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Posts Tagged ‘ecological economics’

Andrew Revkin‘s post reminds me of my time at Notre Dame. He quotes Michael Sandmel, who is graduating this year from NYU:

We had around 140 attendees from universities around the country.  Many of us study in mainstream neoclassical economics departments where interdisciplinary ecological-economics, and the questioning of G.D.P. growth as a primary (or, depending on who you ask, desirable) objective, is still very much fringe thinking.  I don’t attempt to speak for all of my peers, but I know that many of us share an enormous frustration with the way in which our supposedly leading institutions teach us about the economy in a way that is myopic, ahistorical, and devoid of nearly any critical conversation about sustainability or human well being.

This is particularly troubling as we regularly see our schools accredit future leaders in business, finance, and government, sending them into a world of 21st century problems with a 20th century toolkit.

Well said!

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The Nation had 16 activists respond to the question, “If you had the ability to reinvent American capitalism, where would you start? What would you change to make it less destructive and domineering, more focused on what people really need for fulfilling lives?” Three of them resonated with me in particular: Chris Macklin on employee ownership, Dirk Philipsen on how we measure prosperity, and Eugene McCarraher on our “moral imagination.”

I’m not going to block-quote them, however- instead, I’ve put in my own reader submission (limited to 400 words), which the magazine is soliciting from its readers. You’ll see that it attempts to weave together concepts from all three of these columns:

Capitalism’s defining quality is evident in its name- capital, not labor, nature, or morals, is put above all else. This preeminence of capital has ramifications for how we produce, consume, earn, save, and tally it all up; I argue that it causes problems in each of these facets of our economic life. Often, people confuse capitalism with markets (free ones in particular). Instead, I think capitalism has a few distinctive consequences: 1) surplus is distributed by those who own, not those who work and make; 2) more consumption is always better; and 3) anything “outside” the economy, like the environment, may as well not exist.

Capital is relevant to these features because it means that the production process can be owned, and thus the fruits of it can be immediately taken from the hands that produce it. As a corollary, this means that to profit, those who own capital must sell as much as possible, some of which is indeed bought back by those who make the goods. And finally, capital seeks its return without any regard to destruction that it doesn’t have to pay for, like ozone depletion or disappearing wetlands.

As long as capital remains preeminent, we cannot remake capitalism. Instead, we need to gradually remake economic structures to chip away at capital’s power. Giving workers stock ownership is one small step, but giving workers complete control over their enterprise is a more radical fruitful step. It would mean that production and consumption would be more tightly linked, as the amount one consumes would be more in line with what one produces. Lavish consumption would not disappear entirely, but would be made scarce. Remeasuring economic value to include environmental externalities is another small step, but forcing these externalities into pricing through democratically-decided taxes is a larger and more fruitful step (and I guarantee, a worker-run Chamber would fight it a lot less).

These steps must be supported by increased class consciousness through education.  The value of worker ownership and environmental stewardship are obvious to their beneficiaries; demonstrating that capital’s dominance stands in the way of these benefits is critical. A class-conscious society will support economic structures that value labor and value nature, not just profits. Changing capitalism does not mean removing markets or destroying property, but rather reshaping production and consumption markets so economic value is not distorted by power divides between capital and other.

How would you remake capitalism?

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David Roberts at Grist has a post about underground environmentalism in East Germany. The whole thing is interesting, but his conclusion is the really important part:

First, what happened to industry under GDR is what happens when decisions are controlled by a small group of people, usually people who own — or have financial or political ties to those who own — the means of production. The focus inevitably turns to rapid growth, gigantism, pollution, and profits. The poor and defenseless (a large class in the GDR) have no voice and so they suffer while a small group benefits. Those who profit always claim to be acting in the public interest, but given a real choice, the public puts a far higher premium on health and safety.

Now, here in America we don’t live under a communist dictatorship. So that’s good. But if there’s one sector of our economy that comes closest to socialism, it’s energy. Decisions are made by a small group of owners, regulators, and politicians; there’s nothing approximating a free market and very little in the way of public participation.

Sure enough, the results tend toward the big, dirty, and hostile to regulatory constraints. This kind of centralization and gigantism has become so familiar to us in energy that we scarcely notice it. We have become accustomed to thinking of our future in terms of ever-rising demand and ever-larger power plants (despite the recent failures of that approach).

But when communities own their own means of energy production, when they live next to it, they are willing to pay extra and consume more conscientiously in exchange for cleanliness. Something new is happening in Germany now: Of all the country’s renewable energy, just 4 percent is owned by the four big utilities. The remaining 96 percent is owned by private households, small municipal utilities, rural and energy cooperatives, and people’s wind parks.

Bringing the production of energy closer to its consumption is one way to rationalize the externalities unseen in everyday life. This idea can be applied to many spheres, especially labor. The only weakness is that communities need to be well-organized and somewhat well-resourced to take the first step in owning their energy production. This financial reality necessitates policies from the top that also encourage social costs to be recognized personally.

Of course, when one looks to policy, there is a wide debate. For example, a recent NBER paper received some attention. The authors use common integrated assessment models, and find a central value of $21 per ton of CO2 emissions. Another paper, by two heterodox economists, criticize the IAMs used in this paper, because of heavy discounting and aggressive assumptions about how damages fall across countries. Indeed, they cite a UK study yielding $83 as the central value, 4x as high as the more mainstream value.

I’m not going to belabor the nuances of mainstream versus heterodox approaches to valuing carbon; the clear takeaway is that assumptions vary widely and matter greatly.

In absence of the consensus and political will needed to implement policies reflecting the true social cost of carbon (on which I tend to side with Ackerman and Stanton), one needs local action like that described by Roberts. Energy purchasing cooperatives are one example of ordinary citizens taking more ownership over their consumption. However, localizing and owning the production of energy, which is easier with renewables like solar and wind, is a definite pathway to sustainability. Local alternatives can also pave the way for broader acceptance of the true costs of dirty energy. Ultimately, we will need the local and global to align for a sustainable energy future.

Happy Earth Day!

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Economics in 2036

I tried to avoid block-quoting in my last post, which was intended as more of an essay. Here are some follow-up points on the question of where and how economics can go.

Nassim Taleb, whose black swans I mentioned minutes ago, has a post with some predictions about our world in 2036. I think that he and I may think alike on how to approach the environment:

Science will produce smaller and smaller gains in the non-linear domain, in spite of the enormous resources it will consume; instead it will start focusing on what it cannot—and should not—do. Finally, what is now called academic economics will be treated with the same disrespect that rigorous (and practical) minds currently have for Derrida-style post-modernist verbiage.

Of course, Taleb doesn’t offer much of a vision for economics and science going forward, because that wasn’t in the scope of his post. Now, my last post certainly offered one vision for what a different economics can look like, but is limited by the scope of my own knowledge and understanding. Julie Nelson, on the other hand, is an accomplished economist and has a great open comment to the NSF on next-generational research challenges. You should read the whole thing, as she gets at many of the points I made in my previous post, but elaborates on them better than I ever could. Here’s are some of her best sentences:

There is, however, another solution, which involves recognizing the inescapable intertwining of fact and value, while continuing the systematic search for reliable knowledge. Amartya Sen has called this “transpositional” objectivity.  This (in fact more exacting) standard of objectivity requires that the viewpoints and values underlying the analysis be brought out into the open and subjected to scrutiny…

Re-evaluating the role of ethics in economics challenges assumptions that are deep-seated in the mainstream of U.S. economics. Accordingly, improving economic analysis of climate change will require a multi-pronged effort…The rising generation, given their energy and larger stake in the outcomes of  climate change policy, should be a key part of this transformation…

As Nelson points out, shifts like this one require funding bodies like NSF to embrace a new vision for economics. If more economists like Nelson speak up and NSF pays heed, economics in 2036 will look a lot more like an economics of Stewardship, and today’s academic economics will indeed look simply arachaic.

P.S. I wrote my entire last post without mention of the Catholic Social Tradition in stewardship. It would be an understatement to say it’s greatly informed my thinking of these issues. The best starting point on that topic is JPII’s Sollicitudo rei socialis. The USCCB’s pastoral letter is also helpful on these issues.

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I apologize for my light and sporadic posting recently. I transitioned jobs on Monday, and right now is the first chance I’ve had to sit back and think, relaxing in my old bedroom at the Krafft (suburban) homestead.

It’s always nice to have a chance to gather with family, reunite with old friends, and give thanks. The symbology of Thanksgiving, though, gives one pause- it’s mainly full of myriad ways in which we as people have become masters of our domain, breeding and slaughtering domesticated turkeys, conjuring something known simply as “stuffing”- yes, we’ve mastered the art of celebrating our abundance. Now, don’t jump off the boat here- this isn’t some environmentalist rant. Ok, it kind of is.

I thank Mark Thoma for linking to a blog I haven’t seen before, the Ecological Headstand. Its most recent post reexamines the idea of our economy and our ecological footprint. Reading it this morning flipped my mental approach to this day of abundance. Rather than taking for granted the gifts that the lucky among us reap from the Earth, I think it’s important to examine our attitudes towards this abundance, and how our economics of abundance reflects this attitude.

In the interest of evading nuance, I think there are essentially two approaches economics can take to the environment- an economics of Mastery, and an economics of stewardship. The economics of Mastery is best exemplified with standard cost-benefit analysis, measuring the costs without respect to externality and distribution, and the benefits without respect to hidden damages and long-run scarcity. It’s curious that at introduction, most present economics as a study of scarcity, because when it comes to our environment and natural resources, our typical economics of Mastery seems to presume nearly boundless abundance. Any abundance, of course, can be overcome by our mastery of the environment- there will always be a better fertilizer, a new fuel cell, by which we can circumvent natural limits- until, of course, we simply can’t.

What, then, is an economics of Stewardship? I’d make three main points, all borrowed from previous posts on other thinkers. The Headstand post I linked earlier, which inspired this post, makes the key first point- we cannot double count environmental destruction. That is to say, if we destroy the environment in time period 1 and ignore that loss, we can’t simply add again to GDP in time period 2 when we pay for the recovery (and we will pay). So, an economics of Stewardship will make every effort to measure and incorporate costs of depletion and destruction. Of course, we will struggle to accurately assess natural value streams, so an economics of Stewardship will recognize the limits of its methodology, and treating the environment as an equal to the economy, give it the benefit of the doubt.

The second issue is how we weight benefits and costs over time. Economists of mastery argue for higher discount rates, pegged near real GDP growth or real return on capital. They show that if you do otherwise, set it too low, then we will end up with a paradox of greater environmental value in time period 50 or 60 than GDP. This is ok, because remember, it’s GDP that’s flawed and can’t internalize the environment. Low discount rates are an embrace of stewardship because they recognize that others in the future are to benefit equally from abundance as us in the present. Worry not that they might be richer, smarter, or stronger- natural abundance is still the inheritance of all.

Third and finally, an economics of Stewardship embraces the uncertainty in the natural world. Black swans can exist in the environment, and they are not limited to possible effects of anthropogenic global warming. There are unknown unknowns here. An attitude of uncertainty is a key break from the economics of Mastery, which mainly traffics in knowns, and occasionally in known unknowns. Humble stewardship, though, recognizes that abundance is fragile and complex, and events can occur that are outside the bounds of our current scientific knowledge.

It’s easy to become complacent about what we have and what we are used to. Mainstream economics claims to be about scarcity, but is really about mastery. A humble attitude toward our environment must inevitably lead to a new economics, in which we methodologically embrace our roles as stewards, simultaneously parts and guardians of the abundance around us. I hope you’ll join me in taking part in humble thanks on this wonderful day, and examining your role as a steward, and not a master.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Update: I reflect a bit on some others’ thoughts on the future of economics in my next post. Consider it the substantive compliment to this more emotive essay.

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I blogged last year about the Happy Planet Index, a seemingly promising way of measuring propserity. Here’s Nic Marks, who started the Centre for Well-Being at the New Economics Foundation, making an impassioned case for the metric in a TED talk:

Efforts like Marks’ remind us that other worlds are possible, but that our conception of prosperity affects our ability to get there. Most of his focus on the costs of well-being lies on CO2 and climate change. He does take some swipes at consumption-oriented society, but it seems that Marks’ aim is to move the mainstream.

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