Ecology and Economy

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb in Shanghai, June 1, 2002 and Wuhan, June 4, 2002. Used by permission of the author. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The economists believe a prosperous future awaits all our descendants, if only we will be patient and stay the course. The ecologists believe that continuing on our present course is a sure recipe for disaster. Perhaps China can help us find a way through this dilemma.

Dear Chinese Friends,

I appreciate the chance to be with you and to share some of my ideas with you, although I realize that it would be much better to listen first, at length, to you in order to learn what you see as the major problems you face. Since that is not practical, I will speak first and then learn something from your responses.

Although there are many, many problems and issues facing humanity at this time, I believe the most crucial have to do with the deep tension between ecology and economy. This is ironic, because the root meanings of these two English words are hardly distinguishable. They both derive from the Greek word oikos, which means "household". Ecology is the logos of the household; economy, the nomos of the household. Logos can be translated as "reason", and nomos, as "law", but their connotations overlap. Yet what is now meant by ecology is deeply at odds with what is meant by economy.

Today, when we think of ecology, the household in question is the biosphere, primarily the natural environment. When we think of the economy, we think of the human production, exchange, and consumption of goods and services. The two topics are treated in such a way that they hardly touch each other. And there is the problem. We need a healthy natural environment as a context for our lives. We need to produce, exchange, and consume goods and services. But precisely because we need both, preoccupation with either one, when the other is not in view, can be disastrous.

Realistically, in the past half century at least, attention has been overwhelmingly focused on economy. The arguments have been about how to increase production, exchange, and consumption of goods and services. Some economists argued that a centralized bureaucracy could plan economic growth most effectively. Others asserted that a market free from government interference would grow more rapidly. Most economies have in fact had elements of both, but on the whole giving more freedom to entrepreneurs has proved more effective.

This debate among economists has in general presupposed that natural resources are not limited. In the West, the dominant school of neo-liberal economists is often quite explicit about this. It believes that technological advance will handle any problems that arise from natural shortages. There are no limits to growth. The more rapidly we increase production, exchange, and consumption the better. Since larger markets speed economic growth, the ideal is a single global market. We need not deal with environmental problems in terms of public policy, since the market will take care of them. For example, as petroleum becomes expensive, other sources of energy, which are now more costly, will become competitive. Then they will be widely used.

Those who look at the world ecologically see things quite differently. They see that human beings are consuming more and more of the total natural product of the world. Wilderness is growing scarce or, by some definitions, has already disappeared. Many species can survive only as managed by human beings. The oil, which has made possible so much of the economic growth, will become scarce and expensive within a few decades. Fresh water is already scarce in many parts of the world. Fisheries are declining. Agricultural production will not be able to keep up with demand. Air, water, and soil are being poisoned. The heating of the atmosphere leads to increased storms and more erratic weather. Those who see things this way urge that, at a minimum, we should focus on conservation of scarce resources, reduction of pollution, and technological innovations that will enable us to adjust to a post-petroleum economy.

Thus far, the economists are victorious. All societies make some concessions to the ecologists, but only when these are not too costly in economic terms. Economic growth is the organizing principle of society. The educational system is in its service. We judge governments primarily in terms of how rapidly nations grow under their policies.

One reason that the economists are more successful in the West is that the benefits of economic growth are immediate whereas the costs are imposed chiefly on the future. Ecologists warn that within a couple of decades our petroleum-based agriculture will not work. But right now it is very profitable for the great corporations that control it, if not for most farmers. Oil is cheap. We can continue, profitably, to displace traditional agriculture, based on solar energy and human and animal labor, with petroleum-based agriculture requiring far less labor. It is far more pleasant to leave to the next generation the task of picking up the pieces when this system collapses than to anticipate the problem now. The fact that most economists encourage faith in new technology gives moral support to sloth.

Another reason for the success of the economists and the weakness of the ecologists is that the mindset of the economists, like that of most of the population, is modern. Modern rationality has compartmentalized various realms of thought. In the university we speak of multiple disciplines. One discipline may borrow from another, but basically each is autonomous. It develops its own models of the world it studies and its own methods for studying this. It does not interfere with work in other disciplines and it rejects outside interference in its own work.

The work that is done within a discipline is technical reason. In the field of technical reason modernity has been unrivalled. Among the most successful of the disciplines is economics. It has developed a model of the human being and methods of working with that model that are brilliant and convincing within the self-imposed limits. It is a modern study par excellence. And as such it communicates well to those educated in the modern university.

The model of the human being with which economists work, Homo economicus, is also purely modern. Human beings are treated in economics only is so far as they are self-contained individuals whose relations with other individuals are market transactions. Given this model, the kinds of relations that make for human community do not appear at all. Hence, within the purview of economic theory, the destruction of communities is not a loss. A fortiori the degradation of the natural world is not considered.

Ecologists approach matters quite differently. As students of the living world around us, they found that the compartmentalized and linear thinking of modernity did not work well. In this compartmentalized way, they could study rats in mazes and individual animal behavior in laboratories. They could dissect rabbits and learn about their organs. But none of this told them much about the way life took place in nature. There, each species of animals interacted with other species and with the plants that made up the ecosystem. The behavior of each organism is deeply affected by its ever-changing environment. The effects of one change work themselves out in surprising changes elsewhere in the system. Often changes introduced with the best of intentions have unanticipated deleterious results.

As we have become aware of this, we have also become aware of the history of human degradation of the environment. We know that many of our deserts were created by overgrazing, that ancient cities were abandoned because irrigation led to salinization of the soils, that deforestation has dried up springs and rivers as well as caused erosion on a mammoth scale. We are alerted to the real possibility that our present civilization is radically unsustainable.

The debate between economists and ecologists is, therefore, a debate between modernists and postmodernists of a certain stripe. Because we still live in the modern age, the ecologists are handicapped by having to make their case in modernist terms. They have to make specific predictions, and often the course of events proves them wrong. There was a famous instance in which an ecologist, Paul Ehrlich, bet an economist, Julian Simon, that the prices of raw materials would rise during a certain decade. The economist predicted they would fall, and this proved to be correct. Ehrlich based his prediction on his correct assessment that population would rise, demand would rise even faster, and more raw materials would be needed. But the economist understood more deeply how increased demand stimulates increased production and producers compete more intensely to sell their products. Economists have again and again been justified by history, against Malthus, in their expectation that food production will increase faster than population growth. It seems that their faith in technology and the market has been repeatedly vindicated.

Despite this, ecologists are sure that, at a more fundamental level, economists are wrong. Without examining the details of history or of what is now going on, economists project the statistical patterns of the past into the indefinite future. But ecologists are sure that the patterns that worked when the human economy was small in relation to the natural world will break down as the relationship changes. They point out the high social and ecological costs of past technological solutions to the production of food, such as the Green Revolution, and the unsustainability of its practices as oil becomes scarce. The proposed technological solution through genetic manipulation will solve some problems at the expense of generating others. The whole system becomes more and more precarious. Meanwhile aquifers are exhausted and rivers run dry. The technological solution of desalinization of ocean water and pumping it to the fields is so expensive in energy that its relevance is minimal. Creating plants that can survive with reduced water goes in just the opposite direction from the green revolution. A new mindset is needed, one that locates food production in the wider ecological and social context and involves consideration of how the affluent can reduce their demands for food. Encouragement of reducing consumption cuts directly against the economist’s interest in endless growth.


Actually there is a third important voice in the contemporary debate. This is the voice that speaks for fairness. I noted above that community has no value in neo-liberal economic thinking. But even if we think of people as individuals, related only in the market, we can ask how the market, when left to itself, distributes its goods and services. Does it do so fairly? In the compartmentalized thought world of modernity, this question belongs to political theory rather than to economics. But since we have transferred so much power to the economic order, we need to raise the question. The answer is that the strength of the market is that it encourages growth. How that growth is distributed is not a concern of economics as such. The empirical and historical fact is that the market favors the rich over the poor and tends to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

The minimum statement about this lack of equal opportunity and results is that most of the growth in the economy goes to the rich. What is debated is whether the poor benefit at all. Some advocates of growth adopt the trickle down theory. They are convinced that as there is more and more growth some of the benefits automatically trickle down to the poor. Some argue that in the long run the inequality generated by the market at certain stages lessens. Economic growth will lead toward equality.

Those who hold to this optimistic scenario point to the history of Western Europe. There is no doubt that after a period in which workers were intensively exploited, the situation changed. By the 1960s workers in Europe enjoyed the fruits of industrial development and economic growth. The gap between rich and poor narrowed markedly. One could say that fairness triumphed.

However, this was not a result of the market alone. Labor organized and struggled for decades to have a voice in political decisions. Legislation established high minimum wages and benefits. Taxation functioned to redistribute wealth. Of course, without the high level of national production, the wealth would not have been available to distribute. But it is disingenuous to describe the market as the agent of a fair distribution.

That the market works the other way can be seen in recent times. In the sixties and into the seventies the United States moved toward a reduction of poverty. For many workers, wages were good. But there were increasing pressures to free the market from political constraints. With Ronald Reagan’s election, these pressures became successful. The government has steadily reduced its aid to the poor and its support of workers. It has given a freer and freer hand to corporations. Through free trade agreements with Canada and Mexico it has enlarged the market. All this has made for economic growth. It has also made for increased inequality. Although economists dispute this, the evidence is that the market left to itself does very little for the poor.

Indeed, I believe that left to itself the market worsens the condition of the poor. In the United States in the past quarter century, working families have maintained their standard of living only by working more hours. Whereas once it was assumed that a man with an ordinary job could support his wife and children, now the standard is two incomes. There is little doubt that children receive less parental attention and that there are negative social consequences. Of course, the family is likely to have many devices in the home that did not even exist in the earlier period to which I refer. Expectations with respect to housing and motor transport have risen. Overall, it is hard to say whether the standard of living has gone up or down, but that more people work more hours at lower hourly pay is not seriously in dispute. Meanwhile, the pay of CEOs has soared.


Especially since World War II the world has been committed to economic growth. This commitment was challenged by the ideas of those shaped by ecological sensitivity. They argued in the seventies that the most important goal must be sustainability. Otherwise the whole of humanity would be involved in a boom followed by a terrible bust when the limits of growth were reached. A sustainable society would be one in which population growth ended and goods were distributed in such a way that all could meet their minimal needs for a decent life.

Clearly there is a sharp conflict here. The policies that make for continuing rapid growth and those that make for sustainability thus understood are diametrically opposed. The United Nations called a meeting at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where this conflict was to be worked through. The United States government, under George Bush, was determined that this conference not derail the commitment to economic growth through globalization. It did not. It co-opted the term "sustainable" by using it to modify "development." And it interpreted development to mean primarily economic growth.

Even so, the use of the adjective sustainable as a modifier of growth has had some effect. The World Bank, for example, has paid more attention to the environmental impact of the forms of economic development that it supports. Many national governments have given heightened thought to what is involved. Recently many have been willing to work toward the reduction of their carbon emissions so as to slow the process of global warming.

The United States government, however, has given little but lip service to making the growth to which it is committed sustainable. Fortunately, a number of good laws and policies were in effect already, helping to maintain the quality of the environment within the United States. But the United States continues to lead the effort to reduce barriers to trade in ways that in fact lead to ecological devastation. Even within the United States the corporate lobby works, sometimes successfully, to undermine such environmental protection as we now have. Profit, not sustainability, is the dominant concern of business and of much of the political leadership that is beholden to the wealthy for funding their campaigns.

Near Rio there was an unofficial meeting of nongovernmental organizations of many sorts. Some were focused on environmental issues, often quite local ones. Others represented labor or peasants. Some were concerned about particular ethnic groups or represented the interests of fourth world groups. Still others were committed to human rights for all. These groups discovered that despite their differences, they had a common enemy in the transnational corporations that dominated the global economy. These were supported by the great Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the structural adjustment they imposed on debtor nations all over the world. The whole system designed for growth favored the large corporations and exploited workers, peasants, and the natural environment. Human rights everywhere suffered.

Prior to Rio, it seemed that the disparate voices of protest against corporation-dominated economic globalization cancelled each other out. The interests of peasants and workers differed and both groups were suspicious of middle class environmentalists. As long as these interests could be played off against each other corporate victory was assured. But at Rio a new set of connections was made. Since then it has been possible to speak of an NGO position on the issues facing the global community. And this reflects much more the aim at sustainable society than the aim at sustainable growth. Every UN- sponsored meeting has been accompanied by an NGO meeting that developed its own positions on the topic at hand. And there is considerable coherence in these documents.

NGO meetings do not accompany only those sponsored by the United Nations. Each time the leaders of the seven or eight great industrial powers gather for what they call an Economic Summit, there is also a meeting of TOES, The Other Economic Summit, which articulates the NGO vision over against the dominant one.

More recently the NGO movement has undertaken to mount major protests against the policies of the Bretton Woods Institutions. The protest against the World Trade Organization at Seattle took many Americans by surprise because it demonstrated the cooperation between labor and environmentalists. Because there were also bitter disagreements between First and Third World representatives to the WTO, the protesters were successful and the meeting was a failure. Subsequent protests in Washington, Quebec, Prague, and Geneva have been met by increasing police violence. They have had limited success, but they have forced the world to see that the policies of our global leaders are bitterly rejected by masses of citizens. The violence that takes place at these events is in small part due to the fact that the aim of the protest leaders to maintain a nonviolent movement cannot be enforced on all participants. But most of the violence is that of the police who carry out orders to make the protesters, however nonviolent, pay a high price for their protests.

Our leaders tell us that the protesters are naïve, that the only hope for attaining their goals of human and ecological well being rest in the pursuit of just the economic globalization to which they object. These leaders appeal to the dominant economic theory that teaches that the larger the market and the freer it is of governmental interference, the faster wealth is created. It is assumed that this rapid increase of wealth will benefit all.

I am one of those who supports the goal of sustainable society rather than sustainable growth. If the growth that is pursued were truly sustainable, I would have no objection. Such growth belongs to a sustainable society. Truly sustainable growth would operate within the limits of renewal of resources. We would not exploit a specie of fish beyond the rate of its reproduction. We would not cut down trees faster than new trees can be grown. Further, we would not degrade the quality of what we were exploiting. The health of the ocean and of the forests would be maintained. With respect to nonrenewable resources, we would use them as slowly as possible, developing alternatives as we proceeded.

But this is far from the case. The growth that is supported by dominant policies has wiped out the stock of certain types of fish not only locally but globally. It is reducing habitat for fish reproduction such as mangrove groves and degrading the ocean floor. It is replacing natural forests with monoculture and causing enormous loss of soil for trees through erosion. This is not sustainable. In the meantime, it renders drives many people out of their native habitats in forests, forces farmers off the land, pays laborers less than a living wage, and renders the poor more powerless.

On the other hand, it builds tall buildings, produces huge quantities of goods for those who can afford them, renders travel all over the world easy, and makes life very comfortable, even luxurious, for perhaps a quarter of the world’s population. It holds before many others the promise that they can participate in this affluence. It argues that there is no alternative.

Further, it thinks of sustainability in another way. As some species of fish are decimated and become unavailable, others are harvested. Fish farms replace wild fish. Genetic manipulation can increase the size of fish. As long as technology can keep ahead of natural decline, it is supposed, the fish harvest can grow. If this is not possible, other foods can be substituted for fish. Sustainable growth allows for unlimited substitution as long as human nutritional needs are met. Growth as increase of economic activity can thus continue indefinitely.

Those with ecological sensitivities are skeptical of this possibility. Substitutes for a healthy ocean and adequate soils are not as easy to obtain as substitutes for one form of metal or another. Even the question of substituting other forms of energy for oil will prove more difficult than economists generally seem to recognize. In addition the substitution of an artificial environment for a natural one seems to many of us a huge loss not really compensated by more gadgets.

This is not the place to pursue this argument between advocates of sustainable society and endless growth. It is, in my opinion, the most important issue facing humanity today. If the economists are correct, then a prosperous future awaits all our descendants, if only we will be patient and stay the course. There will be plenty of goods and services for all, and even the poorest will have enough. If the ecologists are correct, continuing on our present course is a sure recipe for disaster. The children of those who now sacrifice for their sake will be the first to be destroyed by scarcity and pollution. Even the rich will live in an impoverished and inhuman world.

No doubt the truth lies somewhere in between. But I have acknowledged that my judgment is closer to that of the ecologists. Perhaps China can find a way through the dilemmas posed by the clash of economic and ecological thinking and practice. Perhaps China can even lead the way for the whole world.