Ecological Growth & Development: How Nature Flourishes Under Constraints with Brian D. Fath

Aug 16, 2017 by

by Mykola Skrynnyk & Maria Brück

On Monday afternoon, we listened to a lecture given by Brian D. Fath on “Ecological growth and development: How nature flourishes under constraints”. The lecture discussed the need for a re-interpretation of the limits to growth idea. It also explained the trade-offs between efficiency and redundancy in natural systems and that ecosystems operate inside a window of vitality which is defined by this trade-off. Based on his results from ecosystem analysis, Prof. Fath proposed a new holistic paradigm for life as well as an alternative economic system called Regenerative Economics. We (Mikola and Maria) had quite different views on the lecture:

Maria: I really liked his proposal for a new understanding of the limits to growth idea, which has in the past too often been condemned as a doomsday thinking and has so far not led to any groundbreaking shifts in our economic paradigm. When thinking about alternative economic approaches, we should recognize that we live in a world with limits. However, we should not feel limited by them, but celebrate them, because we can reinvent a different future and see it as an invitation to work together.

Mykola: The idea of limits to growth is more than 40 years old now and despite Prof. Fath acknowledging its immense importance, he was rather brief when asked how scientists could influence developments in the real world. The view that measures have to be taken with regard to the ecosystem and its dynamics should hardly be debatable anymore in academic circles. The main issue today is instead to make voices of scientists heard by policy-makers in order for politicians’ parochial interests to yield place to data-driven policies for the common (i.e. people’s and planet’s) good.

Maria: I also liked the fact that he drew from different disciplines to arrive at his conclusions: from ecology, network theory, thermodynamics, etc. This means to me that to get anywhere close to gaining a holistic understanding of our environment and a possible economic alternative, we need to combine different approaches and ways of thinking. Coming myself from an interdisciplinary background, I support his approach that shows how nature itself would deal with the problem of flourishing within limits to growth. The result then seems to be that by designing an appropriate economic system based on ecosystem principles we should be able to do well within limits, as nature does so too. What do you think about that?

Mykola: In his interdisciplinary presentation, Prof. Fath used several technical terms such as entropy, exergy, dissipation etc. and referred to complicated mathematical formulae. Although it did not give us a silver bullet, we learnt about the finiteness and vulnerability of ecosystems. Further, we learnt that the current economic system tends to have a greater redundancy and not efficiency despite economic textbooks saying directly the opposite. Once we have started to think about what could really be done about the economic system, it becomes difficult to find answers within the ecosystem analysis only. For that reason, Prof. Fath strongly emphasized the importance of a young generation of researchers and their analyses that have to be conducted in order to find solutions to modern ecological problems.

Maria: The conclusions of his analysis might have been a bit too general (foster education, account for ecosystem services, learning and adopting nature´s principles). But I still believe that his new way of analyzing things might contribute to the discussions on ecological limits, because it originates from a sound scientific analysis. We observe in nature that ecosystems either grow (get bigger) or develop (get better) and we need to make this clear distinction as well when it comes to the economy.

Mykola: This seems especially pertinent when we think about GDP, which is probably the most widely used economic indicator nowadays. The current interpretation of GDP, hence the total amount of goods and service produced and valued monetary in an economy, focuses on its growth and on becoming bigger. But bigger does not mean better, which is proven by high inequality and pauperization of specific groups of people even in advanced countries. Now that the global economy has grown so much in recent centuries, it is time to think about development (quality, becoming better), too.