Ecological economics and short term crises (ISEE 2010)

Development Policy27 Aug 2010Peter May

Does Ecological Economics have the ability to cope with short term crises of the capitalist economy, if we are primarily concerned with long-term cumulative phenomena, coevolutionary responses both by nature and institutions?

A key area for our work on macro crises is what is going on related to resilience: what are the ways we can best foster resilience to socio-ecological and economic systems and policy frameworks so that, when crisis hits – as it is bound to do time and again with the capitalist economy’s apparent need to generate bubbles and repeated collapse – we are better prepared?

Another issue I have is that of “whose crisis”. Evidently the sub-prime financial collapse has been primarily a phenomenon confined to the economies of the North, with the predictable fallout on Southern economies reliant on trade with the North and also bought into the same consumption and accumulation patterns as the North.

But we don’t (yet) see the BASICs facing serious recession in their economies. Where I come from in Brazil, we had a bad first semester in 2009, and then came back up to business as usual, with an actually faster growth rate due to the having the slowdown to bounce up from. This was of course sparked by countercyclical investment in major public works, much of which carving holes in what remains of the Amazon region, so countercyclical subsidies and incentives have not been by any means as “Green” as they have been touted to have been in Korea, China and the EU. There are some that see this relatively limited contagion as “inoculation” of our economies against the repeated speculative collapses that have assailed our economies over the past decades, but if it is not leading us to redirect the economies toward lower carbon and less consumption and instead into new growth cycles based on the same paradigm, we will certainly not be insured against the next crisis.

In fact I don’t think we actually have a crisis oriented science in EE – if we are concerned about the long run, we will have some ideas about what to do to get there, and the key in this sense I believe is our ability to foster resilience in social-ecological systems. There is something new under the sun called “sustainability science”. I’m not really clear in my mind what is different between such a science and ecological economics, and would welcome greater clarification. When Elsevier asked me what I thought about the need for a journal with such a title, I said I though we already had one…;-) I also recently wrote a book review in our journal (just out in the latest on-line edition) of Tim Jackson’s book (Prosperity without Growth), which I called “Post-Sustainability Prosperity?”. By this I mean that sustainability as a concept or candidate for paradigm may have run its course, and now only serve as a catch-all for anything that is not worried only about the situation directly in front of its nose.

Crises tend to derail our ability to foster resilience, since institutions have become more focused on their ability to make short term adjustments rather than to adopt a long-term “project”. The project of the modern capitalist system is unbridled growth, while we question whether growth will foster societies’ long-term ability to provide improved well-being and capabilities. What exactly we are promoting in its stead is still a bit nebulous. Tim Jackson talks a lot about “flourishing”, but this is unmeasurable (as is “sustainable scale”). There’s a lot of talk about happiness, but the detractors tend to show high positive correlations with income – up to a point at which happiness just levels out and may even decline. This is pretty damning for growth, but maybe there are other ways the rich can feel better than happiness (Scrooge mentality? Hoarding?).

More by Peter May: Revaluing the environment – part of The Broker’s Special Report Issue 18