What is ecology’s contribution to sustainability? And why does economics get the Big Chair at the dinner table?

By Peter Burnett

For most people who take an interest in it, sustainability is the central idea of Our Common Future, a major United Nations report on environment and development. It was published in 1987.

You may know it as the Brundtland Report, after its principal author, Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor who became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in the early 1980s and, later, Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Whenever I pick up my copy of Our Common Future I’m always drawn to a sentence on the back cover: ‘Our Common Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology…’

Due to the efforts of some pioneering economists and ecologists from the late 1980s, there is a marriage of economics and ecology within a new discipline created by those pioneers, that of ecological economics. But this marriage has few progenies beyond academia.

Even within ecological economics, there are some signs that the marriage is not an equal one. Ecology has influenced the approach of economics but not the other way round.

I began to wonder. What is ecology and what is its contribution to sustainability?

Economics comes in from the cold

Let’s start with economics. In the decades following the outbreak of World War II, economics ‘came in from the cold’, completely transforming itself from just another academic discipline, inhabited by retiring academics, to one that some critics attack as ‘imperialist’ or ‘hegemonic’ in its attitudes.

This transformation happened because governments invited economists into the very heart of government.

First, they wanted to win the war, a ‘total war’ requiring that the efforts of every sector of the economy be directed towards victory.

Then, governments wanted economists to assist them to win the peace, initially to find jobs for millions of returning allied soldiers and subsequently to show that capitalism had a better recipe for prosperity than communism in the ideological battles of the emerging Cold War.

The resulting mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ also helped win elections at home and became a fixed feature of the political landscape.

Economists delivered the goods. As a result, they wield an influence that is the envy of most other disciplines.

Oxford economist Kate Raworth encapsulated this influence in her description of economics as the ‘mother tongue of public policy’.

If economics is its ‘mother tongue’ then, unfortunately, ecology remains a foreign language to public policy.

What about ecology?

The term ‘ecology’ was coined in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), a 28-year-old German marine biologist, although some ecological ideas, like ‘the balance of nature’, go right back to the Greek philosophers.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things and their environment.

Ecology didn’t really take off until the mid-twentieth century. Raymond Lindeman’s (1915–1942) work on trophic dynamics (energy flows in particular food-web levels) was seminal for ecosystem ecology, while the brothers Eugene Odum (1913–2002) and Howard Odum (1924–2002)published their influential textbook, Fundamentals of Ecology, in 1953.

Ecology entered the popular lexicon in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Many claim this book triggered what can be described as the modern environmental era.

The influence of ecology on sustainability

Sustainability seeks to identify the human behaviour that will allow the greatest possible level of economic activity consistent with maintaining the ‘ecosystem services’ that Nature provides to humans.

Because ecology is concerned with the natural relationship between plants and animals and their physical environment, ecologists can advise humans on what they may do, or must not do, if they want these ecosystem services to continue (let alone maintain Nature for its inherent value and beauty).

Economics is concerned with the efficient allocation of scarce resources, all of which come, directly or indirectly, from Nature. Economic advice is given routinely in the context of constraints on the supply of resources.

Typically, those constraints have been related to humans factors, such as cost. But there is no reason why economics cannot operate equally well within restraints identified by ecologists, based on Nature’s ability to maintain ecosystem services.

In essence, this is the marriage of economics and ecology.

Economics does not have much to teach ecology in terms of its method, but it can help set ecology’s agenda: from a sustainability perspective, the key questions are ‘what is required to keep Nature operating’ and ‘how can humans restore ecological loss already sustained?’

Married, but not communicating

Both ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ come for the Greek oikos, meaning household, so it seems the attraction between the two disciplines is a natural one (pardon the pun).

However, they speak different languages and, unfortunately for ecology, the marital home, sustainability, lies in the (economic-speaking) land of government.

The challenges of communicating ecological insights in this foreign land are myriad. Apart from ecologists not being native speakers of economics (and vice-versa) their substantive ideas concerning ecological relationships and processes are not obvious to the ordinary person.

Great communicators wanted

It seems to me that, to put this marriage on a more equal footing, ecology needs more great communicators.

These are rare birds indeed. So rare, that of the first two who spring to my mind, one is of great age and the other passed away nearly 15 years ago.

Internationally, David Attenborough is a master and highly influential.

In Australia, the late Professor Peter Cullen of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists was also a master communicator. His passing in 2008 was a great loss to our country.

These two leaders exemplify the skills we need: they are (were) well-versed in biological science, relate naturally to ordinary people through media, speak fluent public policy and, to ice the cake, have mellifluous voices!

We need to do more to grow these skills.

In 2018 the ABC began awarding media residencies annually to Australia’s ‘Top Five Young Scientist Communicators’, a great initiative.

Who else will nurture our young ‘Attenboroughs’ and ‘Cullens’?

Building a truly sustainable future will require more of these vital bridge builders.

Banner image by geralt @ Pixabay

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