Ecological Economics, Dangerous Ideas, and Academic Freedom

by Matthew Burgess
CSTPR Core Faculty and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

Few things make me appreciate the importance of leaving space for discussing dangerous ideas—without fear of reprisal or censorship—in academia than teaching ecological economics and interacting with ecological economists. I developed a course at CU called “Sustainable Economies” (ENVS 3555, offered in Spring 2021, for those interested), which brings ecological economics together with traditional macroeconomics and some other topics related to political economy (tribalism, democracy, inequality, social capital, etc.). I also recently joined the International Society for Ecological Economics, and attended their U.S. affiliate’s annual conference this past summer.

Ecological economists discuss some pretty dangerous ideas. For instance, some ecological economists—and some students who take my class—argue that environmental sustainability demands radical de-growth, i.e. a radical decrease in the size of the economy. These arguments don’t always include specific numbers, but when they do they can be pretty drastic.

For instance, one argument I’ve seen starts from the target of halving CO2 emissions by 2030 (following the recent IPCC report on 1.5 degrees of warming), and assumes U.S. growth rates in population (0.5%/year) and CO2 intensity of GDP (–1.5%/year over the past two years) stay constant. To square these numbers with the target of halving emissions, some students calculate—correctly!—that we would need a ~6%/year decline in GDP per capita. To put this in context, this means we’d need an economic contraction larger than the Great Recession in 2008-2009 (which was about –5% per-capita GDP in the U.S.) every year for the next ten years. I have little doubt that an economic shock this severe would cause total sociopolitical breakdown, large increases of poverty, unrest, violence, and probably political movements far scarier than anything we have now.

I’ve also heard (e.g. here from a prominent climate journalist) arguments for immediately banning fossil fuels—despite the fact that they currently make up the vast majority of global energy use. Again, I have no doubt that doing this would cause widespread suffering, poverty, death, and probably violence—likely most acutely felt by the poor and marginalized.

Whether they’re right or wrong, these are very dangerous ideas!

But, I’m glad my students—and my colleagues—are willing to put these ideas forward. These ideas nicely tee up discussions of the sociopolitical implications of radical de-growth, which students might not otherwise discuss. Through rigorous, open, and unencumbered debate, my students, and our profession, will get to grapple with these concerns about radical de-growth or immediate de-carbonization, and weigh them against other very legitimate concerns about the consequences of not meeting climate targets, menus of other options, etc. As a result, we will all become better, more thoughtful, more precise scientists, climate advocates, policy makers, voters, and whatever else we may do in our lives and careers.

What would happen if we instead censored or reprimanded students, journalists, and scholars who put forward these ideas and opinions? Would they change their minds? Would students, parents, and politicians sympathetic to these views trust academics as arbiters of truth and public education? Would we be able to grapple with the important but unsettling tradeoffs that their views might raise (e.g. is it possible to cut emissions in half by 2030 without major de-growth? If so, how? If not, what should we do?)? Would the quality of education and scholarship improve? To my mind, the answer to all of these questions is clearly ‘no’, which is why I would never advocate for such censorship, nor would any of my colleagues, I suspect.

Nonetheless, I think this is a useful analogy for understanding why academic censorship—of even dangerous ideas—does more harm than good. It’s also useful for understanding why many conservatives have recently become skeptical of the value of higher education, as ideological concentration among faculty, and the censorship and chilling of conservative speech, have become more acute on many campuses (e.g., see here, here, and here). I suspect that many leftists would have the same jaded views of academia as many conservatives currently do if folks were harassed or hounded out of their jobs, administrative duties, teaching assignments, speaking engagements, etc., for expressing views in favor of radical de-growth or immediate fossil-fuel bans—ideas that are, objectively, far more dangerous than most of the conservative ideas that have invited censorship on campuses recently.    

Of course, even if we decide that some ideas are worth censoring, it usually doesn’t work, especially for political speech. Firing and de-platforming people for their ideas tends to give them and their ideas a bigger platform as martyrs, and tends to make their adherents angrier and more radical, rather than more willing to listen to countervailing facts or points of view. In other words, an academy with very robust academic freedom norms/policies, and an ability to discuss even dangerous ideas, makes our discourses and institutions smarter and stronger, not weaker; and it makes our policies better and less dangerous, not more dangerous. And constructive, rigorous discourse across ideological and political difference pours water on the fires of our division. Censorship usually pours gasoline on these fires. Credit where it is due, by the way: the ecological economists I have met get this, and are very open to both criticism and vigorous debate.

This will be my last Prometheus column before CSTPR closes this summer, and one reason I wanted to devote it to this topic is in honor of our founding Director, Roger Pielke Jr. Reactions to some of Roger’s work—from politicians, online pundits, and occasionally other scientists—have sometimes tested the guardrails of academic freedom—tests we at CU have passed at the institutional level. I have found Roger to be a smart and insightful voice, including in instances when I disagreed with him (e.g., we disagree on the implications of Robert Gordon’s work on economic growth, but we have since collaborated on a paper on a related topic). His book, The Honest Broker, provides helpful guidance for scientists on how to inform and interact with contentious policy debates.

Our CU Regent policies on academic freedom and free speech are now some of the best in the country, in my estimation. If we maintain this, it will only improve our reputation—as it has at the University of Chicago. It will also improve our ability to build a harmonious, inclusive, and diverse campus, as I argued previously in response to Academic Futures. I hope that our campus leadership and community will continue to appreciate this as we move forward with our “yearlong focus on academic freedom”. Schools that fail to uphold academic freedom tend to suffer in terms of reputation, enrollment, and also diversity—as has happened at Evergreen State College and the University of Missouri for instance, following high-profile rows on their campuses.

Thank you to all the staff, faculty, and leadership at CSTPR, who have made this a fun and intellectually stimulating place to work over the past two years.

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