Some thoughts on ecology, evolution and economics

Ecology, Economics and Evolution

The topics for this blog range in and out of what I am competent to talk about.  Yet the tale is no less fascinating for being told by a neophyte.  In particular, I propose to explore the fields of ecology, economics and evolution.  They have more in common than simple alliteration.

The first two are the household sciences, as indicated by their common root “oikos” which means “house” in Greek. The two sciences also share a systems approach to studying behaviour.  They consciously make an effort to see the sum total of interactions in ecological and economic systems.  They also put forward the concept of a higher level of organization than we can generally observe directly; an ecosystem represents those interactions between species and their physical environment in a given area, while an economy represents those interactions between buyers and sellers in a human community.  Both sciences are concerned with sustainability.  In ecology, the focus is on the sustainability of natural resources, including fresh water, soil, fish, wood and esthetic components of nature.  In economics, the focus is on the sustainability of wealth, which often includes the control of land and natural resources.

One area for contrasting the differences between ecology and economics is that of human population growth and its consequences.  Ecology is focused on the limits to growth and how it will eventually affect the quality and quantity of natural resources.  Economics is focused on the maintenance of economic growth which is, in part, fueled by increasing population size.  Part of the reason for this distinction is that the “house” or “oikos” that we are maintaining is larger in ecology than in economics.  Economists refer to ecological concepts as being externalities; that is, they are outside the “house” of buyers and sellers and beyond their influence.

How does evolution enter into this?  The term, which means “unfolding”, implies the revelation of a predetermined order of events.  This is ironic when referring to the modern study of the origin of species, since the science consciously and controversially rejects any predetermined fate in opposition to fundamentalist Christians and others.  My interest is not so much in the effect of evolution  on our cosmology and (indirectly, I suppose) on our ethics as in its effects in ecology.  It is clear from the fossil record and various chemical signals in our rocks and glaciers that the system of interacting organisms on the surface of this planet has not sustained itself very well.  Many kinds of climates and organisms have presented themselves in the past and these inform our attempts to predict the sustainability of our current crop of species and the current distribution of energy and water on the planet.

I would like to begin this blog by examining the role of variety in ecology and economics; specifically the variety of species in an ecosystem and the variety of incomes in an economy.  These two kinds of variation are critical for understanding ecological and economic theory.  It is interesting that two disciplines focused on how things remain the same (or sustainable) should also be focused on where variety comes from and how it is partly responsible for sustainability over time.

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