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The Difference Between Ecology and Economics

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The words 'economy' and 'ecology' have shared roots, both stemming from the Greek word oikos (οἶκος) for "house". 'Economy' adds the suffix ‘nemein’ (νέμειν), for "manage", creating 'oikonomia' for "household management", or more commonly the “ the management of material resources ”, whereas ‘logia’ (λόγια) at the end of ‘ecology’ means “the study of”.

Despite these common linguistic roots, the convictions of their respective proponents have grown far, far apart. For anybody who has (un)willingly engaged in discussions with today’s environmentalists , this hardly comes as a surprise; they’re vicious , totalitarian , and entirely unwilling to consider benefits that come with, say, fossil fuels . Where those concerned with the ‘economy’ – economists – emphasize efficiency, trade-offs, and decentralized knowledge, those concerned with ‘ecology’ – ecologists or environmentalists – stress preservation, purity and top-down planning.

What’s striking about comparing the two is how environmentalists do apply proper economic insights – but very selectively and almost never about the economy.

The Origin of Ecology

Ecology's origin as an intellectual movement was always deeply anti-capitalistic. Through Malthus, Rachel Carlson, Al Gore and more recently Greta Thunberg (or, as we should properly refer to her, “St Greta”), extreme hostility towards capitalism remains a core value of today's environmentalists. What threatens our pristine and vulnerable nature was always consumption, population increases and economic growth.

Charles Mann, in his recent The Wizard and the Prophet shows how William Vogt – the most influential 20th century environmentalist you have never heard of – viewed capitalism as "the ultimate cause of most of the world's ecological problems."

Leaving his main biological theories aside, Vogt was all about humility before complex and uncertain processes that we do not fully comprehend – when considering ecosystems, that is. For improving eco-systems, Vogt and his modern-day disciplines espouse the limits of top-down intervention and the manipulations of natural outputs through fertilizers or genetic modifications. What is divinely provided by nature cannot be improved upon by humans. Their reasoning is that we cannot fully foresee or control the ecological responses; we might be doing more harm than good.

A myriad of ecological examples exist to support this point: rabbits introduced to Australia have condemned various tree species to extinction and greatly contributed to soil erosion across the continent – foxes introduced , either for hunting purposes or to deal with the rabbits, killed off defenseless mammals unaccustomed to such predators. Also in Australia, the cane toad – native to South America – was introduced to control insects, but ended up killing vast numbers of reptiles and crocodiles. Lionfish , probably from aquariums, have wreaked havoc in the Atlantic and Caribbean seas, gobbling up native fish and destroying reefs . The Small Indian Mongoose, introduced to islands in the Western Pacific and Hawaii in order to control rats, backfired and caused local extinction of birds and reptiles.

On the very same precautionary principle, more recent proposals such as eradicating disease-carrying mosquitos are opposed as they may threaten the world’s cocoa trees or have other unintended consequences – allegedly even more severe than the Malaria disease they intend to solve.

But Don't Worry, We Can Manage the Economy

Nobody is really disputing that we don’t fully grasp ecological processes; they’re molecular, they’re global, they involve millions of species and microscopic chemical reactions that together create delicate outcomes that are often unforeseeable. Weather forecasting , while much improved in recent decades, is a case in point.

The thing is, economic processes are even more complicated than ecological ones. Why? Beyond the myriad of millions of millions of interactions, human beings – in contrast to rocks and atmospheres and bees – act. Unlike ants unyieldingly attracted by sugar or sharks by blood, human beings are endowed with frequently changing value scales – the same influences that work on animals work on us, plus our ability to restrict and limit them at will. We may abstain from eating, doing, pursuing or completing anything on cultural or societal or religious grounds. We choose , which makes us even more complicated than animals or trees or carbon dioxide molecules.

Even when the policy relevance for the two fields overlap, as in climate change debates and environmental policy making, the very ecologists who minutes before emphasized the complex and unpredictable nature of the system are happy to make oddly specific proposals:

· Tax or ban everything that moves ( meat , airfares , wealth , energy ); subsidize everything that doesn’t. That couldn’t possibly affect the economy, could it?

We can mention other areas where the broadly left-progressive position on complex systems is surprisingly upside-down.

On religion, progressives are happy to ridicule some conservatives for their skepticism towards evolution. Believing that remarkably well-adapted designs imply a designer is a failure of understanding selection in complex systems and is obviously wrong, they say. On correcting undesired outcomes of capitalist markets, an even more complicated system than human biology, the very same progressives are happy to empower, endorse and expand benign governments’ power to intervene. The same bottom-up spontaneous order that ecologists identify in nature somehow doesn’t translate over to the economic sphere; previously very scientific and Enlightened leftists suddenly flip and finds top-down interventions not just feasible but desirable.

On the riches of natural wonders (Hawaiian rainforests, Grand Canyon riverbeds, Icelandic volcanoes or Amazon rainforests ), conservationist ecologists oppose development in every shape or form. The reason? To protect the pristine environment from hard-to-predict human impacts. Fair enough, but that limits the number and kind of people that can access these our planet’s wonders – restricting them from the very poor and underprivileged groups left-leaning people generally claim to represent. Shouldn’t we share – redistribute – that natural wealth as widely as possible?

No, they say, since the ecosystem is vulnerable and human meddling would damage and destroy it. Now, replace “natural wonders” with economic wonders (products and fortunes built by the Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs and Francoise Meyers of the world), ought not the system that created them – free market capitalism – be similarly protected? No, objects the naive ecologist; we ought to share this wealth as widely as possible, impacts to the system be damned.

Ecologists, despite the current mania washing over the world’s media , understand complex spontaneous orders and bottom-up systems. They realize that meddling with an unpredictable and complicated system can destroy the qualities that made the system flourish. For some reason, they just fail to apply that insight to where it matters most – the economy.


Joakim Book

Joakim Book is a writer and professional editor. He holds degrees in economics and financial history from the University of Glasgow and University of Oxford, and was a Mises summer fellow in 2017. His main research interests are monetary economics and the history of central banks. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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