Traditionally, there is a high barrier separating economics from ecology: on the one hand, we have the discipline bias, which tells us their difference in focus makes them inherently different; on the other, we have the problem of vested interest, which has long persuaded economists to ignore overwhelming complexity.
Economics wants to tell us a kind of truth, about what can be valued, within a given range, given certain assumptions about what is viable. Ecology wants to tell us the truth, in a comprehensive way, about what is happening with the natural resources and ecosystem services on which all our activity must depend.
The environment is everything that surrounds us, everything that exists within us and feeds us and which we, and our activities, feed into. It is not an alien world or a competitor; it is not something we can treat as other. The environment is within us, and we depend absolutely on all of its features.
The conventional separation between economic activity and environment is ill-conceived for a number of reasons:
it fails to consider real economic values, for little reason other than that they are difficult or inconvenient to calculate;
by ignoring those values, it allows for a gross miscalculation of real costs and misstates the underlying benefits of specific activities;
and by simply avoiding such questions, it drives the generation of negative externalities on sometimes astonishing scales.
As externalized costs filter out through the broader economy, the cumulative effect of borrowing against those externalizations can become so severe that the cost-benefit efficiency structure internal to the activity in question can collapse.
Generative economics means thinking about resources not as fuel, but as building blocks, not as fodder, but as nutrition. It means thinking about how we use what we have to fashion a future in which we generate:
Thriving… not scarcity…
We can ask, for example: Does a given activity deplete the vital resources available within a given ecosystem (natural or artificial)? Are human beings able to expand and explore their humanity? Are we improving or degrading what allows us to thrive?
Petroleum is not generative, because the more we spend on it, the more we deplete a finite resource, and erode other aspects of the broader resource base.
Mountain-top removal coal mining is not generative—for the same reason, and because it tends to coincide with chronic endemic poverty, illness and ecosystem collapse.
Wind energy is highly generative, because the more we spend, the more we can expand the availability of the resource in question.
Solar energy is highly generative, because spending allows us to expand the resource, but also because supply outstrips demand by many hundred-fold.
Investment in education is also highly generative, first because more spending allows us to expand the quantity and the quality of education available, but also because the human mind is how we combat and overcome entropy.
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Presented to the second ClimateTalks.info roundtable event February 17, 2011, at Villanova University