Biennial Conference of Ecological Economists Refines Its Discipline

H. William Batt

[Reprinted from GroundSwell, July-August 2007]

As the Ecological Economists approach their twentieth year of existence, the US association's recent June 23-27, 2007 conference at Pace University in Manhattan rejoiced in seeing that many students, and several younger professionals, were educated specifically in this orientation rather than being converts from other disciplines. To be sure, the majority of the registrants in attendance were trained in other conventional disciplines -- economics, biology, physics, mathematics, systems analysis, and even philosophy. But among the 250 in attendance were perhaps fifty students, all delighted in feeling themselves at the cusp of something quite new. They were right to be excited, as several of the charter members were in attendance as well, those who have written the textbooks, the readers, and done much of the research and redefinition on which ecological economics today rests.

Having all the plenary sessions and breakout meetings held in one place facilitated casual exchanges, even though the university itself was more preoccupied with offering orientation sessions to its incoming students. Meetings began promptly at 8:30 am on each of the four conference days. And people came! -- in some instances there were no empty seats. Who better to give the opening address than the renowned scholar from Oberlin College, David Orr, who has written several books and is widely regarded in the environmental field. Professor Orr pulled no punches in his first night presentation: it was heavily political, but extremely well received by the assembled audience. Against the backdrop of the climate change news, he talked about the failed leadership of our national administration, about the default in responsibility by the media, and about political influence of corporate American power. I'd never read any of his work, but I certainly now will.

The Monday morning plenary had two speakers. Law professor Eban Goodstein from Portland Oregon talked about plans to organize (students especially) next January 31, 2008 in a single national media and teaching effort on climate change. The website already lists several major figures who have agreed to lend their expertise and reputations to the cause of dramatizing the importance of this challenge. The website video could have used music that an older generation could tolerate, but this campaign is, after all, directed to the younger generation that stands to lose the most if the global warming concerns are ignored. The second speaker was Mathis Wackernagel, the creator of the "Ecological Footprint". He had the prior day done an all-day workshop showing how the ecological footprint can be used as an educational tool, so his plenary presentation took the longer view: "Twenty Years after Brundtland: Thinking Inside the Box of Sustainable Development." For those who may not recall, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland was the Chairperson of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the organization which issued a report in 1987 titled "Our Common Future" and which quickly made the concept of sustainable development a household word.

Of particular interest to me was the address of the current president of the US Society. President Karin Limburg is a faculty member at the School of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) of the State University of New York, located in Syracuse. She is formally trained as a biologist, and specializes in Otolithology, which I learned (from her website) is the study of earstones in fish, "the calcereous concretions that serve as part of the hearing and balance (acoustico-lateralis) system in fishes." Her research has relied particularly on Hudson River and the Baltic Sea ecosystems, and resulted in the attendance of several ichthyologists and others concerned especially with the watershed areas of the Hudson River. But I didn't learn anything from her about those things because I was involved in other sessions. Rather it was her presidential address that interested me. Knowing very little about biologists and how they get into their specialties, I was fascinated to learn of the connections she'd made over the years -- in grad school, in research funded projects, and over the course of her professional life. Her most important mentors, in fact, were a Swedish scholar and his wife, demonstrating how much the scientific community really is a world network. Having recounted a bit of her own career evolution she talked about how important the Ecological Economics Association is to her, and how important it is to increase its size and visibility. Hearing her tell it, as well as several others, the understanding and integration of economic studies with the natural systems of the earth is not only intellectually sound but necessary to our world's continued existence. Despite the decision to hold the conference in New York City, and despite the publicity and invitational outreaches made to all quarters, I was not aware of any reporters or outside observers there for the duration. That was worrisome.

The Tuesday morning plenary session's lead-off presenter was Professor Bob Costanza, whose innovative integration of biological and socio-economic elements and heuristic modeling has been at the vanguard of Ecol Econ discourse since the organization's inception. To me what was most impressive is the power of computers and graphical portrayal of data to dramatize problems and relationships in an easily comprehensible way. The number of colleagues and students whose careers have been advanced by his guidance and collaboration is itself testimony to the growing power of the discipline. Bob proved to be easily accessible throughout the conference, tossing out ideas and questions in an inspiring way throughout the four days of our presence. The printed versions of many of his papers fail to carry the explanatory power of much of his work, and I was pleased to learn that much of what he's exploring is accessible online at the University of Vermont Gund Institute website. As the founder of the Gund Institute, he is in a position now to move into realms of inquiry that are limitless in their scope -- what possible questions are there that are beyond the boundaries of a discipline known as ecological economics!

The second speaker that morning was Almaz Terrefe, a woman from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the founder of an ecologically friendly toilet! The ECOSAN (ecologically sanitary) toilet is designed such that it easily diverts urine from feces, so that the urine can then be easily handled as garden nourishment. She how she and her Swedish husband, Gunder Erdstrom, have taken the design throughout east Africa, a small and inspiring effort by a husband-wife team that has profound importance as a solution to water-starved areas of the world.

Wednesday's plenary began with an address by the President-Elect of the International Society for Ecological Economics, Peter May, who came back to the city of his birth from his university position in Brazil to talk about the "Contradictions between Growth and Stability: Implications for the Future of Ecological Economics." As with so many of the presentations, the substance of the material made optimism difficult, even though the temper of the participants was pleasant and upbeat. Professor May offered thoughts, among others, about how the ISEE's conference to be held next year in Nairobi is unfolding, and what we might expect by way of increased ecological awareness as studies and news continues to unfold. And this led right into a panel of five leading figures in the movement -- all academics and American based except Professor May. I might add that a decision was made at the business meeting of the society to hold the next US biennial conference in the Washington DC area. This was made on the assumption that a new national administration in Washington will be more hospitable to the perspectives which Ecological Economics has to offer. The incoming USSEE president, Dr. Sabine O'Hara, was trained as an ecological economist, has been a university administrator as well as professor, the President of Roanoke College, and will shortly assume the leadership of a non-profit academic organization.

There were from four to eight concurrent breakout sessions after each day's plenary presentations, and they were wide ranging in scope and approach. Several, of course, concern matters of climate change and carbon dependent energy use. Others explored dimensions of sustainable development and economics. They were as likely to focus on other parts of the world as problems in the United States. And many involve questions of a philosophical and/or methodological nature. Because Ecol Econ is a discipline still defining itself, there was lots of room for alternative propositions. Costanza's team, for example, tends to focus on the value of ecosystem services to the general economy -- how much, for example, a forest is worth in protecting the biota or to general human welfare. Pricing the dimensions of nature is a challenge that he has been working on for several years with the aim of dramatizing the importance of services that we today typically take for granted. This also involves exploration of the costs of the degradation of nature and the costs it imposes upon people in hardship and disease.

An alternate approach is best illustrated in the work of Syracuse ESF's professor Charlie Hall, who works on matters of energy usage and costs. The issue of "peak oil," fossil-based energy sources, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power are questions he contends ought to be the basis upon which all other discussion is centered. As a way of portraying the alternative perspectives offered in a light-hearted way, Costanza and Hall assented to an arm-wrestling match at the end of the second evening, a challenge which they could not decline because it led off an auction fund-raiser for the assembled conferees. (Most of the rest of the items were books donated by authors and publishers on the subject matter at hand.)

In the final analysis, the range of issues and the depth of discussion was both inspiring and daunting. One wonders how much discourse can be contained within the framework of a single orientation. What the ecological economists agree upon is that the economy needs to be understood as a partial component of society, which is itself an element of the environment. This contrasts with the conventional way that neoclassical economists view natural resources: as factors to be drawn upon or as "externalities" to be internalized. As one might expect, there is very little regard for neoclassical economics among the Ecol Econs, and the conference welcomed the other dissenting school of economics that has a similar low regard for the prevailing paradigm: the Georgists. That both of these paradigms raise the position of nature to a central place in their framework suggests an opportunity for further cooperation and exchange, a conclusion which seemed to be welcomed by both representations.

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