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Working Paper No. 413 | October 2004

Visions and Scenarios

Heilbroner's Worldly Philosophy, Lowe's Political Economics, and the Methodology of Ecological Economics

Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary alternative to mainstream environmental economics. Attempts have been made to outline a methodology for ecological economics and it is probably fair to say that, at this point, ecological economics takes a "pluralistic" approach. There are, however, some common methodological themes that run through the ecological economics literature. This paper argues that the works of Adolph Lowe and Robert Heilbroner can inform the development of some of those themes. Both authors were aware of the environmental challenges facing humanity from quite early on in their work, and quite ahead of time. In addition, both Lowe's Economics and Sociology (and related writings) and Heilbroner's "Worldly Philosophy" (itself influenced by this work of Lowe) recognized the endogeneity of the natural environment, the impact of human activity on the environment, and the implications of this for questions of method. Lowe and Heilbroner also became increasingly concerned with issues related to the environment over time, such that these issues became of prime importance in their frameworks. This work deals directly with ecological and environmental issues; both authors also dealt with other issues that relate to the environmental challenge, such as technological change. But it is not only their work that explicitly addresses the environment or relates to environmental challenges that is relevant to the concerns of ecological economists. Both Heilbroner's "Worldly Philosophy" and Lowe's "Political Economics" offer insights that may prove useful in developing a methodology of ecological economics. Ecological economists have taken a pluralistic approach to methodology, but the common themes in this work regarding the importance and nature of vision, analysis (including structural analysis), scenarios, implementation, the necessity of working backwards, the role for imagination, rejecting the positive/normative dichotomy, and so on, all are issues that have been elaborated in Lowe's work, and in ways that are relevant to ecological economics. The goal of the paper is actually quite modest: to make ecological economists aware of the work of the two authors, and get them interested enough to explore the possible contribution of these ideas to their methodological approach.


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