Ecological and Economic Perspectives

The relations between ecological and economic thinking suggest the values of two cultures with very different ideas about visions for the future.

History of the Economy and Ecology Debate

On the role of science:

Science alone does not, and cannot, tell us whether any population size is too large or too small, or whether the growth rate is too fast or too slow. . . . Social and personal decisions about childbearing, immigration, and death inevitably hinge upon values as well as probable economic consequences. And there is necessarily a moral dimension to these decisions over and beyond whatever insights science may yield (Julian Simon, 1981, The Ultimate Resource, p 344, quoted from Allen C. Kelley, 1988, "Economic Consequences of Population Change in the Third World," Journal of Economic Literature, 26:1686-1728).

The Resourceful Earth - This section deals with the continual debate between ecological and economic points of view. It is illustrated by the bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich made in 1980 on the 1990 prices of five commodities.

Simon vs Ehrlich

Ref. John Tierney, New York Times Magazine, December 2, 1990.

Key features of the positions are:

CassandraDr. Pangloss
Limits to Growthfalse bad news
Global 2000Resourceful Earth
OrganizationsWorldwatch InstituteHudson Institute
PeopleLester BrownHerman Kahn
Barry Commoner
Amory Lovins
Marilyn Ferguson
Herman Daly
Paul EhrlichJulian Simon
BackgroundPaul EhrlichJulian Simon
Major BookThe Population BombMail Order Marketing
Audiencesmillions, Tonight Showa few hundred, largely ignored

The same issues are also raised in the Simon and Kahn critique of Global 2000

"Introduction, Executive Summary," pp. 1-49, In The Resourceful Earth, A Response to Global 2000, Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn (1985).

"Ocean Minerals: For Profit or Prophecy?", pp. 5-9, John V. Byrne, In Ocean Agenda 21 (1989).

"Greenhouse Economics: Count before you leap," pp. 21, 22, 24, In The Economist, July, 7, 1990.

long-term trend data do not support the current pessimistic view that there are

limits to growth

things are getting worse

resource use occurs in an open system in which you need to

consider substitutions

technology does improve

benefit-cost decision making

long-term resource prices in constant dollars tend to decline

advocates free market economics

privatization solves resource problems - two approaches

private rights to catching opportunities - limited entry

private rights to catch - Individual Transferable Quotas


approachesprivatization, green taxesmutual coercion, mutually agreed upon
trend analysissystems analysis
conceptsefficiencycarrying capacity


The tendency to overstate one's case.

What feels right intuitively and emotionally may not be supported with systems data and analysis.

Don't discount innovative capacity.

Wealth may be more related to what you can do, than what you have in the way of possessions.

Public agencies have a tendency to dissipate all the social benefit

John Baden, 1977, A Primer for the Management of Common Pool Resources, pp. 137-146 In Managing the Commons, Garrett Hardin and John Baden, eds. (1977).

Critique of the Resourceful Earth position:

Martha Campbell, n.d., "The Collected Responses to Simon and Other Population Revisionists," Population Speakout, Englewood, Colorado.

PAX World

I=PAT: Limits to growth is reflected in the I = PAT equation (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1991, 1992). "The impact (I) of any group or nation on the environment can be viewed as the product of its population size (P) multiplied by per-capita affluence (A) as measured by consumption, in turn multiplied by a measure of the damage done by technologies (T) employed in supplying each unit of that consumption" (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1991:7). If the I = PAT equation operates in a simple linear fashion, then impact should increase as population, affluence, and technology increase and it can only be reduced by reducing population, affluence, and technology. An example of an I = PAT calculation is, "Suppose, through heroic efforts, humanity managed over the next eighty years to reduce both the average consumption per person and the average environmental impact of technologies globally to half of today's level. If the current growth rate continued, expansion of the human population would overwhelm those advances and leave humanity's total environmental impact unchanged in the 2070s" (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1991:240). This suggests a Faustian bargain between numbers, affluence, and the environment.

PAX World Comparisons: The factor magnifying or minimizing how population and affluence impact the environment is a coefficient rather than a cardinal number applied as technology. The culture, institutions, and technology effect (CITE) can increase or decrease how a country or region's population and affluence impact the environment. This variable is the primary unknown, X, in the equation. It is the value we would like to solve for in order to identify those cultural practices, institutional innovations, and technological inventions that may either increase the impact of population and affluence, or more importantly moderate their effect. The formula, then, might be written


I = Impact of any country or region on the environment

P = country or region Population size

A = per capita Affluence as measured by consumption

X = CITE, the Culture, Institutions, and Technology Effect

This formula focuses attention on the countries and regions that are most effective in reducing their environmental impact. Solving for X helps identify countries or regions whose cultures, institutions, and technologies moderate the effect of population and affluence on the environment. CITE opens a whole new set of tools for evaluating and dealing with environmental impact.

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Updated:Wednesday, 22-Sep-1999 12:34:35 PDT URL is