I, along with fellow writer Nicky Smit and Professor Lea Fortmann, had the incredible opportunity to attend the CANUSSEE (Canada & United States Societies for Ecological Economics) Conference two weekends ago in Vancouver B.C. For those of you who aren’t familiar with ecological economics, it is a growing interdisciplinary field that aims to reform basic economic theory and reverse the paradigm that monetary growth measures the success of a society. Ecological economists criticize the anthropocentric nature of neoclassical economists, and emphasize the fact that the economy is a subset of nature, rather than the other way around. Most importantly, they emphasize the need to drastically alter our relationship with money. Although these might sound like pipe dreams, academics, scientists, and advocates alike are making substantial strides in making ecological economics part of mainstream economic dialogue.
I heard dozens of brilliant and provocative people speak about topics ranging from what developed countries should talk about at the Paris Climate Summit, to Indigenomics, a small sect of economics that focuses on optimizing value through self-determination. Amidst the constant flow of information, there were a few speakers who especially stood out to me. I will talk about two incredible speakers who especially resonated with me through their stories and beliefs.
The first was economist Mark Anielski, frequently dubbed as “God’s Accountant”. Anielski wrote the bestseller The Economics of Happiness and currently runs a consulting firm that uses the self-pioneered Genuine Wealth model in helping organizations and communities assess their overall economic, social, health, and environmental well-being. In his talk, he emphasized that financial capital is only one small facet of what should be accounted for in business and government. Rather, there are five assets of genuine wealth: financial capital, built capital, natural capital, social/cultural capital, and human capital. Although these five facets are commonly written about in literature, he expands his definition of each type of capital. He extends built capital beyond the usual idea of buildings for firms by also accounting for parks and other infrastructure that has recreational and intrinsic value. He extends natural capital to not only extractable resources, but also ecological services and traditional use benefits. Usually, human capital is referred to as laborers, but he redefines it as self-actualization and foundational well being. Overall, he believes that the economy, productivity, and prosperity are aligned with human values locally, and that everything is interrelated. I believe that his method of accounting would not only be useful for businesses, but could likely be implemented into national policy when countries make economic decisions.
Another speaker who stood out to me was Majora Carter. Although she isn’t an ecological economist in a formal sense, she has furthered the ideals through her incredible accomplishments as an urban revitalization strategy consultant. One of her most impressive projects was revitalizing her home neighborhood, the South Bronx. Due to redlining in the 1970s, the South Bronx was desperately impoverished and lacked any sort of infrastructure because policy made it so that the city of New York provided no loans or investments in the neighborhood. This obviously led to environmental, social, and economic degradation. In fact, the Bronx had the largest burden of environmental damages in all of New York City. After returning to the South Bronx to get her Master of Fine Arts at NYU, she realized that people don’t have to move out of an impoverished community to live in a better one. During her undergraduate education, she learned about a study in Chicago that showed that the mere presence of more trees in a housing project could decrease crime, teen pregnancy, and dropout rates. The simplicity of this solution really resonated with her, and she began to pioneer a concept called “greening the ghetto” where she began to redesign her neighborhood to give people greater access to a connection with nature and the community around them. By simply creating parks and planting more flora in her neighborhood, she saw that the spiritual and psychological wellbeing of her neighbors increased when they lived around aesthetically pleasing areas. People began to spend more time outside, which lead to more meaningful connections within the residences, and eventually the crime rate in the South Bronx dropped drastically. It was amazing to not only hear her story, but to also realize that many complex problems have simple ecological solutions.
Needless to say, I was absolutely inspired and moved by the CANUSSEE conference. It not only gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for a branch in economics that deviates from the mainstream neoclassical norm, but it has also made me consider pursuing a career in academia. My gratitude goes to the Economics Department for funding Nicky, Lea, and me. CANUSSEE was an event that I will never forget!