By Philip P. Chandler and Eric Scigliano
“Economics” and “ecology” are two words with a common root but very different meanings, representing two ways of looking at the world. How we respond to climate change, ocean acidification, and other threats to our environmental circumstances depends on whether we approach them primarily from an ecological or an economic point of view. Do we give more weight to their effects on ecosystems and their living constituents (including humans) or to the immediate costs of preventing them and the financial rewards that some well-placed persons reap from them?
All too often, natural scientists and economists seem to be talking past each other. The scientists propound values—biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, the elusive but essential quality of “wildness”—that are not readily measurable in financial terms, hence not considered by traditional economists.
To bridge this gap, ecologists and other scientists have tried to price “ecological services,” the benefits that healthy natural systems provide, from spongy forest soils that filter pollutants and detain floodwaters to bird songs and verdant vistas that feed the soul. This may sometimes be a useful exercise, but it is inevitably imprecise and imperfect; how do you price the inspiration of a falcon soaring above a crowded city, or the delight and insight children gain from poking around in tidepools?
Any attempt to reduce such things to dollars and cents denies their inherent worth. It is like valuing a human being at $160, the estimated price of our chemical components. It is a category error.
There is another way to explore the relationship between economics and ecology: via etymology, by examining what these two words, and by implication the disciplines they represent, share, and how their meanings differ. Both derive from the classical Greek word oikos, meaning “household.” And both are concerned with the laws that govern a household, whether a family home, a nation, or the planetary home that we all share. But there the resemblance ends.
Economics and ecology represent very different types of law. The Greek word nomos, which combines with oikos to form oikonomikos, refers to conventional law, the laws that human beings make and change at will. Logos, the other half of “ecology,” refers to natural law, the laws that are embedded in the nature of things, which humans, because we are rational beings, can discover, but which prevail whether we like them or not.
Oikonomikos describes the rules and arrangements that govern a household or community—the distribution of assets, whether a family’s food or a nation’s wealth, the relationships between children and parents and between citizens and their representatives and administrators.
Contrary to what advocates of various economic orthodoxies may claim, there is no single “right” way to organize our households and communities. There are innumerable systems, approaches, alternatives and tradeoffs. We try them, compare them, combine them, and alter them as results suggest and circumstances dictate. We make the rules, then change them if they don’t produce the results we seek.
Ecology is not as old a word as oikonomikos. The German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined it just a century-and-a-half ago to describe an emerging science, the study of the relationships between living things and the environments that shape them and which they help to shape. But it embodies a much older and more fundamental principle, followed implicitly by all living things as they adapt to the conditions they live in.
That includes us. Human beings are part of a natural world governed by laws not of human making—laws that we are still discovering and to which we are still struggling to adapt our behavior. It was only in Haeckel’s era that scientists came to appreciate the fact that even the largest natural systems—the vast prairies and forests of the New World, the even vaster oceans—are not infinite. We are only now coming to terms with the fact that these oceans and forests can buffer us for only so long against the heat-trapping carbon we are spewing into the atmosphere—in the face of the fossil fuel industries’ cynical obfuscations and their proxy politicians’ and academics’ blithe denials.
Even the most well-meaning of us are instinctively biased toward the economic sphere, with its shorter horizons and more manageable processes. And if economics were all that mattered, we could devise our own laws for the global household and make it comply with them. But ecology does matter; it is not reducible to economics. When we confuse the two, depleting and destroying natural systems to maximize consumption, we sacrifice our earthly home for short-term gains that will seem pitiably meager in hindsight. We are like debt-binging homeowners who use their homes as ATM cards, piling on mortgages at escalating, unpredictable interest rates until the whole oikos of cards comes crashing down.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In a well-ordered society, nomos serves logos: we govern ourselves in accordance with nature. Ecology and economics can be complementary rather than competitive, but only if we remember which comes first.
Philip P. Chandler is an attorney and former tutor at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eric Scigliano is a former student at St. John’s and author of The Big Thaw: Ancient Carbon and a Race to Save the Planet.