Making the Economy Green and Development Sustainable
How do we know that a species can survive? For ecologist Charles A. S. Hall, a species can only hope to survive if it draws more energy from its food than is necessary to obtain it, for example, through hunting (Hall et al., 1986). The fact that our developed societies need ever more energy to function should raise questions about the very conditions of our survival. Hall invites us to question the role and place of economics in the ecosystem of our lives.
To what extent can a society that works against its survival or against the survival of some of its members be considered ‘developed’? How can we make our economies more ecological and our development more sustainable? And how can the research field of ecological economics contribute to this?
Energy at Work
“Man is not made to work. The proof is that he’s tired of it!” Attributed sometimes to Marcel Pagnol, Tristan Bernard or Georges Courteline, this aphorism illustrates how the current of ecological economics approaches environmental problems.
Indeed, by following the pioneering work of the economist Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen (1979), the researchers who consider themselves part of this school tend to view economic activities as thermodynamic phenomena. Thermodynamics is a branch of physical science that studies how machines use energy to produce movement. In physics, this movement is called “work”. Inspired and then developed during the Industrial Revolution by observing the functioning of ever larger and more efficient machines, the principles of thermodynamics also describe “natural” phenomena. In particular, the entropy principle states that as energy is used within a given system, it is irreparably degraded to a state that is increasingly difficult to use.
In this sense, pollution would be the “normal” effects of the functioning of productive systems…which does not mean that we must accept its inevitability. Pollution is also an inefficient use of energy: for example, it could have been recycled to produce another form of “work”. This way of looking at the economy makes it possible to highlight the fact that the pollution that comes out of a system is a transformation of the resources that are inputs in that system.
The Economy: It Uses Up Resources and Pollutes
Let’s come back to our aphorism. By following thermodynamics, we deduce that:
- work exhausts humans’ productive capacity (but fortunately, to a large extent it is renewable) and, in the same way, nature works more or less effectively to reproduce that capacity;
- the rate at which work exhausts people depends on the intensity of their workload and their metabolism, i.e. their capacity to transform primary energy (e. g. food) into work, in the same way that nature adapts and makes selections;
- People interact with the environment through their work, on the one hand because they draw their primary source of energy from it (food) to be transformed into energy (kilocalories), and on the other hand because they release energy (giving off heat, excretions and other wastes, etc.).
In this sense, whether or not a person works in the economy, he/she is included in larger ecosystems. Hence the idea of an ecology of the economy, or the inverse. Ecologist Howard T. Odum (1971), another influential figure in ecological economics, tried to represent all the energy flows circulating between all ecosystems, including humans.
This approach to ecosystem interaction provided a scientific basis for an inversion of human-nature relationships. In this conception, a human is considered, according to René Passet’s (1979) formula, as a “creature not like others but among others, developing in interaction with them and the environments that support them”, that is, subject to the same biophysical constraints and laws as any other living thing.
Enough is Enough!
However, humans are different from other creatures. First, because we are aware of our condition, we can make a judgment about the usefulness, beauty, ethics or fairness of our work. We are also capable of producing “scientific” analysis and evaluation, particularly on the sustainability of our methods of development.
In this case, given the scale of the ecological crisis, two main questions arise: have we exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity, i.e. are we depleting natural resources beyond their renewal threshold, and are we emitting pollutants beyond the absorption capacity of ecosystems? To what extent are human activities, and in particular economic activities, meaningful and/or useful, contributing to the development and growth of humanity, of different human communities, or of individuals? Obviously, the second question is all the more crucial as the answer to the first one is no.
One Small Step for Man…but one Big Footprint of Humanity
Proponents of the ecological economics tend to think that we have exceeded these limits, at least in so-called “developed” countries. The ecological footprint provides a striking picture of the pressure that humanity is exerting on Planet Earth. It refers to the space required to produce all the means necessary to maintain a given standard of living. In 2013, the Global Footprint Network calculated that to ensure the standard of living of an average French person for all human beings, it would require the equivalent of three Planet Earths…and five for the standard of living of an average American. Three terms come into play in this equation: first, the functioning of ecosystems and natural resources, second, production patterns, and finally, the lifestyles allowed by these production patterns.
For the functioning of ecosystems, the entropic perspective quite strongly limits the room for manoeuvring, if such room for manoeuvre exists, in particular by preserving biodiversity as a productive resource. Ecological economists therefore tend to think that we should limit the size of our economies now, or even reduce them.
As for production methods, their “greening” can have ambivalent effects on the environment. The paradox of 19th century English economist Jevons teaches that while technological progress during the Industrial Revolution made it possible to build machines that used coal resources ever more efficiently; this resulted in an unprecedented exploitation and depletion of those resources. In ecological economics, there is therefore a tendency to consider the negative effects of green technologies and to adopt a prudential attitude towards the ecological role of technologies.
The last term of our equation concerns lifestyles, meaning our desires, our needs in the broad sense, and the strategies we employ to satisfy them and derive happiness from them. Yet ecological economists tend to think that in developed economies, it is desirable and possible to limit our needs while maintaining the conditions for a good life. The collective assessment of the needs that can or should be prioritized and the means by which they can or should be met raises two fundamental problems (Douai and Plumecocq, 2017).
The first is to assess the contribution of nature to our lifestyles. Through nature, this means evaluating and analysing what drives the value that individuals or communities attribute to nature, i.e. to particular ecosystems, biotic or abiotic elements, species, etc. This value is expressed in a variety of ways (as support for culture or heritage, as a resource for material production, as a source of inspiration or spirituality, or nature valued for itself), and not exclusive. Yet at least until the mid-2010s, ecological economics focused on monetary evaluations (Plumecocq, 2014).
The second concerns the most appropriate modes of governance of nature in order to preserve its functions considered crucial to ensure the sustainability of our lifestyles. Ecological economics has paid much attention to the ways in which nature has become a commodity, particularly through payment for environmental services schemes (Costanza et al., 2016).
Each of these two directions divides ecological economists, but also more broadly society. If these conflicts reveal anything about the development of our societies, it is that the issues also concern our relationship with nature. This relationship is not only biophysical—it is also fundamentally social, showing the need for research programs in ecological socio-economics.
Crédits image à la Une : CC Pixabay 95C et crédits image d’entrée : CC Pixabay Elisariva