Links with Natural Sciences

Ecological economics' explicit links with the natural sciences result in a more scientific approach, which is inherently more pluralistic and empirically grounded. It places humans and human behavior in a broader historical, evolutionary, and ecological context. Humans are seen as a part of the natural world, not abstractions in isolation from nature and each other. It is problem-based, not tool-based, and its methods include any that are applicable to the problems at hand. These include everything from participatory processes to envisioning alternative futures to complex systems simulation modeling. It recognizes the importance of envisioning and the limits of the positive-normative dichotomy. It goes well beyond interdisciplinary dialog. It aspires to be a truly transdisciplinary science.

The broad spectrum ofrelationships between ecosystems and economic systems is the locus of many of our most pressing current problems (i.e., sustainability, acid rain, global warming, species extinction, wealth distribution) but it is not covered adequately by any existing discipline. Environmental and resource economics, as they are usually practiced, are subdisciplines of neoclassical economics focused on the efficient allocation of scarce environmental resources but generally ignoring ecosystem dynamics and scale issues, and paying only scant attention to distribution issues. Ecology, as it has historically been practiced, sometimes dealt with human impacts on ecosystems, but the more common tendency was to stick to 'natural' systems and exclude humans.

Ecological economics also focuses on a broader set of questions and goals than the traditional disciplines. Here, again, the differences are not so much the newness ofthe questions or goals, but rather the attempt to integrate them. They can be stated as both questions and goals, since they represent both complex questions requiring further research to fully understand and goals that most people would agree are worthy of the title:

1. assessing and insuring that the scale of human activities within the biosphere are ecologically sustainable;

2. distributing resources and property rights fairly, both within the current generation of humans and between this and future generations, and also between humans and other species; and

3. efficiently allocating resources as constrained and defined by (1) and (2) above, including both marketed and nonmarketed resources, especially natural capital and ecosystem services.

These questions/goals are interdependent and yet need to be addressed hierarchically. The problem of ecological sustainability needs to be solved at the level ofpreferences or technology, not at the level ofoptimal prices. Only ifthe preferences and production possibility sets informing economic behavior are ecologically sustainable can the corresponding set of optimal and intertemporally efficient prices be ecologically sustainable. Thus the principle of 'consumer sovereignty' on which most conventional economic solutions are based is only acceptable to the extent that consumer interests do not threaten the overall system, and through this the welfare of future generations. This implies that if one's goals include ecological sustainability then one cannot rely on consumer sovereignty, and must allow for coevolving preferences, technology, and ecosystems.

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