Economics plays an important role in any engineering field, primarily as an aid in making design decisions. There is always a need to find the least expensive way to solve a problem and, at the most basic level, economics provides a system for this accounting. The typical approach is to generate alternative solutions or designs and to evaluate these alternatives with economic criteria. The application of economics to engineering is a traditional subdiscipline called engineering economics (Grant and Ireson, 1964; Sepulveda et al., 1984).
In a sense economics reveals which alternatives are realistic in terms of implementation. Some may be too costly and are thus not realistic. However, reality in this context depends on the accounting system that is used for evaluation. As will be discussed in this chapter, conventional economics has some limitations, especially in terms of being capable of evaluating aspects of the environment. To deal with these limitations, new forms of economics are being developed and applied to ecological engineering in order to improve decision making (Maxwell and Costanza, 1989; H. T. Odum, 1994b; Van Ierland and deMan, 1996). An accounting system is needed for a variety of special issues in ecological engineering. For example, it is often stated that pollution is cheaper to prevent than to clean up. This is an economic generalization that requires the capability of full accounting of costs of pollution treatment technologies, costs of pollution impacts on the environment, and costs of pollution cleanup which might include site remediation or even ecological restoration. Hazard evaluation with microcosms is another example. How much funding is appropriate for adequate testing of potential toxins that are to be released into the environment? This decision requires costs of testing with microcosms and meso-cosms vs. costs of potential environmental impacts of the toxins.
In practice engineers usually become involved in a project after a certain stage of decision making. Often, they are not asked whether the project should be done, but rather they are asked how best to implement the project. For example, the engineer is asked where to build a dam or what kind of dam to build, not whether the dam should be built. Thus, engineers do not usually go beyond the typical uses of economic accounting. However, ecological engineering implies a wider scale of thinking. Ecological engineering designs are specifically intended to combine nature with human technology, which requires a complete accounting system. In this chapter alternative accounting systems are presented with recommendations for those best suited to the field of ecological engineering.
A related issue concerning economics is the large-scale question of the future of society. Some believe that growth will continue without limit, while others believe society is already or will soon be limited. These limits come from declining amounts of fossil fuels that are the driving force supporting society and from the carrying capacity constraints of the biosphere. Classical economic theory suggests that forms of human capital can substitute for natural resources such as fossil fuels through technology. In this view the future depends on the power of technology to overcome limits (Ausubel, 1996). A dichotomy has evolved between people who believe technology will continue to develop fast enough to compensate for lost or spent natural resources and people who believe that the planet's capacity to absorb society's wastes and provide raw materials and energy is finite and limited. Costanza (1989) referred to these groups as technological optimists and technological pessimists, respectively, and he suggests that policy makers need to carefully weigh their perspectives in making decisions. No definite resolution is possible to the dichotomy at this time because both sides can present evidence to support their beliefs, but fossil fuels are definitely becoming more expensive and limits to humanity are becoming apparent.
A relevant question is where the field of ecological engineering falls along the gradient of opinions. On one hand ecological engineering designs are among the most advanced forms of technology by combining conventional engineering with living ecosystems in a symbiotic coupling, making them consistent with the beliefs of the technological optimists. On the other hand, by relying on renewable energies, by reducing costs, and by emphasizing natural ecosystems, ecological engineering designs are best adapted to a future with limited resources, making them consistent with the belief of the technological pessimists. Thus, ecological engineering has a dual conception that makes it correct and appropriate for either the technological optimist or the technological pessimist position.
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