Economics for a Small Planet

Many books explore the relationship between the economy and the environment begin by outlining and explaining the essential tension between the two. I do not believe that such a tension is inevitable. More than 150 years ago John Ruskin wrote the very useful small statement that sums up my view of the relationship between the economy and the environment: ‘There is no wealth but life’. If we have come to a state of difficulty with our planet because we are seeking to consume more than she can provide then the solution is straightforward: we need to rethink the way our economy works. The tension is not inevitable; it is structural. And if our species is to have a future on this beautiful planet we need to sort the structural problem—and fast.

Office workers between glass and foliage on the south bank of the Thames, London

Different economists mean different things by ‘the environment’? It is clearly the source of all the resources that are used in the production of goods that are sold in the marketplace or that we use to support our lifestyles. But different schools of economic thought have considered (in some cases barely) the impact of economic processes on the environment. For some, the ‘exploitation’ of resources is a natural part of economic life, while, at the other end of the spectrum, we find economists who believe that nature has a sacred value that can never be reduced to a price and bought or sold in the marketplace. The consideration of these different views makes up the content of this course, which is based on a book that will be published by Routledge in January 2011.

The purpose of the course I call Economics for a Small Planet is to introduce students to the way that economists think, and particularly how they think about the environment. It was US President Harry Truman who frustratedly called for a one-handed economist because he was so tired of being told ‘On the one hand this, but on the other hand that’. But for my money, this pluralism in economic debate is a healthy sign which should be encouraged. Economics is a social science and therefore is inevitably going to revolve around essentially contested concepts that generate an endless debate. In fact, if anything we have seen too little plurality in recent years, with a near-hegemonic domination by the neoclassical approach. So while the course and the book it is based on may not be one-handed but I have certainly tried to be even-handed in explaining the perspective of a range of different types approaches to economics.

I will upload teaching resources for this course as I prepare them this autumn.

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