By Donella Meadows
–November 3, 1994–
When economist Herman Daly convened the first meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in Washington in 1990, he expected 60 or so people to show up, few of them economists. Traditional economists thought of ecological economics, insofar as they thought of it at all, as distinctly daffy.
To Daly’s surprise, that first ISEE conference drew 400 registrants. The second one, two years later in Stockholm, had an attendance of over 600. The third, held last week in San Jose, Costa Rica, attracted 1400. They came from Europe and the Americas, from India, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand. There were two forest managers from mountainous Bhutan, dressed in traditional striped jackets and woolen leggings (in the Costa Rican heat!). There were Africans from Benin, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Kenya. A few attendees were from East Europe. There was no one, as far as I could tell, from Japan.
About one-third of ISEE members are economists, one-third are ecologists, one-third are everything else — engineers, sociologists, lawyers, consultants, political scientists. In San Jose this mix produced a buzz of excitement. The conferees were not just exchanging research findings. They were working, knowledgeably, deliberately, to change the world. The economics they are inventing values nature, people, communities, and the future. It is very different from the short-term, money-centered economics that devalues and devours all these things.
The Costa Rican hosts made that difference clear in their opening ceremony, set on a huge stage with a rainforest backdrop that had been trucked in the day before, potted tree by potted tree. A mist-maker blew clouds through the fake forest, while Costa Rica’s Minister for Natural Resources and Energy declared his country’s goal to be not economic growth, but sustainability. Alicia Barceña, the Mexican director of the Earth Council, called for a new paradigm beyond market capitalism, one that embraces “the four E’s” — equity, ecological integrity, empowerment of all people, and an economy that produces sustainable development — development that can last.
In case the message wasn’t clear, the members of the University of Costa Rica choir sang with gusto in Spanish and English an anthem they had composed for the occasion: “Say no more! to the world society that consumes resources and shrugs away the thought of love. Say no more! to this foolish economy that wastes energy and never feels the pain.”
It takes a massive, modern hotel to accommodate a conference of 1400. This one was near the airport, with jets taking off overhead, a major highway throbbing nearby, and a joyous chorus of birds still chirping in the few remaining pockets of green. As often happens, the meeting rooms were named for what they had eliminated — “El Bosque” (the forest), “La Selva” (the jungle), and “La Paz” (peace). The hotel manager was baffled by the number of guests who came to him and asked, politely, why the maids left the room lights on when there was no one there, why the towels and sheets had to be washed every day, why the coffee was served in disposable cups instead of cups that could be washed and re-used.
The opening was splashy, the hotel was inappropriate, but the speakers were scholarly and for the most part non-ideological. They listed not only the failures of the market, but also the failures of government. They examined the idea of property rights, not to extinguish those rights, but to combine them with responsibilities in a way that could assure the value of property, land, and nature long after the present owners are gone.
The underlying assumption of this conference was that old economic truisms should be shaken hard to see where they are sound and unsound. Most of them turn out to be far too simple. Growth is not an automatic good — it depends on what is growing, for whom, at what cost. Technology is neither the cure for every problem nor the source of all evil — some technologies are constructive, some destructive. Free trade can’t be called an undisputed boon until one knows much more about who sets its rules and what is set free to flow across national borders — products, information, capital, jobs, or people.
As it develops, ecological economics isn’t so much throwing out traditional economics as expanding it, to incorporate the physical laws of the planet, the nonmonetary values of individuals and communities, the obvious distortions of power and oppression, and the mandates of common ethics. Ecological economists around the world are busy adding natural resource accounts to money accounts. Measuring real human welfare instead of the amount of money that flows through people’s hands. Advocating fewer taxes on people and products and more taxes on waste and pollution. Removing subsidies to nuclear power and fossil fuels and applying them instead to solar energy and energy efficiency. “Brown taxes and green subsidies” is the new motto.
As neither an economist nor an ecologist, I thought most of what I heard at ISEE made good sense — much more sense than pursuing growth at any price, seeing people as merely consumers, or valuing only what can be measured in money. The more I listened, the more conventional economics sounded daffy. The world is crying out for a new, more humane, more ecological economics. The good news is that thousands of people all over the world are working hard to bring that economics into being.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994