What is ‘ecological economics’ and why do we need to talk about it?



Ecological economics focuses on sustainability and development, rather than the traditional economic concerts of efficiency and growth.
thodonal88/Shutterstock

Anitra Nelson, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, RMIT University

This article is part of a series on rebalancing the human–nature interactions that are central to the study and practice of ecological economics, which is the focus of the 2019 ANZSEE Conference in Melbourne later this month.


As environmental crises and the urgency to create ecological sustainability escalate, so does the importance of ecological economics. This applied, solutions-based field of studies is concerned with sustainability and development, rather than efficiency and growth. Also, given that cities account for 70-80% of global economic activity and associated resource use, emissions and waste, they are central to finding solutions to the challenge of sustainability.

Ecological economics recognises local to global environmental limits. It ranges from research for short-term policy and local challenges through to long-term visions of sustainable societies. Ecological economists also consider global issues such as carbon emissions, deforestation, overfishing and species extinctions.




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Core concepts

You’re probably familiar with some core concepts of ecological economics. These include “steady-state economies”, “carrying capacity”, “ecological footprints” and “environmental justice”.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen was one of the first economists to argue that an economy faces limits to growth as a result of resource depletion.

A steady-state economy is both relatively stable and respects ecological limits. Drawing on the work of mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, economist Herman Daly elaborated the model, editing a 1973 anthology, Toward a Steady-State Economy.

In 1990, Daly co-founded the International Society of Ecological Economics (ISEE). It had three key principles:

  • the human economy is embedded in nature, and economic processes are actually biological, physical and chemical processes and transformations

  • ecological economics is a meeting place for researchers committed to environmental issues

  • ecological economics requires transdisciplinary work to describe economic processes in relation to physical reality.

Joshua Farley, who has worked with Daly, discusses some of these principles in an opening address to the Australia New Zealand Society of Ecological Economics (ANZSEE) conference at RMIT University later this month.

In a partnership program of several North American universities, Farley teaches Economics for the Anthropocene postgraduates. They apply ecological economics to “real-world environmental solutions”. Some will talk at the conference about their research.

Today overconsumption is measured against Earth’s carrying capacity.




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William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developed the related concept of the ecological footprint. It’s an indicator of the ecological impacts of everyday activities and practices.

Ecological footprints are useful ways for industries, governments and people to assess which practices we need to reduce to keep within the limits of Earth’s regenerative capacity.

The ecological footprint explained.



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ISEE co-founder Joan Martinez-Alier established the global Environmental Justice Atlas. Activists and scholars developed this online database of around 3,000 environmental justice conflicts. It provides open access to many and various ecological and economic value assessments.

Issues of environmental justice in Australia include:




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Mountains of waste are a stark reminder we are consuming more than the Earth can sustain.
ThavornC/Shutterstock

A new kind of economics

Ecological economics partly developed from frustration with the narrowness of environmental and resource economics. These approaches apply mainstream economics to the environment. In doing so, they fail to incorporate critical environmental concerns that arise with inputs, outputs and waste.




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In addition, ecological economists have a broader view about what “progress” is and how to measure it. Ecological econonomists are more sceptical about how much human-made capital improves on the benefits we get from nature. Critically, they ask: “How useful is it to put a monetary value on nature?”

Ecological economist Clive Hamilton discusses that question in the case of Coronation Hill in Kakadu National Park. He argues that market-based assessments such as “willingness to pay” favour market-based solutions. Similarly, Brian Coffey highlights the conundrum of monetising ecological values:

I would rather ask “why is nature important?” and “how can we live with, and within, it?”

Despite this, certain ecological economists use monetary data to make powerful ecological statements. For instance, Ida Kubiszewski and her co-authors surveyed land uses under different future scenarios. They concluded that continuing business as usual could wipe out a third of the value of Asia-Pacific ecosystems by 2050.




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Solutions for sustainable and just futures

In short, ecological economics has contributors from diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds.

Presenters to the ANZSEE conference of course include ecologists and economists. But there are also social and physical scientists, sociologists, philosophers, historians, planners and sustainability experts.

Sustainability expert Samuel Alexander speaks about living well with degrowth. Others argue that a climate-safe world requires radical forms of economics.




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Contributors will also talk about just transitions, commoning, the genuine progress indicator (GPI), School Strike for Climate (SS4C), resilience, decarbonisation and ethical investment. Keynote speaker Jon Altman presents a model of hybrid economies that’s useful in the context of Indigenous peoples.The Conversation

Anitra Nelson, Associate Professor, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University and Brian Coffey, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Attorney-General Christian Porter targets Market Forces in push against environment groups



Greenpeace members protesting at Newcastle port in 2017, calling on the Commonwealth Bank to stop investing in coal.
Jaz Kaelin

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has the activist group Market Forces squarely in its sights as it considers ways to stop environmental organisations persuading financial and other businesses to boycott companies in the mining sector.

It is also targeting funders of class actions, in its proposed crackdown on those running climate change campaigns that hit firms.

Attorney-General Christian Porter singled out Market Forces in a Monday statement that said he was co-ordinating advice across several portfolios on what could be done to protect resource businesses from such activism.




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Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday condemned “an escalating trend towards a new form of secondary boycotts” which had potentially serious economic consequences, especially for regional economies.

“Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector,” Morrison told the Queensland Resources Council.

Market Forces was launched in 2013, and is affiliated with Friends of the Earth. The organisation’s website says it “exposes” institutions, such as banks, superannuation funds and governments that are financing environmentally destructive projects.

Market Forces has lobbied heavily against Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in central Queensland. Its website lists the companies it says have links to the project, and asks supporters to contact those companies to demand they cut ties.

A 2017 protest against the Commonwealth Bank over its then-links to mining giant Adani.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The organisation’s chief executive Julien Vincent hit back at the government on Monday, saying that where it saw something it did not like “its response is to get it shut down”.

“We simply allow people to make informed decisions on who they do business with,” Vincent said.




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“That’s a right that we thought, until recently, that this government was prepared to uphold”.

But Porter said it was “simply not OK” for any Australian business to be targeted by groups seeking to do it financial harm “when all they are doing is working in an industry like mining and resources that a small number of domestic and international activists have an ideological objection to.

“There are a growing number of examples where we have seen radical activist groups like Market Forces that try and impose their political will on companies across the country through widespread, co-ordinated harassment and threats of boycotts,” he said.

The government was looking at multiple options, across portfolios, Porter said, and the work would be prepared urgently.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has announced the government will try to prevent activist groups from initiating boycotts against companies.
BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAP

The government was also considering regulatory action against “the growing presence of litigation funders who are receiving disproportionately large shares of payments in class action litigation which is becoming increasingly politicised by a focus on companies that operate in the mining and resources sector”.

Casting the net even wider, Porter said the government would consider other areas of activists’ “lawfare” which was “designed to delay, frustrate and cause unnecessary expense to mining and other legitimate commercial projects and businesses”.

Secondary boycotts are already outlawed under the competition and consumer legislation but there is an exemption where the dominant reason is for environmental or consumer protection.

An obvious course for the government would be to seek to remove the exemption.
Another option would be to remove the tax deductibility status of groups.

Labor has accused Morrison of “virtue signalling” in his planned attack on activist groups.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.