Ecological Economics is
of Vermont, USA)
© Copyright 2003 Robert Costanza-
psychiatric disorder of childhood characterized by marked deficits in
communication and social interaction, preoccupation with fantasy, language
impairment, and abnormal behavior, such as
repetitive acts and excessive attachment to certain objects. It is usually
associated with intellectual impairment. (American Heritage® Dictionary of
the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000)
The post-autistic economics movement has correctly identified many of the
failings of mainstream economics. With reference to the definition above,
mainstream economics is “autistic” in
its deficits in communication and social interaction with other
disciplines, preoccupation with mathematical fantasy, language impairment in
its limited and specialized vocabulary, and excessive attachment to certain
objects (assumptions and models). This
intellectual impairment has led to its inability to address many important
real world problems.
Ecological economics has moved well beyond the autism of the mainstream and
represents a viable post-autistic alternative. This paper describes briefly what
ecological economics is, how it developed, and why it is “post-autistic.”
Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary effort
to link the natural and social sciences broadly, and especially ecology and
economics (Costanza 1991). The goal is to develop a
deeper scientific understanding of the complex linkages between human and
natural systems, and to use that understanding to develop effective policies
that will lead to a world which is ecologically sustainable, has a fair
distribution of resources (both between groups and generations of humans and
between humans and other species), and
efficiently allocates scarce resources including “natural” and
“social” capital. This requires new
approaches that are comprehensive, adaptive, integrative, multiscale,
pluralistic, evolutionary and which acknowledge the huge uncertainties
For example, if one's goals include ecological sustainability then one cannot
rely on the principle of "consumer sovereignty" on which most
conventional economic solutions are based, but must allow for co-evolving
preferences, technology, and ecosystems (Norton et al. 1998). One of the basic organizing principles of
ecological economics is thus a focus on this complex interrelationship
between ecological sustainability (including system carrying capacity and
resilience), social sustainability (including distribution of wealth and
rights, social capital, and coevolving preferences) and economic
sustainability (including allocative efficiency in
the presence of highly incomplete and imperfect markets). A major implication of this is that our
ability to predict the consequences of economic behavior
is limited by our ability to predict the evolution of the biosphere. The
complexity of the many interacting systems that make up the biosphere means
that this involves a very high level of uncertainty. Indeed, uncertainty is a
fundamental characteristic of all complex systems involving irreversible
processes and ecological economics is particularly concerned with problems of
uncertainty. More particularly, it is concerned with the problem of assuring
sustainability under uncertainty.
Instead of locking ourselves into development paths that may
ultimately lead to ecological collapse, we need to maintain the resilience of
ecological and socioeconomic systems by conserving and investing in natural
and social assets.
Ecological economics has historical roots as long and deep as any field in
economics or the natural sciences, going back to at least the 17th century (Costanza et al. 1997).
Nevertheless, its immediate roots lie in work done in the 1960s and
1970s. Kenneth Boulding's
classic "The economics of the coming spaceship Earth" (Boulding 1966) set the stage for ecological economics
with its description of the transition from the "frontier
economics" of the past, where growth in human welfare implied growth in
material consumption, to the "spaceship economics" of the future,
where growth in welfare can no longer be fueled by
growth in material consumption. This
fundamental difference in vision and world view was elaborated further by
Daly (1968) in recasting economics as a life science - akin to biology and
especially ecology, rather than a physical science like chemistry or
physics. The importance of this shift
in "pre-analytic vision" cannot be overemphasized. It implies a fundamental change in the
perception of the problems of resource allocation and how they should be
addressed. More particularly, it implies that the focus of analysis should be
shifted from marketed resources in the economic system to the biophysical
basis of interdependent ecological and economic systems and their co-evolution
Ecological economics is not, however, a single new paradigm based in shared
assumptions and theory. It is instead a metaparadigm. Rather than espousing and defending a single
discipline or paradigm, it seeks to allow a broad, pluralistic range of
viewpoints and models to be represented, compared, and ultimately synthesized
into a richer understanding of the inherently complex systems it deals with.
It represents a commitment among economists, ecologists, and other academics
and practitioners to learn from each other, to explore new patterns of
thinking together, and to facilitate the derivation and implementation of
effective economic and environmental policies. Ecological economics is
deliberately and consciously pluralistic in it’s conceptual underpinnings.
Within this pluralistic metaparadigm, traditional
disciplinary perspectives are perfectly valid as part of the mix.
Ecological economics therefore includes some aspects of neoclassical environmental economics,
traditional ecology and ecological impact studies, and several other
disciplinary perspectives as components, but it also encourages completely
new, more integrated, ways to think about the linkages between ecological and
Ecological economics has also developed a solid institutional base. After
numerous experiments with joint meetings between economists and ecologists,
the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE)
was formed in 1988 and currently has over 2000 members worldwide
(http://www.ecologicaleconomics.org/). The journal of the society, Ecological Economics, published its
first issue in February of 1989 and is currently publishing 12 issues per
year, with an impact factor ranking it in the top 1/5 of all economics
journals (http://www.elsevier.com/inca/publications/store/5/0/3/3/0/5/). Major international conferences have been
held since 1990 (http://www.ecologicaleconomics.org/conf/conf.htm)
with attendance as high as 1500. Several ecological economic institutes have
been formed around the world, a significant number of books have appeared
with the term ecological economics in their titles (e.g. Martinez Alier 1987, Costanza 1991, Peet, 1992, Jansson et al 1994,
Barbier et al. 1994, Krishnan et al. 1995, Costanza et al. 1997), and a fair number of university
courses, certificate programs (e.g.
http://www.uvm.edu/giee/giee_certif.html), and graduate degree programs (e.g.
have also developed.
So, is ecological economics post-autistic? The “Kansas City Proposal” (2001) lists
seven changes needed to move to post-autism: (1) a broader conception of
human behavior; (2) recognition of culture; (3)
consideration of history; (4) a new theory of knowledge (beyond the
positive-normative dichotomy); (5) empirical grounding; (6) expanded methods;
and (7) interdisciplinary dialogue.
Ecological economics certainly has all of these characteristics. Its explicit links with the natural
sciences result in a more scientific approach, which is inherently more
pluralistic (Fullbrook 2001) and empirically
grounded. It places humans and human behavior in a
broader historical, evolutionary, and ecological context (Costanza
et al 1993). Humans are seen as a part
of the natural world, not abstractions in isolation from nature and each
other. It is problem-based, not tool-based, and its methods include any that
are applicable to the problems at hand. These include everything from
participatory processes (Campbell et al. 2000) to envisioning alternative
futures (Costanza 2000, Farley and Costanza 2002) to complex systems simulation modeling (Costanza et al. 1993,
2002, Boumans et al. 2002). It recognizes the importance of envisioning
and the limits of the positive-normative dichotomy (Costanza
2001). It goes well beyond
interdisciplinary dialogue. It aspires to be a truly transdisciplinary
One question is: given that ecological economics has been around since 1990
and seems to “fit the bill” for post-autistic economics, why has it not been
recognized as such by the
post-autistic economics movement which began around 2000? I can only conclude that this is just one
more symptom of the autism of mainstream economics, which has been so
hermitically sealed from the real world that it has not noticed (or more
likely aggressively ignored) these developments and has not made its students
aware of them. Now that the veil of
that autism is finally being lifted, we can join forces and move together to
create a transdisciplinary, pluralistic science
that can help solve the pressing problems the world faces today and help
create a sustainable and desirable world for the future.
Barbier, E. B., J. C.
Burgess and C. Folke. 1994. Paradise lost? the ecological
economics of biodiversity. Earthscan, London.
Boulding, K. E. 1966. “The economics of the coming
spaceship Earth”, in H. Jarrett (Ed.) Environmental quality in a growing
for the Future/Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 3-14.
R. Costanza, J. Farley, M. A. Wilson, R. Portela, J. Rotmans, F. Villa,
and M. Grasso. 2002. “Modeling the Dynamics of the
Integrated Earth System and the Value of Global Ecosystem Services Using the
GUMBO Model”, Ecological Economics 41: 529-560.
Campbell, B. M., R. Costanza, and M. van den Belt
(eds.) 2000. “Land Use Options in Dry Tropical Woodland Ecosystems in
Zimbabwe” in special section of Ecological
Economics, vol. 33, no.
3, pp. 341-438.
Costanza, R., ed. 1991. Ecological Economics:
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the need for an ecological economics”,
Costanza, R., L. Wainger,
C. Folke, and K-G Mäler.
1993. “Modeling complex ecological economic systems: toward an evolutionary,
dynamic understanding of people and nature”,
Costanza, R., J. C. Cumberland, H. E. Daly, R.
Goodland, and R. Norgaard. 1997. An Introduction
to Ecological Economics. Boca Raton: St. Lucie
Costanza, R., A. Voinov,
R. Boumans, T. Maxwell, F. Villa, L. Wainger, and H. Voinov. 2002.
“Integrated ecological economic modeling of the Patuxent River watershed, Maryland”, Ecological Monographs 72:203-231.
Daly, H.E. 1968. “On Economics as a Life Science”, Journal of Political Economy 76:
Farley, J. and R. Costanza. 2002. “Envisioning
shared goals for humanity: a detailed shared vision of a sustainable and
desirable USA in 2100”, Ecological
Fullbrook, E. 2001. “Real science is pluralist”, Post-autistic Economics Newsletter.
Issue 5, Article 6. URL: http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/review/issue5.htm
Jansson, A. M., M. Hammer, C. Folke,
and R. Costanza (eds.). 1994. Investing in
Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach to Sustainability.
Washington DC: Island Press.
Kansas City Proposal. 2001. “An international open letter to all economics
departments”, Post-autistic Economics
Newsletter. Issue 8, Article 1. URL: http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/KC.htm
Krishnan, R., J. M. Harris, and N. Goodwin (eds).
1995. A survey of ecological economics. Washington, DC, Island Press.
Martinez-Alier, J. 1987. Ecological economics:
energy, environment, and society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Norton, B., R. Costanza, and R. Bishop. 1998. “The
evolution of preferences: why ‘sovereign’ preferences may not lead to sustainable
policies and what to do about it”, Ecological
is Gund Professor of Ecological Economics and
Director of the Gund Institute of Ecological
Economics, The University of Vermont, email: Robert.Costanza@uvm.edu
Robert Costanza, “Ecological
Economics is Post-Autistic”, post-autistic
economics review, issue no. 20, 3 June 2003, article 2, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue20/Costanza20.htm