Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Is Ecology to Environmental Studies as Rational Choice is to Economics?

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I’ve been working on some poems about the environment lately, and as part of that project I’ve been getting my first exposure to environmental studies and some related fields like ecocriticism. Previously, my exposure to environmental writing was mostly through popular journalism and history by writers like Elizabeth Kolbert and Jared Diamond.

I have to say that what I’ve encountered of environmental studies so far has been a little troubling. The issue is summed up in the title of this post: does the theory of “ecology” dominate environmental studies in the same way that the theory of “rational choice” dominates economics?

Since the financial crisis in 2008, the field of macroeconomics has received a lot of criticism, justifiably. Economics in general prides itself on being a rigorous, predictive science, grounded in solid mathematics — unlike the wishy-washy social science of the past. Yet most mainstream academic macroeconomists not only failed to see the crisis coming, they helped pave the way for the crisis by encouraging deregulation of the finance industry over many years, and they often failed to understand the nature of the crisis once it was underway. This territory has been covered in a number of articles and books since 2008, as well as in heated blog debates at places like Noahpinion and Lars P. Syll’s blog, and I won’t rehearse it here.

One response to the failures of macroeconomics in the run-up to the financial crisis has been to criticize the methodological orthodoxies of the field. Of course, there are deep divides within orthodox macroeconomics — especially between what have been called the “saltwater” and “freshwater” schools — and mainstream economists in general use a wide variety of tools, from game theory to controlled field experiments. But it’s also undeniable there has been very little room in academic macroeconomics for what are called “heterodox” approaches. There are a few departments that specialize in heterodox thinking, like UMKC, but most of the leading departments, journals, and organizations exclude heterodox voices.

(The situation is a lot like what I have criticized in academic philosophy, with its overwhelming commitment to analytic-style linguistic puzzle-solving — the main difference being that the orthodoxies of academic philosophy for the most part only harm the philosophical culture and the careers of some philosophers, while the orthodoxies of academic macroeconomics can harm billions. But the many parallels between the hopeless, mathematics-inspired dreams of contemporary academic philosophy and economics — a subject that the late Stephen Toulmin explored — will have to wait for another post.)

One of the core orthodoxies of contemporary academic macroeconomics, and one of the main targets of heterodox critique, is the general assumption of “rational choice.” In fact, one way of critiquing orthodox macroeconomics might simply be to point out the strange dual identity of the field of economics in general: economics is both a subject matter and a methodology.

On the one hand, economics can be defined in terms of its subject matter. It can be seen as the field that studies the economy, in the usual way the word tends to be used — studying how producers and consumers interact, how businesses and workers make decisions, the role of money and finance, the role of government regulations, and so on. Basically, studying the parts of the world that are most closely related to money and wealth, work and business.

On the other hand, economics can be defined as a particular kind of approach to analyzing human behavior under conditions of constraint, even when that human behavior has nothing to do with work, business, money, and so on. Taking an “economic approach” to understanding something usually means taking a “rational choice” approach: assuming that the actors are behaving based on self-interested calculations, trying to maximize their utility in light of existing constraints such as various forms of scarcity, and so on. For example, when Robert Frank teaches his students introductory economics, the whole point is to get them to come up with rational choice explanations for everyday enigmas. The flurry of interest stirred up by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner a while ago (in the horribly named “Freakonomics” books) was also based on taking an “economic” (in the methodological sense) approach to non-“economic” (in the subject matter sense) parts of the world.

Although many academic fields, like philosophy, happen to be provisionally dominated at one moment or another by methodological orthodoxies — this probably goes hand in hand with periods of what Kuhn called “normal science” — economics is unusual in being a field that can be and frequently is defined as both a subject matter and a methodological orthodoxy.

I’d say it seems like a remarkably bad idea for a field to define itself in this dual way. It may mean that the subject matter only ends up being studied based on the orthodox methodological assumptions. If these assumptions turn out to be wrong, or not always helpful for making predictions and explanations, our ability to predict and control the subject matter may be damaged. For a subject matter as important as economics, this could obviously be a very harmful outcome — which is one reason why, for example, George Soros helped establish INET (The Institute for New Economic Thinking), a think tank that aims to loosen the stranglehold of orthodox (often rational choice-based) economic assumptions, and to open the field of economic inquiry to more alternative approaches.

In any case, all of this leads to the subject of this post: my slowly developing, disappointed sense that environmental studies may be like economics. It may be defined both as a subject matter and as a methodology — and, as in the case of economics, a methodology based on highly questionable assumptions that could interfere with our ability to make good predictions and act in effective ways.

Just as the core methodologies of orthodox economics rest on rational choice theory, orthodox environmental studies appears to rest on the theory of ecology.

So, on the one hand, environmental studies can be defined in terms of its subject matter: it deals with “the environment,” in the sense of the kinds of things we usually associate with “the environmental movement” — trees, air, water, clouds, bugs, soil, wild animals, and so on, and the relationships between these paradigmatic parts of “nature” and human activities. Some people involved in environmental studies, like William Cronon in his “The Trouble with Wilderness,” may attempt to resist the focus of environmental studies on the “wilderness,” and to expand the field to include everything involving human beings and their surroundings (“environment”) — including, for example, life in cities and work safety issues handled not by the EPA but by OSHA. But it appears that the field as a whole remains generally committed to a focus on nature-as-wilderness and closely related subjects. This is what draws people to environmental studies, and it’s what they tend to focus on in their studies and work.

On the other hand, as a methodology, environmental studies seems to involve taking an ecological approach to any problem, even problems that have nothing to do with “the environment” as usually understood. Just as an economist could explain overfishing using the tools of rational choice theory (through the idea of “the tragedy of the commons”), so an ecologist could attempt to explain unemployment in a city by viewing the city as an ecological system. In fact, this is not too far from the approach that David Kilcullen, drawing on the work of contemporary urban theorists, takes to explaining all sorts of behavior in cities — including poverty and crime.

I won’t try to offer a definition of “ecology,” because it appears to mean different things to different people. The central assumption of the kind of ecology associated with environmental studies seems to be that “everything is connected,” and this assumption seems to be allied, in practice, to a commitment to the inherent value of all living things — even inanimate things, like leaves. There also seems to be a romantic commitment to the idea that nature is, when left to its own devices, somehow harmonious — rather than, for example, a tragic, unstable, everchanging slaughterhouse. The commitment to an idea of harmony carries, for me, disturbing echoes of the orthodox economist’s often unstated assumptions relating to states of equilibrium.

I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe I’ve been exposed to a biased sample of sources, and “environmental studies” is not effectively synonymous with “ecology.” Or maybe any overlap between the two is less harmful than in the case of economics, because the field is less centralized in academic departments and government institutions, or because any orthodoxy isn’t effectively enforced.

But so far, it seems as though virtually everything I’m reading in environmental studies comes from a basically romantic-ecological point of view — as opposed to, for example, the point of view I associate with writers like Kolbert and Diamond. Their point of view is more like a far-sighted, animacentric pragmatism: a down-to-earth focus on effectively predicting and controlling the environment for the long-term welfare of animate beings, and above all human beings, including the profound well-being that we receive from what we think of as wilderness.


(Three quick afterthoughts: First, I should note that I’m still not sure whether academic philosophy is, like academic economics, a field defined by both a subject matter and a methodology — perhaps it’s all methodology and no subject matter? Second, despite my Toulmin-like skepticism toward the privileging of mathematico-deductive reasoning in places, like much of philosophy and to some extent economics, where it has no proper place, I’ve come to appreciate the value of some mathematical modeling in economics, against Alfred Marshall’s famous criticism. My conversion was based in part on the simple model-based predictive successes of textbook macroeconomics in the years since the financial crisis. Third, it may be interesting to consider the relations between tribal thinking and the anthropocentrism apparently rejected by so much of ecology. For that matter, it may be useful to think of the exclusion of heterodox views from various academic fields in terms of our deeply rooted tendency to perceive and think in terms of perceived tribal affiliations.)


4 thoughts on “Is Ecology to Environmental Studies as Rational Choice is to Economics?

  1. It’s funny to me that you lump analytic philosophy into this critique since I think it has been continental philosophy’s deeply pernicious impact on the academy which constitutes part of the cause of the inability of economics to get its head out of its ass. There seems to be a background assumption at work that theory comes before observation that in turn obscures the way that science turns observation back on theory. That last turn never happens and I think part of the reason is an unconscious post-modern assumption that it can’t happen.

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