What does ecological economics teach us about living sustainably?

Environmental and economic perspectives are often framed as being in opposition; economic activity damages the environment, and environmental concerns prevent growth. There is one field of study, though, called ecological economics, which attempts to synthesize both perspectives. It conceives of economic activity as existing within a larger Earth system. Its academics and practitioners therefore require familiarity with both natural and social sciences, the schism between which is one of the deepest in human knowledge. We asked six experts the following question: “What does ecological economics teach us about living sustainably?”

Tania Briceno – Lead Economist, Conservation Strategy Fund

Economies are meant to increase wellbeing and must do so with an understanding of existing ecological limits and possibilities. This is the basic premise of ecological economics. This implies that first, we need to redefine what wellbeing is and how to track improvements towards it. We are currently relying on total spending (i.e. GDP) as the primary goal for economies, with indicators like income disparities or community vibrancy largely neglected. Second, we need to learn about and work with ecological processes, such as waste assimilation, climate regulation, and nutrient cycles in order to use the best available science to plan how to best achieve our wellbeing goals. Ecological economics teaches us to think in an interdisciplinary way and to think deeply about what our ultimate goals as a society are in order to live sustainably and more happily.

Giovanni Baiocchi – Associate Professor, Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland

Fundamentally, ecological economics teaches us that production and consumption impact the environment. It teaches us that to live sustainably, we should value all the life-sustaining benefits that nature provides us but which we usually take for granted. It shows us that there are biophysical limits to growth, but that considerable environmental degradation will take place long before these limits are actually reached. Continuous exponential growth of monetarily valued production and services does not account for losses in quality of life – this is neither necessary nor desirable for living a fulfilling and happy life. We count as GDP growth any sort of spending, whether it be on environmental defense from environmental disasters or on hospital bills from pollution-related illnesses. This means that we might find ourselves paradoxically at the brink of extinction while celebrating yet another year of economic success.

Rigo Melgar-Melgar – PhD Graduate Fellow, Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont

In 1989, ecological economics was founded by ecologists and economists who realized that we needed a paradigm shift in economic thinking. All ecological and economic processes share a biological and physical reality involving low-entropy matter-energy, well-functioning ecosystems, and natural sinks. These processes include production of economic goods and services, as well as the dissipation of high-entropy waste such production inevitably generates. Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary field dedicated to the science and management of sustainability that studies how the economy can serve humans to improve their quality of life, while maintaining a healthy and thriving ecological foundation on which all life depends. The vision of ecological economics is more important than ever because humanity has shifted from an “empty” world to a “full” world; our economic impacts on natural cycles and biodiversity have planetary consequences. Climate change and COVID-19 are two salient examples. 

Joshua Farley – Professor, Community Development and Applied Economics Fellow, Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont

Ecological economics recognizes that all economic production requires energy to transform raw materials from nature into economic products that inevitably break down, wear out, and return to nature as waste. Those raw materials alternatively serve as the structural building blocks of ecosystems. The reconfiguration of ecosystem structure and accumulation of waste emissions degrades ecosystem functions that sustain all life. When ecological costs of additional growth exceed economic benefits, growth becomes uneconomic, reducing our quality of life. 

Sustainability demands a steady state economy that extracts renewable resources no faster than they can regenerate, extracts non-renewables no faster than innovation provides renewable substitutes, and emits waste no faster than ecosystems can absorb it. We must also prioritize the equitable distribution of finite resources for both ethical and practical reasons, since those who cannot meet their basic needs cannot afford to consider future generations. Fortunately, additional material consumption provides few benefits once basic needs – physical and social – are satisfied.

Brian Czech – Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

Ecological economics teaches us that neither economic growth nor degrowth are perpetually sustainable. That leaves the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative. In a steady state economy, population × per capita consumption is stabilized (or mildly fluctuating) and, all else equal, indicated by stabilized GDP. 

Living sustainably, then, means raising (on average) two children per couple and consuming moderately. With higher populations, individuals must be more frugal for a sustainable outcome. When sustainability is a social or national goal, good citizenship is not exhibited by conspicuous consumption!

Humans are more than consumers; they have social and political lives too. Therefore, living sustainably also means advancing the steady state economy as a policy goal. This is necessary because GDP growth is entrenched as a policy goal of the major economies. Unless we accomplish policy reform and international diplomacy toward the steady state economy (“steady statesmanship”), individuals’ sustainability efforts will be eclipsed by pro-growth policies.

Katharine N. Farrell – Associate Professor, Biology Program, Universidad del Rosario, Colombia

While often treated as a sub-field of economics, the vision, history and content of ecological economics are that of a transdiscipline, concerned with the science and management of sustainability. The field has always, since its founding in the 1980s, counted among its contributors a range of disciplines and practitioners. Ecological economists are concerned with theory, study, and practice of sustainability – with providing an ecological foundation for economic policy and an economic foundation for ecological policy. 

The field treats the activities of daily life – securing and making use of the material requisites of human wellbeing, as Alfred Marshall put it – as biological processes. These are understood to be embedded within, dependent upon, and contributing toward (for better or worse) the functioning of Earth’s ecological systems, as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen proposed. This implies paying attention to how we, as individuals and as a species, contribute toward the vitality of the spaces we share with other living beings.