The human – nature symbiosis

A Damodaran

One of the most encouraging developments in recent times has been the tremendous awareness regarding environmental problems amongst our school children. Considering the rapid pace at which the world has progressed towards the idea of sustainable development, more needs to be done to promote environmental thinking amongst our young people. One way by which we can take a lead in this direction is to introduce the key ideas of ecological economics in schools. However, the task of teaching a course on ecological economics is daunting. This is because we would require our students to ‘unlearn’ before they ‘learn’. The cream of India’s teachers teach in schools. They achieve teaching milestones more effectively than their counterparts in higher institutions of learning. They are thus the ideal vehicles to impart the basic lessons of ecological economics.

The standard school textbooks on economics have two streams – the first stream concerns itself with microeconomics foundations. This stream is largely based on neo classical economics. The second stream addresses macroeconomics. This has been conventionally based on Keynesian economics.

damodaran The mantras of utility maximization, market ‘equilibrium’ (based on the laws of demand and supply), ‘costs of production’ and ‘price and output determination’ form the major focus of microeconomics. As far as macroeconomics goes, students are introduced to the concepts of ‘national income’, ‘aggregate demand and supply’, ‘employment’, and ‘cyclical fluctuations associated with market-driven economies and perhaps the Indian economy. Both streams do not sufficiently address tricky concepts related to ‘market failures’ and ‘public goods’ from which flow most of the social costs associated with environmentally destructive activities. These topics get addressed only at the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree level courses in economics.

Therefore there are two major challenges that a teacher faces when taking up ecological economics in high schools. She has to correct some of the lessons she has imparted in her economics course and then proceed to bring out the foundations of ecological economics. The starting point for an ecological economics course is to bring in the idea of ‘market failure’ that explains why ‘social costs’ are not covered by the standard cost functions. The next logical course will be to relax the gospel of ‘profit maximizing’ economic activity. This concept is so ingrained in a student’s mind that it requires a great effort on the part of the teacher to change it. One way by which the ‘habit’ of mouthing ‘profit maximization’ can be removed is to encourage the use of the idea of ‘profit optimization’, which in essence means ‘profit maximizing with a heart’ or profits that are deflated by the social costs. The third step is to introduce the students to the idea of ‘public goods’ drawing special examples such as biodiversity, forests, water, and climate stress. It is likely that these topics would have been covered by the science courses, in which case, the task of explaining them as public goods is easily achieved. The concept of ‘public goods’ can then be easily related to ‘market failures’.

Once these are done we move to the realm of mainstream ecological economics where one could bring in the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and describe how this development paradigm is sensitive to the cause of the environment and natural resources. Here it pays to say that ecological economics goes beyond the realm of markets and market failures and looks at institutional and socio-cultural factors that underlie conservation of natural resources. The idea of Coasian Economics and property rights could be introduced in a simple way to illustrate the notion of common property resources. Sufficient examples can be given about how strong community based institutions with sound ethos of self-regulation and prudent use can resist the onslaught of industrial capital. We have notable examples on this from India such as Anna Hazare’s Ralegaon Siddhi Experiment.

From this it is only a step away to a brief introduction of Gandhian Economics with its premises that are based on strong, democratic, and vibrant institutions at the village level that practise sustainable consumption and focus on production activities that respect nature.

The next step is to introduce students to macroeconomic dimensions of ecological economics. This is a dimension that has not been sufficiently explored even at Master’s level elective courses in ecological economics. In schools, the macroeconomic dimensions of ecological economics can be introduced by starting with the importance of ‘green’ National Income Accounts which deflates environmental losses from GDP figures. It can be explained how such a system would send signals to decision makers to concentrate their efforts on environmentally sustainable activities. The latter, it can be explained, can be achieved by incorporating the idea of ‘depreciation of natural capital’ into national income accounts. Depreciation of natural capital, in turn, can be estimated through natural resource accounting exercises.

We then move on to explain how aggregate economic activities can be stimulated without taxing natural resources. The ideas of greened fiscal and monetary policies can be introduced here. The roles of carbon taxes and economic instruments that stimulate biodiversity conservation can be highlighted next.

The final element of the course is the ‘synthesis’ part. Here we seek to integrate what we have taught this far. We accomplish the synthesis by arguing that markets need intervention in order to ensure that they do not contribute to the destruction of our natural resources. This we can say can be done by instilling the notion of profit optimization through public policies that facilitate local level institutions to exercise ‘community based property rights’ that would serve to resist the conversion of scarce natural resources into raw materials for feeding unsustainable industries. Finally, we state that green macroeconomic instruments that are based on the notion of sustainable development could signal to decision-makers, the destruction of natural resources in the country. This will encourage the introduction of regulations and market based instruments that would help our economy to capture social costs by large natural resource using industries.

eco-tree A course on ecological economics should be ideally speaking, complemented by fieldwork that develop projects that have a bearing on sustainable development. Multi-media kits could be valuable supplementary tools to ensure that the course does not get patterned by the usual classroom based pedagogy. Projects chosen shall be based on live, experiential cases from India’s urban and rural areas and deal with topics such as sustainable urban waste management practices, willingness to pay studies with reference to water bodies, forests, and other biodiversity habitats located in rural and peri-urban areas, the economic impacts and social costs of climate stress on our cities and villages, and on assessing the ecological costs and benefits of mining and infrastructure projects.

Ideally these cases ought to be steered and guided by the teachers concerned, who should, if possible accompany student teams to the field and explain to them how they could apply the theories that they have learnt in their classrooms to practical field level issues and problems. Ideally, the field studies should take place over a week before the synthesis part of the course commences. This apart, the real utility of the field visits will be the opportunity that students get to listen to urban and rural poor on how the deteriorating natural resources base in their local environment contribute to their poverty.

Ideas for the classroom

Ecological economics starts with the assumption that all human activity, including economic, does not happen in isolation but is part of a larger ecosystem. Get your students to understand this human-environment interdependence with these following activities.

  • Ask the students to look at the different means of transport that they have used in the past week and identify the type of fuel they use, where this fuel may have come from and where the wastes that they leave out will go. For instance, if they have used a car in the past week, then where did the petrol or diesel for the car come from? Trace that to its origin. What about the smoke that comes out of the car? Where will that go?
  • Let the students choose a product that they regularly use, like the toothbrush, or their water bottles or even the shoes that they wear. Let them research and identify the raw materials required to make these products. Let them trace the manufacturing of this product from the beginning to the end. What are the other resources required to bring these products into shape? Labour, for instance. What will happen to these products once they are discarded? Where do they go?
  • We all know about the carbon footprint, but what is an ecological footprint? How concerned or not should we be about the ecological footprint.

(Note: Find these and similar ideas to introduce your students to ecological economics in the book Teaching Green: The High School Years: Hands-on Learning in Grades 9-12 edited by Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn.)

The author is Professor, economics and social sciences, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore. He can be reached at