Why economists argue with ecologists (1)

One of the aspects of my work I enjoy most is the interaction with other disciplines. By its very nature, natural resource economics assumes knowledge of the natural resource as well as economics. So in my career as a researcher I have worked with landscape ecologists, fisheries biologists, geologists, sociologists, and so on.

Nevertheless, there always seems to be a tension in my field between, roughly speaking, economists and ecologists (where ‘ecology’ can be understood broadly enough to include any environmental science). I come across this tension on every level of my work. It is in environmental students’ reactions when I teach them the basics of environmental and resource economics. It is in the lengthy discussions (and misunderstandings) I have had with ecologist co-workers, and in the sometimes relentless complaints about ‘mainstream economics’ (whatever that may be) at ecologist conferences. It is even visible in the existence of two global professional organisations of scientists working on the economics of environmental and resource management. On the ecologist side there is the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE), whereas on the economist side there is the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE). For the record, I am a member of EAERE, which the European counterpart of AERE.

It’s not like we are at war or something. Economists and ecologists can often work together very well, if only because both fields have a strong tradition in quantitative modelling. If you both speak the language of mathematics it is not that difficult to spot the linkages between your theories, or your models: “the amount of fish caught in my economic model fits nicely into the amount of fish that dies in your biological model.” But go to an ISEE conference, or try to explain the merits of cap-and-trade to environmental students, and you get an idea of what those poor girls in Salem must have felt like.

One of the things I will do on this blog is to explain what I think are the main points of contention between ecologists and economists. What I can say in general is that these differences can be due to differences in moral values, assumptions, methodology, and, admittedly, genuine misunderstandings about each other’s discipline. I don’t think you can blame any of the two disciplines; in fact I don’t think any of the two is totally wrong or totally right. But it is interesting in its own right to look at the differences.

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