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October 17, 2006


David Jeffery

Good post Dave. I've been enjoying this discussion here and at the Env-Econ blog.


1. As I point out repeatedly, since we have no idea what the carrying capacity of the Earth is and I know of no one credible who suggests going down the China path of restricting the number of children people can have the whole focus on "optimal scale" is a red herring with nothing operational at the macro level.

2. Sustainability is generally a fuzzy concept but the best definitions come from Robert Solow and David Pearce- two hardcore economists- not from EE- so how can you all claim to focus on it more

3. EE people love to talk about "fairness" first- who gets to say what's fair? Sure, let's have the discussion but don't call it ecology and while related to economics of course, it's really moral philosophy- let's be precise here


Dave Iverson


When EE folks talk about "environmental ethics" we really are talking moral philosophy. I don't think it is hidden at all.

And David Pearce is one of the mainstays of EE. See, e.g. the fourth paragraph of http://www.ecoeco.org/publica/encyc_entries/Costanza.pdf

Finally, just because no one really knows for sure what the carrying capacity of the earth is, this does not mean that we ought not to talk about it. Negative Population Growth, for example, used to say that we might begin to think about an earth with, say, 2 billion people with a long term goal to try to whittle our presence down to that level. No one, including them, claims to know the carrying capacity of Earth (at what quality of life?). Still, the topic is worthy of some discussion. Otherwise, we have to work up spaceship planetary escape myths, stories, or far-future realities that may not come in time, if at all. Else just stick our heads in the sand. No?


Acutally, no I don't think a discussion of carrying capacity on the macro sense is really of much value. On smaller scales yes, and of course, to the extent that we want to cap greenhouse gases etc. we need to think macro, but figuring out how many people can live on the Earth doesn't seem like a good use of time since the population is going to settle at about 9 billion relatively soon and those 9 billion are ALL going to want and get the middle class luxuries that we now enjoy. A much better use of time is figuring out how to do that without decimating ecosystems instead of figuring out whether that number should be 8 billion or 8.5- because what do you do with that number anyway? I just don't get the whole obsession with carrying capacity- it's a distraction in my view. As to EE being moral philosophy good- but that's not science, not ecology, and only the normative strand of economics so the EE label in my view is misplaced. Anyway, since I come off as harsh to EE, which I generally am given the tendency of many of its adherents to advocate massive increases in government authority and control and coercive wealth redistribution, let me say that I believe EE is well-intentioned. The problem is that history, and particularly the 20th century, is littered with well-intentioned ideologies that had the opposite effects.


Dave Iverson

I don't think we ought to obsess over planetary carrying capacity either. As for "...those 9 billion are ALL going to want and get the middle class luxuries that we now enjoy," This IS a real concern, with only one planet to provide for all those "wants," "demands." Hence the need for the EE dialogue.

So, J.S. I admit that EE is not a science. Do you believe economics to be a science?


Absolutely- economics is one of the most powerful social sciences- it has normative and philosophical elements but yes it clearly meets the criteria of science. Glad we can agree on quite a lot in the end.


Dave Iverson

OK, J.S. I asked a silly, unanchored question, and provided a flip remark to kick it off: namely that I don't think of ecological economics as a science.

If we look to Dictionary.com for a definition of "science" we get:


1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences

2. any of the branches of natural or physical science.

3. systematized knowledge in general.

4. knowledge, as of facts or principles;

5. knowledge gained by systematic study.

6. a particular branch of knowledge.

7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.

This is a "big tent" definition, likely to include "ecological economics" even though I'd rather think of EE as a cross-disciplinary conversation among scientists, managers, and others.

Can economics be viewed both as science and ideology? {Note we could spend a few years here, parsing out distinctions between positive and normative, and chasing other rabbits too. I don't have time or energy to go there. Try, e.g. Mark Blaug's The Methodology of Economics.} Just for fun, here is what Robert Heilbroner said about economics, and economics as a science (in Behind the Veil of Economics):

"Economics is the name we give to a process found in all societies as a precondition for existence. The process consists of both activities of production and distribution, and of the means for orchestrating these activities in accordance with the aims of the social order. This seems an appropriate place, however, to reflect on a double-meaning of the word economics--namely, its reference both to the actual processes of provisioning, and to the ideas and beliefs by which we explain (and justify) those processes. ... [In market economies] Economics then becomes the "science" -- the empirical scrutiny and functional analysis -- of market directed behavior, while remaining an ideology -- a belief system -- insofar as it accepts as final the analysis of social movement in terms of unexamined 'economic forces.'"

"… Despite the unprecedented changes wrought by capitalism, despite the enormously enlarged sphere accorded to the play of self-interest and rationality [relative to societies in which the provisioning process takes place under the aegis of tradition and command] the forces of affect and obedience – the universal products of the socialization of humankind – continue to serve their ignored, but irreplaceable motivational function. Unsupported by these forces, the institution of exchange would be incapable of marshalling and coordinating the activities required for the provisioning of the social order. The 'mechanism' of exchange is therefore not an integrative system free of affect and power, but a system the depends on these ancient modes of behavioral control – incorporating them in ways of extraordinary complexity, unleashing from them a heretofore unknown social dynamic, ignoring their active and essential contribution, but depending on them all the same. There is therefore no mystery involved in the assertion that economics is fundamentally and embodiment of the forces of morality and politics, interpreted broadly. The mystery, rather, resides in our difficulty in perceiving this." (pp 32-24)

Dave Iverson

Rob MetCalfe works further on the science question at "Natural Capital." He says that EE may partially fail a Kuhn (Structure of Scientific Revolutions) test to place the discipline in the "normal science" camp. That is what it is, according to MetCalfe and any others who attempt to categorize. MetCalfe's workup is here: http://envecon.wordpress.com/2006/10/20/differences-between-environmental-and-ecological-economics-%e2%80%93-which-is-a-science/

Still, most of us here, I suspect would rather see whether EE fits in as a post-normal science. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Post-Normal_Science

Who will work that up?

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