Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

Suzuki In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.

It’s not all the fault of the economists 🙂

But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem.

In “Fragmented worldview disconnects us from nature,” Suzuki observes that today we’ve almost completely lost touch with our connection to the natural world and the interconnectedness of everything in nature:

Throughout most of human history, people understood that we are part of the natural world – that everything is connected to everything else and nothing exists in isolation. This understanding was reflected in songs, dances and stories, which reaffirmed our responsibility to act in ways that will maintain nature’s generosity. It is ironic that today with all of our increased access to information, we no longer seem able to recognize those responsibilities.

How did this happen?

Suzuki touches on some factors which have driven us away from our former closeness to nature. They include the last century’s startling population growth combined with the shift from rural to urban living. Today about half of us live in cities, many of them huge by the standards of a hundred years ago. This has separated us physically from the natrural world. Suzuki observes, “We have become a large-city dweller and in this environment, it is no longer obvious that we still depend on nature….”

Notwithstanding its great benefits, science has played a role as well:

[It] contributes to fragmentation by the very methodology of focusing on a part of nature, isolating it, controlling all outside forces and measuring the result. In the process, we acquire powerful insights into the properties of that fragment, but this is gained at the expense of the rhythms, cycles and patterns that are crucial to our understanding of

Changing our world view

This is not some minor quirk of modern society. “Our worldview has been shattered,” says Suzuki, “and I think the greatest challenge we face will be putting the pieces back together.”

I have to agree that any truly sustainable answer to the ecological mess we’ve made for ourselves will necessitate reshaping the dominant worldview. Part of that will involve rethinking our approach to the economic activity playing havoc with the earth. On her Gaian Economics blog, Molly Scott Cato puts it this way: “We might find a better future… if we, along with many indigenous peoples, began to see the earth as our mother, rather than land as our meal ticket.”

In short, we’ve lost touch with our interconnectedness and our dependence on the ecosystem as a whole. So we have important work to do. Suzuki explains: “To live sustainably within the limits of the ecosystems that support us, we have to put the pieces back together.”

Confronting economics head on

In “Time to Rediscover Our Place in Nature,” Suzuki takes on economics directly. While so far here I’ve focused mostly on the disconnect between economics and the ecosystem as it enables the notion that we need unending growth, Suzuki describes some beliefs mainstream economists use to rationalize such a notion:

Perhaps the most destructive agent of our sense of interconnectedness is economics. Economists assume that when resources are exhausted, human intelligence and creativity will always enable us to exploit or create new materials. Thus, in conventional economics, the ozone layer, underground water aquifers, topsoil, or biodiversity are considered “externalities” that are irrelevant within the economic construct, even though these are all finite and crucial to human survival and health

That kind of argument was common from the late economist Julian Simon, whose works gained him a loyal following. Simon was famous for insisting that the supply of natural resources we normally think of as nonrenewable, such as copper or oil, was not finite. Human ingenuity would always find a way to provide. In the article just cited, for instance, he says, “The trend toward greater availability includes the most counterintuitive case of all–oil.” (Since his death, of course, has come a growing recognition of the problem of “peak oil.”)

What about population?

In all of this, there’s the problem of population growth. Suzuki sums up the point of view of conventional economics: “Economists also tell us that, unlike other species whose numbers are limited by the productivity of a given ecosystem, humans can exceed the ‘carrying capacity’ of a region because of trade.” But this ignores the earth’s carrying capacity as a whole. As Suzuki puts it, “While we may import food… land somewhere was still required to grow it.”

To address this problem, Suzuki turns to the relatively new measure of “Ecological Footprint,” a tool which measures “how much land and water area a human population requires to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb its wastes under prevailing technology.” Not only does the ecological footprint of most countries exceed their fair share of the earth’s land area (true to astounding proportions for developed countries such as the U.S.), but the footprint of humanity as a whole is now “over 23% larger than what the planet can regenerate.” Serious problems indeed.

I’ll let Suzuki conclude this post, for I couldn’t agree more with his final remarks:

I am often asked, “What is the most urgent environmental problem confronting us?” My answer is the human mind, the beliefs and values it clings to. Where once we understood that we are dependent on and interconnected with the rest of nature, the modern mentality believes that we have escaped this reality…. [The factors described] blind us to the consequences of our actions. Our most urgent challenge, therefore, is to rediscover our place in the natural world.

Image source: Topend, posted on flickr

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10 responses to “Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

  1. Dr. Feeney,

    I think this article was awesome. Whoever referred you to Dr. Suzuki is pretty nifty.

    There is one problem, though. The economists and others who have previously responded to your past articles really have been eliminated. So you may lose some debate. Their game is up. They have been revealed. No equation, acronym, or theoretic mumbo-jumbo can save them. KISS: Bullshit walks.

    Good job, John.


  2. Quoting from David Suzuki’s bio:

    “David was born in Vancouver, BC in 1936. During World War II, at the age of six, he was interned with his family in a camp in BC.”

    Seemingly unrelated to this blog. But is it? There are often proposals to limit people’s rights to solve our problems. “Pay people to be sterilized?”, for example.

    I hope this point isn’t lost in this very important debate.

    We can solve this without further depleting our rights.


  3. Quoting your article which quotes Dr. Suzuki:

    “[It] contributes to fragmentation by the very methodology of focusing on a part of nature, isolating it, controlling all outside forces and measuring the result. In the process, we acquire powerful insights into the properties of that fragment, but this is gained at the expense of the rhythms, cycles and patterns that are crucial to our understanding….”

    I agree with Dr. Suzuki. Dr. Feeney will probably note the similarities with this topic and poker (for those of you who don’t know, Feeney was an expert poker player and author.)

    Poker theorists, too, isolate problems to help solve them. But the best of us understand that is just a start, not the end. I am not a scientist, but I will confidently assert, *good* scientists do not study the micro and make sweeping conclusions about the macro.


  4. Ross,

    *Some* of the economists out there will completely agree with the article. (the greens, ecos-, gaians, etc.) But others will stick to the kinds of rationalizations I mentioned. I only scratched the surface of some of Julian Simon’s arguments, for example. But they were clever enough that his followers are not easily convinced they’re wrong. I’ll get around to a whole post on him one of these days. There’s a good chapter on him in Brian Czech’s book, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. (see links on front page)

    But I agree about KISS. I’m trying to remind myself that as interesting as it can be to dig into theoretical details, there are some really basic points to be made. And they need to spread far and wide if there is to be real hope of large scale positive action.

    I’m with you on preserving people’s rights. I know an earlier commenter mentioned the idea of paying people to be sterilized. And that does raise some serious concerns. But at the same time I do like the spirit of brainstorming it reflected. Given that the idea was that it was voluntary, it seems to me to bring up more an issue of social engineering than rights per se. (as you mentioned, it will be the poor who end up sterilized under that scenario.) Either way, though, it’s problematic to say the least.

    I think you’re right about good scientists. In fact, keeping their work in perspective, keeping the macro in sight, should probably go into the definition of “good” here. One problem, I think, is that the media often over-interpret a study’s results and feeds the public an inaccurate picture. I mean, if a newspaper article says something like, “Study finds no harm from genetically modified food,” what do people think? In reality it’s likely a study of one subspecies of corn, and the measure of “harm” was one tiny variable which was examined. But from the title, a lot of people get the impression there’s no problem, in general, with genetically modified food.

  5. Magne Karlsen

    Ross: “I am not a scientist, but I will confidently assert, *good* scientists do not study the micro and make sweeping conclusions about the macro.”

    John: “I think you’re right about good scientists. In fact, keeping their work in perspective, keeping the macro in sight, should probably go into the definition of “good” here. ”

    – —

    This is true. But these days, every scientist (and especially social scientists) who takes an interest in the bigger picture, is bound to realize that the combination of all and everything is seriously out of bounds. The bigger picture has become too sensitive. People, societies, cultures, and countries are finding it hard to cope, even with the social scientist’s most basic points of view. It is instinct!

    The bigger picture has, from a social, cultural, psychological, political, economic and ethical perspective, become “too much”. – People don’t want to hear about it. Politicians and corporate executives don’t want to be confronted with it. Some people go into hiding, while other people seek and destroy.

    Any honest (an important value, that: honesty) social scientist will have to come up with macro analysis that are likely to make people feel a lot of feel too much … so to speak … nothing can be more problematic than a thesis that makes the reader feel … uh! …

    Feelings are unprofessional. A social scientist producing holistic thesises aimed at saying something useful about the state of affairs, fall straight into this trap. If he’s seriously gifted, honest and truthful, he is also bound to come up with analysis that make people feel a bit weird (I don’t know just how to put it?).

    I believe that I’m going to have to just inform people that the Age of Information Overload is here, and that it is going to remain with us for a while. There’s bad information everywhere, and everybody’s starting to feel uncomfortable. It is going to be interesting to experience the psycho-social outcome of this. As people (and scientists, leading politicians and economists, as well as astrologers, priests, punks, freaks and witches) start to see things in perspective here, there is no saying what the group instincts are going to prompt us all to feel. And do.

    Oh, don’t even think about it, okay. :[

    As it’s going to make you feel.

  6. Magne,

    As to “overload,” “too much,” and feeling uncomfortable, try some of these:

    Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (which is built from):

    Aldous Huxley. Brave New World Revisited (non-fiction)

    Robert Kegan. In Over Our Heads: Mental Demands of Modern Life

    Robert D. Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

    I wish I was sitting in my office so that I could look across the shelves and find a few more to recommend on this ever-more-gloomy subject.

    Sort of related is:

    Andrew Bard Schmookler. The Illusion of Choice: How the Market Economy Shapes Our Destiny

  7. Magne Karlsen


    : “How the market economy shapes our destiny”

    Oh yes: here we are, living in an age in which economic growth is the only reasonable way.

    The article below shows, quite persuasively, that the economy grows exponentially. The author – Dr. Chris Martenson (an economist) – feels pretty certain that an economic crash landing is inevitable.

    “We have parabolic money on a spherical planet. The former demands perpetual growth while the latter has definitive boundaries. Which will win?

    What will happen when a system that must grow can’t? How will an economic paradigm so steeped in the necessity of expansion that economists unflinchingly use the term ‘negative growth’, suddenly evolve into an entirely new system? If compound interest based monetary systems have a fatal math problem, what will banks do if they can’t charge interest? And what shall we replace them with?

    Since I’ve never read a single word on the subject, I suspect there’s even less interest in exploring this subject by our ‘leaders’ than there is in being honest about our collective $53 trillion federal shortfall.

    I am convinced that our monetary system’s encounter with natural and/or mathematical limits will be anything but smooth, possibly fatal, and I have placed my bets accordingly. It seems that our money system is thoroughly incompatible with natural laws and limits and therefore destined to fail. ”

    ~ Dr. Chris Martenson

  8. Magne,

    Now you beging to understand why I have another blog called Economic Dreams – Nightmares. The lastest Post there is titled “Financial Armageddon.”

    Non-mainstream economists from several camps have been sounding alarms for quite some time. Mainstreamers though, are sure that we are quite comfortably working along a fundamentally sound path of growth and development, with but minor speed bumps ahead.

  9. Danny L. McDaniel

    The intergrated circuitry economics model. Each circuit is dependent on the other and when one is in trouble the others can sustain the system for a short time.

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

  10. Danny,

    Thanks. Sounds interesting. I’ll google it, or would be interested in hearing more from you.