Nature is not our friend, at the moment

We’re all aware that the environment is in trouble. The phrase ‘environmental’ or ‘ecological’  economics probably sounds like a contradiction in terms, considering the charge that the way we have organised production on earth so far is exactly the problem for the natural world. Earl Gammon would agree with you, under the current understanding of mainstream economics.

Earl is the author of ‘Nature as adversary: the rise of modern economic conceptions of nature’, a critique of the current state of both environmental and ecological economics. These schools of economic thought are similarly concerned with sustainability in the environment; what they differ on are their ideas of how to create this. ‘Environmental’ economics is like the green wing of the establishment. This group are confidently employing neoclassical theories of marginal analysis because according to them the current market system is able to support sustainability, as soon as they remove the technical impediments. ‘Ecological’ economists disagree. They doubt the market will ever be conducive to an improvement environmentally and challenge the viability of traditional economics’ mantra of growth. As a group they take a transdisciplinary approach to their aim of facilitating the coevolution of humanity and nature.

So far the ecological economists sound like winners. They seem the kind of insightful, radical, interdisciplinary people that we can trust with our future. Earl Gammon is not so sure. The problem essentially is that despite their rejection of the basic status quo, if you dig a little deeper the ecologists’ methodology is not really very different from the environmentalists. Neoclassical practices and assumptions are frequently what they rely on. The big problem with this is the subject of Gammon’s paper.

The trouble with the neoclassical approach, especially regarding environmental concerns, is that it is built on a very particular, adversarial, conception of the natural world. Nature is something that needs to be controlled and overcome if decency and progress are to reign. Immediately many of us will recognise something familiar about this attitude, and the problem with ecological economists basing their hard work on this kind of antagonistic and negative foundation is clear. Gammon suggests their hope of leading the reintegration of human and natural economies is almost certainly impossible from such territory.

The revelation is that it wasn’t always like this; nature has occupied very different positions in our thoughts and society throughout history. As Gammon shows extensively, for a long time nature was revered as an inherently moral force and looked to for guidance. There has been a great transformation which the article traces, from the 17th Century to the present situation, introducing on the way the point that our current perspective is in no way inevitable or innate.

From the 17th to early 19th Centuries nature’s divinity and goodness was beyond doubt. With figures like Francis Bacon, named as the creator of empiricism and sometimes the father of modern science, a great project to return to an Edenic state took hold and its key was the study of nature for revelation. These ideas were advanced by natural philosophers in the 18th Century. Nature was like an instruction manual for God’s plan and for the good. The providence and morality of the natural economy became the order humanity should follow, and violation of this was a crime against God. Politics and economics were absolutely at one with these developments as part of the common intellectual context of the day and in this light the movement from mercantilist intervention to Adam Smith’s belief in the natural Providence of the market makes a new kind of sense. Economic thinkers including Robert Malthaus and David Ricardo continued in this vein right up until the 1820s.

At this point Scientific geological discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s saw the collapse of natural theology and this changed everything. Evidence of the Creator’s design was discredited and in this rupturing of belief systems and reality, people lost faith. Providence now seemed a very vague thing to rely on. Nature, including human nature, needed directing. Education was required to shape people and attention should be paid to invention and industry if progress was to be made.

Growing distrust and disconnection from the natural economy characterised social, political and economic thought. From this new world of uncertainty great theorists of political economy such as John Stuart Mill and the founder of British marginalism, William Jevons, developed their ideas. Mill held nature to be ‘immoral’ and Jevons’ urge to separate economics from problematic and unpredictable nature and create a pure, reliable mathematics of organisation is clear. The ‘soul’ of both our environment and human nature was studiously abstracted and the post-classical belief in the possibility of control and domination, a conviction which still prevails, began a glorious career.

Gammon’s conclusion is that the neoclassical landscape should not and must not be taken for granted. As he clearly demonstrates the methodology it promotes is far from a value free science as many would like to believe, and with environmental disaster rushing towards us Gammon calls for a true re-evaluation as the only way for progress to be made.