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Clive L. Spash

Ecological Economics at the Cross-roads

left), that ‘hurting peasants to save forests is immoral’. He states that: “…the dilemma is symp- tomatic of a larger problem, how economics and public discourse have coevolved in a particu- larly dishonest and morally vacuous way. Now I ask why the choice is between the peasant and the forest that our descendants might need? Where are the people driving the BMWs toda , or even those driving Fords, in this myth? Why is it that we have these debates between rich envi- ronmentalists and rich developmentalists over moral dilemmas where the rich themselves are absent?” He goes on to locate the cause of such myths within the historical development of welfare economics as a method for removing any apparent need for moral discourse or politics from the agenda of the economic policy advisor.

As Norgaard notes, such mythical dilemmas are used to defend the status quo. This can be seen in other areas such as the perpetuation of the myth of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968), which has been used to deride communitarian values and promote private owner- ship. The historical tragedy has been the destruction by private profiteers of customs and cul- tures which managed resources in common and prevented over-exploitation. However, the myth of common ownership being a tragedy is far more useful for those who favour the spread of private property rights and the rule of the market. A whole set of issue about institutional ar- rangements, political structures and cultural relationships with non-human entities is then neatly reduced to the efficiency of private markets.

This is part of a more general methodological problem in economics where, of the two roots of economics, the engineering aspect has become dominant while the ethical approach is ridiculed as unscientific. Sen (1987) has argued that the ethical approach to economics is trace- able to Aristotle and the engineering one to Kautilya, a 4th century advisor to the Indian emperor. In reintroducing the ethical element as an integral part of economics, and recognising the nar- rowness of reducing such issues to an engineering equation, ecological economics will take a distinct and neglected path to economic policy.


The argument has been put forward that two broad approaches to ecological economics have been developing: the socio-economic and the objective scientific. This latter view was termed the ‘improved linkage’ approach and defines a group of scholars treading the well worn path of


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