The Poverty of Environmental Economics: Towards a New Research Agenda

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Please cite the paper as:
Jon Mulberg, (2012), The Poverty of Environmental Economics: Towards a New Research Agenda, World Economics Association (WEA) Conferences, No. 2 2012, Sustainability – Missing Points in the Development Dialogue, 24th September to 21st October, 2012



The world is in the middle of a massive global financial crisis. However, the main policy science – economics – has failed to predict or adequately explain the crisis. Nonetheless, no real questioning of the fundamentals of economics has occurred.

This paper uses the Foucauldian concepts of discourse, power and discipline to both examine this lack of reflection, and to move towards an alternative Green political economy. The paper outlines an archaeology of economics to reveal the hidden ruptures within economics, and to detail how attempts to reconcile these schisms have rendered economic concepts nonsensical. Consequently it is unable to adequately consider issues of environment or poverty.

The paper then sketches possible components of an alternative political economy based on the concept of allocation. The paper shows how understanding the legal basis of economic transactions can help a model of a political economy based on market control and other traditional Green notions of de-centralization, the eradication of wasteful production and sustainability, and provides suggestions for transformative action.

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2 responses

  • In this thought-provoking paper Mulberg points to the possibility of referring to Focault when scrutinizing neoclassical economics, more precisely neoclassical environmental economics. A political economics is advocated where ‘security’ is suggested as a leading concept.
    I think that there are more ways than one in questioning neoclassical theory. There can be criticism from within but also criticism where one is less respectful to the thoughts and arguments of neoclassical economists. In my case it is enough to argue that values and ideology are necessarily involved in any economics paradigm. Monopoly for one particular paradigm is then incompatible with normal ideas of democracy.
    In a note on page 14 Jon Mulberg welcomes comments to the fact that Focault rejects the concept of ‘ideology’. Ideology belongs to a category of contested concepts in the sense that it can be interpreted diferently by different actors. Since politicians, political parties and many other actors refer to their ideas in terms of ideologies, I think that it is a mistake to avoid this word. Ideology simply stands for a means-ends relationship; it is about where you are, where you want to go and how to get there. Ideology is seldom a mathematical objective function to be optimized but rather fragmentary and uncertain. It may even involve tensions but is still useful in guiding thought and action. Those of us who speak about political economics need to refer to the ideological orientations of individuals and organizations, I think. Admitting that values and ideology is necessarily involved in social science is hopefully a way of increasing tolerance betwen scholars. Our dialogue is not exclusively one of ‘truth claims’.

    • Jon Mulberg says:

      Thanks for reading this paper so closely Peter.

      The issue that several people raised was my use of Fay’s category of ‘False Consciousness’. They suggested that this implied that there was a ‘true consciousness’ to compare it to, and that this would contradict the whole notion of Foucauldian discourse.

      I’m content at present to simply hold a weak notion of this, in that it seems pretty clear that economic wants — and thier consequent expression within markets — are being manipulated, and that much of production is wasted on things that are not “really” wanted, but is rather the result of artificially created wants. This is, of course, a critique that goes back to Veblen and Galbraith. However it is hard to dispense with the notion of a ‘true consciousness’, indeed I myself just used the idea of what people “really” want. How do we know what that is? This is an example of why Foucault was insistent that simply replacing a modernist discourse with another one would not be progress, and why he was exercised with the use of ‘ideology’.

      I believe a Green Economics would be as concerned with demand management as with supplying to meet demand, but creating a legitimate process for this is a major challenge.

      Any observations on these debates would be appreciated.

      Jon Mulberg