Ecological economics

Ecological economics (also called eco-economics, ecolonomy or bioeconomics of Georgescu-Roegen) is both a transdisciplinary and an interdisciplinary field of academic research addressing the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems, both intertemporally and spatially.[1] By treating the economy as a subsystem of Earth's larger ecosystem, and by emphasizing the preservation of natural capital, the field of ecological economics is differentiated from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment.[2] One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing strong sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital (see the section on Weak versus strong sustainability below).[3]

Ecological economics was founded in the 1980s as a modern discipline on the works of and interactions between various European and American academics (see the section on History and development below). The related field of green economics is, in general, a more politically applied form of the subject.[4][5]

According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation.[6] Ecological economists have questioned fundamental mainstream economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis, and the separability of economic values from scientific research, contending that economics is unavoidably normative rather than positive (i.e. descriptive).[7] Positional analysis, which attempts to incorporate time and justice issues, is proposed as an alternative.[8][9] Ecological economics shares several of its perspectives with feminist economics, including the focus on sustainability, nature, justice and care values.[10]

History and development

The antecedents of ecological economics can be traced back to the Romantics of the 19th century as well as some Enlightenment political economists of that era. Concerns over population were expressed by Thomas Malthus, while John Stuart Mill predicted the desirability of the stationary state of an economy. Mill thereby anticipated later insights of modern ecological economists, but without having had their experience of the social and ecological costs of the Post–World War II economic expansion. In 1880, Marxian economist Sergei Podolinsky attempted to theorize a labor theory of value based on embodied energy; his work was read and critiqued by Marx and Engels.[11] Otto Neurath developed an ecological approach based on a natural economy whilst employed by the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He argued that a market system failed to take into account the needs of future generations, and that a socialist economy required Calculation in kind, the tracking of all the different materials, rather than synthesising them into money as a general equivalent. In this he was criticised by neo liberal economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Freidrich Hayek in what became known as the socialist calculation debate.[12]

The debate on energy in economic systems can also be traced back to Nobel prize-winning radiochemist Frederick Soddy (1877–1956). In his book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (1926), Soddy criticized the prevailing belief of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, capable of generating infinite wealth—a criticism expanded upon by later ecological economists such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly.[13]

European predecessors of ecological economics include K. William Kapp (1950)[14] Karl Polanyi (1944)[15], and Romanian economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1971). Georgescu-Roegen, who would later mentor Herman Daly at Vanderbilt University, provided ecological economics with a modern conceptual framework based on the material and energy flows of economic production and consumption. His magnum opus, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), is credited by Daly as a fundamental text of the field, alongside Soddy's Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt.[16] Some key concepts of what is now ecological economics are evident in the writings of Kenneth Boulding and E.F. Schumacher, whose book Small Is Beautiful – A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) was published just a few years before the first edition of Herman Daly's comprehensive and persuasive Steady-State Economics (1977).[17][18]

The first organized meetings of ecological economists occurred in the 1980s. These began in 1982, at the instigation of Lois Banner,[19] with a meeting held in Sweden (including Robert Costanza, Herman Daly, Charles Hall, Bruce Hannon, H.T. Odum, and David Pimentel).[20] Most were ecosystem ecologists or mainstream environmental economists, with the exception of Daly. In 1987, Daly and Costanza edited an issue of Ecological Modeling to test the waters. A book entitled Ecological Economics, by Juan Martinez-Alier, was published later that year.[20] He renewed interest in the approach developed by Otto Neurath during the interwar period.[21] 1989 saw the foundation of the International Society for Ecological Economics and publication of its journal, Ecological Economics, by Elsevier. Robert Costanza was the first president of the society and first editor of the journal, which is currently edited by Richard Howarth. Other figures include ecologists C.S. Holling and H.T. Odum, biologist Gretchen Daily, and physicist Robert Ayres. In the Marxian tradition, sociologist John Bellamy Foster and CUNY geography professor David Harvey explicitly center ecological concerns in political economy.

Articles by Inge Ropke (2004, 2005)[22] and Clive Spash (1999)[23] cover the development and modern history of ecological economics and explain its differentiation from resource and environmental economics, as well as some of the controversy between American and European schools of thought. An article by Robert Costanza, David Stern, Lining He, and Chunbo Ma[24] responded to a call by Mick Common to determine the foundational literature of ecological economics by using citation analysis to examine which books and articles have had the most influence on the development of the field. However, citations analysis has itself proven controversial and similar work has been criticized by Clive Spash for attempting to pre-determine what is regarded as influential in ecological economics through study design and data manipulation.[25] In addition, the journal Ecological Economics has itself been criticized for swamping the field with mainstream economics.[26][27]

Schools of thought

Various competing schools of thought exist in the field. Some are close to resource and environmental economics while others are far more heterodox in outlook. An example of the latter is the European Society for Ecological Economics. An example of the former is the Swedish Beijer International Institute of Ecological Economics. Clive Spash has argued for the classification of the ecological economics movement, and more generally work by different economic schools on the environment, into three main categories. These are the mainstream new resource economists, the new environmental pragmatists,[28] and the more radical social ecological economists.[29] International survey work comparing the relevance of the categories for mainstream and heterodox economists shows some clear divisions between environmental and ecological economists.[30]

Differences from mainstream economics

Some ecological economists prioritise adding natural capital to the typical capital asset analysis of land, labor, and financial capital. These ecological economists then use tools from mathematical economics as in mainstream economics, but may apply them more closely to the natural world. Whereas mainstream economists tend to be technological optimists, ecological economists are inclined to be technological sceptics. They reason that the natural world has a limited carrying capacity and that its resources may run out. Since destruction of important environmental resources could be practically irreversible and catastrophic, ecological economists are inclined to justify cautionary measures based on the precautionary principle.[31]

The most cogent example of how the different theories treat similar assets is tropical rainforest ecosystems, most obviously the Yasuni region of Ecuador. While this area has substantial deposits of bitumen it is also one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and some estimates establish it has over 200 undiscovered medical substances in its genomes - most of which would be destroyed by logging the forest or mining the bitumen. Effectively, the instructional capital of the genomes is undervalued by analyses which view the rainforest primarily as a source of wood, oil/tar and perhaps food. Increasingly the carbon credit for leaving the extremely carbon-intensive ("dirty") bitumen in the ground is also valued - the government of Ecuador set a price of US$350M for an oil lease with the intent of selling it to someone committed to never exercising it at all and instead preserving the rainforest.

While this natural capital and ecosystems services approach has proven popular amongst many it has also been contested as failing to address the underlying problems with mainstream economics, growth, market capitalism and monetary valuation of the environment.[32][33][34] Critiques concern the need to create a more meaningful relationship with Nature and the non-human world than evident in the instrumentalism of shallow ecology and the environmental economists commodification of everything external to the market system.[35][36][37]

Nature and ecology

Diagram of natural resource flows
Natural resources flow through the economy and end up as waste and pollution

A simple circular flow of income diagram is replaced in ecological economics by a more complex flow diagram reflecting the input of solar energy, which sustains natural inputs and environmental services which are then used as units of production. Once consumed, natural inputs pass out of the economy as pollution and waste. The potential of an environment to provide services and materials is referred to as an "environment's source function", and this function is depleted as resources are consumed or pollution contaminates the resources. The "sink function" describes an environment's ability to absorb and render harmless waste and pollution: when waste output exceeds the limit of the sink function, long-term damage occurs.[38]:8 Some persistent pollutants, such as some organic pollutants and nuclear waste are absorbed very slowly or not at all; ecological economists emphasize minimizing "cumulative pollutants".[38]:28 Pollutants affect human health and the health of the ecosystem.

The economic value of natural capital and ecosystem services is accepted by mainstream environmental economics, but is emphasized as especially important in ecological economics. Ecological economists may begin by estimating how to maintain a stable environment before assessing the cost in dollar terms.[38]:9 Ecological economist Robert Costanza led an attempted valuation of the global ecosystem in 1997. Initially published in Nature, the article concluded on $33 trillion with a range from $16 trillion to $54 trillion (in 1997, total global GDP was $27 trillion).[39] Half of the value went to nutrient cycling. The open oceans, continental shelves, and estuaries had the highest total value, and the highest per-hectare values went to estuaries, swamps/floodplains, and seagrass/algae beds. The work was criticized by articles in Ecological Economics Volume 25, Issue 1, but the critics acknowledged the positive potential for economic valuation of the global ecosystem.[38]:129

The Earth's carrying capacity is a central issue in ecological economics. Early economists such as Thomas Malthus pointed out the finite carrying capacity of the earth, which was also central to the MIT study Limits to Growth. Diminishing returns suggest that productivity increases will slow if major technological progress is not made. Food production may become a problem, as erosion, an impending water crisis, and soil salinity (from irrigation) reduce the productivity of agriculture. Ecological economists argue that industrial agriculture, which exacerbates these problems, is not sustainable agriculture, and are generally inclined favorably to organic farming, which also reduces the output of carbon.[38]:26

Global wild fisheries are believed to have peaked and begun a decline, with valuable habitat such as estuaries in critical condition.[38]:28 The aquaculture or farming of piscivorous fish, like salmon, does not help solve the problem because they need to be fed products from other fish. Studies have shown that salmon farming has major negative impacts on wild salmon, as well as the forage fish that need to be caught to feed them.[40][41]

Since animals are higher on the trophic level, they are less efficient sources of food energy. Reduced consumption of meat would reduce the demand for food, but as nations develop, they tend to adopt high-meat diets similar to that of the United States. Genetically modified food (GMF) a conventional solution to the problem, presents numerous problems – Bt corn produces its own Bacillus thuringiensis toxin/protein, but the pest resistance is believed to be only a matter of time.[38]:31

Global warming is now widely acknowledged as a major issue, with all national scientific academies expressing agreement on the importance of the issue. As the population growth intensifies and energy demand increases, the world faces an energy crisis. Some economists and scientists forecast a global ecological crisis if energy use is not contained – the Stern report is an example. The disagreement has sparked a vigorous debate on issue of discounting and intergenerational equity.


Mainstream economics has attempted to become a value-free 'hard science', but ecological economists argue that value-free economics is generally not realistic. Ecological economics is more willing to entertain alternative conceptions of utility, efficiency, and cost-benefits such as positional analysis or multi-criteria analysis. Ecological economics is typically viewed as economics for sustainable development,[42] and may have goals similar to green politics.

Green economics

In international, regional, and national policy circles, the concept of the green economy grew in popularity as a response to the financial predicament at first then became a vehicle for growth and development.[43]

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) defines a ‘green economy’ as one that focuses on the human aspects and natural influences and an economic order that can generate high-salary jobs. In 2011, its definition was further developed as the word ‘green’ is made to refer to an economy that is not only resourceful and well-organized but also impartial, guaranteeing an objective shift to an economy that is low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially-inclusive.

The ideas and studies regarding the green economy denote a fundamental shift for more effective, resourceful, environment-friendly and resource‐saving technologies that could lessen emissions and alleviate the adverse consequences of climate change, at the same time confront issues about resource exhaustion and grave environmental dilapidation.[44]

As an indispensable requirement and vital precondition to realizing sustainable development, the Green Economy adherents robustly promote good governance. To boost local investments and foreign ventures, it is crucial to have a constant and foreseeable macroeconomic atmosphere. Likewise, such an environment will also need to be transparent and accountable. In the absence of a substantial and solid governance structure, the prospect of shifting towards a sustainable development route would be insignificant. In achieving a green economy, competent institutions and governance systems are vital in guaranteeing the efficient execution of strategies, guidelines, campaigns, and programmes.

Shifting to a Green Economy demands a fresh mindset and an innovative outlook of doing business. It likewise necessitates new capacities, skills set from labor and professionals who can competently function across sectors, and able to work as effective components within multi-disciplinary teams. To achieve this goal, vocational training packages must be developed with focus on greening the sectors. Simultaneously, the educational system needs to be assessed as well in order to fit in the environmental and social considerations of various disciplines.[45]


Among the topics addressed by ecological economics are methodology, allocation of resources, weak versus strong sustainability, energy economics, energy accounting and balance, environmental services, cost shifting, modeling, and monetary policy.


A primary objective of ecological economics (EE) is to ground economic thinking and practice in physical reality, especially in the laws of physics (particularly the laws of thermodynamics) and in knowledge of biological systems. It accepts as a goal the improvement of human well-being through development, and seeks to ensure achievement of this through planning for the sustainable development of ecosystems and societies. Of course the terms development and sustainable development are far from lacking controversy. Richard B. Norgaard argues traditional economics has hi-jacked the development terminology in his book Development Betrayed.[46]

Well-being in ecological economics is also differentiated from welfare as found in mainstream economics and the 'new welfare economics' from the 1930s which informs resource and environmental economics. This entails a limited preference utilitarian conception of value i.e., Nature is valuable to our economies, that is because people will pay for its services such as clean air, clean water, encounters with wilderness, etc.

Ecological economics is distinguishable from neoclassical economics primarily by its assertion that the economy is embedded within an environmental system. Ecology deals with the energy and matter transactions of life and the Earth, and the human economy is by definition contained within this system. Ecological economists argue that neoclassical economics has ignored the environment, at best considering it to be a subset of the human economy.

The neoclassical view ignores much of what the natural sciences have taught us about the contributions of nature to the creation of wealth e.g., the planetary endowment of scarce matter and energy, along with the complex and biologically diverse ecosystems that provide goods and ecosystem services directly to human communities: micro- and macro-climate regulation, water recycling, water purification, storm water regulation, waste absorption, food and medicine production, pollination, protection from solar and cosmic radiation, the view of a starry night sky, etc.

There has then been a move to regard such things as natural capital and ecosystems functions as goods and services.[47][48] However, this is far from uncontroversial within ecology or ecological economics due to the potential for narrowing down values to those found in mainstream economics and the danger of merely regarding Nature as a commodity. This has been referred to as ecologists 'selling out on Nature'.[49] There is then a concern that ecological economics has failed to learn from the extensive literature in environmental ethics about how to structure a plural value system.

Allocation of resources

Uneconomic Growth diagram
The marginal costs of a growing economy may gradually exceed the marginal benefits, however measured.

Resource and neoclassical economics focus primarily on the efficient allocation of resources and less on the two other problems of importance to ecological economics: distribution (equity), and the scale of the economy relative to the ecosystems upon which it relies.[50] Ecological economics makes a clear distinction between growth (quantitative increase in economic output) and development (qualitative improvement of the quality of life), while arguing that neoclassical economics confuses the two. Ecological economists point out that beyond modest levels, increased per-capita consumption (the typical economic measure of "standard of living") may not always lead to improvement in human well-being, but may have harmful effects on the environment and broader societal well-being. This situation is sometimes referred to as uneconomic growth (see diagram above).

Weak versus strong sustainability

The three nested systems of sustainability - the economy wholly contained by society, wholly contained by the biophysical environment. Clickable.

Ecological economics challenges the conventional approach towards natural resources, claiming that it undervalues natural capital by considering it as interchangeable with human-made capital—labor and technology.

The impending depletion of natural resources and increase of climate-changing greenhouse gasses should motivate us to examine how political, economic and social policies can benefit from alternative energy. Shifting dependence on fossil fuels with specific interest within just one of the above-mentioned factors easily benefits at least one other. For instance, photo voltaic (or solar) panels have a 15% efficiency when absorbing the sun's energy, but its construction demand has increased 120% within both commercial and residential properties. Additionally, this construction has led to a roughly 30% increase in work demands (Chen).

The potential for the substitution of man-made capital for natural capital is an important debate in ecological economics and the economics of sustainability. There is a continuum of views among economists between the strongly neoclassical positions of Robert Solow and Martin Weitzman, at one extreme and the 'entropy pessimists', notably Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly, at the other.[51]

Neoclassical economists tend to maintain that man-made capital can, in principle, replace all types of natural capital. This is known as the weak sustainability view, essentially that every technology can be improved upon or replaced by innovation, and that there is a substitute for any and all scarce materials.

At the other extreme, the strong sustainability view argues that the stock of natural resources and ecological functions are irreplaceable. From the premises of strong sustainability, it follows that economic policy has a fiduciary responsibility to the greater ecological world, and that sustainable development must therefore take a different approach to valuing natural resources and ecological functions.

Recently, Stanislav Shmelev developed a new methodology for the assessment of progress at the macro scale based on multi-criteria methods, which allows consideration of different perspectives, including strong and weak sustainability or conservationists vs industrialists and aims to search for a 'middle way' by providing a strong neo-Keynesian economic push without putting excessive pressure on the natural resources, including water or producing emissions, both directly and indirectly.[52]

Energy economics

Cost and exergy for heating energy in Finland
Exergy analysis can be performed to find connections between economic value and the physical world. Here the costs of heating (vertical axis) are compared with the exergy content of different energy carriers (horizontal axis). Red dots and trend line indicate energy prices for consumers, blue dots and trend line indicate total price for consumers including capital expenditure for the heating system. Energy carriers included are district heating (D), ground-source heat pump (G), exhaust air heat pump (A), bioenergy meaning firewood (B), heating oil (O) and direct electric heating (E).[53]

A key concept of energy economics is net energy gain, which recognizes that all energy requires energy to produce. To be useful the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) has to be greater than one. The net energy gain from production coal, oil and gas has declined over time as the easiest to produce sources have been most heavily depleted.[54]

Ecological economics generally rejects the view of energy economics that growth in the energy supply is related directly to well being, focusing instead on biodiversity and creativity - or natural capital and individual capital, in the terminology sometimes adopted to describe these economically. In practice, ecological economics focuses primarily on the key issues of uneconomic growth and quality of life. Ecological economists are inclined to acknowledge that much of what is important in human well-being is not analyzable from a strictly economic standpoint and suggests an interdisciplinary approach combining social and natural sciences as a means to address this.

Thermoeconomics is based on the proposition that the role of energy in biological evolution should be defined and understood through the second law of thermodynamics, but also in terms of such economic criteria as productivity, efficiency, and especially the costs and benefits (or profitability) of the various mechanisms for capturing and utilizing available energy to build biomass and do work.[55][56] As a result, thermoeconomics is often discussed in the field of ecological economics, which itself is related to the fields of sustainability and sustainable development.

Exergy analysis is performed in the field of industrial ecology to use energy more efficiently.[57] The term exergy, was coined by Zoran Rant in 1956, but the concept was developed by J. Willard Gibbs. In recent decades, utilization of exergy has spread outside of physics and engineering to the fields of industrial ecology, ecological economics, systems ecology, and energetics.

Energy accounting and balance

An energy balance can be used to track energy through a system, and is a very useful tool for determining resource use and environmental impacts, using the First and Second laws of thermodynamics, to determine how much energy is needed at each point in a system, and in what form that energy is a cost in various environmental issues. The energy accounting system keeps track of energy in, energy out, and non-useful energy versus work done, and transformations within the system.[58]

Scientists have written and speculated on different aspects of energy accounting.[59]

Ecosystem services and their valuation

Ecological economists agree that ecosystems produce enormous flows of goods and services to human beings, playing a key role in producing well-being. At the same time, there is intense debate about how and when to place values on these benefits[60][61].

A study was carried out by Costanza and colleagues[62] to determine the 'value' of the services provided by the environment. This was determined by averaging values obtained from a range of studies conducted in very specific context and then transferring these without regard to that context. Dollar figures were averaged to a per hectare number for different types of ecosystem e.g. wetlands, oceans. A total was then produced which came out at 33 trillion US dollars (1997 values), more than twice the total GDP of the world at the time of the study. This study was criticized by pre-ecological and even some environmental economists - for being inconsistent with assumptions of financial capital valuation - and ecological economists - for being inconsistent with an ecological economics focus on biological and physical indicators.[63]

The whole idea of treating ecosystems as goods and services to be valued in monetary terms remains controversial. A common objection[64][65][66] is that life is precious or priceless, but this demonstrably degrades to it being worthless within cost-benefit analysis and other standard economic methods. Reducing human bodies to financial values is a necessary part of mainstream economics and not always in the direct terms of insurance or wages. Economics, in principle, assumes that conflict is reduced by agreeing on voluntary contractual relations and prices instead of simply fighting or coercing or tricking others into providing goods or services. In doing so, a provider agrees to surrender time and take bodily risks and other (reputation, financial) risks. Ecosystems are no different from other bodies economically except insofar as they are far less replaceable than typical labour or commodities.

Despite these issues, many ecologists and conservation biologists are pursuing ecosystem valuation. Biodiversity measures in particular appear to be the most promising way to reconcile financial and ecological values, and there are many active efforts in this regard. The growing field of biodiversity finance[67] began to emerge in 2008 in response to many specific proposals such as the Ecuadoran Yasuni proposal[68][69] or similar ones in the Congo. US news outlets treated the stories as a "threat"[70] to "drill a park"[71] reflecting a previously dominant view that NGOs and governments had the primary responsibility to protect ecosystems. However Peter Barnes and other commentators have recently argued that a guardianship/trustee/commons model is far more effective and takes the decisions out of the political realm.

Commodification of other ecological relations as in carbon credit and direct payments to farmers to preserve ecosystem services are likewise examples that enable private parties to play more direct roles protecting biodiversity, but is also controversial in ecological economics[72]. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization achieved near-universal agreement in 2008[73] that such payments directly valuing ecosystem preservation and encouraging permaculture were the only practical way out of a food crisis. The holdouts were all English-speaking countries that export GMOs and promote "free trade" agreements that facilitate their own control of the world transport network: The US, UK, Canada and Australia.[74]

Not 'externalities', but cost shifting

Ecological economics is founded upon the view that the neoclassical economics (NCE) assumption that environmental and community costs and benefits are mutually canceling "externalities" is not warranted. Joan Martinez Alier,[75] for instance shows that the bulk of consumers are automatically excluded from having an impact upon the prices of commodities, as these consumers are future generations who have not been born yet. The assumptions behind future discounting, which assume that future goods will be cheaper than present goods, has been criticized by David Pearce[76] and by the recent Stern Report (although the Stern report itself does employ discounting and has been criticized for this and other reasons by ecological economists such as Clive Spash).[77]

Concerning these externalities, some like the eco-businessman Paul Hawken argue an orthodox economic line that the only reason why goods produced unsustainably are usually cheaper than goods produced sustainably is due to a hidden subsidy, paid by the non-monetized human environment, community or future generations.[78] These arguments are developed further by Hawken, Amory and Hunter Lovins to promote their vision of an environmental capitalist utopia in Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution.[79]

In contrast, ecological economists, like Joan Martinez-Alier, appeal to a different line of reasoning.[80] Rather than assuming some (new) form of capitalism is the best way forward, an older ecological economic critique questions the very idea of internalizing externalities as providing some corrective to the current system. The work by Karl William Kapp explains why the concept of "externality" is a misnomer.[81] In fact the modern business enterprise operates on the basis of shifting costs onto others as normal practice to make profits.[82] Charles Eisenstein has argued that this method of privatising profits while socialising the costs through externalities, passing the costs to the community, to the natural environment or to future generations is inherently destructive.[83] As social ecological economist Clive Spash has noted, externality theory fallaciously assumes environmental and social problems are minor aberrations in an otherwise perfectly functioning efficient economic system.[84] Internalizing the odd externality does nothing to address the structural systemic problem and fails to recognize the all pervasive nature of these supposed 'externalities'.

Ecological-economic modeling

Mathematical modeling is a powerful tool that is used in ecological economic analysis. Various approaches and techniques include:[85][86] evolutionary, input-output, neo-Austrian modeling, entropy and thermodynamic models,[87] multi-criteria, and agent-based modeling, the environmental Kuznets curve, and Stock-Flow consistent model frameworks. System dynamics and GIS are techniques applied, among other, to spatial dynamic landscape simulation modeling.[88][89] The Matrix accounting methods of Christian Felber provide a more sophisticated method for identifying "the common good"[90]

Monetary Theory and Policy

Ecological economics draws upon its work on resource allocation and strong sustainability to address monetary policy. Drawing upon a transdisciplinary literature, ecological economics roots its policy work in monetary theory and its goals of sustainable scale, just distribution, and efficient allocation [91]. Ecological economics' work on monetary theory and policy can be traced to Frederick Soddy's work on money. The field considers questions such as the growth imperative of interest-bearing debt, the nature of money, and alternative policy proposals such as alternative currencies and public banking.


Assigning monetary value to natural resources such as biodiversity, and the emergent ecosystem services is often viewed as a key process in influencing economic practices, policy, and decision-making.[92][93] While this idea is becoming more and more accepted among ecologists and conservationist, some argue that it is inherently false.

McCauley argues that ecological economics and the resulting ecosystem service based conservation can be harmful.[94] He describes four main problems with this approach:

Firstly, it seems to be assumed that all ecosystem services are financially beneficial. This is undermined by a basic characteristic of ecosystems: they do not act specifically in favour of any single species. While certain services might be very useful to us, such as coastal protection from hurricanes by mangroves for example, others might cause financial or personal harm, such as wolves hunting cattle.[95] The complexity of Eco-systems makes it challenging to weigh up the value of a given species. Wolves play a critical role in regulating prey populations; the absence of such an apex predator in the Scottish Highlands has caused the over population of deer, preventing afforestation, which increases the risk of flooding and damage to property.

Secondly, allocating monetary value to nature would make its conservation reliant on markets that fluctuate. This can lead to devaluation of services that were previously considered financially beneficial. Such is the case of the bees in a forest near former coffee plantations in Finca Santa Fe, Costa Rica. The pollination services were valued to over US$60,000 a year, but soon after the study, coffee prices dropped and the fields were replanted with pineapple.[96] Pineapple does not require bees to be pollinated, so the value of their service dropped to zero.

Thirdly, conservation programmes for the sake of financial benefit underestimate human ingenuity to invent and replace ecosystem services by artificial means. McCauley argues that such proposals are deemed to have a short lifespan as the history of technology is about how Humanity developed artificial alternatives to nature’s services and with time passing the cost of such services tend to decrease. This would also lead to the devaluation of ecosystem services.

Lastly, it should not be assumed that conserving ecosystems is always financially beneficial as opposed to alteration. In the case of the introduction of the Nile perch to Lake Victoria, the ecological consequence was decimation of native fauna. However, this same event is praised by the local communities as they gain significant financial benefits from trading the fish.

McCauley argues that, for these reasons, trying to convince decision-makers to conserve nature for monetary reasons is not the path to be followed, and instead appealing to morality is the ultimate way to campaign for the protection of nature.

See also


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Further reading

  • Common, M. and Stagl, S. 2005. Ecological Economics: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Costanza, R., Cumberland, J. H., Daly, H., Goodland, R., Norgaard, R. B. (1997). An Introduction to Ecological Economics, St. Lucie Press and International Society for Ecological Economics, (e-book at the Encyclopedia of Earth)
  • Costanza, R., Stern, D. I., He, L., Ma, C. (2004). Influential publications in ecological economics: a citation analysis. Ecological Economics 50(3-4): 261-292. -
  • Daly, H. (1980). Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Essays Toward a Steady-State Economy, W.H. Freeman and Company, ISBN 0716711796.
  • Daly, H. and Townsend, K. (eds.) 1993. Valuing The Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics. Cambridge, Mass.; London, England: MIT Press.
  • Daly, H. (1994). “Steady-state Economics”. In: Ecology - Key Concepts in Critical Theory, edited by C. Merchant. Humanities Press, ISBN 0391037951.
  • Daly, H., and J.B. Cobb (1994). For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Beacon Press, ISBN 0807047058.
  • Daly, H. (1997). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Beacon Press, ISBN 0807047090.
  • Daly, H. (2015). "Economics for a Full World." Great Transition Initiative,
  • Daly, H., and J. Farley (2010). Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Island Press, ISBN 1597266817.
  • Georgescu-Roegen, N. 1975. Energy and economic myths. Southern Economic Journal 41: 347-381.
  • Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1999). The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. iUniverse Press, ISBN 1583486003.
  • Gowdy, J., and J.D. Erickson (2005). The approach of ecological economics. Cambridge Journal of Economics 29: 207-222.
  • Greer, J. M. (2011). The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered. New Society Publishers, ISBN 0865716730.
  • Huesemann, Michael H., and Joyce A. Huesemann (2011). Technofix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, ISBN 0865717044, 464 pp.
  • Kevlar, M. (2014) Eco-Economics on the horizon, Economics and human nature from a behavioural perspective.
  • Jackson, Tim (2009). Prosperity without Growth - Economics for a finite Planet. London: Routledge/Earthscan. ISBN 9781849713238.
  • Krishnan R, Harris J.M., and N.R. Goodwin (1995). A Survey of Ecological Economics. Island Press. ISBN 978-1-55963-411-3.
  • Martinez-Alier, J. (1990) Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
  • Martinez-Alier, J., Ropke, I. eds. (2008). Recent Developments in Ecological Economics, 2 vols., E. Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.
  • Røpke, I. (2004) The early history of modern ecological economics. Ecological Economics 50(3-4): 293-314.
  • Røpke, I. (2005) Trends in the development of ecological economics from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Ecological Economics 55(2): 262-290.
  • Shmelev S. E. (2012) Ecological Economics: Sustainability in Practice, Springer 256 pp.
  • Soddy, F. A. (1926) "Wealth, Money and Debt" London, England: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Spash, C. L. (1999) The development of environmental thinking in economics. Environmental Values 8(4): 413-435.
  • Stern, D. I. (1997) Limits to substitution and irreversibility in production and consumption: A neoclassical interpretation of ecological economics. Ecological Economics 21(3): 197-215. -
  • Tacconi, L. (2000) Biodiversity and Ecological Economics: Participation, Values, and Resource Management. London, UK: Earthscan Publications.
  • Vatn, A. (2005) Institutions and the Environment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
  • Vinje, Victor Condorcet (2015) Economics as if Soil & Health Matters. Nisus Publications.

External links

Schools and institutes:

Environmental data:


Carrying capacity

The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment.

In population biology, carrying capacity is defined as the environment's maximal load, which is different from the concept of population equilibrium. Its effect on population dynamics may be approximated in a logistic model, although this simplification ignores the possibility of overshoot which real systems may exhibit.

Carrying capacity was originally used to determine the number of animals that could graze on a segment of land without destroying it. Later, the idea was expanded to more complex populations, like humans. For the human population, more complex variables such as sanitation and medical care are sometimes considered as part of the necessary establishment. As population density increases, birth rate often increases and death rate typically decreases. The difference between the birth rate and the death rate is the "natural increase". The carrying capacity could support a positive natural increase or could require a negative natural increase. Thus, the carrying capacity is the number of individuals an environment can support without significant negative impacts to the given organism and its environment. Below carrying capacity, populations typically increase, while above, they typically decrease. A factor that keeps population size at equilibrium is known as a regulating factor. Population size decreases above carrying capacity due to a range of factors depending on the species concerned, but can include insufficient space, food supply, or sunlight. The carrying capacity of an environment may vary for different species and may change over time due to a variety of factors including: food availability, water supply, environmental conditions and living space.

The origins of the term "carrying capacity" are uncertain, with researchers variously stating that it was used "in the context of international shipping" or that it was first used during 19th-century laboratory experiments with micro-organisms. A recent review finds the first use of the term in an 1845 report by the US Secretary of State to the US Senate.

Critical realism (philosophy of the social sciences)

Critical realism, a philosophical approach associated with Roy Bhaskar (1944–2014), combines a general philosophy of science (transcendental realism) with a philosophy of social science (critical naturalism) to describe an interface between the natural and social worlds.

Ecological Economics (journal)

Ecological Economics is a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Elsevier on behalf of the International Society for Ecological Economics. It covers research on ecological economics. The journal was established in 1989 by founding editor-in-chief Robert Costanza. The current editor-in-chief is Richard B. Howarth (Dartmouth College). The journal aims to "extend and integrate the study and management of nature's household (ecology) and humankind's household (economics)".The contents and management of Ecological Economics as a journal has been controversial. Inge Røpke has cited the expulsion of social ecological economists from the Board by Cutler Cleveland when he became Editor. On taking over in 2008, Rich Howarth stated his desire for a more inclusive approach, and reappointed some of those previously removed. However, this inclusiveness has also apparently resulted in further loss of focus as the journal seems to accept anything to do with the environment and economics from any field. In particular, questions have been raised by Clive Spash over the direction of the journal and its influence on the broader movement because of the inclusion of much which is mainstream orthodox environmental and resource economics and shows no awareness of debates within ecological economics nor makes any use of its heterodox theoretical foundations. A good example is the work appearing in the journal on climate change as discussed by Anderson and M'Gonigle.

Ecological threshold

Ecological threshold is the point at which a relatively small change or disturbance in external conditions causes a rapid change in an ecosystem. When an ecological threshold has been passed, the ecosystem may no longer be able to return to its state by means of its inherent resilience . Crossing an ecological threshold often leads to rapid change of ecosystem health. Ecological threshold represent a non-linearity of the responses in ecological or biological systems to pressures caused by human activities or natural processes.Critical load, tipping point and regime shift are examples of other closely related terms.

Energy accounting

Energy accounting is a system used to measure, analyze and report the energy consumption of different activities on a regular basis. This is done to improve energy efficiency, and to monitor the environment impact of energy consumption.

Environmental economics

Environmental economics is a sub-field of economics concerned with environmental issues. It has become a widely studied topic due to growing environmental concerns in the twenty-first century. Quoting from the National Bureau of Economic Research Environmental Economics program:

... Environmental Economics ... undertakes theoretical or empirical studies of the economic effects of national or local environmental policies around the world ... . Particular issues include the costs and benefits of alternative environmental policies to deal with air pollution, water quality, toxic substances, solid waste, and global warming.

Environmental economics is distinguished from ecological economics in that ecological economics emphasizes the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem with its focus upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing "strong" sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.

Factors of production

In economics, factors of production, resources, or inputs are what is used in the production process to produce output—that is, finished goods and services. The utilized amounts of the various inputs determine the quantity of output according to the relationship called the production function. There are three basic resources or factors of production: land, labor, and capital. The factors are also frequently labeled "producer goods or services" to distinguish them from the goods or services purchased by consumers, which are frequently labeled "consumer goods".

There are two types of factors: primary and secondary. The previously mentioned primary factors are land, labor, and capital goods.

Materials and energy are considered secondary factors in classical economics because they are obtained from land, labor, and capital. The primary factors facilitate production but neither becomes part of the product (as with raw materials) nor becomes significantly transformed by the production process (as with fuel used to power machinery). Land includes not only the site of production but also natural resources above or below the soil. Recent usage has distinguished human capital (the stock of knowledge in the labor force) from labor. Entrepreneurship is also sometimes considered a factor of production. Sometimes the overall state of technology is described as a factor of production. The number and definition of factors vary, depending on theoretical purpose, empirical emphasis, or school of economics.

Green economy

The green economy is defined as an economy that aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment. It is closely related with ecological economics, but has a more politically applied focus. The 2011 UNEP Green Economy Report argues "that to be green, an economy must not only be efficient, but also fair. Fairness implies recognizing global and country level equity dimensions, particularly in assuring a just transition to an economy that is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive."A feature distinguishing it from prior economic regimes is the direct valuation of natural capital and ecological services as having economic value (see The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity and Bank of Natural Capital) and a full cost accounting regime in which costs externalized onto society via ecosystems are reliably traced back to, and accounted for as liabilities of, the entity that does the harm or neglects an asset.Green Sticker and ecolabel practices have emerged as consumer facing measurements of friendliness to the environment and sustainable development. Many industries are starting to adopt these standards as a viable way to promote their greening practices in a globalizing economy.

Gund Institute for Ecological Economics

The Gund Institute for Environment (founded 1992), formerly known as the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and more commonly known as Gund Institute, is a research institute for transdisciplinary scholarship, based at the University of Vermont (UVM) and comprising diverse faculty, students, and collaborators worldwide. The Gund Institute offers graduate-level training where students are exposed to a wide range of expertise, perspectives, and techniques through course offerings, weekly discussions and seminars, and research mentoring. The Gund Institute offers a Certificate of Graduate Study in Ecological Economics, available both to UVM Graduate students and to anyone pursuing continuing education. In addition, it has a series of problem-solving workshops called "Ateliers" and nearly two hundred educational videos.

Herman Daly

Herman Edward Daly (born July 21, 1938) is an American ecological and Georgist economist and emeritus professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland, College Park in the United States.

International Society for Ecological Economics

The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) was founded in 1989, based heavily on the work of Herman Daly to promote ecological economics and assist ecological economists and related societies. The society publishes a monthly journal Ecological Economics, books and other materials, and holds periodic meetings and conferences to facilitate a voice for ecological economists.

The ISEE was initially presided over by Robert Costanza who was also the first editor of the journal. Subsequent presidents have been Richard B. Norgaard, John Proops, Charles Perrings, Joan Martinez Alier, Peter May, John Gowdy, Bina Agarwal, and Marina Fischer-Kowalski, an Austrian sociologist. and Sabine O'Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia.[1] Clóvis Cavalcanti is the current President of the ISEE, his term as president commenced in January 2018. The president-elect for 2020 is Joshua Farley, PhD. The journal is currently co-edited by Richard B. Howarth and Stefan Baumgaertner.In 1996, the Right Livelihood Award was awarded to steady-state theorist Herman Daly "for defining a path of ecological economics that integrates the key elements of ethics, quality of life, environment and community." He was honored as one of the key figures in the foundation of ISEE, that was considered to be "the major forum that links economists and ecologists, and academics and environmental activists." Dr. Daly was also awarded the 2014 Japanese Blue Planet Award.

The ISEE is divided into regional societies. There are currently ten regional societies:

Africa (ASEE)

Argentina and Uruguay (ASAUEE)

Australia and New Zealand (ANZSEE)

Brazil (Eco-Eco),

Canada (CANSEE)

European Union (ESEE)

Mesoamerica (SMEE)

India (INSEE)

Russia (RSEE)

United States (USSEE)There is also a Chinese Ecological Economics Society which is not affiliated to the ISEE and an Iberoamerican Network, REDIBEC.ISEE holds biennial conferences in different locations:

11th Biennial ISEE Conference, entitled "Advancing Sustainability in a Time of Crises", 22–25 August 2010, in Oldenburg and Bremen, Germany.

ISEE 2012, entitled "Ecological Economics and Rio +20: Contributions and Challenges for a Green Economy", 16-19 June 2012, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

ISEE 2014, entitled "Wellbeing and Equity within Planetary Boundaries", 13-15 August 2014, in Reykjavik, Iceland.

ISEE 2016, entitled "Transforming the Economy: Sustaining Food, Water, Energy and Justice", 26-29 June 2016, in Washington DC, USA.

ISEE 2018, in Mexico City, Mexico.

ISEE 2020, Joint Conference (Degrowth/ISEE) in Manchester, UK.

Natural capital

Natural capital is the world's stock of natural resources, which includes geology, soils, air, water and all living organisms. Some natural capital assets provide people with free goods and services, often called ecosystem services. Two of these (clean water and fertile soil) underpin our economy and society and make human life possible.It is an extension of the economic notion of capital (resources which enable the production of more resources) to goods and services provided by the natural environment. For example, a well-maintained forest or river may provide an indefinitely sustainable flow of new trees or fish, whereas over-use of those resources may lead to a permanent decline in timber availability or fish stocks. Natural capital also provides people with essential services, like water catchment, erosion control and crop pollination by insects, which in turn ensure the long-term viability of other natural resources. Since the continuous supply of services from the available natural capital assets is dependent upon a healthy, functioning environment, the structure and diversity of habitats and ecosystems are important components of natural capital. Methods, called 'natural capital asset checks', help decision-makers understand how changes in the current and future performance of natural capital assets will impact on human well-being and the economy.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (born Nicolae Georgescu, 4 February 1906 – 30 October 1994) was a Romanian American mathematician, statistician and economist. He is best known today for his 1971 Masterpiece on The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, in which he argued that all natural resources are irreversibly degraded when put to use in economic activity. A progenitor and a paradigm founder in economics, Georgescu-Roegen's work was seminal in establishing ecological economics as an independent academic sub-discipline in economics.

Several economists have hailed Georgescu-Roegen as a man who lived well ahead of his time, and some historians of economic thought have proclaimed the ingenuity of his work. In spite of such appreciation, Georgescu-Roegen was never awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, although benefactors from his native Romania were lobbying for it on his behalf. After Georgescu-Roegen's death, his work was praised by a surviving friend of the highest rank: Prominent Keynesian economist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Samuelson professed that he would be delighted if the fame Georgescu-Roegen did not fully realise in his own lifetime were granted by posterity instead.In the history of economic thought, Georgescu-Roegen was the first economist of some standing to theorise on the premise that all of earth's mineral resources will eventually be exhausted at some point. In his paradigmatic magnum opus, Georgescu-Roegen argues that economic scarcity is rooted in physical reality; that all natural resources are irreversibly degraded when put to use in economic activity; that the carrying capacity of earth – that is, earth's capacity to sustain human populations and consumption levels – is bound to decrease some time in the future as earth's finite stock of mineral resources is being extracted and put to use; and consequently, that the world economy as a whole is heading towards an inevitable future collapse, ultimately bringing about human extinction. Due to the radical pessimism inherent in his work, based on the physical concept of entropy, the theoretical position of Georgescu-Roegen and his followers was later termed 'entropy pessimism'.Early in his life, Georgescu-Roegen was the student and protégé of Joseph Schumpeter, who taught that irreversible evolutionary change and 'creative destruction' are inherent in capitalism. Later in his life, Georgescu-Roegen was the teacher and mentor of Herman Daly, who then went on to develop the concept of a steady-state economy to impose permanent government restrictions on the flow of natural resources through the (world) economy.As he brought natural resource flows into economic modelling and analysis, Georgescu-Roegen's work was seminal in establishing ecological economics as an independent academic sub-discipline in economics in the 1980s. In addition, the degrowth movement that formed in France and Italy in the early-2000s recognises Georgescu-Roegen as the main intellectual figure influencing the movement. Taken together, by the 2010s Georgescu-Roegen has educated, influenced and inspired at least three generations of people, including his contemporary peers, younger ecological economists, still younger degrowth organisers and activists, and others throughout the world.

The inability or reluctance of most mainstream economists to recognise Georgescu-Roegen's work has been ascribed to the fact that much of his work reads like applied physics rather than economics, as this latter subject is generally taught and understood today.Georgescu-Roegen's work was blemished somewhat by mistakes caused by his insufficient understanding of the physical science of thermodynamics. These mistakes have since generated some controversy, involving both physicists and ecological economists.

Robert Costanza

Robert Costanza (born September 14, 1950) is an ecological economist and Professor of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Social metabolism

Social metabolism or socioeconomic metabolism is the set of flows of materials and energy that occur between nature and society, between different societies, and within societies. These human-controlled material and energy flows are a basic feature of all societies but their magnitude and diversity largely depend on specific cultures, or sociometabolic regimes.

Social or socioeconomic metabolism is also described as "the self-reproduction and evolution of the biophysical structures of human society. It comprises those biophysical transformation processes, distribution processes, and flows, which are controlled by humans for their purposes. The biophysical structures of society (‘in use stocks’) and socioeconomic metabolism together form the biophysical basis of society."

Social metabolic processes begin with the human appropriation of materials and energy from nature. These can be transformed and circulated to be consumed and excreted finally back to Nature itself. Each of these processes has a different environmental impact depending on how it is performed, the amount of materials and energy involved in the process, the area where it occurs, the time available or the Nature's regenerative capacity.Social metabolism represents an extension of the metabolism concept from human bodies to the biophysical basis of society. Humans build and operate mines and farms, oil refineries and power stations, factories and infrastructure to supply the energy and material flows needed for the physical reproduction of a specific culture. In-use stocks, which comprise buildings, vehicles, appliances, infrastructure, etc., are built up and maintained by the different industrial processes that are part of social metabolism. These stocks then provide service to people in form of shelter, transportation, or communication.

Society and its metabolism together form an autopoietic system, a complex system that reproduces itself. Neither culture nor social metabolism can reproduce themselves in isolation. Humans need food and shelter, which is delivered by social metabolism, and the latter needs humans to operate it.

Studies of social metabolism can be carried out at different levels of system aggregation, see material flow analysis. In material flow accounting, for example, the inputs and outputs of materials and energy of a particular state or region, as well as imports and exports, are analysed. Such studies are facilitated by the ease of access to information about commercial transactions.Social or socioeconomic metabolism stipulates that human society and its interaction with Nature form a complex self-reproducing system, and it can therefore be seen as paradigm for studying the biophysical basis of human societies under the aspect of self-reproduction. "A common paradigm can facilitate model combination and integration, which can lead to more robust and comprehensive interdisciplinary assessments of sustainable development strategies. ... The use of social or socioeconomic metabolism as paradigm can help to justify alternative economic concepts."

Systems ecology

Systems ecology is an interdisciplinary field of ecology, a subset of Earth system science, that takes a holistic approach to the study of ecological systems, especially ecosystems. Systems ecology can be seen as an application of general systems theory to ecology. Central to the systems ecology approach is the idea that an ecosystem is a complex system exhibiting emergent properties. Systems ecology focuses on interactions and transactions within and between biological and ecological systems, and is especially concerned with the way the functioning of ecosystems can be influenced by human interventions. It uses and extends concepts from thermodynamics and develops other macroscopic descriptions of complex systems.


Thermoeconomics, also referred to as biophysical economics, is a school of heterodox economics that applies the laws of statistical mechanics to economic theory. Thermoeconomics can be thought of as the statistical physics of economic value and is a subfield of econophysics.

Uneconomic growth

Uneconomic growth, in human development theory, welfare economics (the economics of social welfare), and some forms of ecological economics, is economic growth that reflects or creates a decline in the quality of life. The concept is attributed to leading ecological economist and steady-state theorist Herman Daly, though other theorists can also be credited for the incipient idea. Note Uneconomic growth (or uneconomic degrowth) should not be confused with economic degrowth, the reduction of the size of the economy to increase well-being and sustainability.

The cost, or decline in well-being, associated with extended economic growth is argued to arise as a result of "the social and environmental sacrifices made necessary by that growing encroachment on the eco-system." In other words, "[u]neconomic growth occurs when increases in production come at an expense in resources and well-being that is worth more than the items made."

University of New England (Australia)

The University of New England (UNE) is a public university in Australia with approximately 22,500 higher education students. Its original and main campus is located in the city of Armidale in northern central New South Wales. UNE was the first Australian university established outside a state capital city.Each year, the University offers students more than $5 million in scholarships, prizes, and bursaries and more than $18 million for staff and students involved in research.

Main fields
Related fields
See also
Food webs
Example webs
Ecology: Modelling ecosystems: Other components

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