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.

Too many people

book cover imageDick Smith’s Population Crisis

Allen & Unwin, May 2011, $19.99

Dick Smith argues in this book that population is the most overlooked issue in the environmental debate. All of the world’s looming environmental problems would be easier to solve if there were fewer people, he says, and we Australians in particular are being really short-sighted if we think our dry continent’s population can continue to grow at its present rate. These are not new ideas but have been quietly allowed to drop off the radar since they were discussed under the ZPG (Zero Population Growth) banner forty years ago.

Smith looks at desertification, water supplies, energy supplies and climate change, and shows that Australia is closer to the limits on all fronts than we would like to admit – and then points out that we are growing faster than any other developed nation. We are growing faster, in fact, than either China or India, let alone Europe, and are likely to exceed 36 million people in 2050. Worldwide, consumption is growing even faster than population as Asia tries to catch up to our standard of living, and that consumption growth amplifies the impact of population growth on resource depletion.

Dick Smith summarises the consequences thus: “We are reaching a crisis point and … failure to make a carefully planned transition away from unrestrained population and economic growth will very likely result in being forced to make the change later at far greater cost and with much less chance of success.”

The solution? In developing nations, empowering women by educating girls and improving access to health care and family planning. It’s a proven way to reduce fertility rates while simultaneously reducing poverty and infant mortality. Here in Australia our natural growth rate is as slow as that in other developed nations, so the solution is simply to reduce immigration. Smith supports the plan suggested in 2009 by Melbourne MP Kelvin Thomson who proposed cutting skilled migration, temporary migration and over-stays by foreign students, while increasing refugee admissions slightly; the aim is a stable population of 26 million.

Dick Smith admits he is not an expert but, as he says, he has had the wisdom to consult the experts. He presents their findings clearly and simply and his book is a worthwhile step towards restarting an important debate. Perhaps its greatest fault is that global issues, about which we can do little, are not always clearly distinguished from national issues for which we can and must accept responsibility.

For more views on the issue, visit Sustainable Population Australia or

This review was published in a slightly different form in the Townsville Bulletin a month ago.