A Matter of Opinion: How Ecological and Neoclassical Environmental Economists Think about Sustainability and Economics
The differing paradigms of ecological and neoclassical environmental economics have been described in various articles and books and are also embedded in different institutional settings. However, we cannot take for granted that the paradigm debates described in the literature are actually mirrored in exactly the same way in the perceptions and opinions of researchers looking at sustainability from an economic perspective. This paper presents empirical results from a German case study on how economists and others involved in economic sustainability research from different schools of thought think about the issues of sustainability and economics, how they group around these issues, how they feel about the current scientific divide, and what they expect to be future topics of sustainability research. Knowing that sustainability research is highly and still increasingly internationally intertwined, and assuming that the opinions of German economic sustainability researchers do not dramatically differ from those in other countries, we think that these results will be of interest to the international scientific community. We analyze the data using cluster analysis. Based on a literature survey, we generated forty sustainability-related statements and asked 196 economic sustainability researchers about their degree of agreement or disagreement with these statements. In evaluating our survey results, we discuss to what extent the clusters that we identified do - or do not - represent the two schools of thought of ecological and neoclassical environmental economics. We also propose some research concepts that can help to bridge the gaps amongst economic sustainability researchers as well as others more suitable for a scientific ‘competition of ideas’. Key results of the study are: We identify two primary scientific clusters, one clearly confirming the existence of the ecological economics schools of thought, and the other largely capturing the neoclassical environmental view. Yet, there are some surprising exceptions: Both schools of thought share a conceptual definition of sustainability that is integrative in considering ecological, societal and economic dimensions (‘three pillar concept’) and is based on preserving the development potentials of society. We also find a shared critique of ‘pure economic growth’ strategies in our sample. These agreed opinions may provide bridging concepts between the schools of thought. Also both clusters agree with respect to a wide range of future fields of sustainability research. Yet, the research agenda of the ecological economics cluster contains a large number of additional topics, primarily related to social, distributional and evolutionary aspects of sustainable development as well as a strong microeconomic focus. Strong divides between the clusters that seem to be more suitable for a kind of scientific competition of ideas are primarily related to the question of how to achieve sustainability, including suitable environmental policy measures.
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