What is Ecological Economics?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Ecological economics is a field of theoretical economics that studies human economy as a subsystem of the global ecosystem. Essentially, ecological economics is based on the premise that humans need the Earth to sustain human life in order to have an economy, therefore the creation and maintenance of a stable, sustainable ecosystem is the primary requisite to the continuation of human economy. This theory stands in marked contrast to traditional economic theories that focus on the function of the market as the primary concern. Ecological economics is a broad and somewhat vague subset of economic theories that has gained some popularity in the wake of global warming and climate change education.

Much of the human economy impacts the natural ecosystem of the planet. While going to a hairdresser may not seem to have anything to do with the natural world, the electricity that powers the hair dryer, the chemicals in the dye, and the metal that goes into shears all come from ecology. Since just about every human activity has a give or take effect on the global ecosystem, a large part of studying ecological economics involves examining the relationship between human needs and natural resources.


Ecological economics is sometimes referred to as an interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary field because it requires the work of both ecological scientists and traditional economists. The scientific side of the field is largely concerned with measuring the sustainability of ecosystems and developing technology that makes sustainable practices cost-effective and productive. The economical side attempts to marry ecological data with traditional human needs to create the potential for systematic economic growth that is sustainable.

The theory, which has been developed and interpreted by numerous luminaries in both the scientific and economic fields, suggests that traditional economic theories have considered the importance of ecology and economy in the wrong order. Since the economy can't function if the planet becomes wholly unlivable, ecological economics tends to consider sustainability first and economic needs second. While that premise may seem reasonable, it is the fine structure of ecological economics that tends to cause the controversy.

One of the major issues with ecological economics is that it requires scientists to make assumptions about the future. The global warming controversy of the early 21st century is an excellent example of how difficult it is to base policy, such as air pollution standards, on scientific assumptions that are not always universally agreed upon by scientists, nor immediately observable to policy makers. Additionally, the matter gets confused when non-sustainable solutions are promoted as an alternative to changing policy or the economic status quo, such as suggesting that the solution to dwindling finite resources such as fossil fuel reserves is to drill for oil in more places. Ecological economics requires a long-term perspective that is often lost in social-political debate, since people are understandably concerned about the price of gas today rather than what will happen when fossil fuels run out in a century.


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