Our vision for ecological economics is to further develop as a critical and radical social science, grounded in an understanding of capitalist dynamics. We advocate a political economy approach that combines systems thinking, realism, holism, interdisciplinarity, and nuance in the study of specific provisioning systems and how they can be improved.
3.2. From Mainstream Economics to Political Economy
We suggest learning more from political economists, such as members of IIPPE (the International Initiative for the Promotion of Political Economy), many of whom study how capitalist provisioning of basic services is often biased towards the rich and against the vulnerable, and what alternatives might be envisaged. Such studies require grounding in ‘sound’ economics. We disagree with colleagues who present themselves as pragmatic about the use of economic theory and methodology. In ecological economics, ‘abstract’ theory is often contrasted with ‘concrete’ action and real-world problems, and the latter is what should be prioritised. This is a false dichotomy, because ideas shape how we think about and act in the world. Ideas matter whether they are empirically right or wrong, and economic ideas matter especially because they grant access to resources and power. Power relations, in turn, influence and dictate what ideas gain currency. They shape knowledge production in crucial ways, by channelling what is studied and what is not, as well as what is financially and institutionally supported and what is not. Engaging with theory and methodology is therefore not an abstract exercise in academic ivory towers, but a powerful political instrument, one that cannot be escaped. Being indifferent or pragmatic about the use of theory means buying into mainstream concepts, tools, and narratives, more often than not. But because environmental crises are accelerating, we cannot afford to rely on floppy theories.
Theories are not solutions per se and are not everything it takes to change the world. That much is clear. Yet good theories reveal spaces for action, warn of obstacles, and crucially, help us to see beyond empirical reality [85
]. In contrast, theories are highly problematic when they hide what is important and prevent sensible actions. There are substantive reasons why heterodox economists speak of the mainstream as Freakonomics, Zombie-economics, Post-autistic economics, or the Economics of the 1%. What unites different heterodox economic traditions is their commitment to debunk neoclassical economics as a serious barrier for the advance of knowledge and a dangerous guide for action. We would like to see ecological economics belong firmly to this pluralist heterodox community. We can be pluralistic, but reject theoretical eclecticism at the same time [86
]. To be clear—rejecting neoclassical theory does not mean rejecting everything that is proposed by neoclassical (environmental) economists, such as eco-taxes, green investments, or subsidies.
What does it take to promote heterodox development within ecological economics? We see two different avenues. One way is through continued critique. As neoclassical economics remains alive and well and extremely influential within ecological economics (see Section 2.3
), grounds remain to contest it. It is not just another school of thought in a pluralist toolkit, but a hegemonic discipline that protects vested interests and core capitalist institutions, rather than critically exposing and dismantling them in the broader societal interest. For example, the consequence of 10 years of austerity politics justified by austerity economics in the city we are based, Leeds, is that 60% of children live in poverty today. Austerity, around the world, is a politically aggressive agenda promoting social destruction, cloaked in technocratic and neutral-sounding neoclassical economic terms. On such grounds, mainstream economics remains a social disaster and core barrier to systemic changes, but one that can be de-mystified and confronted. We see critique as an essential ingredient of transition and expression of active resistance. It helps to create transparency by informing people about unacceptable circumstances, flawed justifications for unequal distribution of resources, and can be combined with building alternatives. It calls researchers to look for what is not spoken and written about, who is left out, and why. This includes debunking economic myths and challenging the dominant narrative where it is false or morally wrong.
Another possibly more powerful way to address the failings of the mainstream is to make it redundant. Better alternatives don’t have to be invented, they exist. Heterodox economics, as a broad tent, is the science of the social provisioning process [86
] (rather than the science of the allocation of scarce resources under severely constrained conditions, as in mainstream economics). Focusing on social provisioning means understanding how societies organise the flow of goods and services necessary to maintain and reproduce themselves, in the context of historically-specific systems and structures. The historically specific dominant system of provisioning today is capitalism. Heterodoxy is therefore about “analyzing, theorising, and transforming capitalism… to envision transformative policies for the majority, not an elite”
] p. 3. The aim is to explain the multiplicity of real economic activities and factors that shape production and consumption processes, and connect the individual to those—such as the structure and use of resources; changes in social wants; production and reproduction of the business enterprise, family, state, and other relevant institutions; distribution; and issues of race, gender, ideologies, and myths.
We advocate Marxian Political Economy as a school of thought for ecological economics. Many Marxian insights are almost universally accepted as core contributions to economics and remain unchallenged to this day. However, the implications of Marxian economics for ecological economics have never been fully drawn out. In Ecological Economics
, there are surprisingly few contributions that explicitly apply Marxian theory to specific social ecological problems (e.g., [88
]). There are more contributions that implicitly draw on Marxian thought, such as research grounded in political ecology or eco-feminism. However, most of these applied works do not detail their theoretical underpinnings and, as a result, centrepieces of Marxian Political Economy—an understanding of value and capital, and how they drive and shape the societies we live in—remain under-considered and under-appreciated in ecological economics. This is necessary to understand the intertwined root causes of our predicament, and hence to propose alternative programmes which address these root causes. Many ecological economists shy away from adopting a Marxian perspective—we argue this aversion is most often based in fundamental misunderstandings of Marx’s work [45
]. Marx had many roles and contributions—for a brilliant and engaging overview of these, for and against, we refer our readers to Heilbroner’s Marx [93
]. Our focus here is Marx’s specific goal to highlight the societal consequences of the capitalist mode of production. We could say the main problem with capitalist production is that capitalist societies are too successful. In the first instance, capitalism is a highly productive system. Producing value essentially points to pressures to increase labour productivity (via pressures to lower abstract socially necessary labour time). The resulting highly productive, and seemingly collaborative, global division of labour leads to higher energy and resource use and more work, instead of more leisure time and resource sufficiency, because it is underpinned by the drive to extract surplus value. There are two conditions for the expansion of capital via the production of surplus value: The expansion of labour capacity (as source of expanding profit), and the expansion of the quantity–flow of money (money creation by banks) [94
]. Environmental problems emerge as undesirable by-products of these core dynamics. They manoeuvre societies into increasingly destructive modes of living, and the systemic challenge becomes nothing less than confronting capital as a dominant social force of the system as a whole. Capital is a positive re-enforcing feedback loop that inevitably leads to planetary overshoot, if nothing is done to break it. From a sustainability perspective, it is a problem-generating structure [8
]. This understanding is tightly intertwined with an understanding of power and vested interests, and the role of key capitalist institutions such as markets, credit provision, finance, or the State, which illuminates implementation barriers and limits of policy-making.
How can ecological economists take this analysis on board? The task is to follow flows of value throughout the whole system. The Marxian approach provides the framework for understanding how value streams that appear in biophysical, monetary, and other social forms travel together along the whole life cycle—spanning production, consumption, and waste streams. Thus, biophysical analysis can be combined with Marxian value theory. Use value and exchange value flows can be traced, for example, to understand waste or emission flows throughout production and consumption systems (e.g., [95
]). Other considerations, including ownership patterns, profit relations between actors, institutional structures, and so on should also be included, for instance through Ben Fine’s Systems of Provision approach [35
]. The Systems of Provision approach guides the study of the structures, agents, relations, and processes that shape different provisioning systems (e.g., the provision of food, water, electricity, housing, or transport). It considers the full chain of activities that underpin the material and cultural (re)production of goods, thereby studying physical and social processes and outcomes in tandem, rather than separating them out. Such analysis can be applied to specific sustainability problems at local, regional, or global levels, by tracing the specific cultural, monetary, historical, and other context-specific circumstances. It thereby helps explain, for example, why some modes of provisioning are good at translating energy and resources inputs into desirable social outcomes and others are not [97
]. The Systems of Provision approach exemplifies what it takes to conduct a good political economy analysis of a specific problem [98
]. Another example comes from attempts to combine biophysical accounting with political ecology analysis, prominently by the Barcelona school of political ecological economics (e.g., [100
]). More such analyses are needed in ecological economics because this is what it takes to put into practice what has long been claimed necessary for ecological economics: To develop the field further as radical political economy of nature.
3.3. Confronting Capital
When ecological economists speak about the need for social ecological transformation and systemic change, what does this mean? What are the main problems? Money? Modernity? The market? Globalisation? Neoclassical economics? For us, grappling with the dominant mode of societal organisation is the necessary realistic starting point. We need nothing less than a civilizational shift, and whether you like it or not, most of the world’s civilisation today is capitalist. Change both within and beyond capitalism requires us to comprehend the system as a whole and how it unfolds in specific circumstances. Is this possible, given that reality is complex, contradictory, and constantly changing? Yes, it is. Whilst some aspects of capitalism have evolved in the last 200 years, its core logic is still the same—which is what we need to confront, if we are serious about advocating transformational changes.
In terms of building alternatives, Marxian value analysis brings clarity in identifying urgently needed interventions because it helps to lift the veil of distorted realities we are presented with every day in media, politics, and mainstream economics. Working with realistic theory that does not shy away from pointing to uncomfortable truths helps to create transparency. Demonstrating that the logic of capital—which is, in the simplest terms, production for profit, not need—gives rise to macro dynamics of ecological overshoot, which are diametrically opposed to steady-state or circular economy ambitions advocated in ecological economics, and have practical implications for research, outreach, and action. Identifying capital as the core problem implies to fully confront capitalism, with a recognition of the need for social struggles at its core.
This is not a reduction of everything to life vs. capital, as the Marxian position is often mischaracterised. Capitalism has benefitted many, including ourselves. It is not a life vs. death dualistic story but a life and death (increasingly death) dialectical story. If we consider the system as a whole, capitalist tendencies such as overproduction, overconsumption, concentration and centralisation, commodification, alienation, and financialisation explain the realities that underpin multiple crises [45
]. Acting in accordance with the ‘good of the whole’ therefore means to transcend capital, rather than feed it. This is not a depolarising perspective but a realistic assessment of the status quo. We can help people see how capital shapes most of what we are doing and see how it dehumanises and delivers somewhat successfully for some. Overall, it is an entrenched system of harm, coupling domination over the environment with domination over people [103
]. Creating transparency in this way is empowering. We believe that ‘seeing clearly’ has huge potential to mobilise people to join the shaping of a new paradigm that is being born before our eyes.
What does this imply for building alternatives more specifically? It implies to clarify our role as researchers. We are not the (only or main) ones who build concrete alternatives on the ground, and hence not the ones who offer blueprints for change or lists of universal policies and actions, which is paternalising and ineffective—we may be more like architects and facilitators, who can help formulate design principles of systemic change, translate them to specific contexts, warn from end-of-pipe ‘solutions’, and create transparency along the way, not least by learning from past (and often non-white) struggles [105
]. Examples of frameworks in ecological economics that provide guidance for systemic change include Donella Meadow’s Leverage Points [43
] or Capra and Jacobsen’s ‘Principles of Life’ [106
]. Kate Raworth draws attention to the whole economy of household, communities, industry, and government in her articulation of Doughnut Economics
, including promoting alternatives that are redistributive (socially) and regenerative (environmentally) by design [41
]. A recent promising political example of a systemic change framework includes the US Green New Deal [107
]. Moreover, alternative social and decision-making approaches, including Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development [81
], Hilary Cottam’s social design [84
], and even ideas from Bookchin’s radical municipalism [103
] can and should be brought into our research and activism. Such holistic visions and purpose-driven approaches are eminently suited to being adopted and taken forward by ecological economists.
We can confront capital by prioritising what ultimately matters: satisfying human needs in a context of global justice (see Section 3.1
). We know quite well what basic human needs are and how they can be fulfilled (meaningful participation in society, access to health care, healthy food, decent housing, etc.) [77
]. It is essential to steer research and build alternative institutions in directions that focus on delivering such ultimate goals directly, rather than indirectly, via intermediate means such as growth, profit-making, employment- or money-creation. These latter are not ultimate goals, they are means to achieving something else. Focusing on intermediate means often creates side-effects, such as the extremely wasteful use of resources and energy under capitalism, that can be detrimental to the ultimate goal of the satisfaction of needs.
This implies the implementation of alternative models of provisioning essentials—housing, food, transport, health care, education—that are not structurally inclined towards expansion. This could take forms of co-operative production and distribution which emphasise use and access, rather than ownership [111
] or the nationalisation or municipalisation of essential industries and bringing them under real democratic control [112
]. Provisioning and protecting life should be taken out of the market. Governance principles that allow effective delivery of services for alternative production can be found in energy democracy, citizen’s assemblies, or sociocracy.
The core problem is not that alternatives are missing, but lack of support and power to implement them (e.g., media and politics co-financed, disciplined, and lobbied by capital). Confronting capital therefore also implies confronting the capitalist state. The State has played a central role in supporting and stabilizing capitalism from Day 1. It provides the legal architecture for the reproduction of the system and ensures more or less redistribution of its surpluses, above all via the protection of private property rights in nature, means of production, the employment of labour, and appropriation of surplus value produced by that labour [94
]. Ecological economists often advocate ‘stronger states’ to implement sensible policies, without problematizing the role of the state itself. The issue is not big vs. small or strong vs. weak government, but whom government serves.
“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.”
Governments serve capital by paying for basic infrastructure, essential training and schooling, supporting investment with taxes/subsidies, opening new markets through privatization and trade, and managing labour relations or rescuing businesses in times of crisis [113
]. The capitalist state needs to be challenged and criticised much more overtly than is currently done in ecological economics, and powerful state–capital alliances discredited and dismantled if they continue to support environmental and social destruction. The role of social movements and independent research is crucial in this respect, or a combination of both [115
Academic research can and should no longer be purely academic. Facing ecological and humanitarian catastrophes on a planetary scale requires action and engagement, for instance, by supporting civil disobedience [116
]. We strongly believe that ecological economics research should be embedded in local, national, and global initiatives and activism, not just abstract analysis or remote guidance. A long tradition of scholars engaged in activism (e.g., [119
]) needs to be boosted. Academic activism also means that it is not enough for us sit back from the fray and comment that the world should be on a different course, it is now clearly part of our work to actively shift this course, by the means provided to us through our scholarship. We can no longer ‘just’ be scientists—science is called upon to advocate and act in alignment with its observations and conclusions.
This new, braver and bolder, but also more relevant and promising, type of research will require new types of engagement, collaboration (rather than competition), engaged, active and open teaching, and so on. Editing and reviewing guidance for publications will have to be revisited to insist upon and reward such ambition and consistency. Scientists will look to each other on becoming effective agents (not just observers!) of change: rigour, openness, criticism, peer review all must play their role for robust and rapid progress.