Letter to the Membership

January 2020

Dear ISEE Members,

I wish you all a belated Happy New Year and thank you for your trust in electing me, President.

President, ISEE 2020As stated on our home page, “The ISEE is a transdisciplinary partnership of scholars, professionals, and activists from a broad range of backgrounds. Through education, research, policy and social action, we foster transformation towards an equitable and ecologically sustainable society with respect for the rights of people and nature, biological and cultural diversity.”  While it’s impossible to say what would have happened if our field had never been founded, by any objective measure society is receding from these goals even more rapidly now than when we began 30 years ago.  Radical change is now unavoidable: If we fail to radically change global economic systems to mitigate ecological degradation, worsening degradation will force even more radical societal changes, including quite possibly the collapse of global civilization.  The most radical option currently on the table is business as usual.

The big question then is how should ecological economics and the ISEE respond?

Many academics believe that scientists should simply research these problems and provide good data on which policymakers can base their decisions.

The Oxford English dictionary defines academic as

“Not leading to a decision; unpractical; theoretical, formal or conventional”.

Should the ISEE be just another academic society providing objective knowledge (if such a thing is possible), or should we also strive to advance our normative goals?  I would argue for the latter for at least three reasons.

First, there is little evidence that simply providing more scientific knowledge on climate change, biodiversity loss or social injustice will have any impact.  Our failure to address these issues does not result from a lack of good science, but from a lack of public will.  The public will results from emotional responses more than hard science and facts.  Though scientific research can help us understand how to stimulate the emotional drivers of cultural change, such knowledge does little good if not applied.

Second, the rates of ecological, technological and social change are rapidly accelerating.  Much of the knowledge we generate may become obsolete faster than it is published.  The monetary valuation of natural systems provides just one example.  It is a core principle of ecological economics that human society is embedded in nature and depends for its survival on natural processes.  Essential resources exhibit inelastic demand, meaning that values are extremely sensitive to quantity, as we saw when the price of grains doubled during the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 food crises.  Assuming away the ethical and scientific challenges to monetary valuation, even minor changes to natural processes would have enormous impacts on monetary values, and the changes underway are far from minor.  In the vicinity of tipping points characteristic of complex systems, monetary valuation based on marginal analysis makes no sense at all.  In complex systems in general, increasing the value of critical parameters beyond some critical threshold leads can flip the system into an alternate state. We are simultaneously increasing the value of innumerable critical parameters, economic, ecological and social.  More knowledge about the current system may tell us very little about those alternate states. Knowledge can hopefully help us avoid them, but only if it is applied.

Third, pretty much all of the ecological economists I know (and for that matter, most of the scientists) want to have a positive impact on the future of society.

My view is that the seriousness of the problems we face demand that we actively attempt to be as influential as possible within the constraints of our by-laws.  The most relevant by-laws of the society explicitly state that “the society shall be organized [and operated] exclusively for scientific and educational purposes in accordance with the public interest”, and that “no substantial part of the activities of the Society shall consist of attempting to influence legislation”.  This still leaves considerable room for action.

I believe our Society should pursue the following actions over the next two years.

First, I think we should strive for greater integration with like-minded organizations and individuals who broadly share the worldview and goals of ecological economics.  By worldview, I mean the recognition that the economy is a complex physical subsystem of our finite global ecosystem, subject to the laws of physics, ecology, and evolution.

Individual humans are embedded in a complex, evolving society that shapes our values, actions, and preferences.  By goals, I mean the prioritization of ecological sustainability and the just distribution of wealth, resources and power.

The ISEE is one of the first of these transdisciplinary fields and societies, and the subsequent proliferation can be seen as one of its greatest successes.  However, if we believe that there is strength in unity, it could alternatively be seen as one of our greatest failures.  Mainstream economics has become increasingly diverse, yet remains unified behind a prioritization of market allocation and economic growth, typically with little attention paid to whom the growth benefits or to its ecological costs. I believe this unity contributes to its continuing political and social influence. While I understand the desire to distinguish ourselves from other similar fields, I also fear that if we continue to do so too vigorously, we will end up in our own little echo chambers in which no one challenges core assumptions and we cease to make scientific or practical progress.

I have some ideas concerning how to pursue and leverage greater integration but would love to hear better ones from any of you.  I have suggested to the Board that as a first step we discuss which like-minded organizations and individuals we should approach and what integration might entail.  We should then reach out to those organizations to assess their interest in building greater unity and solicit their ideas.

Obvious ways to integrate include the hosting of joint conferences, as the USSEE did with the Ecological Society of America last August and the ISEE will do with Degrowth next year.  We could formalize sessions at each other’s conferences and consider jointly authored papers to be published in our flagship journals or elsewhere—especially ones that emphasize our similarities.  We could offer honorary Society memberships[i] to influential individuals who do not self-identify as ecological economist, which would be a virtually costless way to emphasize raise our profile.

Second, I am very concerned with the state of the academic publication model, as exemplified by Elsevier (see e.g. Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?) and for-profit open-access publishers.  For Elsevier and its ilk, academics provide and review content for free, but are then required to pay for access to content.  According to the article in the above link, Elsevier has profit margins equal to 36% of its revenue. For open-access journals, academics provide and review content for free but must then pay to have it published.

The first option discriminates against lower-income readers, while the second discriminates against authors from lower-income institutions or with fewer grants.  Furthermore, I do not believe Elsevier is very effective at their work.  Of thirteen articles so far accepted for a public issue I am currently co-guest-editing, seven authors complained directly to me about significant problems with the editing and publishing process, and a similar number of reviewers had trouble submitting their reviews. I lodged a formal complaint with Elsevier already.  Over 45,000 researchers have signed a statement pledging not to publish, review or do editorial work for Elsevier though other leading publishers are just as guilty.

Publishers do provide important services and Elsevier helps fund ISEE, so we must proceed thoughtfully.  Elsevier’s Sandra Broerse has offered to present to the board about the benefits of working with them.  However, it is widely recognized that the faster knowledge circulates the faster it grows, and this has played an important role in human progress.  As Isaac Newton stated, if he saw farther, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  Price-rationing access to the knowledge we all hope will address our current ecological and social challenges is particularly perverse, especially given the urgency of the problems we face.

The co-chief editors, Rich Howarth and Stefan Baumgartner acknowledge the problem.  I think we should explore not-for-profit, open-access options for publishing a flagship journal, though the current journal title apparently belongs to Elsevier.  We could also develop a process for publishing peer-reviewed, open access research on our website, as we1l as open access course modules and syllabuses to facilitate the broader adoption of ecological economics.  At the very least, a credible threat of pursuing alternatives to Elsevier could leverage a better contract for the society and more control over the journal for the editors.

We could also consider higher impact options at a larger scale.  One option would be to explore the possibility of initiating a consortium of Universities, academic societies, and other organizations that agree to contribute all publicly funded work focused on ecological sustainability and social justice to a Common Asset Trust (CAT), freely available to all.

A similar consortium already exists for research on Alzheimer’s disease (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/health/research/13alzheimer.html). Publicly funded universities already exist in most countries with the goal of promoting the common good, so funding need not be a major issue. I am a firm believer in a commons sector, with shared ownership and management of resources created by nature or society as a whole.  It will take more than shared knowledge to address the numerous socio-ecological challenges we face, but such sharing might help develop the reciprocity and trust required to cooperate on more challenging issues.  I have started drafting an article outlining the economic arguments for such a CAT and will be happy to circulate it when I have a decent draft.

Third, we need to think carefully about how our Society can continue to meet the needs of our members.  What can we do to reduce the carbon impact of our conferences?   How can we attract a new generation of ecological economists?  How do we get members more engaged with the society?  These are just some of the challenges I hope to work on with the board and with your support.  I am sure I speak for the board as a whole in welcoming feedback on these suggestions as well as additional suggestions of your own.


[i] According to the by-laws, “a person who has rendered long and distinguished service to ecological economics may be elected an Honorary Member… by a majority vote of the board of directors”.