Economists’ environmental ignorance

Every so often I stumble on something on the internet which confirms a long-held suspicion, and this is one such item. All that is wrong with it is the title: it should have been Economists’ disastrous environmental ignorance is systematically ingrained or words to that effect. Here’s the gist of it:

Environmental Ignorance Is Economic Bliss

by Philip Barnes

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that economic activity is exceeding environmental limits and destabilizing both global and local ecosystems, demonstrably flawed pro-growth economic theory continues to be touted as the cure to our ailments. Could the collective of practicing economists, policy-makers, economics professors, and economics students all be suffering from something akin to the Dunning-Kruger Effect? As a community, are these individuals so unknowledgeable about the environmental consequences of pro-growth economic activity that they tend to systematically overestimate the discipline’s environmental performance?

… if you want to find a representative sample of courses being offered in the leading economics departments, looking at the US News and World Report cream of the crop is a useful approach. … For the 2012-2013 academic year in all ten of these departments, only one single course presented alternative economic theories through alternative learning methods. The one-off course entitled “Buddhist Economics” was a seven-week-long sophomore seminar at UC Berkeley taught by Dr. Clair Brown. Eight students enrolled. …

Moreover, in introductory courses for micro and macroeconomics, ecologically-minded economic theory and knowledge is woefully absent. This claim is supported by a recently published paper in which the author, Tom Green, reviewed the most popular introductory level economics textbooks and found that the causal relationship between economic activity and environmental consequence was either systematically ignored or underrepresented.

Like me, readers may find themselves liking other articles on the same site,

And Tom Green’s paper (click on the link in the quote) backs up Barnes’ article to the hilt – not that I needed much convincing. His “Conclusions and recommendations” begin:

Introductory economics textbooks in current use in British Columbia, as well as three leading US textbooks, one of which includes a Nobel laureate who has written with great concern about the environmental crisis as its lead author, are poorly suited for Econ101 courses at institutions that have made a commitment to sustainability and are seeking to integrate sustainability across the curriculum.

The standard textbooks give little space to content that addresses environment/economy linkages or that is significant to sustainability – on average, only about 3.2% of the text. Students will read many chapters and up to 289 consecutive pages without encountering any environmental content. The standard textbooks treat the environmental implications of economic activity in an overly stylised manner that is unrealistic, that adds little to student knowledge and that may well confound or even impair student understanding of the nature of our environmental predicament.

In a political world where “cold hard reality” is always, somehow, “economic reality”, we desperately need economics, as a discipline, to consider all the significant aspects of the activities it pronounces upon; and in a real world in which timeframes are measured in lifetimes, not accounting cycles, and business as usual is on its way to ruining the lives of tens of millions of people through environmental degradation, the environment is not just significant but crucial.

I know there are economists who are working to improve the situation – and I applaud them for it – but we can’t afford to wait until students who are yet to enter university reach career levels from which their voices will be heard. We need consciousness-raising and training for those already in the profession.

See alsoTiny Bhutan redefines “progress” by David Suzuki, May 9, 2013 – Gross National Happiness, not Gross National Product.

2 thoughts on “Economists’ environmental ignorance”

  1. This is a really good review, Malcolm!
    I will share and post to GAC too.
    I love your writing style, and am so glad you are ‘on to’ the situation re. economic ‘intelligence’ or lack thereof.
    Thank you!

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