental economics is regarded as a higher level class reflects that environment is not a part of the basic concerns of economic studies. It seems that one does not need to think with ecological intelligence when they think economically with the elementary economic ideas. Moreover, thinking economically and thing ecologically seem like an either-or situation in many circumstances. Take my decision as an example, when I decided to take a plane to go home in winter break, I made this choice based on my benefit and relative cost such as the price of the ticket and the time I spend on the plane. I did not recall the underlying pollution of my behavior that I supposed to consider if I think ecologically. If I think with both economics and ecological intelligence, I need to choose from coming home and protecting environment. As a result, I, one of the population, decide to think economically between these two choices. 

From this point of view, thinking economically seems prevent people from thinking ecologically as self interests and the ecological intelligence are two contradicted ideas due to the difference between ecology and economics. However, combining economics and ecological intelligence gives people a hint to step towards ecological intelligence. As economics is such a large part of human’s life, people get influenced by the economic ideas anyway and think economically even though they have no knowledge of this field as their lives are bond to economics closely. For example, many people, including me, compare cost and profit in economic activities and other activities in daily life, thus we think with economics unconsciously. However, if people shift to thinking both economically and ecologically, the underlying ecological intelligence is automatically a part of their behaviors and decisions; people are able to related themselves to the surrounding environment and the ecosystem and achieve the ecological intelligence.

There is already a combination of economics and ecological intelligence. A new branch of economics called ecological economics emerges in recent years because of the increasing awareness of environment disruption and environmental protection, and the existence of it explains how to combine economics and ecological intelligence. Ecological economics, from Ecological Economics: An Introduction, is defined as a “study of the relationships between human house-keeping and nature’s housekeeping” and an “interactions between economic systems and ecological systems.”(Common and Stagl, 1) With ecological intelligence, interactions between humans when they conduct economic activities are much more complex. It is not a simple question about how to satisfy one’s need and desire or at which price and quantities one can get the maximum profit; it requires people to concern the relationships between humans, the validity of the actions and the possible influence to the whole ecosystem. In addition, ecological economics requires people to regard human as a species of animal in the large environment and economics as a subsystem in the whole ecosystem. Once people accept ecological economics and use these ideas to guide their behaviors just as use economic ideas to make decisions, people will apply ecological intelligence automatically.

However, it is not easy to shift to thinking ecologically in economics. Although ecological economics is called a “new branch” in economics, it actually “questioned fundamental mainstream economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis”(Wikipedia). For example, economics was categorized into positive economics and normative economics. Positive economics focus on the study of how the economy works and normative economics takes values, morals and realities into account and concerns more about the practice of recommending policies to solve economic problems. In the introduction of economics, we learn more about concepts and solve problems primarily by eliminating all other “irrelevant” social issues, but in ecological economics, economics is more normative rather than positive. In addition, the supporters of ecological economics argue that the system of classic economics need to be changed. Frederick Soddy, a strong supporter of ecological economics and a Nobel prize-winning chemist, criticized the prevailing the economy is a perpetual motion machine to generate infinite wealth. He said that the economic affairs “isn’t simply greed, isn’t simply ignorance, isn’t a failure of regulatory diligence, but a systemic flaw in how our economy finances itself.” (Zencey) 

To sum up, even though the validity and correctness of ecological economics has not been testified, it provides human being a new perspective to make people think with ecological intelligence and take “other members of the cultural and natural systems" (Bowers, 45) into account instead of sole “self-interests” in many situations. Although there is a long way to go to shift the system if it is possible, however, the emergence of ecological economics is a good sign of humans’ awareness to connect ourselves with other components in the world. With the help of ecological economics, we can think ecologically and achieve the harmony with the ecosystem in every scale.


Works Cited

Bruno Latour. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History 45, 1 (Winter 2014): 1-18.

Common, Michael and Stagl, Sigrid, Ecological Economics: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005

Zencey, Eric. (2009, April 12). Op-ed. New York Times, p. WK9. Accessed: December 23, 2012.