A new article (Drews and van den Burgh, 2017) came out this month in Global Environmental Change that investigates expert opinion on the growth vs. the environment debate. The authors survey over 800 academics with publications directly on the topic as well as more generally on economics, environmental/resource/ecological economics, and related natural sciences.

The survey response rate was low – the 814 responses represent only 12% of the survey invitations. It is hardly surprising that academics ignored an email survey. One thing that seems even less surprising – and rather informative to the debate – is that authors who were invited because they had published in Environmental and Resource Economics between 2009-2014 had a 22% response rate while authors who published in the “Top 5” Economics journals (here, identified as American Economic Review (AER), Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy (JPE), Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE), and the Review of Economic Studies (RES)) had only a 3% response rate. It suggests quite a bit about what many ‘mainstream’ economists are thinking about this – they are not.

If you go to Econlit – the main search engine for economic literature – and search the AER (from 1946-now!) for ecol* anywhere, there are 6 (six!) hits. That’s it. When you use the search word “environment”, you get 233 hits, but a lot of those seem to be about ‘environment’ as in the ambient condition, not THE environment. The JPE has 2; RES has 1; Econometrica has none; the QJE has 2. (for perspective, ecol* as the search term for all journals has 12,674 hits).

Indeed – the findings of the paper confirm most expectations about the growth-environment debate – the more ‘mainstream’ the economist, the more likely he is to believe in growth and technology as forces that nullify concerns about the environment. They confirm a strong ideological bent to beliefs about growth and the environment as well – both in the answers about growth that were expressed in the questionnaires and in the answers about why there is disparity of opinion on this topic. This latter point is summarized in one of their tables, reproduced here:

table 10 env-growth experts

But back to the missing ‘mainstream economists.’ This important growth-environment debate is not the only silence from the profession with consequences to be on my mind right now. The recent renewal of reporting on the treatment of women in economics (especially on the Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR) page) and the related lack of attention paid to important work on gender issues throughout economics (see Justin Wolfer’s original story on EJMR and subsequent discussions from male and female economists alike – these are just two of many interesting perspectives being shared in response) directs our attention to similarly potent disengagement. A heartfelt plea for reform captures some of the blinders long in place: Jeffrey Brown, UI Business School Dean, senses only now, when lurid language is tossed around in data analysis that turns up significant biases, that these issues are systemic and need addressing.  Race is little different.

These consequences range widely. There are direct impacts within academia, where it affects everything from  individual research paths – with women and underrepresented minorities fleeing economics for other fields (also in the UK)- to the broader evolution of entire fields – see Trevon Logan’s excellent recent tweet-ise on Economic History’s travails, in addition to the aforementioned sidelining of gender (and family), race, and environmental topics.  And then there are the impacts as this limited view from ‘mainstream’ economics is translated to policy…

Which leads to, Whither ‘mainstream’ economics? The world is being intensively transformed by a wide range of complex realities that deeply impact human well-being and have everything to do with human behavioral responses to how we allocate scarce resources amongst unlimited wants (i.e. economics!): climate-change related disasters; populist, rationality-denying political upheavals; local and regional wars and accompanying refugee crises fought by entrenched stakeholders unwilling or unable to bargain any longer; increasing efforts to address social inequalities for race, gender and sexual orientation – and violent, damaging backlash against such progress. These are all bits and pieces of the past and current failure of GDP to measure well-being. The debate and the profession are deeply intertwined. But better growth or well-being accounting is just one of many dimensions in need of reform. If economics wishes to stay relevant, we need more accommodation in the profession to reward broader thinking and action that diversifies this thinking.

Image credit: By NASA/Apollo 17 crew; taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons