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Ecology and Economics: Oikos 101


By Kyle G. Crider

“We are rapidly building a world in which the questions of health and peace and prosperity sooner or later will be moot because we will have crippled the very engine of life that makes it all possible... The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment. All economic activity is dependent upon the environment with its underlying resource base. When the environment is finally forced to file under Chapter 11 because its resource base has been polluted, drained, cut down, dissipated, and irretrievably compromised, the economy goes down to bankruptcy with it. The economy, in reality, is just a subset of the ecological system.”  -- Gaylord Nelson, “The Bankruptcy Files” (Wilderness, Summer, 1994.)

What do ecology and economics have in common? A great deal, as it turns out, including the same Greek root for eco-, oikos. According to Wikipedia, oikos “refers to three related but distinct concepts: the family, the family’s property, and the house.” In other words, both ecology and economics deal with good housekeeping, budgeting, and family planning. Only the house is the whole planet, the budget is one of natural capital, and the family is every species that shares the globe.

Good Oikos-keeping: Imagine astronauts on a spaceship. What if only 1 percent of the astronauts controlled almost half of the spaceship, including all the largest and best cabins, exercise areas, and supply stores? What if 80 percent of the crew was forced to try to survive on less than 10 percent of the ship’s supplies? What we would not tolerate on a spaceship, we live every day in America. (Indeed, some economists argue that the top 0.10 percent in U.S. have almost as much wealth as bottom 90 percent, and many believe this inequality is growing.)

“There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.” -- Marshall McLuhan
Oikos budgeting: In previous articles for TriplePundit, I discussed the need for living sustainably, i.e., within nature’s limits, and bemoaned the fact that those most often calling for balancing fiscal budgets are the same ones wantonly drawing down irreplaceable natural capital, treating the Earth like a business in liquidation.
“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” -- Native American saying
Oikos family planning: As many have noted, we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. There are many reasons for this extinction, but one root cause: a single species, Homo sapiens. (It is somewhat ironic, of course, that our Latin name translates as “wise person.”) Like a cancer, our single species is estimated to consume 19 percent of the planet’s total net primary productivity (NPP), or a whopping 31 percent of the terrestrial and 2 percent of the marine NPP — and estimates range as high as 55 percent total NPP.

Furthermore, as reported by The Guardian, wildlife “is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25 percent of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50 percent three centuries ago.”

If things are this bad with 7 billion humans consuming the earth’s productivity and reducing its biodiversity, how bad will things be when our population peaks at 9 billion or even 10 billion hungry folks? But population growth is not the same all over: “A child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil,” reports Scientific American.

If all this seems a bit overwhelming, there is a shared road ahead. I would recommend starting with this inspiring TED Talk by Hans Rosling, Global population growth, box by box.


But back to the economics part of oikos: My new favorite site is Evonomics (“The Next Evolution of Economics”). And, in keeping with the title of my own article, here is Evonomics’ Earth to Economics: Welcome to Science 101.

“The main reason that the so-called orthodox school of economics achieved its dominance is because it seemed to offer a grand unifying theoretical framework. Too bad that its assumptions were absurd and little effort was made to test its empirical predictions.” -- David Sloan Wilson

P.S. If you like that one, try Denise Cummins’ What Ayn Rand Got Wrong About Human Nature and Free Markets, too.

Image credit: Pixabay

Kyle G. Crider is Energy Project Manager for the Alabama Environmental Council and the Alabama Solar Knowledge project. Kyle holds a bachelors in Environmental Studies and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND).

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