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Thinking Ecologically with Economics

Alison's picture

ESem Paper #12 

December 6, 2015

Thinking Ecologically with Economics

Ecological intelligence puts people in a large context: individuals are not independent anymore, they are related together and connected to the overall environment. “There is no isolated events, facts, actions.”(Bower, 47) Everything is linked and everything causes the other one. “Everything…is a part of a larger system of information exchanges.”(Bower, 47) Thus 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). In opposite, although economics has the same word root with ecology, the meanings and applications are totally divergent. 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. From this perspective,  thinking ecologically and thinking economically seems contradicted to each other, and ecological intelligence is not that obvious in the introduction of economics.

My economic class prove the relationship between thinking ecologically and thinking economically. There are little ecological intelligence in the introduction of economics. Although we learned some linked effects such as how does actions of individuals change the overall economic environment and the following subsequences, the ecological intelligence is still so small that we could omit it. Besides some concepts we learnt but never used and related to other cases in textbook, 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 like thinking economically with the elementary economic ideas, one does not need to think with ecological intelligence.

Take my action as an example, I choose to take a plane to go back home in winter break. When I use economic concept to calculate my cost, I will consider my interests and decide based on my benefit and relative cost. I will care the money I cost to buy the ticket, the time I spend on the plane, and even the money I spend if I am going to stay at the campus comparing to my first choice. However, if I think ecologically, I should recall my impact to the environment. Even though I am aware of the underlying pollution of a flight: the estimated carbon emission of an intercontinental flight is as much as that of the annual carbon emission of a car as well as the subsequent impact of greenhouse effect, it will not effect my decision. Thinking ecologically and thinking economically seems separate and I, as one of the population around the world, intend to think economically. I have the awareness to protect environment, but the fact is, when I’m making decisions, I will consider the things closely bond to me at first. The similar things happened in the Collapse of Western Civilization and Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. Both writers reveal that people lack the ability to see the awakening emergency, and when the danger is just round the corner and people realize it, there is not enough time to take actions. Among those cases, it is not unrealistic to say that most people care more about themselves and the things sensible to them, which is the self-interests in economics. I buy the ticket to home because I want to meet my family without take the pollution I might cause in the process into account, and people only start taking actions to save the world because the environment has already threatened their lives. 

It seems that thinking economically prevent people from thinking ecologically. However, thinking with economics is the key to make people take steps towards ecological intelligence, as the biggest problem to think ecologically is to treated the ecological system as ourselves. It is not very difficult to related different events together, respect environment and “think” different cultures when we take actions, but the problem is whether we will really act based on what we think and ecological intelligence. If we combine the ecological intelligence and the economical thoughts, regard “other members of the cultural and natural systems" (Bowers, 45) as important as ourselves and include them in our self-interests, 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.


Anne Dalke's picture

as you know, I've been fascinated by this topic since you first took it up -- not in the least because (as you observe) "ecology" and "economics" both come from the same root, meaning "home," and yet the two fields have taken the study of that concept in such different directions, with ecology focusing on the interconnections among us all, while economics is based on a presumption about the efficient, self-interested rationality of autonomous agents. It is particularly striking to me to get your report that "thinking ecologically" is not considered, in @ least one class, taught by one BMC professor, to be an essential part, or even a concern of an "introduction to economics," but rather a "higher-level course," something that comes later, as an add-on, rather than being built into the discipline from the beginning stages. Even more striking is your musing that "thinking economically" doesn't just neglect, but actively "prevents people from thinking ecologically," or actively intervenes in the sort of long-term, everything-connected perspective that environmental responsibility demands.

Are you interested in revising this paper for your final project? Trying to think some more about how, concretely, we can "combine ecological intelligence and economical thoughts? Might you do this by re-thinking some portion of your intro econ class, making it more ecologically intelligent? Or might you want to read about the field of evironmental economics, and do a sort of research report?