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December 6, 2007

Ecologist Argues for Progress over Profit

Money can’t buy happiness. At least that’s what’s indicated by surveys showing that, since the 1970s, our life satisfaction levels have merely held steady, despite an ever-increasing rise in gross domestic product (GDP). A better measure of human well-being, argues ecologist Robert Costanza, PhD, is the genuine progress indicator, or GPI.

Costanza made his remarks at the Eighth Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture, “Protecting the Commons,” sponsored by the Center for a Livable Future, and held recently at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Costanza said that in our statistical analyses of “progress,” we need to differentiate between income and well-being, and that our first economic goal should be sustainable human welfare. We have lived through a three-decade period of “uneconomic growth,” said Costanza, Gund Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and we are at a critical juncture in human history: “We need to put more effort into creating a vision of a sustainable and desirable future,” he said.

So how do we plan for and implement a future in which words like “happiness” and “satisfaction” figure into economic policy? First, we must redefine our notion of “the economy,” said Costanza. “Our current definition of the economy is much too narrow. Really, economy is everything that supports human well-being, and the purpose of economy is to sustain a high quality of life. That’s much larger than the notion of ‘market economy.’”

Another essential step would be to protect and preserve what Costanza calls “the commons,” or “public goods”—resources that include, among other things, air, water, ecosystems, music, languages and more. Culturally, we understand two types of property: public property, such as parks and libraries, and private property, such as homes and businesses. But we need a new, third sector of the economy—the commons sector—said Costanza, which would further implement institutions such as land trusts, farmers’ markets, watershed and airshed trusts, buffalo commons and more.

We underestimate the value of natural capital—food, water, fuel, climate regulation, recreation—as well as the importance of healthy ecosystems, said Costanza. With degraded ecosystems, we make ourselves more vulnerable to extreme weather events (think Hurricane Katrina; think drought; think forest fires), to disease, to unsafe water, to social isolation and to sedentary lifestyles. “Natural capital is a more significant contributor to sustainable human well-being than GDP,” said Costanza.

Ecological economics, a field that studies the intersection of ecosystems and human economies, galvanizes researchers such as Costanza in their calls to action. The field, and Costanza, calls for ecologically sustainable development, socially fair distribution of capital (including natural and social capital), and a scale of market economy that does not damage the ecosystems upon which it depends.

Speaking from the perspective of ecological economics, Costanza said that in order to sustain stable and efficient societies, we must maintain the resilience of our ecosystems. “We need to rethink property rights and the role of government in a more nuanced way,” he said. New ways of thinking about property and government will provide solutions to the problem of uneconomic growth, he said. Ecological tax reform, ecosystem service payments, impact fees for development tied to real impacts and an earth atmospheric trust are a few of the measures he proposed.

“It’s obvious when you think about it,” said Costanza, speaking of the genuine progress indicator and quality of life. “GDP is not the goal. It’s a means to an end.”  —Christine Grillo

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.