Grounding the economy within the biophysical realities of our finite planet, the heterodox field of ecological economics challenges the neoclassical welfare economics tradition (see Gowdy & Erikson’s definition [13
]) by recognizing the economy as an open subsystem of the larger, materially-closed, global ecosystem. Following the contributions of many scholars, including Kenneth Boulding [111
], Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen [139
], Dennis Meadows et al. [140
], and most notably the efforts of former World Bank economist Herman Daly [40
], the transdiscipline of ecological economics emerged in the 1970’s as an academic field that challenges the primacy of continuous Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in economic theory and political practice [42
]. The discourse ultimately rejects contemporary notions of unlimited growth on a finite planet, emphasizing a materials balance between resources entering and wastes leaving the economy and demanding alternative modes of economic organization that embed the economy within the Earth’s planetary boundaries [142
The notion of sustainable scale is therefore the discipline’s primary point of departure for all analysis, emphasizing the material limits of our Earth’s natural capacities as both resource ‘source’ (e.g., biodiverse forests) and ‘sink’ (e.g., clean atmosphere) [41
]. From this perspective, all economic activity is dependent on the available flow of ecological productivity into the economy in the form of natural resources and out of the economy back to nature once it becomes ‘waste’ (i.e., when no longer relevant for human use). Recognizing the limited capacities of sources and sinks to provide and absorb our activities and wastes, ecological economics asserts that there are indeed limits to growth [129
]. Further, ecological economists mandate the intentional ‘degrowth’ of affluent regions and nations towards an “equitable downscaling of throughput” [149
] (p. 4.7), such as material and energy consumption, allowing for the equitable distribution of human and environmental welfare around the world. This conceptualization is drastically different from the very theories by which our global markets are governed today, where exponential economic growth in real GDP is not only assumed to be possible but also desirable [150
Research in ecological economics aims to forge pathways towards a sustainable economy that dramatically reduces the material throughput, energy consumption, and environmental impact of economic activity while maintaining people’s standard of living, reducing inequality and achieving high levels of employment. By recognizing the economy as embedded within the natural environment, ecological economics theorizes alternative, ‘post-growth’ mechanisms for measuring human welfare that emphasize the fair and efficient distribution of financial, material, and spiritual wealth [11
]. Though ecological economics invites the profound questioning of the patterns of production, consumption, and waste in conventional forms of economy, the ‘learned ignorance’ perpetuated in Western, epistemologically androcentric disciplines, including ecological economics, largely limits its theoretical analysis and practical applications, as we explore below. Through an ecofeminist lens, we reveal implicitly gendered assumptions that uncritically normalize and further entrench oppressive institutions that maintain the capitalist-patriarchy.
4.1. Depoliticized Conceptualizations of Reproduction
Quality carrying (ecological) and caring (social) capacities are preconditions to a healthy economy, which the discourses of intersectional feminisms acutely assert [34
]. While ecological economics emphasizes the biophysical constraints of ecological reproduction, its conceptualizations of reproductive labour as a co-creative process are largely lacking. Theoretical foundations of ecological economics and their lasting impact on the transdiscipline emphasize ecological limits, mandating a conceptualization of nature as homogenous and constant [15
]. The economy depends on the planetary ecosystem to satisfy the demands for raw materials and to absorb the wastes and pollution it generates. For Daly and many other ecological economists, nature is thus the primary limiting factor of economic processes [10
]. But, as Biesecker and Hofmeister reflect:
[Daly’s] concern is to find a “scale” of the economy optimal in terms of scarce natural capital as well as ways to minimize and more efficiently design “throughput quantities” as one element of a comprehensive concept of efficiency. In the conception of natural capital formulated here, nature is viewed as a stock, not as productivity. Under this category nature, in the sense of a self-conserving and ever-changing, living entity, is reified into a constant.
] (p. 1706, our emphasis
This ‘reified’ conceptualization drastically minimizes the social and relational nature of the living planet and in so doing, perpetuates the idea of nature as “dead and malleable,” thus denying its “active dynamic agency” [51
] (p. 124).
Indeed, as Braun asserts, “to speak of nature is to presuppose an ontology” [152
] (p.192)—one that maintains the artificial division between culture and nature. Expanding upon earlier sentiments related to essentialist concerns in ecofeminist discourse, it can be argued that “[t]he very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it” [153
]. Resistance related to identifying humans as
nature is an intriguing phenomenon that continues to haunt Western disciplines across the board. In this sense, society remains “an autonomous realm that obeys its own historical dynamics, while non-humans enter the story only as fetishized commodities or fixed capital” [152
] (p.192). This approach implicitly validates the same principles that sanction extractivist modes of economy by continuing to deny nature’s social standing [154
]. As Katz and Kirby reflect:
By constituting nature as external, these representations and the practices that underlie them, not only enable domination and possession but the ideological potency of this formulation disables political engagement. We need to engage with nature in a way that recognizes that as we produce nature, so do we produce social relations. For us, this means a reinscription of ecology as a culturally mediated social construction and recognition of the everyday material social practices by which we produce our relationship with nature.
] (p. 268, our emphasis
The centrality of scale in ecological economics neglects the socio-cultural dimensions of economy, denies social and ecological co-production and thereby perpetuates the ‘disembedded’ characterization of economy as separate from ecology [21
Moreover, the discipline’s scope fails to actively engage with the sister sphere of ecological reproduction, social reproduction
. The labour conducted in this sphere is the life force of any human community and functioning economy. By creating and maintaining the health and well-being of the labour force, social reproduction is paramount to any transformational change proposed by ecological economics. Post-growth proposals demand radically alternative forms of social organization that necessarily depend on the paid and unpaid labours provisioned by social reproduction. Yet, neglect of the social sphere results in unrealistic proposals for transformation. Specifically, a number of critics contend that by strictly concerning itself with notions of environmental limits, the work of social reproduction is inherently assumed to be of infinite supply
in ecological economic scholarship, much like the assumed externalities of capitalism [14
]. This can be most effectively demonstrated by post-growth proposals for employment.
While eliminating one day of the work week could significantly reduce transportation emissions and assist in alleviating environmental impacts [156
], shortening the work week could impose increased time pressures on the work days of care providers due to the unequal (gendered, racialized, classed) division of care work, which may interfere with the quality of daily caring activities [17
]. While men’s contribution to social reproduction is largely occasional, flexible and motivated by leisure [159
], the feminized nature of this labour imposes a ‘second shift’ on women, which they conduct in conjunction with their full-time job (if, indeed, these duties do not impede on their freedom to enter the labour market) [163
]. Rubery et al. argue for the need to “identify what types of working-time regime can be considered favourable for gender equality” [164
] (p. 89). Aligning with Sirianni and Negrey [18
], Dengler and Strunk assert that a feminist-informed work-sharing proposal should focus on shortening the hours of each workday
, which “not only alleviates women’s double burden by reducing the first shift but most importantly also liberates space for a more equal division of daily caring activities among genders” [17
] (p. 17).
The intersectional properties of an ecofeminist frame can further this analysis by demonstrating privileged conceptualizations of care work in conventional economics and consequently ecological economics. Empirical investigations of the ‘care economy’ illustrate racial and ethnic hierarchies emergent in the distribution of social reproduction labour, such that work with relational and emotional dimensions are often “more dominated by white women, more professionalized and higher paying than their nonnurturant counterparts” [19
] (p. 79). Occupations such as food preparation, laundry, or housecleaning are often transferred to poor women, immigrants, and women of colour as white middle- and upper-middle-class women make relative gains in the ‘productive’ labour market [165
]. In this regard, “it is where reproductive labour is seen to lack the need for emotional skills and relational interaction that women of colour are concentrated” [19
] (p.72), replicating the very predatory models that structurally value and devalue work in order to maintain the artificial division between culture and nature. Intriguingly, Tronto [167
] argues that “feminists are to some extent accountable for the exploitation of women of colour in low-wage care work through this transfer because of the feminist role in fighting for the opening of the professions to women” [19
] (p. 67).
Though post-growth futures envision decreases in work hours and consumption growth while freeing up leisure time, implications for distributive equity remain unclear and demand immediate attention from ecological economics. Duffy warns:
a movement to revalue nurturance could have the unintended effect of making [non-relational] jobs even more invisible and devalued. Framing the value of certain occupations in terms of the emotional and relational skills required—and even professionalizing those skills—may risk further devaluing those “menial” jobs that are not perceived to require those skills.
Post-growth transitions towards a de-materialized and service-oriented economy will result in radically alternative, limited material standards of living where human labour power must substitute the energy and labour supplied by the conventional fossil fuel economy. Head asserts that the “[p]rovision of food and water will likely take more hours of the day, leaving less time for commerce, formal education, cultural pursuit” [168
] (p. 317). Though the very foundational principles of a degrowth imperative inevitably demand a shift in labour patterns, the emergent conflicts and consequences regarding risk, responsibility, expertise, and work hours have yet to be adequately acknowledged or addressed in ecological economic analysis.
Consistent, quality care work thus cannot be assumed, particularly since the International Labour Organization reported in 2018 that shifts in family structure and care needs, higher care dependency ratios (i.e., share of non-working vs. working population) and an increase in women’s employment in certain regions have spurred extra demand for care that threatens to “create a severe and unsustainable global care crisis” [122
] (p. v). Instead, questions of power, autonomy, and freedom to enter or exit the market must be central to ecological economic inquiries of post-growth futures. By framing degrowth as “a means to an end,” Perkins advocates for progressive approaches to wealth redistribution and anti-corruption that address distributive justice post-haste and actively tackle the structures and systems that sit at the heart of the crisis [16
] (p. 6). Perkins contends,
from an ecofeminist and equity-driven perspective, it seems dangerous to advocate degrowth without very clear and specific corollary measures to negate the tendency of the powerful to come out better-off. Since degrowth involves substituting social benefits which are not derived from material throughput in the economy for economic benefits which are material-dependent, it is centrally concerned with issues like unpaid work, caring, community as differentiated from individual welfare and other such matters which feminist economists have studied for decades.
Further, “placing increasing theoretical emphasis on nurturant care privileges the experiences of white women and excludes large numbers of very-low-wage workers from consideration” [19
] (p. 66). Until distributive justice is at the forefront of ecological economic proposals, the labour of social reproduction remains effectively marginalized. This criticism is particularly intriguing since one of the founding papers and scholars of the discipline proclaimed, nearly three decades ago, that “[i]ssues of sustainability are ultimately issues about limits” [10
] (p. 5). Yet, surprisingly, the theoretical framework of ecological economics finds the labour conducted in the sphere of social reproduction to be “uncritically presupposed” [15
] (p. 1705).
4.2. Power and Domination in Knowledge Creation
The struggle for methodological pluralism in ecological economics further elucidates the discipline’s gendered assumptions and predatory ontologies, which also underscore the discomfort and uncertainty in tensions of qualitative and quantitative methods [23
]. Following the very footsteps of neoclassical economics, collective research efforts in ecological economics have largely drifted towards ‘hard’ quantitative work that emphasizes mathematics and models: “while ecological economics was founded on both a scientific and moral critique of the mainstream, research on the ethical dimensions of economics and society has received little attention” [22
] (p. 191; see also [14
]). A bibliometric analysis of publications in the journal Ecological Economics
(1989-2009) observed an ‘empirical turn’ in the discipline away from ‘appreciative’ papers and towards ‘formal and empirical’ methods that “reflect the global trend within economics for increasing ‘rigor,’ often associated to formal modelling and mathematical apparatus” [171
] (p. 857). In contrast and despite social justice being a pillar of ecological economic theory, less than three percent
of the papers published had an ethics, equity, or justice focus [171
Nelson points to the dangers inherent in ecological economics’ empirical turn, arguing that demands for quantitative research “should not be taken as simply prerequisites for great rigor but rather as demands that masculine-biased preferences be indulged” [46
] (p. 160). She notes that by being ecological, the discipline is conceived of as ‘soft’ and feminine making it challenging to gain respect among economists, an insight that might explain the underlying drive for the empirical turn. Expanding further, this ‘hard’ economics connotation may also have contributed to the move away from the philosophical roots of ecological economics. Methods of research shape observations and conclusions, as well as resulting action; in line with ecofeminist claims, ecological economist Norgaard outlines how, over several centuries, “the adoption of Western forms of knowing, technological intervention and social organization has reduced both cultural and biological diversity” [24
] (p. 52). Furthermore, the priority of quantitative methods prioritizes a single paradigm; however, “the use of a single framework disenfranchised or disqualifies the majority, facilitates the tyranny of technocrats and encourages centralization. Openness to multiple frames of analysis is a prerequisite to democracy and decentralization” [24
] (pp. 52–53).
Even if criticizing mainstream economics risks furthering the isolation and marginalization of ecological economics by neoclassical economics, Nadeau argues that the magnitude of the problem and the duty to “protect the lives of the 7.3 billion members of the extended human family and to enhance the prospects that subsequent generations of this family will be able to live their lives on a flourishing Earth” demonstrates that there is no “greater good” or “higher calling” than radical changes of methods and movements in ecological economics [23
] (p. 107). Masculine-biased preferences consequently shape and inform the kinds of knowledge, voices, geographies, and perspectives considered valuable and valid in ecological economics research. This is not to say that all quantitative methods are inherently unjust but rather to call into question the power and implications of the tools. Until intersectional, intergenerational, and interspecies justice insights come to the forefront of ecological economics theory and practice, both moral and scientific imperatives of the discipline remain unachievable.