Pirgmaier, E. and J.K. Steinberger (2019) Roots, Riots, and Radical Change—A Road Less Travelled for Ecological Economics. Sustainability 11(7).
In this paper, we put forward a new research agenda for ecological economics, based on three realisations. We then show how these can be connected through research and used to generate insights with the potential for application in broader, systemic change. The first realisation is that the core ambition of ecological economics, that of addressing the scale of human environmental resource use and associated impacts, often remains an aspirational goal, rather than being applied within research. In understanding intertwined environmental and social challenges, systemic approaches (including system dynamics) should be revitalised to address the full scope of what is possible or desirable. The second realisation is that the focus on biophysical and economic quantification and methods has been at the expense of a comprehensive social understanding of environmental impacts and barriers to change—including the role of power, social class, geographical location, historical change, and achieving human well-being. For instance, by fetishising growth as the core problem, attention is diverted away from underlying social drivers—monetary gains as profits, rent, or interest fuelled by capitalist competition and, ultimately, unequal power relations. The third realisation is that ecological economics situates itself with respect to mainstream (neoclassical) economics, but simultaneously adopts some of its mandate and blind spots, even in its more progressive camps. Pragmatic attempts to adopt mainstream concepts and tools often comfort, rather than challenge, the reproduction of the very power relations that stand in the way of sustainability transitions. We consider these three realisations as impediments for developing ecological economics as an emancipatory critical research paradigm and political project. We will not focus on or detail the failings of ecological economics, but state what we believe they are and reformulate them as research priorities. By describing and bringing these three elements together, we are able to outline an ambitious research agenda for ecological economics, one capable of catalysing real social change.