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Textbook Extends Economics

By Kevin Foley Article published January 23, 2004

Ecological Economics Textbook
This cover detail is taken from a new ecological economics textbook, the discipline's first comprehensive introduction to theory and practice, co-written by UVM faculty member Josh Farley.

Picture homo economicus, that most rational of utility maximizers, strutting off to purchase a larger-screen television to replace his large-screen model. Is this — the perpetual consumption of ever-increasing amounts of market goods — the whole story? Or can economics tell us more about the world?

Of course, says Josh Farley, a classically trained economist and assistant professor of Community Development and Applied Economics. His new 488-page textbook, Ecological Economics (Island Press), which he wrote with eminent University of Maryland Professor Herman Daly, is the first introductory text to fully take on the emerging discipline’s theory and practice. In that, it’s a radical departure from conventional economics.

“It starts from a completely different set of questions. The first question you have to ask is, what's the desirable end?” Farley says. “Mainstream economics assumes that the desirable end is consumption.”

Ecological economics takes a longer, broader view. Consumption is fine, but what about clean air and water, an intact ozone layer, open spaces, wildlife and social justice? Farley describes the field as looking “at how we live on a finite planet,” borrowing tools from conventional economics when appropriate, but also delving into philosophy, ecology, psychology and other fields.

It’s an interlocking set of practices rather than a unified theory, and as such, it can be difficult to pin down, especially for textbook authors. Instead of following the ritual pattern of a microeconomics text, moving from supply and demand to efficiencies to property rights, Daly and Farley’s book breaks roughly into sections examining the interrelated questions of scale, distribution and efficiency from an ecological perspective.

“We were trying to organize the whole field,” says Farley.

Evidently, they succeeded. Feedback from the external reviewers has been good (with the partial exception of two “old-school” economists), and the book is being adopted in upper-division and graduate courses nationwide. Farley recently finished an accompanying workbook for the text in collaboration with Jon Erickson, associate professor of natural resources. The companion to the textbook will be published later this year.

Different priorities
While the book occasionally twits conventional economics — “Herman has some pretty good zingers,” says Farley — it offers a sound explanation of basic typical economic concepts before expanding them. A conventional econ text, Farley says, might have two pages about public goods; his has 100. Another theme in Daly and Farley’s textbook is diminishing marginal utility.

“Consumption goes up, and up, and up,” Farley says. “How much more do we need? We’re getting diminishing marginal utility from market goods, even as we wipe out the ozone layer, the wetlands…”

Farley hopes the book will help students assess and address those kinds of paradoxes. He hopes that the work will help students learn the skills that ecological economists apply to the contradictions caused when market forces collide with the natural world.