We are not living within planetary boundaries, and ecological economics (EE) has not been able to secure sufficient engagement from governments, civil society, and the private sector to alter our perilous trajectory. We have not succeeded because we frame the issues with failed assumptions  that prevent us from apprehending the interconnected ecological and humanitarian crises (Ingebrigtsen & Jakobsen, 2012).
Our assumptions inform what we call reality and the inculcation of failed assumptions from classical economics has prevented us from acting on the ecological crises at the required scale. The assumptions we have determine the methodologies we use and ultimately the outcomes of our inquiries. The fixation with growth is one of the failed assumptions that has been widely inculcated into the foundations of much economic thought. This capitalist pillar is inexorably pushing us past planetary and social boundaries. If we rely on inaccurate assumptions, the solutions that we propose are doomed to fail, to address the problem we need to address foundational issues that both forge and frame our thoughts.
We are in a state of constant social and cultural disruption engendered by fast-paced change (Polanyi et al, 2001). Today, we are yet again in the midst of another economic crisis which is in reality multiple crises (Matthews, 2020). We need to quickly find solutions as we are rapidly running out of time. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently said, “We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator” (Dress, 2022). EE clearly shows how the current trajectory of human society is both unsustainable and unjust (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). As stated by Goddard et al, (2019) the economic-centric beliefs guiding public and academic knowledge reproduce unsustainable and inequitable outcomes.
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson summarized the urgency writing: “We would be wise to find our way as quickly as possible out of the fever swamp of dogmatic religious belief and inept philosophical thought through which we still wander. Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth” (Strohl, 2022).
By examining our failure to act, we may be able to find better paradigms and better solutions that are capable of understanding the issues and auguring the change we so desperately need. I will explore this issue citing the example of the normalization of growth as a failed assumption. I will review how methodological pluralism has prevented EE from auguring the required changes. Citing examples, I will look at how different methodologies come to very different conclusions. l will consider solutions to methodological pluralism and the incommensurability of values. I will then examine how values are of fundamental importance in knowledge and theory creation, followed by a critical review of the discipline of science, alongside consideration of the conditions for truth and strategies to avoid epistemic fallacy.
To achieve its core goals, EE must prioritize a deep dive into ontology and epistemology. Get this wrong and whatever is built on top of it is destined to fail. Get this right and you have a stable foundation that can house working theories. In the absence of a sound foundational understanding of these core concerns, research in EE will continue to flounder and we will not see the required changes. The goal is to inspire action on a global scale and the question is how this can be done. To address the ecological crisis, we not only need to deconstruct and replace the structural components of the traditional economy we also need to excise its ontological[i] and epistemological[ii] roots and plant new ones.
Normalization of flawed assumptions
Any serious inquiry into why we have not succeeded in convincing the public of the need for change must include an understanding of the normalization of deeply flawed assumptions from classical economics (Correa et al, 2022). It is worth noting that these assumptions are often embraced unconsciously (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). One of the most destructive assumptions concerns the fixation with growth which excludes both environmental and social realities (Brown & Timmerman). We have inculcated many assumptions about the concept of growth that are grossly inaccurate. Growth is not a panacea, in many respects, it is the heart of the problem. As explained in a book edited by Rosa & Henning (2017) the preoccupation with growth leads to reduced levels of social protection, diminished ecological health, and inequity. This leads the authors to conclude that we must break the link between growth and prevailing conceptions of the good life which should be reframed such that it is embedded in social relations at peace with nature. These authors also provide an alternative to the current system of extraction, consumption, pollution, waste, conflict, and psychological burnout (Rosa, & Henning, 2017).
Meadows calls us to “open our eyes” to the possibilities of a sustainable future by finding alternatives to growth and other self-centered visions (Meadows, 2019). Røpke (2020) is among those who have challenged a wide range of assumptions from classical economics especially market pricing. Degrowth is an increasingly important solution to the ecological crisis (Fitzpatrick, et al, 2022). In addition to emphasizing the necessity of degrowth, Schmelzea et al, (2022) make the point that we need to move beyond capitalism.
There is a wide range of sometimes overlapping theoretical orientations that help us to understand the issues, each has its own set of assumptions. This includes heterodox economics[iii], social constructivism[iv], postmodernism[v], and holism.[vi] While EE has exposed the failings of classical economics, the lack of coherence related to methodological pluralism has undermined the meaningfulness of the knowledge it has produced (Goddard et al, 2019). There are also other reasons[vii] why EE has failed to address the competing claims of biophysiological reality and plural constructed social realities (Wironen et al, 2019).
Güler (2021) reiterates concerns about the lack of clarity in EE and he points to the lack of consensus regarding the field’s ontological and epistemological foundations. Muradian-Alier & Muradian, (pp. 15 & 33, 2015) point to EE’s amorphous borders and its amorphous body of literature as well as the lack of theoretical rigor (ibid, p. 29). EE’s anything-goes approach has led Røpke to conclude that EE “is in danger of becoming a meaningless agglomeration of anything and everything” (ibid, p. 27), and this is antithetical to knowledge building (ibid p. 33). Rather than create a meaningful epistemology and methodology, pluralism has created “confusion and superficiality” which is condemning EE to “ultimate irrelevance” (ibid p. 32-33).
The methodology we use is critical because it ultimately determines what we see. Methodology concerns principles and determines the methods used and how results are interpreted, and this is interrelated with the theory of knowledge (Spash, 2015). The use of a determinate methodology tends to reproduce the dominant ideology (Requena, 2018). For example, quantitative research suggests that capitalism can be made to be sustainable, but when examined through the lens of qualitative methodologies the capitalist economy is unsustainable (ibid). This prompted Requena to write: “tell me your environmental epistemology and I will tell you your methodology” (ibid).
The problems associated with methodological pluralism are led by the incommensurability of values (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 18, 2015) which means there is a diverse array of standards of value that have no common measure (ibid, pp. 473-474). This causes a lack of cohesion and rigor, leaving economists “without a theory of value” (Røpke, 2020).[viii]
Spash (2015) urges us to abandon the anything-goes approach and Martinez-Alier & Muradian (p. 43, 2015), suggest that by doing so EE can ‘disentangle’ the superficial and the shallow from the progressive and deep (ibid, p. 23) to create a rigorous theoretical structure, (ibid, pp. 42-44) built around “strong bonding elements” (ibid p. 473) like we see in environmental justice, analytical philosophy, deliberative methods, anthropology, human ecology, methodological tools, ecosystem services, energy, socio-environmental conflicts, political ecology, and limits to growth (ibid, pp. 475- 476). Rejecting pluralist eclecticism and arbitrary openness can help EE develop a unified methodological basis that is a synthesis of multiple epistemologies (ibid, pp. 33-34). Artemas (2019) suggests processes and methods to synthesize big ideas while Spash (2012) suggests realism and a reasoned critique. Others support EE’s big tent approach and have suggested new perspectives on methodological pluralism including ontological, epistemological, theoretical, and methodological guidelines (Vildåsen et al, 2017).
Values and knowledge production
Lundgren (2022) explains how values inform knowledge production and Norton (1992) highlights how values and ethics inform our assumptions and are an integral part of the way we perceive the world; he argues for intrinsic values and against value realism. Lundgren (2022) focuses on the pursuit of values consistency, relevance, and novelty and the tensions that arise from the operationalization of these values. While Martinez-Alier & Muradian (p. 20, 2015) support value pluralism including traditional environmental knowledge (ibid, p. 20, 2015), Lundgren (2022) sees values as integral to knowledge production and he advocates for ‘transdisciplinarity’ as the way to overcome problems. “The scientific dimension of the question of pluralism in ecological economics is…a question of weighing the value of consistency against the value of novelty” (ibid).
Many researchers believe we can develop a research paradigm by analyzing common themes and patterns in ontology, epistemology, and ethics (Walsh & Wamsler, 2021). Meadows (2:22 – 2:25, 2015) is among those who claim EE needs accurate models and this implies the need for theory. Pirgmaier, (2021) explains that theory helps to illuminate “real-world dynamics, which helps to fight social-ecological crises more effectively.” He emphasizes the importance of value in the theoretical underpinnings of different economic paradigms and the often-contradictory recommendations that issue from them. He concludes that “value theory is key to arriving at informed decisions” (ibid).
Several authors have addressed theory creation (Artemas, 2019. Brown and Timmerman, 2015. Meadows, 2015. Temesgen et al., na. Walsh and Wamsler, 2020) and many of these researchers view the lack of relationality as a core issue. There are several emerging paradigms that are informed by relational thinking including the ecological approach, the systems approach, integral theory, metamodernism, and constructive postmodernism. Theory can be created by noting common themes with “strong bonding elements” (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 473, 2015). Armatas (2019) supports the development of a comprehensive theoretical framework, but he questions the viability of relational thinking. Others have expressed concerns that different relational thinkers do not share linked assumptions (Walsh & Wamsler 2020).
Critique of science
Addressing the question of what should be included in a theoretical paradigm brings us to the plethora of research critiquing science (Brown and Timmerman, 2015. Güler 2021, Lundgren 2022, Martinez, 2015. Meadows, 2019. Meadows, 2015. Rosa & Henning, 2019 and Spash, 2015). EE has a “confusing” relationship with science giving rise to epistemological tensions and contradictions, it supports scientific values but opposes traditional scientific disciplinary structures (Lundgren, 2022). While EE attacks science, it does not provide a clear theory of science and its ontological suppositions are vague (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 37 & 42).
Efforts to improve EE must also grapple with how scientific reductionism reduces the natural environment to its physical characteristics (ibid, 39-40). Quantitative methods need to be reviewed (ibid, p. 43) acknowledging the limits of traditional scientific knowledge (ibid, p. 39). Specifically, the claim that the scope and power of science have been exaggerated leading to censorship (ibid, p. 39). Many who critique science stop short of suggesting that it should be ignored. For example, Martinez-Alier & Muradian suggest that EE should be at least partly empirical (ibid, p. 43).
The single standard is related to reductionism in science and such atomistic conceptions of liberty are an impediment to reimagining our economy (Brown and Timmerman, p. 11, 2015). The economy must be understood as embedded in nature, but without reductionism (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 39, 2015). Wironen & Erikson, (2020) suggest that we should reject objective, positivist science in favor of a science-oriented praxis. It should be noted that while Meadows resists reductionism, she does not want to do away with reductionism altogether (Meadows, 1:05:21, 2019). Güler (2021) believes science has an important role to play in the creation of a theory and a new ontological basis for EE, as he explains, “instead of subjective judgments about the foundation that is in the process of being formed, the ecological reality dominated by causation can be beneficial for a more effective scientific activity”. Spash (2012) rejects the “false realities of existing institutional structures”, and he explains how “misconceptualizing” reality leads to inaccurate theories, inadequate knowledge, and failure (Spash, 2015). He calls for the development of a new ontology and epistemology as well as methodology and theoretical ideology (ibid).
Ontology and epistemology: Conditions of truth
The question is then, how do we create this new ontology, epistemology, methodology, and ideology? We can begin by considering how we can determine which assumptions are true (or at least provisionally true) and which are not. Wironen et al, (2019) are among the researchers (Meadows, 2015. Requena, 2018. Spash, 2012. Spash, 2015. Vildåsen et al. 2017) who look at ways of arbitrating among competing normative propositions. To address misleading foundational claims, Spash (2012) proposes selection criteria for truth which are defined by their “ability to capture the nature of things as they are”. The ability to delineate between statements of relative truth and falsehood is essential to “criticize and change the social organizations and institutions that spread false beliefs about economic, social and environmental reality” (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 42, 2015).
Epistemology is at the heart of the effort to distinguish justified belief from opinion. We commonly see “muddling of the issues belonging to ontology with those belonging to epistemology” (Spencer, 2020). We would be wise to pay heed to Spash’s warning against epistemic fallacy in EE (Spash, 2015). The epistemic fallacy can briefly be summarised as operative when we ignore ontology (i.e., fails to state what constitutes reality) while maintaining epistemological claims (ibid). Differing ontologies and epistemologies generate different assumptions that profoundly alter the ways that we see the world and other living beings, reframing with an alternative ontology can radically improve the way we interact with the environment and with others (Rosa, & Henning, 2017).
We must challenge the problematic dominant epistemological understandings derived from traditional economics as well as the epistemologies of EE. Epistemological disagreements in EE are somewhat inevitable as they are born out of the fact that EE is not monolithic (Lundgren, 2022). EE has always sought to transcend traditional academic disciplines and ways of producing knowledge, however, we should be ever mindful that epistemic values in our assumptions shape knowledge production and theories (Lundgren, 2022).
Goddard et al (2019) believe that methodological pluralism is an epistemological necessity that advances a form of structured pluralism which involves coevolution between the economy and economic epistemology as the philosophical foundation of EE. Spash (2015) sees plurality in epistemology as multiple ways of achieving equally meaningful knowledge or put simply alternative means of achieving the same goal, the implication being that different aspects of reality are revealed by different methods. Plurality in epistemology is conducive to developing new ideas (Lundgren, 2022), however, Spash (2012) argues that EE must find a unified ontology and epistemology that is consistent across all approaches which Lundgren (2022) refers to as “discipline crossing.”
Epistemologies recapitulate ontologies (Sepkoski, 2012) and ontology informs our methodologies and our theories. Temesgen and his colleagues (n.d.) found that different ontologies spawn different ways of understanding issues. They found that mechanical ontologies focus on reducing negative symptoms while organic ontologies focus on developing life-enhancing connections between the economy and nature (ibid). Similarly, Abraham (2016) reviews the role of ontology and epistemology in framing the positions of researchers in sustainable development.
Ontology feeds the theories we use to interpret meaning and significance. It is the basis of how we perceive the implications of empirical results which are “inevitably a subjective, contestable, political process” (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). Strawson (1992) reviews how ontology and epistemology are integral to the formation of beliefs and judgments about the natural world and reality.
Despite what Strawson (2011) describes as the reality-shaping power of ontology and epistemology, Güler (2021) points out that EE has no clear ontological and epistemological foundation. Wironen & Erikson, (2020) note that there is little coherent identity around ontological and epistemological claims that shape normative content.[ix] The fact that they are not grounded in social or political theories undermines both understanding and action (ibid). Spash (2012) points out that EE is built on conflicting ontological, epistemological, and methodological foundations, he calls us to examine ontology and understand the relationships between epistemologies and methodologies. He seeks to align ontology with methods to avoid “holding totally contradictory positions simultaneously” (ibid). Martinez-Alier & Muradian explain that for EE to avoid the epistemic fallacy of ignoring ontology while maintaining epistemological claims, EE must explicitly render ontology and merge it into epistemology (ibid p. 34-35).
Solutions to epistemological and ontological ambiguity
Different approaches have been proposed to address epistemological and ontological ambiguity. Seeing the world as organic and holistic allows EE to see nature and society as integrated parts of a dynamic whole (Rosa & Henning, 2017). Wironen & Erikson, (2020) have suggested that deliberative social and political theory can serve as a foundation for EE, while Artemas (2019) urges us to understand the nature of reality pragmatically with a contextual ontology. Walsh and his colleagues (2021) propose relational thinking approaches to ontology, epistemology, and ethics. While Bormpoudakis, (2019) advances political ontology as an approach to critique the question related to the nature of reality. Others have suggested that to produce ontological formations of the world we want, we can co-create and co-recreate social relations that produce positive outcomes for both people and the planet (Røpke, 2020). While there are many possibilities, EE is married to an ontology of economy-within-society-within-nature (Wironen & Erikson, 2020).
EE needs a new theoretical basis, but our existing epistemologies and ontologies cannot do this because they are riddled with the failed assumptions of classical economics. Norton (1992) suggests we need a wholly new environmental philosophy and Spash (2015) calls for new ways of thinking. Wironen & Erikson, (2020) say a new discourse is needed, while Røpke (2020) calls for a new economic system in service of sustainability and a new structure of knowledge that embeds planetary limits. Brown and
Timmerman, (p. 4ff, 2015) calls for a new interconnected relationship with the natural world extending to law, governance, ethics, and religion. Meadows calls for new models, new theories, and new science while arguing for a new vision that embraces systems thinking, complexity, interconnectedness, and holism (Meadows, 1:01 – 1:22, 2015). Meadows proposes a vision that lets go of strictly scientific methodologies (ibid,4:43- 4:48) and embraces “statements from the deepest level of the heart and soul” (ibid, 13:19-13:24). Meadows qualified this statement by excluding “self-centered visions” (ibid, 20:21-20:26) and adding that these visions should be “honed by rationality” (ibid, 17:42 -17:43). The creation of an interconnected social-ecological system calls for far more than minor tweaks to the existing system, to make the transition we will need to enact radical change beyond what most can envision. To create an ontology of economy-within-society-within-nature (Wironen & Erikson, 2020), we need a paradigm shift (Arnould, 2020) that incorporates biophysical reality alongside plural constructed social realities (Wironen et al, 2019).
Post-normal science and the question of reality
While we must accept uncertainty and acknowledge that we may not always find the answers we seek (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 37, 2015; Meadows, 13:52 ff, 2019), EE needs coherence to produce meaningful knowledge (Goddard et al, 2019). There are philosophical positions that may counter the incoherence of post-modernist uncertainty. Stratified ontology in critical realism embraces the difficulty of singular truths, but it also acknowledges the possibility of an underlying reality (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, pp. 39-40, 2015).
Ecological economics has an affinity for post-normal science (Wironen & Erickson, 2019), which is a response to the failure of traditional disciplines to address the complex problems facing humanity (Lundgren, 2022). It deals with socio-politics and uncertainty while questioning the traditional distinction between fact and value (Lundgren, 2022). Post-normal science is a synthesis of realism and weak constructivism (Martinez-Alier & Muradian,, p. 42, 2015). It implies that we cannot know truth or reality, however, it explicitly states that this “does not mean that humans may construct their own reality at will” (ibid, p. 36-37). Post-normal science is an approach that is neither reductionist nor constructivist, it is the midpoint between postmodern nihilism and modernist single truths (ibid, pp. 39-40). Its embrace of the Laws of Thermodynamics is an embrace of the “scientific realizations of biophysical reality” and a rejection of purely socially constructed conflicts (ibid, p. 36-37).
In response to questions about what exists, Spash (2015) refers to the relationships we observe while Walsh & Wamsler, (2021) make note of how these observations coalesce around common themes and regional paradigms. While we must assess competing views, we need to acknowledge that not all positions are equally valid. Replicated, peer-reviewed science that earnestly struggles to question the veracity of its own assumptions can help, but not when it comes to values upon which all our methods and observations depend. Post-normal science questions the traditional distinction between fact and value (Lundgren, 2022), and social constructivism understands how values inform facts (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 26, 2015), thus our values must be grounded in a worldview that embeds humanity in nature. The ethical systems that we create can draw on environmental justice, ecological politics, and social concerns. The importance of the social component of this enterprise cannot be overstated.[x]
We are bound together through our connection to each other and this planet. Earth is the biophysical basis of our existence and the foundation from which we can derive a shared set of values. This social and ecological relatedness is the ground of our being and the basis for a new philosophy, a new culture, and a new economy. However, to create a theoretical paradigm that can address the problem of methodological pluralism and augur radical change, EE must merge its ontology into its epistemology.
- Ecological Governance Respecting Planetary Boundaries through Degrowth and Social Processes
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- The State of Global Environmental Governance Issues 2023
 Assumptions: A thing that is accepted as true. Our assumptions cause us to automatically assume the way we see something is the way it is, this is a form of self-deception and self-imposed ignorance. Assumptions are everywhere because they are an efficient way to process the world, however, the conclusions we reach are only as good as the assumptions we bring to bear. Assumptions cause problems when we believe that all other possible interpretations are wrong and our conclusions are the only conclusions worth considering. To avoid problematic assumptions we need to question our perspectives and foster an openness to assessing the veracity of other points of view.
[i] Ontology – Assumptions relating to how the social comes into being that inform all theories and ways of writing the social. (Frampton et al, 2006). According to Walsh et al, (2021) Ontologies describe the “assumptions (which may be implicit or explicit) about what kinds of things do or can exist in [reality], and what might be their conditions of existence, relations of dependency, and so on”. Ontology (def): 1. the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. 2. a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them. Ontology research has changed in recent years due to the creation of large datasets.
[ii] Epistemology – A term meaning “theory of knowledge,” which gets at the how we know about the social world that lies behind all theoretical approaches (Frampton et al, 2006). According to Walsh et al (2021) Epistemologies describe how we come to know the world, they define the criteria, standards, and methods for understanding reality. The methods, validity, and scope of knowledge. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. The word Epistemology (from the Greek episteme, meaning knowledge) concerns the theoretical basis on which we create an understanding of the world. This involves theories about the origin and limits of knowledge. It describes how we can form knowledge about the world and what is the meaning of truly knowing. Epistemology (def): The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion
[iii] Heterodox economics: Many EE researchers subscribe to heterodox economics because it does an excellent job of challenging the assumptions of traditional economics. It sees the economy as having a biophysical foundation (Røpke, 2020) but both the economy and the environment are seen as one integrated system (Meadows, 12:25, 2015) that is informed by social reality (Martinez-Alier & Muradian p. 42, 2015). However, heterodox economics also contributes to the problems that arise due to methodological pluralism.
[iv] Social constructivism sees reality as socially constructed (Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 18, 2015), this is a world where values inform facts (ibid, p. 26). Social constructivism shapes our values and frames our actions, “people’s interests and worldviews are not given, but are shaped by social context” (Correa et al, 2022). However, constructivism denies biophysical constraints on social life (Martinez-Alier & Muradian pp. 39-40, 2015).
[v] Tension between modern and postmodern social theory underpins many ontological and epistemological issues (Wironen & Erickson, 2019). While modernism fostered unity in terms of a common understanding of the facts, postmodernism has caused popular views to splinter in myriad ways (Matthews, 2019). Modernism has been justified by science, technology and rational administration, but these very “advances” have been used to perpetrate horrors like colonization and the holocaust (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). Modernism has a demonstrably destructive impact on the natural world. Conversely, postmodernism is fundamentally pluralist, rejecting grand meta-theoretical narratives like reason and progress in favor of the specific over the general, de-centering of the subject and the view that individuals are constituted through power relations (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). While postmodernism exposes the ecological impacts and hegemonic power structures, it also “rejects all claims to legitimacy” and it cannot explain or guide social change, instead it “undermines the universalist narratives that underpin some efforts at global collective action and governance” (Wironen & Erikson, 2020). As explained by Wironen & Erikson, (2020), “Unbounded value pluralism and complete epistemological relativism provide no basis for praxis”.
[vi] Holism concerns the way systems flow and this is an approach that resists reductionism while embracing complexity. It is a theoretical stance that sees the whole as being more than the sum of its parts. In this context the parts are in a state of intimate interconnection, such that they cannot exist independently, or cannot be understood without reference to the whole (Meadows,11:42-11:54, 2015). In the same vein, human cultural diversity and all of nature are seen as different irreducible parts of the interconnected whole (Rosa, & Henning, 2017).
[vii] Social media: Drawing on Habbermass’s public spheres and multiple fragmented publics, Matthews (2020) indicates the reason we have failed to act on climate change is at least partly due to social media’s hijacking of public narratives to serve political and corporate agendas. He posits that the digital revolution is accelerating the erosion of reason and evidential argument contributing to the delegitimization of knowledge and scientific consensus. He concludes that digital propaganda’s promotion of conspiracies and lies is undermining democracy which depends on shared truths. Matthews emphasizes the role of misinformation and disinformation from corporate and political interests as powerful forces preventing action. To counter these forces, he advocates value diversity and community approaches that encourage the participation of large numbers of people (Matthews, 2020).
[viii] Theory of value: “Economists are left without a theory of value. There is no relevant way to establish economic commensurability between different goods as they have no mutual biophysical quality, and consensus on the worth of the goods from a human perspective is impossible to achieve. Market prices should not be considered relevant measures of value as they emerge as historical constructions that are influenced by both past and present inequalities” (Røpke, 2019).
[ix] Ontological and epistemological claims: “The lack of a clear ontology and epistemology leads to ambiguity about how to answer important normative questions, for example: In the ecological economy, are universal values assumed? If so, what are they? What is the role of democracy? Liberty? What theory (or theories) of justice structures the ecological economy? Do justice claims extend to past or future generations? What about nature? What role is there for nation-states in an interconnected, whole earth system in which many individual and local decisions have global consequences? Is global consensus needed regarding the need to respect ecological limits or can it be assumed? To what extent can humans navigate toward sustainability, given the complexity and unpredictability of social-ecological systems? These questions have markedly different answers depending on the scale of analysis and whether one draws from modern, postmodern, or other social theories. Each is profoundly political. Seeking answers to these questions, we argue, is a necessary step in the evolution of ecological economics, especially if it is to help navigate the competing claims of modernity in the Anthropocene” (Wironen & Erikson, 2020).
[x] The social dimension is an integral part of any effort to address the ecological crisis. EE seeks to embed the economy in society, which is in turn embedded in nature, thus the social dimension is a key part of any effort to root biophysical social economics into a new epistemology and ontology. Without being Manichean there is a dual nature to the ecological crisis that is both biophysical and social. As explained by Wironen and Erickson (2020) EE is descriptive as we see in the material consequences associated with economic activity, and prescriptive which includes models of how social change takes place and the political reflections that help us to choose a course of action.
As explained by Correa et al, (2022), “people’s interests and worldviews are not given, but are shaped by social context”. Social issues are at the heart of the ways that we conceive of the problem, the solutions we propose, and the efforts we make to encourage widespread uptake of these solutions.
The social dimension is also critical to civil society’s inculcation of what Ingebrigtsen & Jakobsen (2012) call the interconnected economy. The formation of a new ontology and epistemology is largely about the critical task of getting everyone to change their value system. R. Buckminster Fuller succinctly summarized our predicament when he said, “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.” As Strohl (2022) explains, “Attacking a problem of this scale requires all of us”. Everybody needs to be involved (Meadows, 1:19:23-1:19:30, 2019) to build the kind of community consensus decision-making (ibid, 1:11:04-1:11:11) that can help us to make cultural commitments to protect the resource base (ibid, 53:19-53:24).
Social relations are at the heart of positive outcomes for both people and the planet. This community approach also includes ecological spirituality including sacredness and reverence for natural systems (Meadows, 13:52, 2015, Martinez-Alier & Muradian, p. 9, 2015. Meadows, 1:14:21- 1:14:37, 2019). Action-based projects can be part of the community-based effort to challenge what (Røpke, I. 2020) called “problematic dominant epistemological understandings” by “co-creating and co-recreating social relations that produce positive outcomes on people and the planet”
An understanding of the importance of an inclusive social dimension is critical to EE which promotes and respects the diversity of people and cultures as parts of the whole that strengthen living systems and generate innovation and creativity (Rosa & Henning, 2017). The importance of the social dimension in EE is in evidence in a new emerging paradigm known as Social-Ecological Economics (SEE) which is described by Spash and his colleagues (2021) as an “essential future direction for the economics profession, not least because of the social-ecological crises facing humanity and the need for transformation of capital accumulating economic systems.”
Wironen & Erickson (2020) explain “the social is what connects the economic and the ecological” so to augur political and social change, EE would be “well served by more direct engagement with critical work emerging from social science disciplines” which they describe as “deep and lasting attention to the social realm: in the ecological economics ontology”. Goddard et al (2019) suggest that EE “should support guiding beliefs centered on the biosphere” but they also stress the importance of “equity, and care”.
Other research corroborates the importance of the social dimension in auguring systemic change. Researchers have demonstrated how social constructivism influences change and theories like world systems suggest change is influenced by social constructions (Brown and Timmerman). A paper on the 14th-century plague, shows how societal changes go from individual narratives to a common understanding (Geobey et at, 2019). Frampton (2006) also offers insight into knowledge production conducive to effective social transformation. Wironen et al, (2019) argue that EE could induce a transition by drawing on aligned social movements and building on deliberative theory as a foundation for social and political change.
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