Are there viable synergies between ecology and economics?

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My mind was drawn to an old issue made new again in a recent flyer for a conference. The BES is hosting a conference exploring the interactions between ecology and economics. They tagline is that there is far too little by way of interaction and that there are numerous ideas that each could teach/learn from, the other. On the surface, this is a great idea and any exploration between the two is going to yield insights. There might well be models that each could use with benefit but this also assumes a natural partnership. Transference doesn’t just happen because we want it to!

From that perspective, not a sceptic actually, more of a here-we-go-again caution, I carried out a small piece of research to see what common ground the two disciplines might have. A long and rather interesting piece landed first in the search and dealt with, as they saw it, the ‘rise and fall of ecological economics‘. For those of us whose knowledge went back, in a practical sense, to the days of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, the initial view was one of pessimism, the idea that we were outstripping the capacity of the Earth to provide a healthy environment (as encapsulated in texts like Limits to Growth). This gave rise to early computer modelling and was hugely influential in its early days. Subsequent flaws were seized upon in a time of economic constraint and the whole notion of environmentalism slowed and virtually stopped (helped by the neo-liberal governments in the UK and USA). Around 1982, there was a renewed hope about a link between environment and economics, giving rise new areas to investigate. As happens with any form new lifeform, evolution was rapid, in this case giving rise to a whole new field of study, journals, societies etc. The aim was to create a new discipline that bridged the gap, creating a market capitalism that respected the natural limits of the environment. Part of this was a genuine desire, but part must also have been a need to distance themselves from the wildly-popular, but increasingly discredited work surrounding Limits and Blueprint for Survival.

Moving forward, we see the rise, under the guidance of a leading light in ecological economics, of the notion of ecosystem services. In a classic paper, Costanza et al put forward the notion that the environment could be valued in a classical economic sense – in this case, cUS$33tn. The idea was appealing from the start – it gave a monetary value for that which had traditionally been seen as a free good. Conservation, in reality just an exercise justifying the maintenance of selected species, could rely not on some idea of food webs, or even an ethical consideration of the world (although these are both valid) but on a real dollar value which could be seen as a “true” measure of its worth. The economic side of the equation also seemed to gain. Here were valid economic tools being used to address a problem that was increasingly valued by customers, share-holders etc. and shown best by the rise of triple-bottom line reporting.

There remains a fundamental stumbling block on both sides. The notion of the perfect evolution of ecosystems, shown best in concepts like succession, is coming under attack from ideas such as non-linear dynamics (or chaos theory in simple terms). The apparent redundancy in food webs (and the sheer difficulty in making comprehensive ones) suggests that the ecosystem is not an easy concept to pin down. Even more radical is the notion that ecosystems  are just random gatherings of plants. On the economic side, the difficulty of modelling on the finer scales means that any resultant picture is likely to be incomplete. The rise of micro-scale trading has left many wondering what actually drives the economic system.

Thus we find two disciplines, each with their own advantages and problems, aiming to learn from one another. This is laudable but from the perspective of the layman, each should first seek to create its own worldview that best represents the actual situation before attempting any cross-fertilisation. The potential is great as is the need, but we need to know what it is we are modelling and where we need to go.  If the meeting throws up questions like this as well as the more obvious ideas of modelling, then it will be a useful start to the new dialogue. I wish them well.




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