Integrating Ecological Economic Concepts into Other Disciplines

By Susan Santone

As a transdisciplinary field, ecological economics (EE) offers countless opportunities to contribute to other fields. But the notoriously siloed nature of disciplines, with their highly specialized content, can prevent these connections from happening. For example, EE topics such as thermodynamics and valuation of ecosystem services are unlikely to be fully understood—let alone embraced—by colleagues in humanities. So what can EE scholars do to build bridges to other fields?

The solution lies in the deeper conceptual bedrock underlying EE. Unlike specific topics such as thermodynamics, broad concepts such as interdependence, well-being, and equity apply across disciplines, providing the basis for transdisciplinary instruction.

In this blog, I’ll share instructional strategies I’ve used over the past 20 in faculty development programs serving educators in every field. I’ll describe how you can use these strategies to frame and infuse principles of ecological economics—and more broadly, sustainability—into disciplines that at first blush seem unlikely candidates. The material is drawn from my book, Reframing the Curriculum: Design for Social Justice and Sustainability (2018, Routledge), and at the end of the blog I’ll point you to some free resources, including a guide for facilitating many of the activities described here.

Framing the Inquiry

It’s no surprise that different sustainability topics find a comfortable home in a particular discipline, such as climate change in science or consumption in the social sciences. But regardless of the issue, I’ve found that educators are really striving towards one goal: how to engage their students in meaningful learning that advances sustainability. In every discipline, educators want to know how their courses can prepare students for the grand challenges ahead. I came to see it this way: the future is a story yet to be written, with today’s students writing tomorrow’s chapters. Where are our courses taking them?

That’s how I came to using story and narrative as central instructional metaphors. Story elements such as character, plot, and setting provide a universally relatable context that can make “wonky” topics accessible across disciplines and even grade levels. (I’ve seen sixth graders totally nail entropy and externalities.) The secret lies in weaving the elements together to tell a story—one that juxtaposes the beliefs and logic of two competing narratives I call The Story of More and The Story of Better.  To unfold the learning journey—itself a story—let’s start at the beginning with an effective way to set the stage for the narratives. (Directions for facilitating the activities described are available in the free facilitator guide mentioned.)

What’s the story we want?

When teaching about sustainability, the first question I typically ask is: What’s the story we want for ourselves, our students, and our communities, near and far? I’ve posed this question to educators from all ages and all backgrounds, including self-identified “conservatives” and “progressives,” veterans, Catholic nuns, and other people of faith. Regardless of the audience, the answers have been some version of this:

  • Clean water and air
  • Healthy, affordable foods appropriate to cultures and communities
  • Health care
  • Supportive and loving relationships: family, friends, neighbors
  • Educational opportunities: schools, books, Internet, informal learning
  • Economic opportunities: jobs, access to financing
  • Transportation, energy, infrastructure
  • Fair governance structures
  • Recreation and self-expression: hobbies, art, music, sports, etc.

Having lead this exercise with thousands of people, I can truly say I have yet to meet anyone who does not want the above. This universality raises additional questions to drive inquiry:  

  • What supports thriving and well-being?
  • Where are we actually headed, as a community and the world?
  • Who is responsible for the provision of healthy foods, safe housing, education, and other “ingredients” of thriving?
  • How do we organize society in ways that preserve the basis of well-being?

What supports the story?

With big-picture goals established, we must next explore the essential elements of this story—the actors, setting, and relationships that comprise the story. To begin, learners must understand the interdependence of ecological- and social systems, and the concept of the “commons,” the shared ecological and cultural gifts that support well-being. To teach this, I provide the students (actual students or practicing educators) with two sets of small cards. On one set are examples of the ecological commons such as oxygen, oceans, water, and sunlight. On the other are human-created, social/cultural commons, including public education, music, and language. After we define the difference between the two sets, I then ask people to describe ways elements from both sets work together to create and sustain well-being as they defined it. For example (as shown in Figure 1), people offer that animals, sunlight, and rivers support community celebrations and form local history.

Figure 1. The Commons Activity Example

After everyone has made a nice large web, I ask them to toss out elements and describe what happens (the connections all fall apart). In this way, participants come to understand that we not only have shared goals, we share the essentials needed to reach those goals. Interdependence, along with a definition of “community” that includes non-human members, thus become foundational principles as we move forward.

Where are we headed? Towards or away from the story we want?

With the desired story and its elements established, we then examine a range of global and local trends to determine whether we’re moving in the right direction. Drawing from sources from the Sustainable Development Goals to local data, we address progress (or lack thereof) on topics ranginge from climate change to gender equity to employment. For example, regarding food, people generally find it positive that the world produces the equivalent of 2,940 calories per day per capita (FAO, 2015), and the percentage of hungry people in the world has declined (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2016). But the story becomes murkier when we consider that one-third of the world’s croplands are used to produce food for livestock (FAO, 2012) and an estimated 795 million people are still chronically undernourished (United Nations [UN], 2015). As people wrestle with these mixed trends, they inevitably raise and name interdependencies among ecological, economic, and social dimensions—an insight that provides a strong “a-ha” moments about the ways individual disciplines connect to others.

Competing Narratives: More and Better

The “Where are we headed?” activity brings to light another reality: the world is moving in different directions at once. We are writing competing narratives—one dragging us away from the future we want, the other nudging us towards it. With this, I introduce the narratives: ,The Story of More and The Story of Better. By unfolding and comparing the narratives, we discover the disciplinary relevancy of EE concepts such as systems, limits, indicators. While the descriptions I offer may seem basic or obvious, my goal here is to illustrate how the familiarity opens doors to deeper connections and transdisciplinary thinking.

Let’s start with The Story of More.

The actor in this narrative is none other than homo economicus, a construct of human nature driven by self-interest and the rational pursuit of individual gain (utility)—gains which are measured in quantitative terms: profits, economic growth, and GDP. In a story where money defines value, the environment is deemed worthless and “unproductive” until it is harvested or contributes to property values. As a setting, the environment is only a backdrop—a trough of props and resources to serve the main plot: growth. And there’s only one way to reach that goal: zero-sum competition, a game in which one winner reigns over multiple losers. These competitors—the Others—loom as adversaries and threats. In this scheme, hierarchy is necessary and equity is impossible.

In contrast, The Story of Better is grounded in community and interdependence, concepts that redefine who and what counts as a character. In The Story of Better, significant actors include not only people, but other species and ecosystems. This blurs the line between character and setting. In this story, the environment is now a cast of co-actors that sustain and contain the human action (including the economy). The understanding that social systems operate within ecological ones sets the foundation for concepts such as carrying capacity and the Ecological Footprint, a topic which itself spans disciplines. Simple exercises in life cycle analysis, such as tracing the back story of an everyday food, can be very effective ways to build this knowledge.

In The Story of More, “success” is defined by the interdependent factors of well-being, ecological health, biodiversity, equity, and more. This holistic aim makes it easy to introduce alternatives to the GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. Comparing these metrics brings in concepts such as externalities and opens up important conversations in many disciplines. For example, educators who come to understand the folly of the GDP as a hallowed indicator quickly see the parallels to the primacy of test scores. The GPD’s dismissal of environmental and social costs is little different than educational policies that fail to account for a child’s physical, social- and emotional well-being.

As learners contrast the principles of each narrative, they come to understand that Figure 2 is a biophysically accurate representation of sustainability in contrast to Figure 3. (Depending on the audience I’ll also introduce the conventional circular flow economic diagram, with “land” (i.e., the environment) sidelined as a “factor of production.”) Comparing the assumptions embedded in each diagram only reinforces the idea that our thinking is shaped by cultural narratives.

                               Figure 2                                                         Figure 3

Introducing the concepts of More vs. Better beg another question: Can they ever overlap? Exploring this provides an opportunity to re-examine outcomes and indicators through an activity I call More, Better, or Both?  Using a Venn diagram (with the two circled labeled More and Better), I pose scenarios such as these and ask learners where each would fall on the diagram:

a) A local bike-to-work campaign is effective, resulting in fewer cars on the road.

b) The community health clinic receives a large donation and uses the money to hire medical staff and provide care to children who would not otherwise get it.

c) A company with no ties to the region builds a luxury condominium development on a former farm.

Having to wrestle with costs and benefits—and to whom—is one way to ensure that the narratives are not oversimplified. For example, people point out that the increased tax base from the new condos would fall into the better side, depending on what the revenue supported. Others rightfully point out the implications of loss of farmland. The point is not to demonize money or romanticize a world where everything is free (whatever that means) but rather to elevate the things, experiences, and relationships that truly improves our lives, whether or not there’s a price attached.

The conceptions of human nature in the More vs. Better narratives provide rich opportunities for disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. For example, homo economicus’ me-first motive is presumed to be an innate human trait that overrides others such as empathy or cooperativeness, core human characteristics in The Story of Better. Whereas the Story of More is all about individualism (a conception of self removed from community), the Story of Better values individuality, the uniqueness of each person. This informs the associated beliefs about diversity. In The Story of More, diversity must be squelched in favor of “efficiency” and uniformity. On the other hand, The Story of Better prizes diversity (biological, linguistic, and cultural) because it is understood that we thrive when we abide with rather than over others. to be essential for thriving. It’s all about interdependence—a condition homo economicus resents and even denies because it entangles him in pesky social and ecological relationships. And it goes deeper: hiomo economicus’ assumed superiority over the environment invites us to examine the cultural and religious roots of anthropocentrism. When applied this to human relationships, the same domination mindset creates social hierarchies that can only be sustained through legitimizing myths such as Social Darwinism. The Story of Better challenges these narratives by exposing, for example, the eugenics and pseudosciences.

Our concepts of human nature also help us understand the concepts of rivalry and excludability as illustrated by Hardin’s infamous article, The Tragedy of the Commons. Is collapse of the field inevitable, or might we avoid it? It all depends on who’s in charge.

On one hand, homo economicus, motivated only by the prospect of another cow, is quick to slam the gate because enclosure and privatization are the only viable options in a winner-take-all mindset. But in The Story of Better, people have the capacity to develop social arrangements that provide equitable access while maintaining the pasture (here, I point people towards the work of Elinor Ostrom, among others). Comparing the More vs. Better responses to the commons’ dilemma enables us to question assumptions about our “natural” self-centeredness and instead cultivate our human capacity for empathy, cooperation, and other pro-social behaviors.  

The concepts of rivalry and excludability also apply to educational policy. In the Story of More, zero-sum competition drives the need for hierarchies—a parallel seen in test-based accountability schemes designed to sort winners from losers in the service of the economy. In contrast, The Story of Better offers the idea of access, interdependence, and diversity as an asset; these are the very ingredients of educational equity. As I tell my students, our educational system has turned knowledge, dignity, and respect for all into rival commodities when in fact there should be no need to ration them. (We contrast this with the obvious physical constraints of rival items such as classroom space.)

Learn more

The examples in this blog illustrate one powerful fact: the field of ecological economics offers essential concepts that are easily integrated into other disciplines. And, while not described here, such integration can improve learning by deepening inquiry and engaging students in solution-oriented projects.

If you would like to learn more about the activities presented or see an example of a transdisciplinary unit of student, please visit the website of Reframing the Curriculum, click on eResource, and download the ZIP file. You’ll find the materials inside.

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Susan Santone is an internationally recognized educator with over 20 years of experience in curriculum reform, educational policy, and sustainability. She is a part-time instructor at the University of Michigan School of Education, and the Executive Director of Creative Change Educational Solutions, a non-profit consulting firm serving schools and universities. She is the author of Reframing the Curriculum: Design for Social Justice and Sustainability, as well as articles and book chapters focused countering neoliberal influences education.

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