Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 25, 2005 Ecological Economics.

Iím finally back on my own again. It feels very quiet and peaceful. For five days I was traveling with Phil, a Vanagon friend. Before that I was in Tacoma for a week with the ecological economics crew. And before that Malawi, and before that Yellowstone. It was all fun, but itís nice to be back on my own time and inhabiting my own space again. Itís been a long time.

The ecological economics phase was interesting. I was in Tacoma for a conference of something called the US Society for Ecological Economics (USSEE), which is basically an academic society. ďEcological economicsĒ is a relatively new field that aims, as far as I can tell, to put the discipline of

economics within a broader ecological context, recognizing that biological and physical limits constrain the potential growth of the economy. I was on the USSEE board for the first four years of the organizationís life, but I donít think I qualify as a good ecological economist. I donít think Iíve ever quite understood how this field differs fundamentally from environmental economics, which probably makes me a heretic among the converted. And Iím not an academic seeking professional recognition, which makes me a bit more of an outlier.

But Iíve still been part of the organization for a number of years. I attend their conferences, present papers, and occasionally even schmooze with the others who are there. This time I was rather out of it through much of the conference, first due to jet lag and then to a nasty cold that had me sleeping twelve hours a night. But I was staying with the conference organizers, Dave Batker and his very pregnant wife Isobel de la Torre, which gave me a different perspective. At times it seemed as if half the conference was staying at their house, as well as most of the staff. The kitchen table was the common hang-out, the place to whip up pancakes in the morning, brew coffee, connect to their high-speed internet, and talk endlessly.

I spent one long morning at the table working on my website and talking to a professor from the University of Vermont about living simply, returning to agriculture, valuing the environment, and giving up oneís possessions. Roel, as he is called (more formally, heís Roelof Boumanns, a good Dutchman), has happily gone from full-time employment as a professor to three-fourths time employment, with the rest of his time devoted to cultivating organic vegetables, cutting grasses with a scythe, and building a building of thatch. Or perhaps it was sod? Thatch, I think. He and I agreed that if the western world Ė or perhaps the whole world Ė continues its current consumption patterns the system will crash. But we disagreed on almost everything else, I think. For him the solution, the way to head off disaster, or perhaps the way to personally survive it, is through increased self-reliance. That means growing his own food and not depending on the economic system to supply his needs.

Image from the Ithaca hours website.

Local self-reliance seems to be a key part of the strategies of many ecological economists. At the conference there was much discussion of alternative local currencies, issued at the community level and honored only by businesses within the community. Burlington, Vermont has such a currency, as does Ithaca, New York. Exchanging oneís US dollars for Burlington bread or Ithaca hours amounts to a commitment to shop at local stores, thereby reducing trade with the rest of the economy. Underlying this is a belief that sustainability must be achieved at the community level, not only by buying American, but by buying Burlington, or buying Ithaca.


The argument for such local sustainability seems to be that the environmental costs of transporting merchandise outweigh the economic benefits of tapping into a larger community, whether it be national or global. Iím not sure I believe that. And I certainly donít think that weíll survive global warming or other environmental disasters by each growing our own food. I think in terms of bringing about public policy choices that will create an economic incentive for changes in behavior by many people, like fuel efficiency standards or emissions trading. That might be because I find rural life stiflingly dull and have no interest in becoming a farmer and raising my own food. Or it might be because I legitimately think that a group of people working together in a larger, more complex, and more specialized system can produce much more, and therefore keep far more people alive, than a lot of individuals working on their own. To me, pushing the more complex system to take into account the need to protect the resource base seems like a better strategy than each of us going it alone.


Some of the ecological economics folks are interested in my work in Malawi. What Iím actually doing there Ė and itís supposed to continue this fall and winter Ė is carrying out a study to put an economic value on the services provided by Mount Mulanje, in the hopes of making a case that protecting the forests will be economically preferable to allowing them to degrade. Such valuation is a big part of what the ecological economics folks are doing, especially those in the non-profit arena like Dave and Isobel. They founded a non-profit initial called APEX, now called Earth Economics, which has carried out valuation studies on resources in the Puget Sound area. Roel has worked with them on those studies, so we had some good discussions over the kitchen table. The non-profits are determined to show that environmental services are worth more than marketed ones that compete with them, and they have, if Dave is to be believed, had great success in demonstrating this in the Pacific Northwest. Dave is a great publicist, and involving him in the Malawi work might be good for everyone involved. But Iím afraid his groupís work is biased; they would never conclude that development of the resources may be more valuable than protecting them. Dave said thatís because they have only done such studies in places where they resources are very valuable, but I wonder whether thatís true. I wonder whether we design our methodology to ensure the results that we want, and Iím afraid weíre doing the same in Malawi.


Ah well, these speculations may be much too academic for you, the readers of my website. If you want to get into this discussion, send me an email, and we can take it from there. And if not, I hope you haven't even gotten this far!

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