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Interviews. “Building an ecological economy, between science and politics”

Entretiens croisés. « Construire une économie écologique, entre science et politique »
Entrevistas. “Construir una economía ecológica, entre ciencia y política”
Inge Røpke, Clive Spash, Louison Cahen-Fourot, Gaël Plumecocq et Franck-Dominique Vivien

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1The editorial board of the Revue de la régulation and the coordinators of the special issue wish to thank Inge Røpke and Clive Spash for their time answering our questions. They both are leading European ecological economist. Each of them has been instrumental in energising and structuring the ecological economics community, by providing both intellectual ground to the field, and organising the European Society (complementary elements may be found in another interview by Clive Spash published in the journal Développement Durable et Terriroires (Spash et al., 2023).

2Inge Røpke is currently Professor Emeritus at Alborg University, Denmark. She serves as National Country contact at the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE). Clive Spash holds the Chair of Public Policy and Governance at WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria. He was President of the ESEE from 2000 to 2006.

3The look Inge Røpke and Clive Spash take at ecological economics, not only as a community but also as an intellectual field is fuelled by their reflexive academic works and their involvement in the community. They provide insight not only as regards to the structuration of a scientific field, but more fundamentally on the societal topics that are relevant to regulation theory: the ability of capitalism to transform itself, the transformative potential of scientific communities, the challenges of degrowth, etc.

Revue de la régulation: The both of you are currently central in the field of ecological economics. How did each of you came to ecological economics?

Inge Røpke: I was trained as an economist in the 1970s, and from the 1980s I worked at the Technical University of Denmark, teaching engineering students economics and broader perspectives on technology and society. I was always inspired by what we would now call heterodox strands of thought –Marxist and other socio-economic perspectives, economics of innovation, science and technology studies, etc.

In the late 1980’s, when a wave of interest in the environment emerged in the wake of the Brundtland report, I started working with environmental issues. Many engineering students asked for courses on the social and economic aspects of the environment. Simultaneously, my research was turned in the same direction when a colleague invited me to take part in an evaluation of Denmark’s first subsidy program for clean technology. To present the results of this research, we went to a European conference on environmental economics in 1990. While we enjoyed being in Venice, we experienced most of the conference, with one neoclassical mathematical exercise after the other, as being very boring. Our own work was inspired by the economics of innovation and provided a critique of the traditional treatment of subsidies in the literature on environmental regulation (later published in Georg, Røpke & Jørgensen, 1992) –we did not fit in. After that experience, we were looking for other communities dealing with economics and the environment. The opportunity arose with The Second Meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in Stockholm, in August 1992. Here, I presented a paper with a critical assessment of the free trade dogma. I was lucky that the paper was included in a lively and interesting session with several other papers on trade and environment, which later resulted in a special issue of the journal (Røpke, 1994). This gave me a flying start in the community. The conference was a great experience with interesting contributions from many different disciplines and also from people with a heterodox economics background. I felt much more at home.

Clive Spash: I was doing a PhD in Economics at the University of Wyoming where resource and environmental economics was then a core area. My supervisor, Ralph d’Arge, was one of the very few (two or three) economists working on climate change in those days and that was the topic of my thesis. Ralph was invited to give a plenary at the first ecological economics conference in Washington DC and I wrote the paper, which we co-authored (d’Arge & Spash, 1991). Ralph had been engaged in the foundation of environmental economics and its journal JEEM. At the outset there was some idea of ecological economics moving things forward again after it seemed to many that policy impact had stalled. Once I returned to Europe, around 1990, I was active in the Environmental and Resource Economics (ERE) community and ran the European society newsletter. However, my research was going in a different direction and was highly critical of mainstream orthodox approaches, e.g. interest in intrinsic values, future generations, ethics, lexicographic preferences. My interactions and networks became increasingly distanced from the neoclassical doctrines of ERE. The distinction between ecological economics and ERE was not so clear at the outset, but within a few years it crystallised. The dogmatism of people like Maler, Dasgupta and Pearce was totally off-putting, as was the mathematical formalism and unreality of the models.

IR: The early 1990s was a period when environmental issues were taken up by many different heterodox economics communities. For instance, the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy held a conference in Barcelona in 1993 with a focus on environment. However, the interest soon faded, and during the following decades environmental issues remained marginal in most heterodox economics communities. The International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) and the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE) became the most obvious affiliation for heterodox economists working with the environment.

RR: Yes, but ISEE and ESEE did not rose from scratch. People such as you two were instrumental. Which role did you play in the development of ecological economics?

CS: My formal roles were as Vice President and President of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE), elected to two terms in each post, spanning a decade. I have also been on the board of the journal Ecological Economics from some time. I organised and obtained funding for two “Frontiers” conferences for the ESEE. Of course, I have also been on lots of conference committees over the years, reviewed papers and books. More broadly I was engaged in several projects, over about 15 years, that brought together the ecological economics community in Europe. I also facilitated development via the journals for which I have been an editor, i.e., Environment & Planning C and Environmental Values.

In terms of teaching, I initiated an ecological economics undergraduate degree at Stirling in the early 1990s, but it did not survive my leaving. I taught ecological economics courses at Cambridge. I pushed for European summer schools and taught on various ones that the ESEE community organised […]. I think my publications also add to all this and both the work on critically exploring the field (Spash, 2013a; 2013b; Spash & Ryan, 2012), defining the research area and the Handbook that identifies core themes (Spash, 2017b). There is also my development of social ecological economics (Spash, 2012, 2017a).

IR: To be honest, I’m not very fond of organisational work. Only after having been a member of the society for about three decades, I was so ashamed of not having served on the Board of neither ISEE, nor ESEE that I decided to stand for the ISEE Board. For three years I have now done my duty and gladly hand over to others. Over the decades I have taken on minor tasks such as being on scientific committees in relation to many conferences, I have been on the election committee of ESEE, and serving as an ineffective country contact for Denmark. I have been an active reviewer for the journal, co-edited a couple of special issues, and for a short period been an Associate Editor at a time when it was a purely nominal post (the token woman).

My most important contribution to the development of the society has been the writing of the two papers on the modern history of the field (Røpke, 2004; 2005). My impression is that they are much used by newcomers as an introduction to the field. Furthermore, I have co-edited with Joan Martinez-Alier the two volumes “Recent Developments in Ecological Economics” from 2008 (Martinez-Alier & Røpke, 2008).

RR: It is interesting to note that both of you refer to scientific work as significant elements for structuring the ecological economics community. In your experience, is there a shared epistemological ground to ecological economics, and if so, what this would be?

IR: I don’t think you can say that ecological economics was built on a particular epistemological ground. The openness towards accepting different approaches was and is a decisive feature of the field. Is plurality an epistemological ground? Maybe something on systems theory? Maybe something on history, context-dependency, path-dependency, the construction of institutions? Transdisciplinarity, post-normal science?

CS: There was no epistemological ground ever made explicit for ‘building’ knowledge or grounds on which knowledge could claim validity. The paper by Norgaard (1989) on ‘methodological pluralism’ did not advance any methodology and merely advocated eclecticism, which is not an epistemology. He and others have vacillated between the naïve objectivism of natural science and some form of postmodern constructionism. The fact is economics itself is a chaotic mess in terms of epistemology, which it normally calls methodology. There is also a divorce in both cases between claimed approaches and actual practice.

Perhaps the most progressive element relating to epistemology was the critique coming from post-normal science (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1994). This then lent itself to explorations of public engagement in the science-policy interface. However, this is also distinct from developing an epistemological approach for scientific investigation and was primarily targeted at questioning expert control of projects and policies.

IR: I think it is central to ecological economics that social theory should be informed by new results from the natural sciences and mixed sciences such as anthropology. Ecological economists would try to avoid positions and theories that are in outright contradiction with established insights from the natural sciences, although these are, of course, also always preliminary. There is an open eye towards what is going on with regard to the understanding of nature and of human history. For instance, I think that the recent book by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021) will influence ecological economics.

CS: The original amalgamation of positions varied between disciplines and regions. In the USA the approach was more multidisciplinary with an ecology and economics approach achieved via linked formal modelling. This is why a thrust of thinking did not have any issue with mainstream economics. Feeding variables off unreconstituted optimisation models regardless of discipline leaves the model and disciplines unaffected. Talk of transdisciplinarity merely meant cherry picking ideas and not involving the public in research as strong transdisciplinarity requires. In Europe there was this aspect but also more critical social science. Post-normal science was, for example, prominent within the ESEE for the first decade. There was also applied philosophy adding critical reflection on values and evaluation methods. Seeking social scientific knowledge and understanding was then more serious and involved participatory research, interdisciplinarity and strong transdisciplinarity.

RR: On both your trajectory you mention that you needed to break up from standard environmental economics. But, more generally, what was the relation of ecological economics to environmental and natural resources economics? And how has this relation evolved, according to you?

IR: This relationship is a matter of controversy –not a question that can be answered with any authority. Again, we do not have powerful gatekeepers. Over time, mainstream environmental and resource economists have increasingly come to acknowledge the existence of ecological economics. Partly because some mainstream economists increasingly understand the seriousness of the climate challenge, while the understanding of biodiversity is still lacking behind. Partly because the journal became a useful outlet. From their perspective, part of ecological economics is simply a subfield of environmental and resource economics focusing on, in particular, strong sustainability, natural capital and ecosystem services, while many other issues that ecological economists deal with are not considered relevant for economics at all. From an ecological economics perspective, the question is to which extent mainstream economic reasoning is relevant for ecological economics. Obviously, the views differ here. In my opinion, we should not apply the basic ideas and concepts of neoclassical economics. As I have argued in the paper on Econ 101 (Røpke, 2020), the performativity of basic neoclassical economics is highly problematic and counterproductive in relation to sustainability transitions and justice. However, I am open to subsume various specific insights from mainstream economics (not particularly from environmental and resource economics) into a new economic framework. Take, for instance, the framework categorising goods according to rivalry in use and exclusion costs. We cannot claim this as an ecological economics idea, but it is useful for framing various debates. Furthermore, some mainstream economists have important insights regarding the workings of current institutions that we need to draw on when we consider how to change these institutions. For instance, this applies to finance and tax systems.

CS: The relationship to ERE depends on regions these days. The India society recently lauded the orthodox mainstream economists Maler and Dasgupta. The journal allows anything, so that ERE researchers who have no connection to the ISEE, or regional societies, never attended a conference, have never been members and write nothing related to the literature are allowed to publish there because they address something vaguely environmental. ESEE went through a stage where ERE people left, and it became more focussed and coherent for a while. However, things have become a mess again, as evident at the conference in Pisa [in 2022], with totally mainstream economists reappearing. In generally ERE folk regard ecological economics as a joke, or a minor subfield of their own, but like to publish in the journal to get citations ranking. Ecological economics has continued to pretend it has some reason to be associated, which it does not. There is no meaningful interchange possible here. Claims of being pluralist in methodology/epistemology have not helped at all.

IR: [T]he importance of the journal is worth mentioning. For me, as well as for other heterodox economists with an interest in the environment, it was decisive to have this publication outlet. It would have been very difficult to get published in mainstream journals. The journal has sometimes been criticised for publishing neoclassical environmental economics, but paradoxically, this has been useful for the heterodox contributors. The neoclassical papers helped to make the journal an acknowledged outlet with a reasonable citation score, thus boosting the CV of people like me.

RR: And currently, what are the distinctive features of ecological economics? Are these distinctive features the same in 2023 as in the 1980s?

IR: When I introduce ecological economics, I usually start by comparing ecological economics with mainstream economics in a simple way: the ecological economic perspective is about thinking in terms of real resources instead of money. Money as such has no value and can, in principle, be increased ad libitum. The amount of money is limited only by social institutions constructed by humans, while the real resources such as energy, labour, raw materials, land, machines and tools are limited in biophysical terms. Furthermore, humans are a species that is just as dependent on energy as other species, and therefore, energy should be at the core of economic reasoning –which is certainly not the case in mainstream economics. Then I introduce the idea of social metabolism and some of the metrics that are developed within this research program, “calculating in nature” instead of money. Based on these metrics as well as a framework such as planetary boundaries, I argue, following Daly (2005), that we are in a “full world”. Technological change can be helpful in reducing the social metabolism, but ecological economists seldom rely only on technological miracles, which constitutes another dividing line between ecological economics on the one hand and mainstream economics as well as other technology optimists on the other. In this situation, I think that most ecological economists agree that we face an ethical challenge: we are openly political when we argue that the Global North should reduce consumption to make it possible to increase consumption in the Global South. There might be less agreement when it comes to the more radical understanding of how the large global inequalities came about historically, how they are maintained through unequal exchange and various forms of violence, and how some people’s wealth and other people’s poverty are two sides of the same coin. Whereas I subscribe to such Marxist inspired interpretations of the history by Martinez-Alier, Hornborg, Kallis, and others, I think that this would be met with skepticism by others who identify with ecological economics, or they would consider the topic to be beyond the field of ecological economics.

In the version of ecological economics that I subscribe to, another key issue regards the incommensurability of values. Since prices are historical constructions based on large inequalities and asymmetric power relations, they do not constitute a relevant metric for social decision-making. However, none of the biophysical metrics developed to measure social metabolism constitutes a relevant alternative as a basis for measuring value. Social decision-making ought to rely on democratic processes involving a number of relevant both biophysical and social concerns. This view is obviously in contrast to mainstream economics, but it is also controversial among researchers who identify with ecological economics. While my introductions to the field typically include a fundamental critique of valuation exercises, I also acknowledge that we often have to fight on two battlefields: one is about the more general perspective and understanding, the other concerns the daily battle in relation to governance where it can be important to fight over the discount rate and the value of a statistical life in order to get better environmental regulation.

CS: A foundational element is relating social and economic systems to underlying biophysical structure. This was present in the work of Georgescu-Roegen and picked-up from him by Daly. Additional features are relating to ecosystems structure and function, being realist about the economy as an open system, and addressing value and ethics. The basic understanding remains the same but important aspects have neglected including Georgescu-Roegen’s concept of funds and his critique of arithmomania in economics. Overall, the focus of Daly was on one element of the foundational concerns, namely economic growth. The other is the role of price-making markets and environmental values. This has foundations in the work of Kapp (Kapp, 1970; Berger, 2008), his critique of monetary valuation and institutional theory of cost-shifting (as opposed to externality theory). Reluctance amongst many to take a stand against the paradigm of price-making markets has created a contradiction in the position of those opposing growth, because they back down from the logic of their anti-capitalist positions and attempt to maintain capitalist market economies without the capital accumulation which is at their core. So, the two paradigmatic positions which ecological economics has opposed remain the same and the thrust of research has then been to develop alternatives which has led to people going in different directions e.g., post-growth, degrowth.

RR: Ecological economics is therefore concerned by the role of capitalism in environmental issues. How do you analyse the evolution of the relation to the environment in contemporary capitalism?

CS: I don’t think there has been any evolution! Capitalism exploits the environment as it does labour, and this is structural. What has changed is the new commodity forms and financialisation of Nature. What has happened is the corporate capitalism has been forced to respond to the environmental crisis and has done so by co-opting environmental NGOs, creating its own sustainability accreditations, and attempting to control public policy. The banking and finance sector has become an increasingly important player in this game. Hence their support for emissions trading, biodiversity offsets and use of regulation to create new markets (e.g., the EU’s new taxonomy).

IR: For some sectors, the environmental challenges are still something to be denied or downplayed. For instance, businesses in fossil energy production, car industry and animal farming still lobby to avoid or postpone climate regulation, just as the chemical industry lobbies against tighter regulation regarding dangerous chemicals. For other sectors, the environmental challenges are profitable and imply the opening of new business opportunities. In a Danish context, for example, firms like Vestas (wind turbines), Grundfos (pumps) and Danfoss (thermostats) have supported stricter climate regulation for a long time. The current rush for hydrogen production and Power-to-X is an example of new business opportunities, which also exemplifies how business asks for government intervention to provide infrastructure that can make private investments profitable. In general, we see a revival of more active industrial and innovation policies after a couple of decades with more focus on liberalisation. This is probably first of all motivated by geopolitics and the experience of the pandemic, but it is intertwined with the transition to renewable energy, altogether calling for shorter supply chains and access to materials and key innovations. The transition to renewable energy also provides new opportunities for rent seeking. In particular, land becomes ever scarcer, and new resources such as sites to place wind turbines emerge as key assets. From an ecological economics point of view, there is a striking lack of focus on the environmental and social costs related to the extraction of the materials that are used to install and use renewable energy.

RR: It seems that the degrowth community is more critical or more radical than ecological economics. What are the differences between the two?

IR: The degrowth community is more like a movement and less academically focused than most of the current ecological economics communities that, however, differ widely across the world. The degrowth community reminds me of the ISEE conference in Costa Rica in 1994 –a very colourful event with many civil society participants, taking place in a period when environmental issues were high on the agenda. Similarly, the degrowth community emerged as a new movement at a time when the climate agenda had a breakthrough. Maybe the main difference is that the degrowth community is younger than ecological economics.

CS: Degrowth is a social movement, not a scientific paradigm or theory. What would epistemology mean to a social movement? If I were to start randomly taking people who affiliate with degrowth, what would you expect? There are elements of political pragmatism, non-scientific activists, artists, researchers coming from different backgrounds and for some a link back into ecological economics as a theoretical basis.

IR: [M]y impression is that ecological economics can be seen as the economics of the degrowth community. Although ecological economics is a very broad field, covering all sorts of topics and inspiration from various disciplines, degrowth is even broader. Having economics as part of the name provides a sort of boundary for ecological economics: to fall within this boundary, the topic should have some relation to social provisioning. Degrowth is not limited in a similar way.

RR : More broadly, how does ecological economics fit into political economy? And what possible convergences do you see between ecological economics and regulation approach, or post-Keynesian economics?

IR: Since ecological economics became the academic home for many heterodox economists with an interest in the environment, the field is strongly influenced by understandings that are shared by most heterodox economists: we are interested in classical institutionalist and evolutionary perspectives, path dependency, dynamics, crises and qualitative change, and critical towards methodological individualism, the idea of equilibrium, and mathematics for its own sake. However, when it comes to heterodox macroeconomic theories about capitalist crises, the workings of money and finance, and qualitative changes of the capitalist institutions over time, these played a limited role in ecological economics until the financial crisis. However, in the wake of the crisis, the situation changed dramatically, and ecological economists started to draw on insights from these fields. For old people like me, this meant a revival of old interests, since I worked with various, mostly Marxist inspired, theories about economic crises, imperialism, and qualitative changes of capitalism back in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the Regulation school and the Social Structures of Accumulation approach. Of course, much has happened since then, and issues such as money and finance have become much more prominent. Simultaneously, there has been a movement from the other side. With the increasing prominence of the climate crisis, various heterodox economics communities (again) took more interest in environmental issues. We meet in the middle with the formation of ecological macroeconomics that can be seen as a subfield of several communities.

In addition to meeting points in relation to specific research topics, I think there is increasing interest in cooperation between heterodox communities around the development of a new economics. Most of us would agree that mainstream economics is unfit to meet the challenges of all the different and interdependent crises we are facing and sometimes rather contributes to the deepening of the crises. As I argue in the Econ 101 paper (Røpke, 2020), we need a new fundamental structure of economic reasoning where the core is formulated as an independent and self-contained perspective that does not rely on a previous introduction of mainstream economics.

RR: Looking at the future of ecological economics, what are for you the most important research in the field and the main avenues of research and progress for the next years?

IR: A tough question. There are so many issues that deserve further investigation. My list below is not meant to suggest that other issues are not important.

We are running out of time with regard to making transitions “by design, not disaster” (Victor, 2008). We have learned from systems thinking in relation to ecosystems and Earth system science to be aware of biophysical tipping points, and now we really need to identify the social tipping points: how can we get into a situation where sufficiently strong social actors really want to act on the challenges? How can power relations change in a way so that actors who want to transform societies in more sustainable and just directions become stronger? Can research contribute to bring us closer to such tipping points? I don’t know. The following are just some tentative suggestions.

One contribution can be to expose the injustice and violence of current social systems, as e.g., the work on environmental conflicts. This includes also the increasing interest in uncovering the mechanisms of rent-seeking in different areas from finance to property rights and developing proposals that can counter these mechanisms. As Sayers argues, “we can’t afford the rich”, so we need to expose their methods of appropriation and of avoiding contributions to the common good through tax havens, etc. The work by Piketty, Zucman, Saez and others is important to highlight the inequalities and encourage popular support for change. The whole issue of pre-distribution and redistribution is decisive for transformation. We need to get much closer to the actual actors, institutions, and actions than general references to “capital” and “capitalism” can do.

Currently, sustainability transformation relies on the channeling of investments away from “black” to “green” sectors based on profitability. Governments can influence the relative profitability through various incentives such as CO2-taxes, subsidies, differentiated capital requirements for banks, etc. However, as long as green investments require positive returns, the transformation relies on making the rich ever richer, and some incentives even imply that asset owners are paid by the public for doing the right thing. Research can focus on developing more radical measures and proposals for institutional changes that reduce profit expectations in general and make investments compatible with justice, emphasizing that ownership as such does not contribute anything productive. This calls for an ecological macroeconomics that can take structural change into account. Current macroeconomic models are made to analyze the impacts of various measures within the given institutional structures. The mainstream models can be criticized for doing this in a highly ideological way, based on neoclassical assumptions, but further steps are needed to develop new models that can analyze, for instance, changing ownership structures, extension of the commons, restrictions on cross-boundary capital flows, etc.

To improve the chances for transition by design, not disaster, there is a need to further develop the images of more sustainable future provisioning systems. Of course, energy systems are central, and it is important to discuss how far can we get with renewable energy and in which ways. What position should we take on hydrogen, Power-to-X, and other technologies? How can we promote the understanding that new energy technologies, which also have environmental and social costs, should not be used as an excuse for ever expanding consumption for all of us who already have more than enough?

One of the most decisive transformations of provisioning systems must take place in agriculture, since humans should withdraw from large areas of land by reducing animal farming dramatically. Monbiot has argued that it will be much easier to persuade most people to become vegans when good alternatives to animal products are available. He suggests that alternatives may be underway with farmfree food such as proteins and fats based on microbial precision fermentation, run by renewable energy. How should this perspective be assessed? How can monopolisation of the new technologies be avoided? How can the development benefit the poor?

A recurring topic is the need for a transformation of the dominant view of nature. As e.g., both Hickel and Monbiot argue, recent scientific insights about communication and co-operation in nature go hand in hand with old animist understandings that everything is connected and interdependent. Taking this in would imply a deeper motivation for taking care of nature. However, it is not clear how the public and dominant economic actors, in practice, can be inspired to move away from dualism and acknowledge the ethical responsibility that follow from the interdependency. This could be an issue worth exploring.

Finally, it is difficult to avoid geopolitics these days. Everything else fades if military conflicts escalate. What can be done to de-escalate? Can the West get more allies by acknowledging the violent history and the historical debt it has incurred through exploitation of other countries? Ecological economic perspectives on the history and the current mechanisms of exploitation may contribute to a process of repayment.

RR: You have produced analyses of the community of ecological economists and of what this community should be. How do you appreciate its current state?

IR: It seems to me that ecological economics has some tailwind at the moment. The core ideas are increasingly popularized through the degrowth community and through the successful diffusion of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut economics. The young people in “Rethinking Economics” are aware of the field, and so are other heterodox economics communities. Organizationally, it is positive to see the recruitment of many new and engaged people to the Board of ISEE. Also, the journal is in good progress with the recruitment of a larger group of Associate Editors to help the overworked Editors-in-Chief. Finally, my impression is that heterodox approaches are becoming relatively more influential than mainstream approaches within the field, but maybe this reflects wishful thinking.

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Inge Røpke, Clive Spash, Louison Cahen-Fourot, Gaël Plumecocq et Franck-Dominique Vivien, « Interviews. “Building an ecological economy, between science and politics” »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 35 | 2nd semestre|Autumn 2023, mis en ligne le 08 janvier 2024, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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