Ecological ethics in a ‘new’ ecological economics by Haydn Washington


It is time for a new research agenda that examines the worldview and ethics of ecological economics. Neoclassical economics hardly ever considers such, yet worldview and ethics are central. If society (and economics) does not question and address these, then arguably it will not change, and hence is unlikely to reach a truly sustainable future. An ecological or Earth ethics is now vital for the survival of life on Earth (Rolston 2012).

Ecological economics (EE) started off accepting that the economy must operate within ecological limits (e.g. Daly 1991). Its most detailed proponent was Herman Daly, who proposed the steady state economy (e.g. Daly 1991, 2014a) which focused on sustainable scale; an ecologically sustainable population; low resource use; and greater equity. This focus on operating within ecological limits seems to have weakened over time in other ecological economic models.

What is the ethics of ecological economics?

Originally, economics started as a branch of ‘moral philosophy’, and ethics was at least as important as the analytic content (Daly 1991). However, economic theory became top heavy with abstruse mathematical modelling, erected above the shallow concrete foundation of fact (Ibid). Neoclassical economics accepted no limits and did not ascribe nature any intrinsic value, hence what was ‘desirable’ tended to be just ‘growth’. What about EE? Several definitions centre around the economy having to operate within ecological limits. Despite this, meaning seems to have changed over the years, diverging away from the early vision. This has happened to such an extent that some models in EE no longer reflect a key focus on ecological limits. Six models are compared below.


It can be seen that only one (occasionally two) models openly discuss population, a key driver of unsustainability. All focus on reducing resource use, however only two focus on combating consumerism (plus the SSE also focuses on advertising). All focus on greater equity (for humans) but only two unequivocally define themselves as not being ‘engines of growth’. The focus on ecological limits is thus not strong in most of these models (despite the fact that doughnut economics includes ‘planetary boundaries’ it still avoids foregrounding population). However, what about ecological ethics?


Most models of ‘ecological economics’ thus remain firmly anthropocentric (even if only implicitly so through their assumptions and language). The only model that overtly accepts the intrinsic value of nature is the steady state economy (Daly 2014b). Intrinsic value is not discussed by the other models, and justice and equity are seen as being purely for humans. So EE did have discussion of ecological ethics early on as part of the steady state economy, but this has been virtually absent in other models. However, it could be resurrected.

A new research agenda to bring ecological ethics into ecological economics

If EE were to operate on the acceptance of ecological ethics, there are various things its research agenda could work on:

  • EE can foreground its commitment to ecocentrism, ecological ethics, and ecojustice. Rather than worldview and ethics being hidden taboos, they could become the common ethical underpinnings of EE.
  • If EE were again to foreground ecological limits (plus foreground ecological ethics), it would have to consider the key drivers of un Environmental science has long referred to the entity Environmental Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology, which foregrounds overpopulation and overconsumption as drivers of unsustainability. Neither EE nor ecological ethics can afford to ignore or deny the centrality of either.
  • EE should undertake a research agenda to consider to what extent it has been indoctrinated by anthropocentric and neoliberal ideology.
  • The commodification of nature is in full swing, indeed it is promoted by some ecological economists. EE could examine to what extent this is driven by anthropocentric and neoliberal ideology. The commodification of nature represents the entrenchment of a strong anthropocentrism that has caused ecocide.
  • EE could apply ecojustice to the issue of nature conservation through the support of the ‘Half Earth’ vision (Wilson 2016) where half of terrestrial lands are protected in conservation reserves.
  • EE could research the ‘Rights of Nature’ and Earth jurisprudence.
  • EE could research why economics remains stuck in the ‘endless growth mantra’, when clearly we live on a finite planet.
  • EE could research the deep denial currently operating within both society and mainstream economics (and also perhaps EE) in regard to the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet.
  • EE could research why society – if it considers ‘justice’ – speaks only of social justice, ignoring the need for ecojustice (Washington 2018).
  • One expanding topic of interest that EE should research is the growing idea of ecodemocracy, where nature is given representation in governance systems (see ).


Neoclassical economics was once considered part of moral philosophy, however for long it has been dominated by anthropocentrism. What is more surprising is that EE also rarely considers its worldview and ethics. However, it is time this changed. An ecocentric worldview that accepts a duty of care towards nature is far more likely to practically retain functioning ecosystems that support society (Washington 2018). Similarly, ecological ethics sits far better with an ecological economics that (by many definitions) accepts the reality of ecological limits. Accepting such a definition, EE cannot rationally support the mantra of endless physical growth on a finite planet. Hence the ethics of EE needs to embrace keeping the living world intact. Accordingly, EE needs to foreground the elephant in the room – worldview and ethics. Society’s current anthropocentric and neoliberal worldview has pushed it way beyond the sustainable ecological limits that EE originally argued for. Hence, EE needs to foreground an ecocentric worldview and ecological ethics.


Daly, H. (1991) Steady State Economics, Washington: Island Press.

Daly, H. (2014a) From Uneconomic Growth to the Steady State Economy, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Daly, H. (2014b) The use and abuse of the “natural capital” concept. The Daly News, November 13, 2014, see: (accessed 13th July 2018).

Rolston III, H. (2012) A New Environmental Ethics: The Next Millennium for Life on Earth, New York: Routledge.

Washington, H. (2018) A Sense of Wonder Towards Nature: Healing the Planet through Belonging. London: Routledge.

Wilson, E.O. (2016) Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, New York: Liveright/ Norton.



If you point out that Earth isn’t getting bigger, most people will agree. If you then point out that it won’t be possible for the economy to keep taking more and more from the Earth you may still find that most people agree (unless they are hoping to go space mining or colonise Mars). But if you try to link GDP to the physical size of the economy – the land area taken up by the economy, the amount of resources it consumes or the amount of waste it produces – someone will inevitably point out that we can grow GDP without using more resources as long as we ‘decouple’.

A recent example is the CSIRO article in Nature ‘Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures’ (also summarised here: and you can view the CSIRO report here).

Such a statement predictably prompted discussion in steady state circles. Here are two official responses:

A few weeks later, in an article called ‘Consume more, conserve more: sorry, but we just can’t do both‘ George Monbiot reported on material footprint research that found “Achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even nonexistent.” and this week  wrote about the link between economic growth and GHG emissions.

For those who have stopped equating economic growth with progress, whether we can decouple or not feels like a distraction from the more important issue of being able to sustain our civilization. To be sustainable, an economy may not exceed ecological limits. What about putting the effort into exploring the options for maintaining a stable economy within those limits (whether GDP is growing or not), and for achieving fair distribution? Once we have achieved those things, go and decouple as much as you like.