The world we see shapes the world we make

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Please cite the paper as:
Joachim H. Spangenberg, (2012), The world we see shapes the world we make, World Economics Association (WEA) Conferences, No. 2 2012, Sustainability – Missing Points in the Development Dialogue, 24th September to 21st October, 2012



The pre-analytic vision, world views or ontologies we hold determine how we perceive the world, its problems and possible solutions. Comparing neoclassical environmental economics and ecological economics, two elements of their respective ontologies turn out to explain their diverging recommendations: the topology (is the environment a part of the economy or vice versa?) and if thermodynamics has been integrated into the world view. Thus it makes limited sense to discuss the differences as they are generic – what we need is a discussion which world view stands the reality test.

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6 responses

  • David Oldroyd says:

    This is perhaps the most fundamentally revealing of the papers I have so far read at this conference, particularly for a reader not trained in the discipline of economics and not fully acquainted the progression of that discipline through various sub-disciplines: classical, Keynesian, neoclassical, environmental and ecological, not to mention the return to a Marxist perspective. I have read and been impressed by David Harvey’s analysis though concerned by is lack of strategic proposals about how to bring about radical transformation.
    Setting out the basic world views as you do takes us to a level that lies beneath much of the technical argument cast in the jargon of economics that presents barriers of understanding to a non-specialist. I found the use of simplifying diagrams particularly helpful and, as an educator, see their value in reaching a wider audience. A high purpose in education (including conferences) is to encourage critical thinking to the level of questioning the assumptions that learners hold and upon which they base their worldviews. The force of most people’s socialised and culturally reinforced worldviews can occasionally be overcome by intellectual effort among a small minority of people who have the intellect, interest, determination and time to access appropriate sources. But sadly, the demands of such deep analysis are beyond the scope of the majority, particularly when the ‘enterprise’ of global mass education is being commodified in a manner similar to nature’s so-called externalities. The global preoccupation with ‘standards’ and ‘international comparisons of measurable student outcomes’ largely distracts from addressing the ‘wicked problems’ that we now face.
    Given that the road to transition requires mass and radical questioning of assumptions which lead to action of the sort advocated by Dellheim’s paper and the managed de-growth that is likely needed to forestall collapse, it is distressingly hard to envisage how such a process might come about beyond select sub-groups such as the WEA. If even the wider community of economists remains resistant to changing basic assumptions in the light of ecological and thermodynamic realities, than what chance the population of democratic voters at large?
    Nevertheless we must persist in using the force of argument against forces of mass socialisation and also against the flawed paradigms of economics and sustainable development revealed in Sanders’ paper. Sadly, the forces of mass socialisation are backed by the power of corporate interests over the media and indeed over many of those who run the state.
    John Gray (1998) in his prophetic “False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism” arrives at the dismal conclusion that our biggest delusion is that ‘the conviction that humankind’s ills can be cured by an act of will’. If this is so, then understanding the world through the perspective of ecological economics, problematic though that is to ‘sell’, may not be enough to help us to re-make the world to contain human impact with planetary limits! but if the acolytes of Hayek, Friedman could ‘sell’ their laissez-faire market ideology to powerful actors such as Thatcher, Greenspan and others whose power operated outside the circles of academia, then why not hope that the critiques offered in this conference’s papers may eventually have such impact? Therefore I encourage you and your colleagues to continue to share your critical perspective and also to consider how it might better be made accessible to a wider audience less blessed with the intellect, interest, determination and time that you enjoy.

    • Thank you for the positive assessment of understandability and educational usefulness. Indeed I go from the assumption that we need a more basic assessment of the disciplines, in particular of economics, and some compelling means to communicate the differences. Hope it insprires other as well to dig a bit deeper and try to get the basics right instead of curing the symptoms…
      Joachim Spangenberg

  • T.E.Manning says:

    “Poverty is created scarcity” (Wahu Kaara, at point 8 of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, 58th annual NGO Conference, United Nations, New York 7 September 2005.) The word “scarcity” appears just once in the Spangenberg paper, at p. 5, where it appears to be used in an indirect reference to the cradle to cradle system. Yet Wahu Kaara’s concept, which is implied in the well-cited passage from the Brundtland report on p. 11, is crucial to the author’s thesis. As the author implies, the commodification of the Commons leads to control, “pricing” and scarcity creation by a dominating elite in its own interests.

    At p. 15 the author states that [innovation]”includes for instance a transition to a nuclear and carbon free energy system, dematerialisation, ending land use extension (and of course land grabbing), limiting transport volumes, and sustainable agriculture on 100% of the land.” It is assumed the author means “nuclear-free and carbon-free…” but the sentence as it stands looks like a plea for nuclear energy and carbon-free energy.

    Sadly, the paper in its present form is too complex for it to be used as a reference, for example, at website Authors,if you want your work to be read by a wider public, please put it into plain, easily comprehensible language.

    • Thanks for referring to the quote on poverty as made scarcity – absolutely in line with the thread of the paper.
      Also thanks for highlighting the misunderstanding my “Germish” could possibly cause (in German the term “nuclear and carbon free” would clearly indicate free of both); I’ll change that before submitting the paper.
      Regarding complexity, the issues at stake are indeed complex, and I have tried to make the best out of it. Comment 3 accuses me of oversimplifying, you consider the text too complex to be really useful, but commentor 1 takes the graphs as helping to understand the message. As I have tried to strike a balance, these diverging comments, preferring the one or the other side, are not really surprising – anyway, all proposal how to make the text better accessible without losing substance and coherence are welcome.

  • I reckon this paper, valuable as it is, postulates too sharp a contrast between regular economic analysis and the green economy. There are areas of policy, where setting a price on a critically scarce resource would provide information concerning the cost of things made by using / overstressing the resource. This applies not only to prioritising its use to where we really need it, but also on the viability and efficiency of alternative ‘backstop’ technologies, such as renewable energy.

    Carbon pricing is the obvious example. The real obstacle to assigning a cost to emissions is the income distribution side of deciding who owns the atmosphere and to whom its rental value should be paid. You cannot organise a market in a so far common resource, without deciding to whom its price should be paid. That is an issue which is so far not getting the attention it deserves.

    Not all forms of environmental degradation can be contained by setting a price on them. It is obviously absurd to even think about setting a price on the survival of a particular form of life, unless it is of known immediate use to humans.

    Could I also comment that, without a real will to face the issue of environmental degradation, non market methods of economic management do not for that reason alone do any better. There were some fine words about the environment in the constitution of the former Soviet Union, but its environmental record was, if anything, worse than that of capitalism.

    Aart Heesterman

    • I agree with the commentor that not all kinds of economic instruments in environmental policy should be ruled out,m and that they are part of an effective policy mix – the paper should not be read to deny that. However, in this context, economic instruments are understood as means of incentivising – regardless WTP/WTA analyses, other stated preference methods or any attempts to value nature and its services in monetary terms to incorporate them in CBA, accounting etc. Economics can be helpful to identify cost effective means of implementation, based on market cost, but should not be allowed to define the objectives – it is not capable of adequately covering major aspects of qualitative differences.
      Joachim Spangenberg