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In relation to the first question, I see neoclassical economics’ strength based on two pillars.

  • The first pillar relates to the fact that science, knowledge, technology, social organisation and environment have all co-evolved around fossil hydrocarbons in such a way that it gave neoclassical framework a particular advantage. Above all, our technological basis has been focused on fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution and this fossil fuel-driven economy has co-evolved with society and ideology. Since industrialisation advanced through the development of capitalism, it promoted individualist as well as materialist values, and favoured the development of a reductionist understanding at the expense of systemic understanding (as noted by Söderbaum, 2008). The model then continuously rewarded itself in the sense that it altered the way the environment is viewed, since the materialistic and individualistic values it assumes became more and more socially accepted. This is like a social-lock in. Many important alternative contributions have then been largely disregarded by this status quo.
  • The second pillar has to do with the ideological and methodological consistency of the neoclassical economics and the unified nature of its framework. These resulted in a strong identity and i believe increased the influence of the field on real-world policy-making. In contrast, the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability research usually makes it difficult to define a unified methodology. Contributors in sustainability research have usually different disciplinary backgrounds or diverse perspectives which results in weaker identities in general.

These two points in a way take us to the second question: challenges, roles and limits of an economic science that wants to help realise sustainability. The below points raised are based on discussion in Ozkaynak et al. (forthcoming).

  • Alternative approaches within the economic discipline have been in fact successful in shifting the focus of sustainability debates from natural resource scarcity to ecological sustainability and social equity. Yet, the lack of absolute limits in current sustainable development plans with regard to ecosystems’ carrying capacity in relation to sources and sinks is still problematic. Therefore, an economic science that wants to help realise sustainability should, first of all, expose the myths about production and substitution possibilities that run counter to the laws of thermodynamics. Given the fact that not only all governments but also some ecologically-concerned economists are favouring the efficiency strategy towards sustainability, economic science could take more responsibility for identifying the end results of energy and efficiency policies, both theoretically and empirically.


  • Second, it should seek bio-physical assessments of economy-environment interactions and generate information on bio-physical accounts as well as instances of ecosystems’ collapse (e.g. extinction of species due to overexploitation) as part of historical evidence and societal memory. As Martinez-Alier and Schandl (2002) note that it is important to develop an environmental history, or the history of the so-called social metabolism which illustrates the impact of technological and societal changes, as well as of growing economies and increasing use of fossil fuels, on the environment. The multi-criteria macro-assessment framework proposed by Shemelev and Rodriguez-Labajos (2009) is an effort for instance in this direction. The authors apply the multi-criteria approach to the specific case of Austria, and by using a panel of sustainable development indicators, assess Austria’s development at the macro level. This study not only provides a dynamic assessment of progress towards sustainability on the macro scale, but also reflects the social and technical incommensurability aspects of a sustainability assessment exercise.


  • On the global front, for instance, given growing economic and ecological disparities, there is a need for continuous research on the relationship between trade and the environment, to support the worldwide justice movement in preventing trade from being a legal framework that allows rich countries to destroy resources from the underprivileged south (Martinez-Alier, 2002; Weisz, 2007). More specifically, attempts to quantify environmental damage caused by TNCs outside the legal country of residence, toxic exports and the disproportionate use of carbon sinks and reservoirs in the south would be important ingredients in calculating the environmental liabilities the north owes the south, the sum of which would amount to an enormous ecological debt (Martinez-Alier, 2002).


  • Economic research could also critically examine the relationship between economic (GDP) growth and prosperity in more detail. In the literature, many strong voices have been raised now against economic growth in rich countries and in favour of a steady-state economy (Daly, 1977; Daly and Farley, 2004), and the latest contributions also discuss the relevance of GDP as an indicator of wellbeing or progress, and thereby as a key policy goal. Accordingly, economic growth, defined in terms of rises in GDP per capita, is rightly criticised on the basis that it no longer serves a useful purpose for society in developed countries—certainly not in the case of poverty, wellbeing, environmental protection and social justice (van den Bergh, 2009; Schneider et al., 2010).

In relation to the third question on the possibilities, impediments and opportunities of pluralism in economic science – in research and teaching; strategies for achieving it, in order to reinforce pro-sustainability economic policy:

  • The focus of economic science should be on analysing interactions between human activity and non-human nature within the prevailing capitalist socio-economic system, the differential impact of that interaction on different countries and different socio-economic groups within them, and how to move toward a globally and locally just distribution of resource use within the finite carrying capacity of the planet. In this context, sustainability economics necessarily requires pluralism in perspectives and the expansion of transdisciplinary work, drawing in particular on the disciplines of ecology, geography, history (including the history of science and technology), and social science (including political economy). However, it must also be acknowledged that the evolution of these disciplines has led to fragmentation and compartmentalisation, which is inimical to a holistic view. Pluralism and trans-disciplinary work cannot be achieved simply by bringing together scholars from different perspectives or working in the separate disciplines as they have currently evolved. The disciplines themselves have to evolve to take into account the new demands brought up by the current conjuncture of interacting ecological, social, economic and financial crises and there needs to be a unified framework where all these co-evolved disciplines are brought together around a core understanding.


  • Conditions necessary for pluralism, transdisciplinarity and participatory decision-making process to be realised is largely missing in discussions. While we recognise the importance of equity in general, there is not enough reference to the political economy of the context in which decisions are made, the prevailing distribution of power that distorts or even precludes such processes.

Conclusions for an alternative economic policy

  • The only way to develop an enduring and politically effective alternative economic policy is to recognise the interdependence of the two and politicising the economic sphere and seeking to organise and coordinate economic activities in a way that combines economic and ecological concerns with social justice based on the specific interests of those affected. This is surely a long political process, involving above all a gestalt change in the current set of beliefs and values, yet without claiming a blueprint for dealing with the ever increasing and rapidly changing real-world problems.


  • Although there exist currently different varieties of capitalism placing more or less emphasis on market regulation, particularly with regard to income and wealth distribution and environmental protection, experience so far indicates that all have a structural requirement for growth. Whether there could be an alternative equitable and sustainable but non-growing capitalist economy in harmony with the ecosystem is a pending question that needs to be properly addressed, although the logic of capitalism and the historical evidence suggest that it is unlikely.



Daly, H. 1977. Steady-state and thermodynamics, Bioscience, vol. 27, no. 12, 770-71

Daly, H. and Farley, J.H. 2004. Ecological Economics: Principles and applications, Washington, Island Press

Martinez-Alier, J. and Schandl, H. 2002. Introduction to the special issue on European Environmental History and Ecological Economics, Ecological Economics, vol. 41, no. 2, 175-76

Ozkaynak, B., Adaman, F. and Devine, P. forthcoming. “The identity of ecological economics: Retrospects and Prospects”, Cambridge Journal of Economics

Martinez-Alier, J. 2002. Environmentalism of the Poor: A study of ecological conflicts and valuation, Cheltenham and Northampton, Edward Elgar

Schneider, F., Kallis, G. and Martinez-Alier, J. 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 18, no. 6, 511-18

Van den Bergh, J. 2009. The GDP paradox, Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 30, no. 2, 117–35

Weisz, H. 2007. Combining social metabolism and input-output analyses to account for ecologically unequal trade, in Hornborg, A., McNeil, J.R. and Martinez-Alier, J. (eds), Rethinking Environmental History: World system history and global environmental change, Lanham, MD, Altamira Press, 289-306

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