5 Essential Questions for all Departments of Economics

What is Ecological Literacy, and how to obtain it?

As stated in the Open Letter of 65+ student associations from 30+ countries, “it is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls.”

Is the mainstream theory of economics taught at most economy departments a real science in the service of whole humanity (including future generations), or a pseudo science of money-making (chrematistics) that serve to the narrow interests of greedy corporations and their investors?

Let’s review the definitions before asking the 5 essential questions:

Chrematistics: The art (and pseudo science) of making money, often at all costs to nature and humanity (money justifies everything!)

Economy (oikos+nomia): Home, habitat or living space (Lebensraum) management; management of livelihood and sustenance (see: Oikonomia: Bringing the economy back to the Earth by Vandana Shiva)

Economics: A social science that deals with the production, distribution, consumption [and recycling] of goods and services. Note: Nature (i.e. living ecosystems like oceans, forests, lakes and rivers) is the primary producer and recycler. The term “recycling” is ignored in most formal definitions of economics.

Another common definition of economics:

Economics: Study of how society uses its limited [and unlimited] resources. Note: History shows us that seemingly unlimited resources like clean air or water may easily become limited within time, or vice versa. So, economics must consider all kinds of resources (living and non-living, limited and non-limited, considering complex and dynamic relationships and cycles) with a long-term view into the past and future. Economics cannot be reduced to money, market and exchange of monetary goods and services.

Are departments of economics, as departments of public universities, public schools, or just business & finance schools in the cloak of public school? If all mainstream (neoclassical, orthodox) economists develop policies for the narrow and short-term interests of business & finance, who will develop policies for the sustainable well-being of the society?

These are the five essential questions that must be asked to economics departments of every university:

(1) What lectures, seminars and other activities do you offer to undergraduate students in order to cultivate ecological literacy?

This question is extremely important because there is no sustainability without ecological literacy.

For example, lectures like biology or ecology, agroecology, evolutionary (biological & cultural) anthropology, history of civilizations including lifestyles and relationship with nature, general wildlife and ecosystem knowledge (forests, oceans, coral reefs, rivers & lakes etc.) history of economic thought including unorthodox schools like ecological economics…

What is ecological literacy?

In this article by Bill Graham, you may find a nice and neat one-sentence definition of ecological literacy:

To be ecoliterate means understanding the principles of organization of ecological communities [i.e. living ecosystems including humans], collaboration, and using these principles for creating sustainable human communities.

Here is a highly recommended book about ecological literacy:
Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Some quotations below from this book:

Education for sustainable living—the subject of the present book—is a pedagogy that facilitates this understanding by teaching the basic principles of ecology, and with them a profound respect for living nature, through an experiential, participatory, and multidisciplinary approach.

A question that arises in my mind is, how can we overcome the profound disrespect for living nature built in the theory and ideology of mainstream (neoclassical, orthodox) economics? (see industrial paradigm; envisioning nature like a machine without life and intelligence)

Education for sustainable living fosters both an intellectual understanding of ecology and emotional bonds with nature that make it more likely that our children will grow into responsible citizens who truly care about sustaining life …

THE TERM “SUSTAINABLE” has recently been so overused, and so often misused, that it is important to state clearly how we understand it at the Center for Ecoliteracy and how we use it in this book. A sustainable community is usually defined as “one that is able to satisfy its needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations.”

The most common ways of misusing, abusing and bastardization of the term “sustainable” that I observe is, using it in contexts like business and development (i.e. economic development in the neoclassical sense), like “sustainable development” or “sustainable business”.

I think, this is a common trick to replace (or hijack) the “ultimate highest goal” in the minds of people, which should actually be ecological sustainability, with the goals of corporations –as if the goals of corporations were identical to the goals of society. A typical trick of mind-manipulation and logical short-circuiting, just like replacing “sustainable well-being” as the ultimate goal of all economic policies, with “economic growth” (i.e. GDP growth) that suits much better to the narrower interests of corporations.

Here is an important academic article about ecological literacy and sustainability:
Teaching (un)sustainability? University sustainability commitments and student experiences of introductory economics by Tom L. Green

Some quotations from this article:

About 40% of North American university students take a mainstream introductory economics course; few of these students take economics at more advanced levels. As such, introductory economics courses are an important vehicle for students to learn economic theory; they have the potential to contribute to the knowledge that students can mobilize to foster sustainability.

Students reported that introductory economics courses place little emphasis on the environment and sustainability, they recalled course content with normative connotations that are problematic from a sustainability perspective and they described how discussion of the limitations of mainstream theory was set aside [i.e. neoclassical orthodoxy is meticulously preserved].

Intro economics is taught as if the environment and economy are separate [i.e. typical industrial paradigm].

Intro economics does not support universities’ sustainability commitments [i.e. neoclassical orthodoxy is preserved by all means].

(2) What have you done about the justified requests of 65+ student associations from 30+ countries (as explained in their Open Letter) since 2014?

Open Letter: An international student call for pluralism in economics

Some quotations from this open letter:

It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls. What is taught shapes the minds of the next generation of policymakers, and therefore shapes the societies we live in. We, over 65 associations of economics students from over 30 different countries, believe it is time to reconsider the way economics is taught. We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the last couple of decades. This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multidimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change. The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods.

Pluralism will not only help to enrich teaching and research and reinvigorate the discipline. More than this, pluralism carries the promise of bringing economics back into the service of society [rather than being in the service of corporations]. Three forms of pluralism must be at the core of curricula: theoretical, methodological and interdisciplinary.

Finally, economics education should include interdisciplinary approaches and allow students to engage with other social sciences and the humanities. Economics is a social science; complex economic phenomena can seldom be understood if presented in a vacuum, removed from their sociological, political, and historical contexts [my note: “ecological” must be added to these contexts].

In the following article, you may find an elaborate account of student protests about the mainstream economics education that culminated in various public declarations like the Open Letter mentioned above:

Introduction: Broadband Versus Narrowband Economics, by Edward Fullbrook

Some quotations from this article:

From the 1960s onward, neoclassical economists have increasingly managed to block the employment of non-neoclassical economists in university economics departments and to deny them opportunities to publish in professional journals. They also have narrowed the economics curriculum that universities offer students. At the same time they have increasingly formalized their theory, making it progressively irrelevant to understanding economic reality. And now they are even banishing economic history and the history of economic thought from the curriculum, these being places where the student might be exposed to non-neoclassical ideas. Why has this tragedy happened?

[In 2000] Parisian students complaint about the narrowness of their economics education and their desire for a broadband approach to economics teaching that would enable them to connect constructively and comprehensively with the complex economic realities of their time hit a chord with French news media. Major newspapers and magazines gave extensive coverage to the students struggle against the autistic science. Economics students from all over France rushed to sign the petition.

In March 2003 economics students at Harvard launched their own petition, demanding from its economics department an introductory course that would have better balance and coverage of a broader spectrum of views and that would not only teach students the accepted modes of thinking [like the orthodox/neoclassical theory], but also challenge students to think critically and deeply about conventional truths.

(3) What kind of people choose to study economics, and what kind of license-level graduates does the department produce? What kind of mentality and worldview does the majority of these graduates possess?

Holistic, integral, broad and open minded, interdisciplinary (including biology, ecology, anthropology, philosophy), pluralist?

Or, neoclassical orthodox, money & market oriented, business conservative, history and ecology ignoramus, mechanistic & reductionist, technology-fundamentalist?

(4) Is the majority of (license-level) graduates open and broad minded enough to question mainstream concepts like economic growth and development?

Or, does the majority of graduates refrain from asking such (for business & finance) inconvenient questions? Does the department produce tamed, orthodox and decent(!) academicians who don’t ask inconvenient questions?

Apropos “inconvenient questions”: I recommend reading following article about the brilliant philosopher and political critic Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and her brilliant treatise named “The Banality of Evil”, which is about a high-ranked Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, who, as a decent(!) state officer, didn’t ask inconvenient questions about the evil work he was doing: What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil?

You may also read: The Banality of Evil: Hannah Arendt (Little History of Philosophy, N. Warburton)

What I understand from these articles: Refraining from asking inconvenient questions about the established (mainstream) order and worldview may seem quite safe and comfortable, even very profitable in most cases, but it can also make you an Adolf Eichmann of evil corporations. Just think of Nobel praised scientists or economists –I mean fake Nobel for economists; there’s no real Nobel for economics– who work for armament or pesticide companies.

Rethinking Economics for a sustainable future requires rethinking “economic growth & development”, as established mainstream (neoclassical) notions. As a beginning for every economy student, I highly recommend watching following brilliant speeches by Vandana Shiva who criticize these mainstream notions:

  1. The Lunacy of Economic Growth (YouTube video)
  2. Rethinking development in the 21st century (YouTube video)

You may find an extensive critic of economic growth (i.e. GDP growth) in my 4. PhD progress report (begins on page 35), with lots of references to related books and articles.

And finally:

5) Does your Economics Department serve to long-term public interests like “sustainable well-being for all”, or primarily to the interests of business & finance? In other words, is it a public or business school?

Or, does the department believe, like the mainstream (neoclassical) theory of economics, these interests are almost identical with negligible differences?

Written by Tunç Ali Kütükçüoğlu, 17. August 2020

About tuncali

I began keeping aquariums as early as I was nine years old. Since then, I kept many aquariums and lots of fish, plant and invertebrate species. My favorite fish family is of course cichlids with their fascinating behaviors. My relatively new area of interest is low-tech natural aquariums as almost self-sufficient ecosystems that are I think ideal models for sustainable life.
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1 Response to 5 Essential Questions for all Departments of Economics

  1. tuncali says:

    Based on my personal experience with some Swiss universities, I guess, most economics departments will simply ignore such critical questions, even if they come from people with fame and reputation.

    This kind of wilful ignorance and neglect is typical for mainstream economists and economics departments. It is in the nature of institutional behavior based on power relations, orthodox ideology and vested interests: If you decided to ignore ecology, you will also ignore critics about this ignorance. You will behave as if these critiques were not respectable enough to take them seriously. You can ignore the critics so easily because you know that you can get away with this wilful ignorance and neglect.

    In his brilliant book “The Unsettling of America”, Wendell Berry complains eloquently about a similar case in the context of orthodox agriculture, which is perfectly valid for orthodox economics.

    W. Berry tells, when he criticized the universities that promoted orthodox (industrial) agriculture with this book, he naively expected, they would either produce a stronger counterargument, or accept his critics and change their governing assumptions. But neither happened.

    W. Berry writes: “The universities were not interested in the pursuit of truth by argument. They are interested in preserving the conclusions of an old argument… The organization of the university –and of modern intellectual life– rests upon this [old] argument. … Perhaps this line of thought began in metaphor, not now the likeness has become identity. … Furthermore, they do not wish to think a new or divergent thought; the old thoughts have suited their careers and their pocketbooks well enough.”

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