Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Economics and Ecology

When I first saw Linda's Nowakowski's proposal and noting that the theme for the 2009 Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions is: "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth," my thoughts turned to the words: ecology and economics. Both have at root the Greek word oikos but are quite different words. Oikos as "home" was not synonymous with "house." Oikos encompassed the land, the buildings, the produce, the slaves, the family, and a man was at the head.

Economics joins oikos with the the Greek root nomos meaning law or principle. According to Wikipedia the word economy goes back at least as far as the 15th Century but the current meaning from the 19th Century. Taking the Greek meaning of home with the metaphor of family organization with a man at the head and joining it with “law” seems revealing of how we think about economics.

Ecology begins with oikos and added to it logia meaning to speak. Ecology is the study of the interactions of living things and their natural environments. The history of the word is located roughly at the same time as the word economy--at least in the current meaning--but the assumptions about where the home is in eco are quite different. In ecology home is seen as a much a larger unit: instead of home as a political system with a man at the head, home is our planet and the biosphere in which we live.

Economics is concerned with the management of resources, the rules of the house as it were; and of course who gets to make the rules. But ecology comes out of the study of biology. Looking back at the 19th Century biology and Darwin's ideas are of great importance, but Wikipedia's article on the History of Ecology notes that Darwin never used the word. It's a very good article naming some of the contributions to the development of the field of study. Darwin theory of evolution is enormously important in discussing economics and ecology, but I'll put that off for the time being.

Over the last few posts I've thrown a lot of balls in the air, and mostly they've fallen to the ground, so it's probably not apparent I'm trying to juggle all of them. I'm trying to create a pattern of relationships with these ideas. So in the last post I introduced the construct of the great chain of being. The great chain of being is an ancient idea that intersects with modern concepts in various ways, so many ways that it gets a bit confusing. Another idea I introduced in the last post was that in studying human and behavioral sciences, I think there's a fundamental problem.

Taking a broad brush to the idea of the great chain of being it might be fair to say that the idea represents a unity between what is and our ideas of what there is. The problem of the human sciences has to do with how to speak carefully about areas of study involving human beings. In the hard sciences we speak objectively; that is we speak about objects. But in behavioral sciences the objects of our attention are subjects not mere objects. Well, that last sentence doesn't make much sense; consider the difference between a careful description of kicking a ball and kicking a dog. We can be much more sure about predictions about kicking the ball.

Historian John Lukacs has a beautiful essay Putting Man Before Descartes. He writes:
But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.
Economics and Ecology both share a classical Greek root for home, but each field has a different idea of home. Economics is very materially focused and in how stuff is managed and allocated. Both fields are influenced by scientific ideas of the time. But in a sense the laws that economics are concerned with are political and therefore different from the notion of laws of science.

Both economics and biology are steeped in materialism, a view that "the only thing which can be proven to exist is matter." If all that exists is matter, then we can talk about objects, we can attain a sort of objectivity. Lukacs points out that subject and objects are so intertwined that objectivity is more challenging to attain than we often suspect:
There may be dualities in our reactions, but—more important—there is increasing evidence that, ever since Descartes and others, the dual division of the world into objects and subjects, into known and knower, is no longer valid. And such evidence is not only there in the so-called humanities, but, during the general crisis at the end of the 20th century, in physics, too, involving the very study of matter.
In the short video clip I pointed to where E.F. Schumacher responds to the question: "Can Buddhist Economics work in the West?" Schumacher said:
There's no virtue [or] value, in maximizing consumption. You want to maximize satisfactions. And you want to get your satisfactions with a minimum of consumption.
Here's economics from a perspective of qualities versus quantities. It's not at all clear that most economists think this a proper perspective. They believe that economics ought to be the objective study of objects. They think economics is all about stuff. Nevertheless, it's hard to conduct a field of study which has so many political ramifications from a purely objective stance. The situation vis a vis subject and object in biology is less contentious and an objective stance hardly questioned. But as Lukacs points out in his essay, it's not just the Humanities, but even physics contending with the problem of the relationship between knower an known.

In my last post I pointed to Gregory Bateson and his observation that Lamarck was the first scientist to invert the great chain of being. Bateson wrote:
The Lamarckian biosphere was still a chain. The unity of epistemology was retained in spite of a shift in emphasis from transcendent Logos to immanent mind.
The great chain of being is important to epistemology, a theory of knowledge. It also speaks to ontology, or a theory of existence. I often get epistemology and ontology confused. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy. Ontology is part of another branch of philosophy named metaphysics. Materialism represents certain metaphysical commitments.

Epistemology is important to economics and ecology as fields of study. Because of the political nature of economics difficulties presented by knower/known dualities come up enough so they're hard to ignore. But one would expect that the rules of knowledge would apply regardless of the field, at least in some fundamental ways. But metaphysics commitments impinge on epistemology in interesting ways. The story of the great chain of being is one way to examine these intersections.

A gathering of people of various religions represents numerous differencing stances on metaphysics. In order to discuss a response to our ecological crisis, it seems to me that differences cannot be simply set aside. It seems particularly important to know how science views what exists. Likewise some agreements about how we know are required for responsibility for our planetary home. Surely there will be many areas of disagreement among people, what of the essence is to identify areas in which we can agree.


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