Herman Daly and Joshua Farley have written a polemic thinly disguised as a textbook. Its title is Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, and although it brings a host of interesting ideas to the table, it leaves most of them unexplored.

The German word wertfrei means something like "value-free", or perhaps "objective". Good science is wertfrei — it studies Nature as revealed through experiment and observation. Human values are essential to ethics and morality. But the job of the scientist is not to uphold a set of cherished beliefs or prejudices; it's to seek the truth, the way the world really works, not how one might wish it were. If economics is to be a science and not simply politics by other means, its practitioners must likewise set aside their preconceived goals until after they have discovered the rules of the game.

The chief shortcoming of Ecological Economics is thus its authors' inability to stop grinding their axes. Every so often, particularly in the earlier chapters, the preaching pauses long enough to make a solid point ... but then the sermon recommences. And there are lesser distractions, particularly when topics from mathematical physics (e.g., entropy and statistical mechanics) are seriously garbled due to technical misunderstandings.

But enough carping! There are also important concepts that Ecological Economics introduces, including:

Buried among the chaff are grains of important wheat. For instance, I would not have naïvely guessed that in industrialized countries the division of total income is ~70% wages, ~20% profits, ~8% interest, and ~2% land rent — an accounting that Daly and Farley point out does not adequately include natural resource depletion. And when the time comes for policy decisions the authors suggest some reasonable guidelines, including the cute mantra, "Tax bads, not goods!" as a foundation for governmental revenue-raising.

And there's the rousing comment in Chapter 3:

It is a gross prejudice to think that the future will always know more than the past. Every new generation is born totally ignorant, and just as we are always only one failed harvest away from starvation, we are also always only one failed generational transfer of knowledge away from darkest ignorance. Although it is true that today many people know many things that no one knew in the past, it is also true that large segments of the present generation are more ignorant than were large segments of past generations. The level of policy in a democracy cannot rise above the average level of understanding of the population. In a democracy, the distribution of knowledge is as important as the distribution of wealth.

Exaggerated for rhetorical effect, yes, but worth thinking about ... like many issues raised by Ecological Economics. A good textbook gives the student an armamentarium — a toolbox of analytic techniques plus the knowledge of how and when to apply each instrument to meet the challenge at hand. With some serious editing, this book could begin to do that.

(cf. QuestionAuthority (18 Jan 2000), FeedOrFeedback (6 Sep 2004), EstateTax (6 May 2005), SocialWealth (18 May 2005), SteadyStateEconomy (11 Jun 2005), ...)

TopicEconomics - TopicLiterature - TopicScience - TopicSociety - 2005-09-15

(correlates: VitalAndNegligible, SteadyStateEconomy, ComplexSimplicity, ...)