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Seeking Consilience for Sustainability Science:Â Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and the New Economics


  • Joshua Farley

    (Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA)


The human system, driven largely by economic decisions, has profoundly affected planetary ecosystems as well as the energy supplies and natural resources essential to economic production. The challenge of sustainability is to understand and manage the complex interactions between human systems and the rest of nature. This conceptual article makes the case that meeting this challenge requires consilience between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, which is to say that their basic assumptions must be mutually reinforcing and consistent. This article reviews the extent to which economics is pursuing consilience with the sciences of human behavior, physics and ecology, and the impact full consilience would have on the field. The science of human behavior would force economists to redefine what is desirable, while physics and ecology redefine what is possible. The challenges posed by ecological degradation can be modeled as prisoner's dilemmas, best solved through cooperation, not competition. Fortunately, science reveals that humans may be among the most cooperative of all species. While much of the mainstream economic theory that still dominates academic and the policy discourse continues to ignore important findings from other sciences, several sub-fields of economics have made impressive strides towards consilience in recent decades, and these are likely to change mainstream theory eventually. The question is whether these changes can proceed rapidly enough to solve the most serious problems we currently face.

Suggested Citation

  • Joshua Farley, 2014. "Seeking Consilience for Sustainability Science:Â Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and the New Economics," Challenges in Sustainability, Librello publishing house, vol. 2(1), pages 1-17.
  • Handle: RePEc:lib:000cis:v:2:y:2014:i:1:p:1-17

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Martinez-Alier, Joan & Munda, Giuseppe & O'Neill, John, 1998. "Weak comparability of values as a foundation for ecological economics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 26(3), pages 277-286, September.
    2. Apergis, Nicholas & Payne, James E., 2010. "Energy consumption and growth in South America: Evidence from a panel error correction model," Energy Economics, Elsevier, vol. 32(6), pages 1421-1426, November.
    3. Cipriani, Giam Pietro & Lubian, Diego & Zago, Angelo, 2009. "Natural born economists?," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 30(3), pages 455-468, June.
    4. R. M. Solow, 1974. "Intergenerational Equity and Exhaustible Resources," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 41(5), pages 29-45.
    5. Malghan, Deepak, 2011. "A dimensionally consistent aggregation framework for biophysical metrics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(5), pages 900-909, March.
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    Cited by:

    1. Barry Ness & José Alberto Fernandez Monteiro, 2014. "Challenges in Sustainability: Another Brick in the Wall," Challenges in Sustainability, Librello publishing house, vol. 2(1), pages 28-29.

    More about this item


    anthropocene; cooperation; human behavior; interdisciplinarity;

    JEL classification:

    • D11 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Theory
    • D12 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Consumer Economics: Empirical Analysis
    • D13 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Household Production and Intrahouse Allocation
    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • D78 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Positive Analysis of Policy Formulation and Implementation
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • F64 - International Economics - - Economic Impacts of Globalization - - - Environment
    • F68 - International Economics - - Economic Impacts of Globalization - - - Policy
    • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty
    • O2 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Development Planning and Policy
    • O3 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights
    • O4 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Growth and Aggregate Productivity
    • Q - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics
    • R4 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - Transportation Economics
    • Y3 - Miscellaneous Categories - - Book Reviews
    • Z1 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics


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