Should scholars become political activists? (ISEE 2010)

Inclusive Economy29 Aug 2010Peter Söderbaum

One of my observations from this conference with the International Society for Ecological Economics is that many PhD-students and young researchers were present. They understand the seriousness of the problems faced where a business as usual (BAU) attitude dominates in too many circles and they are open-minded to new perspectives.

In a paper presented by Vanesa Castán Broto, I noted a subtitle ‘The politics of science’ which I like. The idea (from positivistic ideas about science) that science is outside politics and that science can be neutral with respect to values was challenged and illustrated in relation to a specific case of storages of coal ashes in Tuzla, Bosnien and Herzegovina. The scholar or student is rather a political actor among other political actors.

A specific interpretation of sustainable development is an ideological or political orientation that may challenge or support other ideologies in society. If things are going wrong in society we cannot avoid discussing dominant ideologies such as the economic growth ideology, neo-liberalism, social democracy etc. We also have to focus on dominant ideas of economics, efficiency and accounting systems.

Does this mean that the door is open for the researcher becoming an activist advocating his own ideology or that of a specific group? I think that we should accept that scholars can be engaged and committed taking sustainability issues seriously. But like other political actors we have to respect normal ideas of democracy, such as respecting the different perspectives, ideological orientations and opinions of actors related to an issue. An issue, for example a decision situation should be investigated in a multifaceted way by listening to the views or narratives of different actors and by referring to different perspectives, alternatives and impacts.

This brings me to a second paper written by four persons from the research department of Statistics Norway. They are looking for systems of information and accounting that complement, sometimes replaces, the conventional measurement of Gross National Product. Early warning systems are needed, they argue, in fields such as biodiversity, climate change. Also this paper while still being of a preliminary kind represents an open attitude to new thinking and to the expansion of political action beyond business-as-usual.

One way of illustrating how ideology and politics is involved in science is to point to the dominance, if not monopoly, of neoclassical theory in economics education at universities. The same or very similar textbooks are used as exemplified by Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics (2008). Each year, a million students in all parts of the world learn the same economics that is specific not only with respect to its scientific content but also ideologically. In ideological terms this economics is, as I see it, as far as one can be from what is needed from a sustainability point of view. Focus on markets and prices are features of neoclassical economics. This ‘monetary reductionism’ is exemplified by the assumption that firms (business corporations) maximize profits or shareholder value. But as we all know sustainable development is primarily about nonmonetary performance in social and environmental terms. Intellectually and ideologically we have to reflect upon this miss-match between sustainable development and the most influential type of organization in our economies. Business as usual economics points to narrow BAU-interpretations of sustainable development. Moving from a monopoly for neoclassical economics to pluralism is today one of the most important single political steps that I can think of.

I will end these remarks by pointing to the Kenneth Boulding Award that is administered by the ISEE. Boulding was a broad-minded, interdisciplinary economist who participated in the very first meetings of our international society. This year the award was shared between Ignacy Sachs and Juan Martinez Alier, two persons who certainly deserve this distinction. Sachs coined the word ‘eco-development’ (standing for ‘ecological development’) in the early 1980s suggesting that there are precursors to the present language in terms of sustainable development. Martinez-Alier refers to himself as an ‘activist-scientist’ and discusses the environmentalism of poor people in the South. He also argues that we should study ‘political ecology’ and that the left has something to offer in the present situation.

My own preference is to refer to different kinds of ‘political economics’ and that we need new kinds of radical political economics. But this debate will continue.

Finally, my emphasis on democracy suggests that representatives of Civil Society Organizations should be invited to our next conference. But again, the conference blog introduced at this Oldenburg meeting is a first important step to increase the media coverage of a dialogue that hopefully matters for many people.


Mankiw, N. Gregory, 2008. Principles of Economics (Fifth student Edition). South Western, a part of CENGAGE Learning.
Reardon, Jack (Editor). The Handbook of Pluralist Economics Education. Routledge, New York.
Söderbaum, Peter, 2008. Understanding Sustainability Economics. Towards pluralism in economics. Earthscan, London.