Current president of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, Professor Jon Erickson of the University of Vermont, addressed the participants of the 2011 conference at the closing of the third day of the biennial meeting. The full text of his speech is copied below.
Thank you all for the opportunity to address the membership of our society. So, I’m supposed to say something profound about the importance of ecological economics and the bright future of our society. No thanks, let’s get personal instead.
I’m 41 years old and have been a self-proclaimed ecological economist for nearly half of these years. I’ve devoted my professional life to the development of this transdisciplinary lens on the study and management of human communities embedded in our social and biophysical environments.
At 27 years old, with Ph.D. in hand, I landed one of the first jobs advertising for an ecological economist and helped build the world’s first doctoral program in ecological economics at RPI with John Gowdy and Sabine O’Hara (both past presidents of this society). In subsequent years I helped found this organization, served on the board of our international society, authored and co-authored the requisite number of ecological economic papers and books to get tenure and then a full professorship in the field of ecological economics, worked with some of the leading intellects in our field (including John Gowdy, Bob Costanza, Herman Daly, and Josh Farley), and today I manage the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, which I would argue is one of the hubs of research and education in ecological economics and design.
In short, I am the poster child for the academic ecological economist. When ecological economics was formalized in the late 80s and early 90s through the creation of a professional society and journal, people like me were supposed to be incubated, indoctrinated, and infiltrated into society. I didn’t discover ecological economics mid-career and I didn’t transform myself into an ecological economist post-tenure. I defined myself as an ecological economist in graduate school, and for nearly 20 years convinced myself that I knew what this meant.
Well, I’m due for a mid-life crisis! And since I have the podium, I’m going to share some realizations with you all … at least the ones that pertain to my chosen profession and ultimately this academic society.
So, mid-life crisis realization number 1 … ecological economics is a lie. I first discovered ecological economics in a Herman Daly book that I found in the free book pile in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Cornell University. I was led to believe – and staked my career on it – that ecological economics was a study of the economy that was grounded in the principles of ecology. Today I would argue, in practice and in perception, that ecological economics has largely become the application of economics to the conservation agenda of ecologists and environmentalists. Much of what gets published in our journal, presented at our conferences, and picked up by the press is what we called in graduate school “environmental economics,” a sub-discipline of economics applied to environmental problems. That’s not what I signed up for.
Second realization … as with neoclassical economics, ecological economics is a dogmatic belief system. I thought, for many years, that our charge as ecological economists was to expose the faulty assumptions upon which the house of cards called neoclassical economics was built – particularly the all-too-convenient myths of the rational actor model and the market efficiency hypothesis that it was designed to support. Then we were to build an economics that transcended disciplinary boundaries. An economics built on biophysical truths. An economics that doesn’t always and everywhere assume that more is better. An honest economics built on scientific integrity.
Instead we practice a hypocritical economics. We too often expose the inconsistencies between our behavioral assumptions and hard-won, testable facts from other disciplines, while we kneel at the altar of the market as the one true path to sustainability; particularly in the U.S. In ecological economics, as with neoclassical economics, the discussion has largely focused on market failure, missing the broader critique of the failure of markets and the role of non-market institutions in moving away from what David Korten calls “suicide economics”. Institutions matter. We’ve learned from the first generation of payments for ecosystem services schemes, largely in the tropics, that the role of institutions is absolutely critical to successful conservation, and that expensive studies on the non-market benefits of ecosystem service provision mean very little without knowing the distribution of opportunity costs.
Related to this is a third realization, that ecological economics has simply become a prescription for green growth, but growth nonetheless. When I first cracked open that Herman Daly book on steady-state economics, I was convinced that I discovered a way to reconcile my economics training with my natural science education. I had found a vision of economic development that embraced ethics, affirmed life, and argued for well-defined limits to economic reasoning. Natural science was to define sustainable scale; ethical debate and public process was to negotiate just distribution; and well–regulated markets would be designed to seek efficient allocation. But in the tradition of the “Armchair Economist”, “Freaknomics”, and many of the popularizations of “thinking like an economist”, ecological economics of late has fallen into that alluring trap of a theory of everything … everything has a price, and thus economics has no bounds.
My next realization is that if I really wanted to devote my career to the study and management of the human household, I should have been a psychologist. If Milton Friedman were alive today, my guess is that he’d say “We’re all behavioral economists now.” All the pontification in the world about energy returns on investment, thermodynamics, and the folly of transitioning to a bioenergy future to support business as usual will continue to have a limited impact on policy and planning in absence of a grounding in human nature. The Madison Avenue advertising firms threw out their econ 101 textbooks many decades ago and aligned themselves with the behavioral sciences. So have the political campaign consultancies, and mass media and news agencies.
The biological underpinnings of our decisions are as much a constraint to sustainability as the energy and ecological limits to growth. Much progress has been made in the “how do we make decisions” realm within the neurosciences. Much interdisciplinary work remains to be done on “why do we make the decisions we do”. Ecological economics should have much to contribute to investigating the evolutionary roots of our behavior, the relationship between resource scarcity and systems of governance, and the creation of adaptive strategies to get our species through the next bottleneck. With a few notable exceptions, we have contributed very little to this leading edge of science.
And a final realization as part of my mid-life crisis: the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics is not relevant to social policy. As an association of like-minded people, we often ask the right questions, but are afraid of the unpopular answers. We’ve grown content in talking to each other at our biennial meetings, but unwilling to step outside our own comfort zone to articulate and lobby for change in policy circles. Do we have an alternative to the mainstream, or not? Can we provide the credibility of an academic society, and still offer the much-needed advice necessary to make the transformation our economy so desperately needs; a transformation certainly articulated at meetings such as these but not followed with concrete action.
Part of what we discussed at our members meeting earlier today are steps toward relevance, starting with hiring a secretariat that has the keys to the inner policy circles. But let’s be clear, first we need to get back to telling the truth about the economy. We need to be brave, and articulate and question our own dogma. We must return to principles of economics based on physical reality. And we should catch up to the major influence the behavioral sciences are having on a broader revolution in the social sciences. Then perhaps we can return to challenging the status quo instead of complaining about it in one breath, and serving it in the next.
We live in an incredible time, with a responsibility to tell the truth, educate this generation of policy-makers and economists on the ecological realities of our economic decisions, and use our position of privilege to make a difference. My first year as president was spent getting our own house in order, and not much else. But for this coming year, I hope you’ll join me in working through my own mid-life crisis, and perhaps make the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics relevant in the bargain.
Thanks for listening.