Ecological Economics Conference

H. William Batt


[Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2007]


The US Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE) is a small dissenting organization founded about two decades ago to bring land and nature back into the calculus of economics. It has no use for neoclassical economic treatment of natural resources and the environment. There is a natural affinity between its orientation and that of Georgist economics. The 250 attendees at June 23 through 27, 2007 biennial conference at Pace University in downtown Manhattan were treated to a wide range of presentations on natural resource protection (and exploitation), global climate change, energy use, sustainable development, and other related subjects. Eight presentations, in three panels, offered to them the Georgist perspective, after which one observer even suggested that our two movements ought to consider merging!

The ecological economics paradigm is one of three approaches to economic treatment of environmental matters. Natural resource economists, the first of these, typically focus on how environmental resources are employed in our society and economy, and are typically comfortable working within the neoclassical framework. So also with a second sub-discipline, environmental economists, who usually concern themselves with matters of negative externalities like pollution, waste, and resource use. Only the third, ecological economics, appreciates that the environment is not and should not be treated as a subset of the economy, but rather that economic systems exist as a component of larger social systems that in turn finally exist within environmental (ecological) systems. That is, we need to appreciate our natural environment first, for everything else rests on its health. Mistreatment of the environment threatens every other system that is contained within it. It seems a no-brainer, but only the ecological economists build their orientation on this premise. They recognize that what Georgists refer to as land is primary, and that everything else depends upon a regard for its value.

And so some eight Georgists, some of whom have more credentials in the Ecol Econ discipline than in our fold, offered to the assembled attendees at this fourth biennial conference a collection of illustrations on how Georgists see matters. I think we should follow this with an invitation to ecological economists to present at a Georgist conference so that we get a better sense of their framework. The links are already somewhat forged. Jeff Smith, who Schalkenbach consigned to represent the Schalkenbach foundation at an exhibit table, has attended the USSEE conferences since its inception. He was involved at the establishment of the network years ago, and has attended its conferences in Minneapolis, Saratoga Springs, and Tacoma previously. I presented a paper at the Saratoga Springs conference in 2003 comparing Georgist and ecological economics which has been on the Schalkenbach website ever since. Furthermore, Josh Farley, a board member of the USSEE also sits on the Schalkenbach foundation board, and Gary Flomenhoft, a fellow at the ecol-econ oriented Gund Institute at University of Vermont, has received project funding from Schalkenbach. So, I got a willing reception when I proposed and organized three panels titled Ecological Economics with a Georgist Flavor.

Panel presenters were Josh Farley, John Tepper Marlin, Amos Baehr, Gary Flomenhoft, Polly Cleveland, and Josh Vincent and I. A last paper, by Brian Czech was presented by Josh Farley in Brian's absence. Each presentation, done largely by powerpoint, offered various ways by which to link Georgist and Ecol Econ ideas. By the end of three days, a fair number of the 250 attendees had come to one or another of the sessions, and the presentations fared well in view of the fact that there were always about seven competing concurrent venues. Josh Farley's original "Three Birds with one Shot" -- photo shot that is; one can't be an environmentalist talking about killing birds -- was further modified to be "Hatching Three Birds from one Egg." He argued that Georgist approaches achieved standards of efficiency, equity, and sustainability that no other approach can. Given that Josh is well known to this audience, it helped that he was "lead-off batter" and shared the task of moderating all three Georgist sessions. John Tepper Marlin, our newest Schalkenbach board member, having now retired as Chief Economist for the City of New York, offered three illustrations of how voluntary certification programs are evolving to curtail the exploitative rent-seeking practices historically found in diamond-and-metal mining and in the growing of tropical fruits, because of the lack of clout relative to multi-national corporations of governments in developing countries. He showed how such programs are also encouraging the design of "green buildings" for corporate offices and industrial facilities. He said that the key to the future of such programs is in consumer recognition of companies that comply. The unexpected development in Europe is that the largest supermarkets are demanding progress toward sustainability certification from their suppliers - against environmental standards like those of the Forest Stewardship Council and workplace standards like SA8000.

Gary Flomenhoft continued later in the day with a discussion of the differences and similarities between Georgist and Ecol Econ. He pointed out that Georgism emphasizes efficiency and equity, but has little to say about scale. On the other hand, one of the greatest concerns of the ecol econs is the amount of "throughput" of resources on which our economies depend, and how Georgist ideas tend to reduce resource consumption and foster greater parsimony. He suggested that the two frameworks together really offer an attractive "unified field theory." Polly Cleveland followed with thoughts on how Georgist ideas tend to reduce the burden on labor and all the ways in which quality of life can be maintained with greater efficiencies in this area. Josh Vincent then followed with his polished presentation on the two-rate LVT approach. These concrete real-world cases naturally drew a number of questions and responses for more information.

The following day, Wednesday, I explained how the landlord gets the "free lunch" despite Milton Friedman having written that "There is No Free Lunch." (Yes, he wrote a book with that title in 1975, the year before he won the Nobel Prize.) I pointed out that the landlord gets the free lunch, and that J.S. Mill saw this a century and a half ago! Josh Farley presented Brian Czech's paper, which was a quick run through of some economic history, with especial emphasis on Mason Gaffney's Corruption of Economics. Amos Baehr, a UVM graduate student of Josh Farley's, focused on protection and preservation of "the Commons," and how Georgist economics fosters this. It is fair to say that the collection of all these presentations strengthened the perspective of Georgist ideas in an evolving ecol-econ framework still defining itself. It is fair to assume that when Josh Farley and Herman Daly's textbook, Ecological Economics, comes out in a second edition soon, it will be able to strengthen still further the natural complementarity between Georgist ideas and ecol econ ideas.

A small event of the conference is worth further note. Following the association's presidential address, an informal auction was held to raise extra pin money for the organization. Schalkenbach contributed a few of our publications to this effort, and they sold for well above the prices they list for on the Schalkenbach site! Mason Gaffney's Corruption of Economics went for $28, and I think Fred Harrison's Boom Bust 2010 went for over $20. That too might be an indicator of the interest in the Georgist approach. We made sure that the attendees knew that there are possible avenues of collaboration on various studies and other projects that would strengthen the relationship beyond the one project already funded for Gary Flomenhoft. I count this venture as very successful. One university teacher later told me that he will reorient his economics course to include Georgist approaches henceforth after hearing our presentations. Another high level state official attending the conference indicated that he would support passage of permissive legislation for localities desirous of instituting land value taxation. Several others walked away with as much literature as we'd brought along.



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