Economists vs. Ecologists: Bridging the Gap

Evidence that the economy is in conflict with the Earth’s natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of shrinking forests, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, disappearing species, and many other consequences.

| June 18, 2009

Forest bridge

Bridging the eco-economy divide: We spend a lot of time worrying about our economic deficits, but the ecological deficits are what threaten our long-term economic future.


In 1543, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres,” in which he challenged the view that the sun revolved around the Earth, arguing instead that the Earth revolved around the sun. With his new model of the solar system, he began a wide-ranging debate among scientists, theologians and others. His alternative to the earlier Ptolemaic model — which had the earth at the center of the universe — led to a revolution in thinking, and to a new worldview.

Today we need a similar shift in our worldview, in how we think about the relationship between the Earth and the economy. The issue now is not which celestial sphere revolves around the other, but whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. Economists see the environment as a subset of the economy. Ecologists, on the other hand, see the economy as a subset of the environment.

Like Ptolemy’s view of the solar system, the economists’ view is confusing efforts to understand our modern world. It has created an economy that is out of sync with the ecosystem on which it depends.

Economic theory and economic indicators do not explain how the economy is disrupting and destroying the Earth’s natural systems. Economic theory does not explain why Arctic sea ice is melting. It does not explain why grasslands are turning into desert in northwestern China, why coral reefs are dying in the South Pacific, or why the Newfoundland cod fishery collapsed. Nor does it explain why we are in the early stages of the greatest extinction of plants and animals since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Yet economics is essential to measuring the cost to society of these excesses.

Evidence that the economy is in conflict with the Earth’s natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, falling water tables, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, melting glaciers, rising sea level, dying coral reefs, and disappearing species. These trends, which mark an increasingly stressed relationship between the economy and the Earth’s ecosystem, are taking a growing economic toll. At some point, this could overwhelm the worldwide forces of progress, leading to economic decline.

These increasingly visible trends indicate that if the operation of the subsystem, the economy, is not compatible with the behavior of the larger system — the Earth’s ecosystem — both will eventually suffer. Recent events in the economic and financial systems cause one to wonder if we’re beginning to see the effects of an economy outgrowing its natural base. The larger the economy becomes relative to the ecosystem, and the more it presses against the Earth’s natural limits, the more destructive this incompatibility will be. The challenge for our generation is to reverse these trends before environmental deterioration leads to long-term economic decline, as it did for so many earlier civilizations.

pat miketinac
7/7/2009 10:32:48 PM

The "existing industrial economic model" is causing excessive expansion by the world's central banks devaluing currencies by creating fiat money. As the people become impoverished, survival will trump ecology, so correcting economic mistakes is vital to ecology. It seems that only Austrian School economists understand this.

john edward mercier
6/20/2009 1:52:35 PM

I think because the author is confusing economic theory with capital acquisition. Its like confusing the term shelter and mansion. One meets a basic survival need, the other is largely capital acquisition. I think we as a society might avoid Ecological Economics in that it doesn't meet our traditional sense of 'green'.

aaron townsley
6/19/2009 11:34:36 AM

While I agree with the many of the points made in this article, I am surprised that Ecological Economics, and an entire economic field devoted to answering many of the questions posed by the author, isn't mentioned once. While neo-classical economic theory may not be equipped unify economics and ecology, the study of economics (The distribution and exchange of goods and services in a defined system) can be integrated with ecology.

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