The European Society for Ecological Economics turns 20 this year. The society was established in 1996 at the Paris conference held at Saint Quentin en Yvelines. During this time, the operating environment of ESEE has changed quite dramatically but has simultaneously remained almost the same – we are still tackling the same challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change and problems with planning for natural resource use just as during the years of our infancy. Today, ESEE is old enough, but not too old, to adjust its corporeal and mental habits in order to be capable of living with the change in actor networks, in areas of collective attention and climate of ideas.
I have watched the whole history of ESEE, first from a distance and then from within, as a member of the board since 2013. My ESEE history begins from the moments of its inception. During the academic year 1996-1997, I visited Lancaster University (UK) and worked there with John O’Neill and Alan Holland. In our fortnightly sessions, we discussed environmental history and valuation – or, to be honest, I told them what puzzled me and they discussed it intensively for an hour. What brilliant educative moments those were. (As a side-note, I am still puzzled by the same questions.) It was at one of the special Lancaster meetings that I met Clive Spash for the first time. I was happy to hear about the birth of ESEE: ecological economics being done a little differently than it was by the mother society ISEE, the International Society for Ecological Economics. A few years later, Clive became the second president of ESEE, after the inaugural presidency of Sylvie Faucheux.
Because Clive has always had a different and, I should say, a somewhat more radical, angle on key matters in ecological economics, for the purposes of this editorial, I decided to ask him how he sees ecological economics in Europe these days. This was his answer:
“Ecological economics is a conflicted movement that struggles between being co-opted by mainstream economics and finding its own identity as a radical alternative to the mainstream. In Europe, the greater emphasis on social and political theory, classical institutional economics, applied ethics, philosophy of science and history of thought have all helped maintain a better understanding of the potential of the field to achieve social ecological transformation. However, that potential remains unfulfilled. There remains a tendency towards adopting simplistic ‘solutions’, seeking magic bullet approaches that lack theoretical rigour, and adopting supposedly pragmatic positions that appeal to the dominant neoliberal political system. The European Union that offered potential for progressive environmental policy 20 years ago has become a highly problematic institution pushing undemocratic back room deals such as TTIP, neoliberalisation of environmental policy, financialisation of Nature and the drive for innovation, technology, competition and growth above all else. Ecological economists in Europe today need to be aware of this and do better at supporting and seeking institutional reform.”
Its intellectually broader, critical (Continental, perhaps) and more radical mode of doing ecological economics was the first characteristic that attracted me to ESEE. The society had, and still has, a character of its own. As the above quote witnesses, critical preparedness is still evident in Clive’s thinking at a time when ESEE, as an epistemic community, is moving towards the mainstream. I am wondering whether there is a need or a necessity to turn back to the more radical playing fields of ESEE.
After the global financial meltdown in 2008, neoliberal thinking in the global governance of developmental and environmental issues has only strengthened, and the crisis did not lead to the regulatory revisions the critics had hoped to see. Hand in hand with the recovery from the economic and financial crisis come many concurrent trends – climate change, digitalisation processes and the concept of ecosystem services to mention three – that have supported and contributed to the way in which environmental governance and policy are exercised on the global and regional levels. From the ESEE’s perspective, the challenge of providing meaningful institutional advice and workable policy alternatives is ridiculously large. There are two general ways to go, I think: provide up-to-date economic pricing information about the changes in ecosystem services and other natural values which societal planning and decision-making apparatuses seem to lean on, or become a more critical and reformative economic science again that identifies, designs, experiments and evaluates the ideological and societal alternatives. These two are not necessarily incompatible, but to make them compatible takes some intellectual effort. I think this calls for the root mission of ESEE.
But how does Clive see the future of ecological economics in Europe?
“The only future for ecological economics is to become a critical social science that has firm theoretical foundations in understanding biophysical reality. Adopting mainstream models, valuation approaches and market mechanisms merely relegates the field to being a second rate version of the mainstream that it has always criticised and opposed. Yet being an apologist for mainstream ideas has become a common approach. The idea, pervasive in the journal, that the field should be a form of environmental studies or some sustainability science, that includes anything and everything that has the words environment or sustainability in them, is also the antithesis of creating a field of knowledge.
In the last 20 years the complex of social, ecological and economic problems have not been addressed and there has been a reversal of policies and deconstruction of institutions aimed at controlling the worst excesses of corporate capitalism and the consumer society. The drive for growth, markets and money is worse today, individualisation is greater, inequity has grown, the loss of biodiversity has not been stopped, greenhouse gases have increased relentlessly, innovative new pollutants and substances are spreading, militarisation and securitisation have spread and resource extraction has become more dirty and with higher social and environmental impacts (e.g. fracking). To date ecological economics has clearly not succeeded in addressing these issues in any substantive way and will only be helpful if it avoids becoming another rhetorical device for apologising about why planetary destruction and social injustice are necessary so humans can progress. Unfortunately there are a lot of apologists for the capital accumulating system and the growth machine who claim to be ecological economists and there are many who divorce their personal practice from the actions necessary to avoid the continuation of social, ecological and economic crises. If the ESEE is to succeed it must address these issues.”
I agree that the institutional and socioecological problems Clive lists above are something the ESEE folks should get their hands dirty with in the next twenty years. I am not much of a predictor, but I think that taking the task seriously would entail, in general, more ESEE members, perhaps as dedicated economists, becoming engaged not only in the social psychology of emotion, cultural studies on institutional inertia and the organisational ethnography of administrative routines but also in more reform-orientated inter- and transdisciplinary action research on environmental policy planning, implementation and reception for the sake of making things better.
As we can read in this newsletter, Tim Foxon points in this direction in his Hot Topic. He asks how to encourage institutional investors to reorient their investment portfolios towards low carbon energy. It takes effort and courage to go against the current; to take actions that one’s peers will not take, with or without monetary reward. Hopefully more researchers are asking what the source (and sink) of this courageousness is, first of themselves and then of those whom they study. Let me give another example. György Pataki discusses the same general matter in his Hot Topic. However, he does not focus on business enterprises but on the acts of governmental representatives as part of the IPBES process (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). After the policy effort has been taken, biodiversity decline has not halted, and while the meaning and significance of ecosystem services as constituents of socioecological resilience and human wellbeing are becoming clearer due to the IPBES work, governments may grow more hesitant about funding the collective efforts to find and design the conditions of safeguarding the protection of biodiversity and sustainable use of ecosystem services. There is indeed something worth investigating for critical ecological economists in the next 20 years.
ESEE Newsletter Spring 2016 -- Editorial (published online: http://www.euroecolecon.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ESEE-Newsletter-SPRING-2016.html )