was first introduced to the concept of ecological economics 25 years ago in an undergraduate course that looked at the work of Herman Daly and the concept of “steady state economics.” We also looked at Hazel Henderson and her ground-breaking work on valuing what is called “externalities” in our economic system – the very air we breathe and the water we drink – and of course the work of E.F. Schumacher who popularized the phrase “small is beautiful” and championed the idea that small, appropriate technologies and solutions that emphasize empowerment of communities are worth considering over the doctrine of “bigger is better.”

As I look back on the last 25 years of environmental activism I am saddened by how little progress we have made in creating debate on these and other theories and how few gains we have made in ensuring that ecological health is prioritized in our economic systems. Why is that?


"Creating environmental debates that actually lead to legislative or corporate changes requires building power – building large constituencies, convincing opinion leaders or amassing financial power."

Upon reflection I think that it is in part because “progressives” have failed to recognize how the language we use triggers the opposite reaction that we hope for. We are so set on winning the argument, on being right, that we have been blind to how the language we use has closed doors and reinforced the idea that our demands are unrealistic, pie in the sky or simply require too much sacrifice.

When we call for reduced consumption or “living simply,” most people hear that they will be constrained from getting what they want. They picture a time when societies did not have today’s conveniences. I have heard more than once when I talk about conservation and climate change that, “you just want everyone to go back to shivering in the dark.”

Yet, when I envision economy in a society that that values nature and is addressing the threat of climate change, I envision a high tech, clean tech society. I see Shanghai’s magnetic levitation electric high speed rail trains, co-generation systems from sewage like in Vancouver’s Olympic Village and community solar installations. I don’t see caves and “hair shirts.”

However, when we frame the ideal as less and argue against growth we immediately challenge the majority view of progress. To be clear, it is essential that we price carbon, water, and all ecosystem services if we are going to have true ecological economics, but is it essential that we slow growth? Do we need to consume less, or less bad stuff? I think we need more development of renewable energy not less. Yes, we need efficiency and conservation but arguing that that’s all we need just doesn’t ring true.

Creating environmental debates that actually lead to legislative or corporate changes requires building power – building large constituencies, convincing opinion leaders or amassing financial power. All of that requires creating narratives that open debates not close doors. Our arguments must ring true to people so we can have what is called in social movement theory a “resonant chord.” If we truly want to ensure that our economic decisions respect nature, we should be arguing that not doing so has harmful personal and societal impacts. By doing the right thing we will have more – more opportunities, more new exciting technologies, more water, more clean air and not less.

Tzeporah Berman has been designing and running environmental campaigns in Canada and beyond for over 20 years.

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