Ecolomics – a potential love-child between Economy and Ecology?

I know that I tend not to be very useful in this “debate” over climate change. I often fail to reference myself clearly and that, being on side with the overwhelming science, isn’t helpful. However, as far as I am concerned, there are excellent resources already out there and for the general public, Skeptical Science has to be one of my favourite blogs for logical and well founded rebuttals for the many doubt industry slurs on the truth of climate science.

To be as frank as I possibly can; if you’re not already aware of the blinding evidence, nothing I can add will be of any use.

That said, I like to think of my contributions as being blunt, assuming the reader understands enough of the climate science to be thoroughly appalled by members of our species that would have us slam blindly into a future of hardship rather than adaptation. It is, in my opinion, time for human-kind to stop changing the world to suit our needs and to develop on our increasing understanding to change our practices to better suit our environment.

Very recently, I’ve been reading Opportunities Beyond Carbon, which I got from my mother a while ago but was slow to approach. I’m only 30 odd pages in, but already I’ve found myself thinking more about the required changes rather getting so caught-up with this mock of a debate (which, I suppose, is yet another way for the doubt crew have managed to shift people away from climate science; you have many sciences involved in public “debates” with various excellent public speakers without any climate science credentials instead of doing what they do best, ie. science). It seems to me to be what we should be talking about is this change. Regardless of the climate science and predictions of our possible future, only a fool would be ignorant enough to fail to see that we are long overdue for changes in how we treat the environment.

A while ago, my boss brought to my attention an article written by Dr. Rob Morrison; Economy and ecology are unevenly match siblings. With all that I have been reading regarding this “debate” and more so the genuine science in recent months, I’ve found myself thinking about economy and ecology again and wondering if this is the heart of the problem and what in turn could be done about it.

I’m not sure that I agree that ecology and economy are just siblings.

As Dr. Morrison rightly states though, economy will argue that survival is growth while recycling is the core to ecological survival. One argues to exploit, the other to conserve. However, maybe they are not two candidates on stage, trying to oust the other, but two extremes of the one point; survival. If humanity was to over exploit (as various groups have in the past), as a whole, we would eventually suffer a depletion of resources, yet to sacrifice all in the name of conservation, we would no doubt lose as greatly; due to restrictions to resource use.

What really started me thinking about this was the idea of the farmer. It is not necessarily how many seeds are planted that dictate the return on yield. In fact, plant too many and the quality of the yield may be reduced simply due to a lack of space requirement (ie. competing for light etc). Just as likely, one year’s planting may not suit the next year’s due to water and/or nutrient availability. In fact, planting less may provide greater returns (even if the yield is still less per weight and/or number) simply due to the quality of the yield. It all comes down to understanding the available resources, the requirements of the market and the desired returns of the farmer. This seems to me to be a situation heavily involved in both ecology and the economy.

Maybe what is missing is a common language between both in this yin and yang relationship. If we are to truly be masters of our world, an appropriate language must be developed. I cannot help but wonder just at how far such a shift in our understanding and approach could potentially take us.

Here’s an example;

Let’s say different environmental factors were treated in a similar fashion to money; such as sunlight is a appreciating profit; a certain forest, if treated or “invested in” sustainably, had a certain resource value, but also held exploitable eco-tourism (and the spin-offs) value; “investing” in wetlands could process a certain amount of water and also provide service as nurseries for commercially valuable species and other supporting species; to name a few…

Basically, the argument is that if we stopped looking at the Earth as our toilet and an unending box of treasures to be used up, and we started to understand the value of clean air, sustainable forests, sea grasses and estuaries, etcetera, in a truly enlightened economic sense, we can in a sense bridge the gap between both ecology and economy. To expand on the ideas above; you “invest” in replanting, that in return provides an increase in biodiversity, a potential recapture of CO2, a potential resource for various materials, and an increase to the standard of living (ie. fresher air, psychological benefits/eco-tourism, job creation, etc). You “invest” in wetlands for certain waste waters, they in turn provide greater biodiversity, increased health for estuaries (provided that it is well planned) which in turn increase sea grasses for nurseries increasing biodiversity of coastal regions, thus also increasing standard of living and available resources (eg. commercially valuable fish species).

As part of this, it is natural to assume that being a greener society, more involved in “environmental economics”, and the obvious attention to natural resource management; we would become more aware of our local environment, which we should take be able to take pride in and develop the mentality that it is worth “investing” in; it would increase the eco-tourism dollar of any given natural environment; very likely aid to making better choices to more sustainable living; focus younger generations to think greener and be more active in their lifestyle (ie. outdoors activities); provide jobs (something often threatened with being lost in a greener economy); and no doubt improve the quality of life for all.

Changing the view away from one where that the environment is just our play ground to take for granted will be a difficult one to move beyond; indeed certain religions have been teaching their followers for generations that the world has been made for us to exploit and to get some people to be proactive to change rather than reactive, when no Omni-potent deity saves us from our own mindless actions, will prove to be near impossible.

However, a better understanding of the “environmental economics” should be enough to get policy makers to start the ball rolling. It would probably require a series of workshops with various policy makers, economic experts and ecologists and other scientists from a whole range of Earth science disciplines; by no means a small ask! We are, after all, talking about true appreciation of the value of Earth and a fundamental change to better balance ecology with economy which, as Dr. Morrison puts it, tends to be “a bit of a bully”. Certainly, we are talking about a fundamental and radical shift away from the basis to much of our social structure and I tend to be pessimistic in general, but I’ve gained a health dose of optimism, I guess, from  Opportunities Beyond Carbon. I can see the potential in a structure where the whole process – from solar and geothermal energy input and natural materials to the food and even the plate itself – are part of the economic structure rather than simply the end product.

The argument over climate change in the public arena seems to me, futile and to be one inspired by the wrong reasons. There is ever mounting evidence of change and modelling whatever “tipping point” seems irrelevant to the need for change or the debate in general (we should move beyond the classic habit of dooms-day predictions and dogmatic nightmares of Armageddon and focus on the here and now and our ability to truly be masters of this plants rather than gluttons at a food-trough).

The climate science carried out is ethical, more transparent than the books kept by most private businesses and most importantly an indication that we know too much now to be excused by ignorance. However the “debate” carried out for the public is little more than doubt creation. Most of us don’t need to know about every little factor of the science; indeed most of us know next to nothing of the science behind most of the tools we use to live our lives. We trust that the science is good. The same should apply here.

If we decide not to make serious changes to the way in which we live and, in my opinion, do not adopt attitudes that put greater economic “value” to ecology and natural resources, there will be no, “I told you so,” from anyone on any side of the debate, only an unavoidable unification in regret and disgust. Look at what we have lost already through our trampling on all other species, debate is mere entertainment; action is the only sustainable option.


5 thoughts on “Ecolomics – a potential love-child between Economy and Ecology?

  1. Great discussion – I agree that the whole argument about whether or not the Earth is warming is a dangerous (but probably necessary, at this point) distraction from the real work of moving towards a carbon-free way of life. I would highly recommend “Geography of Hope” by Chris Turner, if you haven’t already read it, as a book to read if you need a dose of optimism about the changes that are already happening around the world. I will also check out “Opportunities Beyond Carbon” asap.


    1. I’ve had the same discussion with a few of my colleagues of late with the same feedback (ie. that the discussion about climate change is needed) and also they rightfully point out how unlikely it would be to have the required workshop approach to a more ecological economy.
      However, on the first point I agree that a discussion and even debate should be carried out – but by those in a position of understanding and with education aimed first at policy makers and then in a broader way to the general public. My main concern is that you have certain individuals, with their own agendas, trotting around the globe on, what seems from their evidence base, to be a denial campaign rather than genuine scepticism based on good evidence. Experts are more or less forced in public debates with these people (who are often very good public speakers) which in a way gives them a certain validity through association; al of which detracts from the good science carried out and also the imperative need to be more sustainable in our actions, not only in regards to carbon emission, but across most aspects of our interaction with the environment. It seems strange; at the start of the millennium, there was this emerging green culture, which looks to has more or less fizzled out as nothing more than a fad.
      On the second point, I continue to think that regardless of the difficulties, it is the only way that we can move passed the differences with ecology and current economic principles. I don’t think it’ll happen in the hoped-for approach mentioned in my blog and even if implemented, it would certainly be messy to begin with. I guess what should happen is a private interest group of experts committed to the idea to work together to work something out and try it out at a trial size. There would be a lot of trial and error, but that would be due to the fact that it is entirely new. However, I feel confident that, for our species to remain in the position that we are, the years of over-exploitation are over and we will eventually need to balance the books better. This is the closest I tend to get to optimism! 🙂
      Thanks for the heads up on “Geography of Hope” – I’ve placed it on my list to read!


  2. Great post, it sounds like you’re really tangling with this issue – I’m at a similar point, trying to come to grips with it, not ‘the science’ so much as how it fits into society and our future. You’re probably familiar with the tragedy of the commons, and it’s so apt: the exploitation of common resources, along with the externalisation of environmental costs, fuels economic growth, but doesn’t pay heed to the future.

    I attended a presentation recently about the potential linking of important rainforest habitats in north Queensland, and one (fairly contrary) Professor put his hand up and said “Why would we bother? What does it matter if the frogs go extinct?” It’s a tough question, and hits home at a difficulty with environmental economics: economics looks for value first (ecosystem services), while an environmental perspective starts with intrinsic value. He wasn’t advocating extinction, but rather playing the devil’s advocate: does it really matter how many species we tread on, if they don’t help the natural systems function in a way that benefits humanity?

    Anyway, look forward to your continued musings!


    1. I’ve actually come across a number of posts regarding the tragedy of the commons recently.. Maybe it’s evidence that many others are coming to the same conclusion; that they’re fed-up with debating with an opposing view that refuses to accept logic; that it’s time to ignore those with an agenda contrary to common sense and indeed survival, and to now focus on the confliction between human exploitations of natural resource and sustainable living.
      I’ve always been a believer that all life is in some way dependent on a wide range of other species; that we too are connected to a wide range of life. Using the frog example; the disappearance of a certain frog species may stop the suppression of mosquito larvae that spread a certain infection.. That’s a simple example, and I’m sure you know a number of case situations (malaria is an easy one to use), but I feel that, like the six degrees of separation, if looked into in more depth, we find a lot of sublet connections. ConservationBytes twitter made me aware of this example of a study, which I found interesting – and exploring these relationships in more detail and bringing it to the public may turn out to be very important in changing the strongly held view that we are masters and truly above other life. It’s just not that simple.
      Cheers David 🙂


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