USSEE President addresses 2013 conference

luzadisCurrent president of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, Professor Valerie A. Luzadis of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry, addressed the participants of the 2013 conference at the luncheon of the second day of the biennial meeting. The full text of her speech is presented below.

Good afternoon, everyone. What an act to follow! Annie Leonard’s impressive accomplishments give me hope that we will make the needed transformation in our economy and society. Today we celebrate Annie’s part in this transformation and we each have a critical part to play. And that’s what I’d like to address this afternoon – the next Great Transformation and our role in it. This time it is a Great Transformation from what Polyani dubbed a Market Society to a just and ecologically sustainable society. And this means a Great Transformation with a capital G and a capital T. You remember the “Great Depression” and the reverence we give it by capitalizing it in all our history books? Well I propose that we usher in the next Great Transformation – complete with capital letters because we should revere this. The Great Transformation to a dominant paradigm of justice and sustainability in which human and non-human life flourishes. The Great Transformation to a dominant paradigm of attention to what we DO want, not what we DON’T want. The Great Transformation to a society that values and respects each other and the non-human world that is the rest of this planet. The Great Transformation to a society which measures how it’s faring with QOL instead of GDP: Quality of Life instead of Gross Domestic Product. The Great Transformation in which story and science, imagination, innovation, intuition and data, all braid together toward understanding the unity of Earth’s systems and inhabitants and the beauty of its heterogeneity. One day the children of this planet will learn about The Great Transformation and wonder, stunned at how people could have stood for such inequity, disrespect, and dualism in everything around them. They will wonder how we could have maintained an economic system that delivered a decent quality of life to only a few. We certainly have begun this transformation but we’re still very much in a lower case t transformation stage.

We have only just begun…and we have not yet hit the hard stuff.

What have we done? We’ve begun nibbling at the edges of the dominant paradigm and we have started to decry the outcomes. We make note of continued poverty, increasing income inequality, decline in corporate taxes, increasing CO2 emissions, increasing proportion of the population incarcerated, that we generate more waste than ever, melting glaciers raising sea level, loss of biodiversity from species extinction, water scarcity. I could go on but you all know these issues.

What have we done? Renewable energy sources – sun, wind, wood, grasses, algae. Local currencies, co-ops, credit unions, land trusts, easements, neighborhood potluck dinners, worker owned companies, GPI instead of GDP. And we’ve started organizations: the New Economic Institute,, the Center for a new American Dream, the Center for Advancement of the Steady State Economy, Redefining Progress, Global Footprint Network, American Sustainable Business Council, Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Transition Towns, Business Alliance for Local Living Economics, Ethical Markets Media, Green America, Other Worlds, Practical Action Publishing, Slow Money, and Small-mart. You get the idea – some of these have roots in this group.

What do we need to do now? We need to face the big issues – the systemic problems – and deal with them at the appropriate scale. It’s a tough thing to face, that the little things we’re doing are not adding up – at least not yet. Gar Alperovitz makes this point in his newest book What Then Must We Do. This nibbling we’ve started to do includes some small steps that do help. I’ll use the example of valuation of ecosystem services to illustrate this.

Valuation hurts. And valuation helps. Both of these statements are true. We need to understand where in the system we are engaging valuation to see where it helps and where it hurts. Debate about ecosystem valuation has not made this distinction – that valuation has different functions in different places in the system.

Valuation can help in the area of practice. It can help to bring consideration of ecosystems into the decision making process and that makes sense in practice given the current dominant economic paradigm and the cost-benefit mindset. This falls into the practice area within the broader system of transforming the economy. And it is just one tool that practitioners can use in this transformation.

Valuation also hurts. It hurts when we understand it as transforming the economic system. It does not. It is trouble when policy makers and citizens believe that all we have to do is put prices on ecosystem services and our problems will be solved. Valuation of ecosystem services will not solve the problems of unemployment or poverty. Transformative ideas to answer such systemic issues we face fall into the realm of knowledge creation, scholarship – a different location than practice in the broader system. We must transform the system such that valuation as practiced now becomes irrelevant – and tweaking valuation methods and making new applications can help in practice but it is not transformative.

So, tweaking valuation is nibbling at the edges and that’s not enough; creating, debating and testing transformative ideas are what we must do. The need for a ‘warning label’ for valuation of ecosystem services emerged from discussions this spring with the USSEE Board of Directors.

You know what this means – like the warning label you see on that hair dryer your room: “Do Not Use While Bathing”. That one might seem obvious when stated in this setting….but clearly, someone did not understand the potential danger. I submit that this is also true about ecosystem valuation. The warning label that “this will not save the world” is necessary.

Interestingly, using valuation in practice while working to develop new paradigms to render it unnecessary is true to one of the foundational tenets of Ecological Economics: conceptual pluralism. When introducing this concept Norgaard tells us that the dominant paradigm is just one of the “multiple incongruent ways of knowing” and that it “acknowledges the limits, and hence appropriateness of specific patterns of reasoning”. The conceptions of the dominant paradigm are part of the pluralism we must acknowledge. And this brings us back to the origins of Ecological Economics and the Paramount Positions that Garret Hardin gave us at the start. He gave us 12 – I’ll share just a few: the world is limited, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the law of unintended consequences, there’s no away to throw to, population matters, scale effects are inescapable, cultural carrying capacity and the standard of living are inversely related, the maximum is not the optimum, the greatest good of the greatest number is nonsense, perfectly reliable machine-human couplings are self-defeating, do not transgress the carrying capacity, and for every shortage of supply there is a ‘longage’ of demand. It’s worth looking these up.

I’m going to be so bold as to add one more to Hardin’s list of Paramount positions: the current economic structure in not able to provide for a just and sustainable world. This addition is based on our current situation, 22 years later, and Hardin’s articulation of the need for paramount positions in the first place – in his words: “to place the burden of proof to those who might otherwise lead serious investigators down paths that have proven unproductive”. The burden of proof should be on those leading us to maintain the current economic structure to demonstrate that it is helping to create the world we want. Let’s shift the burden of proof!

Institutionally, Ecological Economics appears to be experiencing the coming of age and reflection of core values and principles that we see in twenty-something adults. It’s the right time to consider which of the formative principles we will bring forward and which should change or be left behind.

So what are some of these big issues we need to face?

The first I will mention is the Complexity-Rigor Challenge. As we grapple with effectively researching complex systems the issue of rigor is raised. Rigor is necessary. And we need to rethink how we understand and maintain it. The trade-offs between predictive capability, adequate reflection of complexity and uncertainty in a rigorous way, and the desire — the need –for science to inform policy decisions suggest that we need to rethink how we achieve scientific rigor when working in complex systems.

Rigor implies a structure and control in how we conduct research. We have understood this as strict adherence to “truth” – and this may be challenging when working in transdisciplinary ways on complex problems. The importance of identifying and articulating bias and value foundations of such inquiries provides a means to guard against being blind to demonstrations of fallacy of prized hypotheses. I am not advocating devolution to relativism; rather we must treat complexity in its own terms. And we do not know yet how to effectively do this.

At the moment, without directly addressing this issue, we run the risk of retreating from embracing complexity in transdisciplinary ways to the comfort of our disciplinary foundations and scientific rigor as we have always (so far) defined it.

Next issue… We need to rethink the concept of scarcity as the organizing principle of economic thinking – it forces attention to what we don’t want…we must turn our attention to what we do want. When we lift our minds to engage other ways of knowing, we see that attention matters. And this is a concept that goes beyond Buddhist and other religious and spiritual traditions into science. We have learned that attention to the muscle group being exercised improves results. We have learned that mental attention to the positive can improve health conditions. And just last week a study came out suggesting that we actually taste things differently depending upon our attention and mental state. So it’s time for Economics to turn attention to what we do want instead of organizing around what we do not want – scarcity. This approach does not gaily skip past an understanding of limits; it simply puts them in a different place within our field of attention. It is entirely possible to engage a precautionary stance with attention to what we do want. We just have to decide to do that.

And we are only just beginning to ask why we behave as we do–how and why we decide what we do. This is the next big issue. Beyond identifying the focus on scarcity and consumption demanded by the current economic system, we need to understand why in order to change our collective mindset. And this is where the going might get tough. We all know the challenge of changing our minds…once an idea is set; boy is it hard to shift. Think about it. How many of us know someone so set in their ways, you just can’t imagine them changing their minds….I know I can think of a few…maybe more than a few!

So how do we do this? How do we change our minds? The first thing anyone who has ever kicked a habit, made a great personal or professional change, knows is that you must ask good questions – the right questions. And sometimes these questions themselves or the possible answers are pretty frightening. We all know the power of fear in our lives….sometimes we’re just afraid to look. We’re all here this week because we know we must look, we are leaders in this effort to ask good questions, but I submit that we’re still not asking the right questions enough. We need to get to the hard stuff. Ecological Economics was founded on the willingness and need to challenge the fundamental assumptions of some of the world’s most deeply entrenched conceptions — neoclassical economics and neoliberal capitalism. We need Annie to do a new chapter: “The Story of the Hard Stuff” to show us the way!

So how do we do this? Think about a moment when you saw someone change their mind or when they realized that their mind had changed. What a powerful thing! As a scientist, I admit that data can change my mind. But when it comes to issues of values, I realized that it’s not always data that does it or only data that does it. Upon reflection, I realized that some of the most powerful shifts of mind I have experienced myself or observed in others were stimulated by stories. Personal stories. And so, as ecological economic scholars and practitioners ushering in the Great Transformation to a just and sustainable world, I urge you to add stories to your repertoire.

Of course we need to invite in those who already know the power of narrative and have the skills to do it well. But we also need to tell our own stories. Talk about what you’ve seen in the field, talk about the changes in yourself. Talk about how you found yourself facing the need for systemic change and how the answers seem out of reach sometimes. We need to talk about the fact that we do not have a magic pill to solve all these problems, that we are working hard to figure it out, and that we need to talk with each other to do so. And we need to hear the stories of others. We need to hear stories of small victories and big disasters. We need to hear how our neighbors are faring. We need to hear how our neighbors understand that the current economic structure delivers quality of life. We need to use the power of narrative in ways that build on the science that we practice and conduct. Harnessing the power of narrative toward the next Great Transformation will help us get there. Use the story of the next Great Transformation. Write the story of the next Great Transformation. Let’s tell the story of how we want our world to be, how we want our lives to be and what we need to do to get there and to maintain it. Let’s tell the story of the next Great Transformation on which we are embarking.

I’m new to the idea of narratives—of stories, I came up with all science all the time, and so I did what we academics are want to do – I researched it. But I also talked about it with others. The idea of creativity, imagination and intuition kept coming up – all that is okay in fiction, but not in science. At least we rarely, if ever, hear about it in science. We all know that science is fact-based – no place for imagination and intuition. But we also know that’s not exactly true. Only we do not usually say it out loud. I experience imagination and intuition not as creative in some childish way — “Oh, it’s only your imagination” — but as an important aspect of my greatest personal and professional achievements. I realize I run a risk in telling this story….but it’s time to say this out loud. It’s time to grant ourselves permission to embrace creativity in every way. Imagination and intuition are incredibly important parts of everything we do – in science and otherwise. When we pay attention to them, we can learn to appropriately and usefully interpret them. This is a course I want to develop for science majors and especially for graduate students in science: Engaging Intuition and Imagination for Solutions to Confounding Science and Societal Problems.

When we look at the papers at this conference, we see that many of us are working hard to ask the big questions, face the big issues and find creative ways to transform the economy. And I am delighted to see a session on narratives of the new economy later today.

This spring, the USSEE Board of Directors developed an Ecological Economics Agenda for Inquiry to better define the focus of the organization. On behalf of the Board, I invite you take a look at the Agenda and share your thoughts and feelings about it with us.

So, let’s jump into the big issues even more: the complexity-rigor challenge; alternative organizing principles for economics that reflect what we do want; economic transformation to resolve the problems of poverty and unemployment – all within our biophysical limits, respecting human and non-human life. Let’s shift the burden of proof! And use the power of narrative to help in this transformation. Draw on more than just data—weave a tapestry of intellect, imagination, intuition, and data for the future we want. For the present we want.

Finally, take a moment and think beyond what you’re doing these days. Look at the greater system beyond your current focus. Use your head. Use your heart (for more than just to pump the blood through your body) and ask yourself: What do I need to do next to move us toward transformation with a Capital T? What do I need to do? What do I need to let in? What do I need to let go of?

What is your next step as we usher in the next Great Transformation?