Are ecological economists technocrats? (ISEE 2010)

Climate & Natural resources,Inclusive Economy22 Aug 2010Peter Söderbaum

Most ecological economists probably agree that we are facing serious environmental and development problems in society and the economy. We also agree that action is needed. The focus of attention is on ecosystem services and degradation of natural resources. As part of a positivistic idea of science, the scholar is an outside observer watching what goes on in society in an alleged value-neutral manner. Concerning science itself, it is assumed that research and education can play only a positive role.

This is hopefully true to some extent and in some respects. But I will here question the positivistic assumption of value-neutrality. As scholars we are part of society (rather than outside it) and we are actors, each one of us guided by an ideological orientation. Each perspective applied is furthermore specific in ideological terms. Ecological economics should therefore be considered as a branch of political economics where democracy has a role and pluralism becomes a necessity.

In the first issue of our journal Ecological Economics from 1989 there was at least one article (Norgaard 1989) arguing in favor of pluralism. These ideas are still present in some articles but sensitivity to value issues and to the existence of competing paradigms (theoretical perspectives) has developed, it appears, into a minority position. I am worried about the dominance of positivism as a theory of science and about the dominance of neoclassical theory as a paradigm in economics.

Actually ecological economics has evolved into a meeting place for scholars in environmental science, i.e. natural scientists who regard positivism as ‘the scientific method’ and neoclassical economists with the same limited idea of science. Concerning theories of science we can learn a lot from humanities and social sciences about alternative approaches such as hermeneutics, social constructivism, narratives etc. focusing on the subjective aspects of various actors. Concerning theoretical perspectives in economics there are well developed alternatives to neoclassical theory, for example institutional economics.

At university departments of economics in the Western world and perhaps globally, we are very close to a monopoly position for neoclassical economics. Each year hundreds of thousands of students learn the same economics from textbooks in English or translated into various languages. Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics (2008) is one example. Since neoclassical economics is specific in ideological terms and since there is a monopoly position for this theory, university departments of economics tend to play a role as political propaganda centers.

Focus on the monetary dimension, such as profits and GDP-growth, so called monetary reductionism, assumptions about self-interest and generally unwillingness to discuss alternative ethical and ideological positions are features of neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economics tends to make certain ideologies suchas Neo-liberalism more legitimate.

In a democracy there is a role for neoclassical theory only as part of a view of ‘paradigm co- existence’. Theories have to reflect part of the ideological diversity existing in a society. A first big step for us as ecological economists is however to admit that values, ideology and politics is present in all the articles and books that we write and to act accordingly. As I see it, science itself is part of the problems that we face and should deal with. As participant (and actor) at the ISEE conference in Bremen-Oldenburg I hope to see some movement in the direction of democracy rather than further strengthening of technocratic and neoclassical tendencies.


Fullbrook, Edward, editor, Pluralist economics, Zed Books, London.

Mankiw, N. Gregory, 2008 (Fifth edition. International student edition) Principles of Economics, Cengage Learning.

Norgaard, Richard B. 1989. The Case for Methodological Pluralism, Ecological Economics, Vol.1, No. 1, pp. 37-57.

Reardon, Jack, editor, 2009. The Handbook of Pluralist Economics Education. Routledge, New York.

Söderbaum, Peter, 2008. Understanding Sustainability Economics. Towards pluralism in economics. Earthscan, London.

Söderbaum, Peter and Judy Brown, 2010, Democratizing economics. Pluralism as a path towards sustainability. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 1185, Ecological Economics Reviews, pp. 179-195.