Ecological Economics

There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crews. [Marshall Macluhan]

Ecological economics involves the study of interactions between economic and ecological systems in a given social context. Its central focus is on areas where economic systems are in conflict with both the ecological system and the social system. It examines the relationships between these systems at scales varying from the local to the global and at different levels of complexities. Its core concern is the unsustainable levels of economic activities that go far beyond the capacities of the ecosystems to support and are such a common sight across human societies and cultures.

While informal understanding of the connections between economic activities and natural wealth has always been prevalent among societies across the ages it was only in the mid twentieth century that formal studies of these connections began appearing with increasing frequency. Foremost among these were the ‘Spaceship Earth’ by Kenneth Boulding and ‘Steady State Economy’ by Herman Daly that challenged the prevailing wisdom that the developed countries could continue to grow indefinitely. They showed that there were both physical limits imposed by environment and social limits inherent in the societies abilities to change with economic growth.

The human economic activity, from the ancient to the present, can be classed in four broad categories. The paleolithic (ancient stone) began with the advent of human being and continued till the human society advanced enough to begin domination of some animal species. This was the classical hunter-gatherer stage and the human populations sustained themselves by exploiting the environment around them, just as any other living beings. They adapted themselves to the environment and did not, could not, change the environment to their advantage in any significant manner.

The neolithic (new stone) age economic activity marked the first stage in adapting the environment to advantage by the beginning of domestication of animals and settling down at one place or at least staying at one place for longer and longer durations. This involved increasing food yields from the immediate environment through its manipulation like protecting fruit trees, encouraging the regeneration of useful trees and encouraging animals that provided food to stay longer, and in increasing numbers, in their neighborhood. The fact that they still moved from place to place meant that they and an intrinsic understanding of the limits of their environment to provide them the sustenance they needed. One could perhaps time the beginning of the study of ecological economics to this age!

The agricultural phase of human history began with the retreat of ice age a little more than 10000 years ago and lasted till the beginning of the industrial age in mid eighteenth century. Progressive increase in agriculture production in many societies led to surplus wealth and social classes that could exploit that surplus to their advantage. This was perhaps the beginning of organized inequity within human societies, the ruler and the ruled. And the slaves. And the resultant social systems became prominent carriers of their own brand of economic wisdom bringing in their wake much misery to many even as they enriched some.

The fourth phase, the industrial age, eclipsed the previous phase by the sheer vitality brought about by the energy that came from new fuel sources of coal and later petroleum. It enhanced reach of human societies to manipulate their environment far beyond the limits the previous age thus changing the human-environment relationship drastically. And it laid the foundation of the environmental crisis that faces us everywhere.