- freely available
Sustainability 2019, 11(7), 2001; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11072001
- Face reality. Promote the application of Marxian Political Economy as a realistic economic theory and systemic methodology for understanding capitalist dynamics in both research and teaching (textbooks, summer schools).
- Stop harmful economics. Resist the reproduction of mainstream economic narratives, distorted ideas, and pragmatic tools by exposing them as serious distractions and barriers to desirable systemic change.
- Confront power. Oppose capitalist institutions that uphold a highly destructive money-making machinery for a global elite based on structural inequality and exploitation (e.g., megabanks, fossil corporations).
- Prioritise what matters. Design and support institutions whose purpose is the direct provision of human needs and dignity—access to healthy food, clean water, mobility, healthcare, and education; rather than indirect provision via growth, job-creation, and profit-making.
- Act. Encourage academic collaborative action and bravery, that is, use academic spaces to pursue all of the above.
2. Three Realisations about the State of the Art of Ecological Economics
2.1. Becoming Serious about Planetary Scale
- These different biophysical flows generally correspond to different economic sectors, products, and consumption categories. We are thus no longer talking in the vague comfort of a general macro-economy, but getting into the nitty gritty of supply chains, international trade relations of extraction–manufacturing–consumption , and specific sectors and firms. This means that ecological economics must grapple with what a biophysical scale reduction or elimination of resource use (or considerations of transitioning to different types of resources and technologies) means for specific sectors, products, and types of consumption.
- These specificities and areas of research cannot be addressed through neoclassical economic tools involving gradual shifts in costs and benefits, aggregate supply and demand, and so on. They demand attention to specific actors, interest groups, and their relationships. They require a new arsenal of methods and approaches, including, crucially, ones from sociology and political economy. The Systems of Provision approach of Ben Fine is relevant here, because it provides a methodological framework that embeds the study of concrete and context-specific biophysical and cultural realities in an understanding of capitalism as a whole .
2.2. From Biophysical Growth to Social and Political Aspects of Change
“A system is a big black boxOf which we can’t unlock the locks,And all we can find out aboutIs what goes in and what goes out.”Boulding cited in  p. 88
“Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester made a computer model and came out with a clear leverage point: Growth.” p. 1
2.3. Better Economic Foundations for Better Decisions
“The economy is a complex process that converts raw materials (and energy) into useful goods and final services.” p. 2
“The future of ecological economics firmly amongst heterodox economic schools of thought and in ideological opposition to those supporting the existing institutional structures perpetuating a false reality of the world’s social, environmental and economic systems and their operation.” p. 36
“The study of the market (the chrematistics) should come after the study of ecology and social institutions… the market economy could not exist without social institutions, and without the unpaid services of ecosystems.” p. 2
3. Research Priorities Moving Forward
3.1. Social Justice, Well-Being, and the Struggle to Achieve Them
- Not all consumption is created equal, as neoclassical utility maximisation posits. This is true from a well-being perspective (clean water for drinking vs. clean water in a private swimming pool, energy used for refrigerating vaccines vs. refrigerating coca-cola, …), and it links closely to other core areas of interest in ecological economics, such as inequality and fair distributions. However, we too often fail to differentiate types of consumption of the same category of product or service within our analysis and policy prescriptions. Taking well-being and human needs seriously means interrogating the purpose and outcomes of consumption .
- Well-being is social, not individual. When we aspire to create an economy that is a means to the end of achieving well-being, this is a collective statement, not an individual one (unlike, for example, through consumerism). Providing a decent life for each other is fundamentally a collective effort. Clearly, diverse individuals require specific accommodation for their life circumstances and stages (small children, disabled people, women of childbearing age, elderly people, and so on). However, the provision of well-being is overwhelmingly collective, through health systems, education, culture, communication networks, urban planning, affordable access to life’s necessities and so on. This means ecological economists must study production beyond pure material objects and supply chains: we must study collective provision and its enabling (or disabling) of well-being.
- Well-being is political, not technocratic. If we take well-being on board, and of course we should, we must also take on board the understanding that achieving universal well-being, or improvements in well-being in any community, is a project involving political struggle. This is a struggle between those who do not have power or access to resources and need more; and those who currently hold power, control resources, and/or have played a historical role in the current unequal status of various communities. A technocratic approach here is disastrous, because it omits power relations. Simply doling out necessities, like food, healthcare, and access to work and education, to communities will certainly result in tangible benefits to those communities. However, durable, ongoing progress can only be made when disenfranchised communities are given back control over the provision of their own well-being. Only an overtly political analysis can raise this issue to the level of importance it requires. Manfred Max-Neef, a founding and towering figure of ecological economics, understood this very well when he designed ‘Human Scale Development’ action research processes [81,82,83]. Recently, Hilary Cottam has been pioneering social design processes based on capabilities, in the context of providing welfare differently . Ecological economists can learn more from these approaches and embed our science with more effective policy and politics.
3.2. From Mainstream Economics to Political Economy
3.3. Confronting Capital
“The idea that conservatives trust the market while progressives want the government is a myth. Conservatives simply are not honest about the ways in which they want the government to intervene to distribute income upward.” p. 14
4. Conclusions: Roots, Riots, and Radical Change
“So how do you change paradigms?… In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” p. 18
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