Skip to main content
Read page text

economics) that pretends to that illustrious category has therefore been to measure, to quantify, and then to apply mathematical reasoning to the numbers obtained. To say that there are some things that inherently elude quantification offends this foundational principle. How do you make a science of human happiness (the ultimate goal of social engineering)? You measure it. You figure out the laws of happiness, make them into mathematical equations (a “felicific calculus”, in philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s words), and determine policy based on the total amount of measurable happiness (or “utility”) it will generate. Government will have been reduced to maths.

Economics as a science understands society as the aggregated behaviour of millions of utilitymaximising individuals. Money is both the measure and the substance of utility, says economics; if, as the destruction of the planet suggests, it is an imperfect measure, then the solution is to repair its flaws, for example to incorporate ecosystem services into it.

New York City bought land rights in the Catskills to protect its water supply. Farmers in Bolivia are paid to protect their watersheds, and loggers to cease clearcutting. Cap-and-trade systems for sulphur dioxide have curtailed acid rain.

Learning from the failures (such as the dismal results of carbon credit trading) and carrying forth the successes, we might develop more and better ways to align money with ecology. For example: • We can use quota systems, green taxes or auctions to limit renewable resource use to the amount that can be sustainably replenished. • We can do the same to limit waste emissions to a rate that the rest of Nature can process. • We can pay countries like Congo, Ecuador and Brazil to preserve their rainforests, setting that amount at a level sufficient to offset the profits that would otherwise accrue for liquidating those resources. • We can pay farmers to practise regenerative agriculture. • We can cancel Third World debt in recognition that

A lot is at stake here for economists and their way of thinking. ‘Ecosystem services’ can rescue economics. But what if the problem with measuring everything isn’t just that we haven’t measured enough? What if the problem is with measurement itself having exceeded its proper domain and usurped other ways of knowing and choosing? What is the alternative? Surely it is better to assign a finite value to ecosystems than it is to accord it no value whatsoever, as our present system does. Fortunately we do have another model besides an economic one. In the social realm, there are also things that we consider to be beyond price. If you kill someone, for instance, no amount of financial compensation is considered enough: a human life has an infinite value. We have, as it says in the US Declaration of Independence, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One might, therefore, say that we hold these things sacred.

much of it was incurred for the purpose of extracting resources whose environmental costs were never compensated. The organising principle here is not to totalise economic logic. It is that people and nations should be able to make as much money from the alternatives to extraction (past a sustainable level) as they do from extraction itself. People should be able to make as much (or more) money from zero-emissions practices as from

Putting a price on Nature implies it exists fir st and foremost for our use pollution-creating practices. It would be hypocritical, for example, to say: “Don’t cut down those trees – but I’ll only pay you if you do.” Money, after all, is an expression of what society values. As what we value shifts towards ecological healing, we need to change the economic system to reflect that. We should not pretend, though, that the financial incentives we

Applying analogous reasoning to Nature, we arrive at ideas like the ‘rights of Nature’ now proclaimed and adopted by Bolivia, and at the criminalising of ecocide advocated by the lawyer activist Polly Higgins. Money and law are both expressions of what society values. Money can embody finite value; only law can embody the value of anything beyond price.

This means that economic solutions will never be enough, any more than the programme of quantification can ever proceed to totality. But it does not mean we should abandon measure, abandon science, or abandon attempts to align profit with people and planet. Rather, these tools must operate in their proper domain: in service to the sacred. In fact, some of the programmes justified by the concept of ecosystem services have been successful, and we should not dismiss these successes on dogmatic grounds.

assign towards environmentally desirable outcomes can truly represent the value of the land, water, biodiversity, and so on. The only reason to do that would be to preserve an ideology, the very ideology that has driven so much destruction to begin with. It is surely a good thing to align money with ecology, but we must do that without reducing ecology to money, Nature to commodity, the infinite to the finite, the sacred to the profane, quality to quantity, and the world into a pile of instrumental stuff. Detaching financial incentives from the doctrine of value frees us to apply them flexibly on a case-by-case basis that fully recognises their social context. It is time for the science of economics to bow to the art.

Charles Eisenstein is the author of Sacred Economics and other books.

Issue 276

Resurgence & Ecologist


My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content