Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Most people believe that the Earth where we all live is being despoiled and threatened.  Only a few would deny that there is any problem at all. Various reasons for this predicament are proposed and various remedies offered. Some think that nothing can be done, or even that nothing should be done – that’s just the way it is. So let’s enjoy it while we can. Others put their faith in a technological fix. Yet others suggest that it’s all a question of individual consciousness – each of us needs to change the way we think if we are to live sustainably. But, wherever we might locate ourselves ideologically, how we express our views is important. Are we being precise? Do we make statements that are capable of empirical confirmation or refutation? Or are we obfuscating the issues? Knowingly or not, diverting attention away from the real causes of environmental disaster?

Here are two quotes, two uses of words

Mankind has already caused the extinction of thousands of species with processes like deforestation. (1)

The essence of the Western idea of progress can be simply stated: mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and may be expected to continue advancing in the future. (2)

I’ve given the sources for these quotes at the end. They were both taken from extremely well researched and well written articles. I chose them more or less at random. There are thousands of similar ones. My point is not whether the statements are in some sense correct or not. Neither is it whether I or you agree. By concentrating on the use of words such as Mankind (Man, Humankind, or Humanity), I want to suggest that they are distinctly unhelpful in any debate, and certainly the debate about ecology and the environment. I could equally well have highlighted the reified word Western in the second quote, but for brevity I will refrain from this.

What do such statements really mean and what are the implications? This short essay is in part a critique of some of the language used in the ecological and environmental debate, and in part a plea for the use of more concrete and specific language. Before I continue, I would like to qualify my qualifications in this matter. I am not an academic linguist, nor a philosopher of language. I am certainly not an expert in semiotics. I am just a simple economist, historian and writer – with a concern for future of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Readers might take issue with some of my linguistic analysis. So be it! I just ask that the thrust of this argument is considered for what it is.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

Sentence 1: George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.

This sentence uses correct English grammar, uncomplicated syntax, and doesn’t contain much lexical ambiguity. We know the subject, George, who did the cutting. We know he went somewhere, and we know which forest he went to. We also know what he did there: he cut down ten trees.  If we are sure that the person reporting the information is reliable and honest, we might even accept it as a fact and say it’s a true statement.

Now imagine that it was your neighbour who one day walked into your garden and announced: ‘George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.’ What does he mean by this? What is his intention in telling you? After all, without some sort of context, it would be a rather bizarre thing to do. He might add the context himself by going on to say that this is wonderful news because George is building a house and he needed the wood. On the other hand, he might not feel the need to add anything at all because he knows from past experience that both he and you are concerned about the survival of the forest and, therefore, without it needing to be said, George’s action was reprehensible. Even if your neighbour had no intention at all when he uttered the sentence – which might be a little strange – you could, and probably would, want to put your own interpretation on the news. Sometimes you might be able to do this without any more information at all. You know George, you know what he’s up to and why, and you know what you personally think of such actions. On other occasions, you might want additional information before you can make up your mind what this sentence really means to you. For example: Did someone pay him to do this? What did he use to cut down the trees? What type of trees did he cut down?  Why did he cut the trees down? How many trees are there in the forest?

Once we obtain the extra information we think we need, we can interpret what the sentence means to us. We can even, if we wish, make a value judgement, based, at least in part, on our own morality and ideology: ‘I think that what George did was good (or bad) because…’ Was he a hero or a villain? We might even decide that something has to be done. Either we decide to go and help George next time he goes to the forest, or we might start to look for ways of stopping him.

The key point here is this: whatever our interpretation and whatever our ideology, the sentence itself has not unduly hindered us from making up our minds.

Sentence 2: He went into the forest and cut down ten trees.

I have done two things here: Replace the noun George with the pronoun he, and taken away the information telling us which forest George went into. All the considerations that were applicable to Sentence 1 still apply here. But because he is a little vaguer than George, we might first need to ask: ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘Which forest?’

Sentence 3: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees.

A little semantic obscurity creeps in here. Did he cut down ten trees in total or ten trees every day? But this could soon be cleared up by asking another question. The sentence could then become:

Sentence 4: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees each day.

Let’s go a step further:

Sentence 5: Over the last twelve years, logging companies have gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

The scale and duration of the tree cutting has increased – but we still know something about who was responsible, who caused it: it was logging companies, though we don’t know which ones. Yet we still don’t know where the forests are that are being cut down.

This means we might (or we might not) need to ask additional questions before we think we have enough information to be able to interpret the information the sentence provides. We will probably still want to know more about the context of the logging. Which forests? Why was it happening? Was it to build roads? Was it to provide open land to rear cattle to supply hamburger chains? Who is profiting? What were the effects of the logging on local communities? Is ten thousand trees a day a lot?

When we have asked enough additional questions, and obtained what we hope are reliable answers, we can then make up our minds:

‘This is wonderful! With nine billion people on the planet we need to supplement agricultural land wherever we can!’


‘This is horrendous; we are destroying our eco-systems and bringing destitution to countless local people!’

Logging companies is, in linguistic terms, a plural countable noun. We can say ‘four logging companies’ as well as ‘some logging companies’. Let’s change the sentence again:

Sentence 6: Over the last twelve years, business has gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

Note that I have skipped the step of using a simple plural countable noun such as businesses. Instead I have used the word business, which is called in linguistics a singular uncountable noun. It’s singular because we say ‘business is’ not ‘business are’; it’s non countable because we can’t say ‘five business’, although we can still say ‘some business’.

This starts to make our task of giving meaning to the sentence and making an interpretation even more long-winded. More questions need to be asked – if we can be bothered. Questions such as: Which businesses do you mean? What type of companies are they? How many? And so on.

In addition, we can also remove any information regarding the duration of logging, the number of trees cut, or even mention of ‘the forest’ itself, or of any specific forest:

Sentence 7: Business continues to deforest the world.

This sentence may still be a true statement of fact; but we are getting so far removed from knowing who precisely has done what, where, and with what result, that it’s starting to become a little meaningless. But at least the verb deforest still has some understandable meaning, and the noun business still points, though very dimly, at the responsible subject.

The penultimate sentence is this:

Sentence 8: Humans continue to deforest the world.

Again it’s still true, but now any precision whatsoever regarding who is actually cutting down the trees has disappeared completely. It’s just the collective plural humans. It completely begs the whole question of which humans? Never mind all the other questions we have already asked; such as: which forests, where, when, for what purpose, who benefits and who loses? It seems to imply, I would suggest, that we (or we humans) are all responsible; the small peasant farmer in Africa just as much as the large capitalist agri-businesses or ‘roving-pirate’ logging companies.

And so to our final sentence:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation.

One could equally say Mankind, but Humankind is a little less gender specific. Here we reach the apogee of vagueness. Indeed, we have now somehow reified everything. Reification, from the Latin word res (meaning thing) usually means making a concept real, bringing it into being or making it something concrete.  More generally:

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete ‘thing’, or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

As is often the case, German has a much more expressive word: Verdinglichung. Literally this is the process of ‘turning into a thing’. This process is of great importance. Often we talk about reification as being the act of changing abstract concepts, say truth, beauty or beautiful, into supposedly real or concrete things: Truth or Beauty. Notice how reification nearly always involves capitalization! But it’s not just limited to this. We can also turn a meaningful noun such as a man into a vague, reified concept such as Mankind – and give this concept the qualities of a real thing.

Philosophers, particularly it should be said German and French philosophers, and mostly of the Idealistic or Existential variety, love to reify concepts or processes. One could mention Heidegger’s ‘The Being of Becoming’ (Das Sein des Seiendes), or Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (L’être et le néant) – to mention just two vacuous ontological obfuscations. ‘To be’ and ‘to become’ are verbs of condition or process: I am a man; a seed becomes a tree. You can’t hold am or becomes; and you certainly can’t talk to them or hold them responsible. But this is precisely what reification does. We make the simple verb ‘to become’ into a real thing and then we can start to interrogate it and even pass judgements on it!

George is a real thing or object. Actually he is a person (who can even act as a subject as well). Even the pronoun he refers to a person in our example. ‘A human’ usually refers to somebody concrete, though it can be used otherwise. With the use of humans, though it is tremendously vague, if it is used in the present tense then we could, at least in theory, go and introduce ourselves to all these humans, whether that means all homo sapiens or just a proportion of them.

But reification isn’t only about transforming an abstract concept such as beauty or beautiful into Beauty, or even a verb such as ‘to become’ in Becoming. It can also involve transforming simple nouns or adjectives into collective concepts, and then treating these concepts as though they had real concrete qualities – qualities such as volition or the ability to cause physical effects in the world. We can also reify a noun, signifying a real entity, such as a man, into Mankind, or a human (or the adjective Humane) into Humankind.

This isn’t to imply that using such reified words as Mankind, Humankind, or Humanity leads to a complete semantic lack of meaning. If I write the rather inelegant sentence: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with Humanity’, I guess most people will roughly understand what I’m getting at. Some might even place the word Humanity inside inverted commas. Not to signify a quotation, but rather to alert the reader to the fact that the word is some sort of abstract concept, or perhaps that its meaning is contested, or even to signify some sort of post-modernist irony. But Humanity is not a living thing; it can’t have empathy with anybody! Ultimately it’s not an ‘it’. I might want to make my sentence slightly more understandable by writing for example: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with other parts of Humanity.’ Immediately you can notice that I’ve already split up Humanity into parts or groups – in order to be more precise with regards to whom exactly it is I might be suggesting has empathy with whom? I might go a step further in this direction and rewrite my sentence as follows: ‘The greatest redeeming factor of all people is that they have empathy with all other people.’ Immediately, I would suggest, by de-reifying the words it’s much easier for readers to either agree with the statement or want to refute it. The path is immediately open for anyone to say: ‘Well that’s not true; most people don’t empathize with others!’ It is also much more amendable to the design of a scientific test of the validity of the proposition. Of course, it could be argued that the original sentence, which twice uses the word Humanity, can be equally contested in the same way. That it is equally amenable to scientific refutation or confirmation. But one can’t test any statement about Humanity as it doesn’t exist. In order to do so one would need to translate the statement into a testable form – by using such words as ‘all people’.

A final point on Sentence 9 is perhaps of interest – though it is not critical. Here is the sentence again:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation

It is surely a wonderful thing that English, and many other languages, can evolve and create such verbs as deforest and a noun such as deforestation. Google begets ‘to google’!  But using the word Deforestation is also reification. Deforestation isn’t a thing, I would argue it’s not even a process, it’s an idea. So if we say: ’Deforestation is causing major problems for the people of Bangladesh’, this is just evasion. Somebody, or some group of people, somewhere is actually cutting down the trees for a specific purpose.

So in what way does this all matter? In general or as it relates to the debate about ecology and the environment. Surely it’s all semantics – both in terms of the scientific and linguistic meaning of the word and in its everyday usage! I would contend not. My argument regarding the use of vague or reified words such as Mankind, Humankind, Humanity and such like can be summarized as follows:

  • The subject is not a real person or group of people. It is not even an identifiable group: a class, a government or certain private companies.
  • Reified concepts such as Humankind can’t do or cause anything.
  • Even if the statement is understandable, has some meaning, and even if it is in some way ‘true’, it is usually just a platitude or a tautology.
  • This means that who actually is causing the effects, the damage (yes ‘cause and effect’) can’t be identified or held accountable.
  • Implicitly or explicitly, the culprit is everybody – even though this is blatantly not the case.
  • This can lead to Quietism, to a turning in on one-self. I am as much to blame as anyone else so I must work on myself!
  • As I do so the real culprits can just go on as if nothing matters – except their own profit.

That is not the end of the story. If I write the sentence: ‘the majority of the destruction of the forests in the Amazon over the last thirty years has been carried out by private capitalist companies from the rich countries; intent only on their own profit.’ This is a statement that is amenable to confirmation or refutation. For the sake of argument, people at either extreme of the ideological divide might even agree to it. But even if capitalist companies were the proximate cause of the felling, there are at least two retorts. One is that while this may be true it is Mankind’s incessant demand for resources and industrial and consumer products that is the underlying or ultimate cause. The logging companies are only meeting that need. Once again we are back to the reified concept of Mankind. Whose consumer needs are being met? Another often used retort is simply that the desire to maximize profit lies at the core of a successful economy and must be encouraged in all circumstances. Fair enough, but at least we know the field upon which the battle must be fought. It’s not a question of Mankind’s collective culpability, but purely a question of who really benefits and who loses – including, we might add, in the non-human world.

Finally, I think it is important to add that many contemporary commentators and historians do not fall into this quagmire of language. They try to tell, as explicitly and truthfully as they can, what is happening now and or what happened in the world in the past. This might be regarding commercial logging in Africa or Indonesia or it might be what is their interpretation of what happened during the land clearances and Enclosures in Britain.

Here are two sentences that I have written – one contemporary and one historical:

Despite the ban on commercial whaling, every year hundreds of whales are still being illegally slaughtered by Japanese commercial whalers in the Antarctic sanctuary – using the pretence of Research.

Note I haven’t written: ‘Mankind is killing the whales.’

The Ariège forests in France were not decimated by hundreds of years of communal usage. Most trees were cut down by rich private capitalists for private gain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  

Note I haven’t written: ‘Humans caused deforestation in the Pyrenees.’

You might or might not agree with my two statements, but at least they are clear. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to go about confirming or falsifying them. It’s even pretty obvious (if you accept them) what might need to be done!

I am not immune to using the type of language I have described, but I think it is unhelpful and even invidious and I will try to avoid it in the future.



2. Robert Nisbet, Idea of Progress, Literature and Liberty, Cato Institute, 1978.


This shortened version of an interview with the Green Party’s economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato was published in the Autumn issue of Positive News.

Stephen Lewis talks to Green Party economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato about a new approach to economics

Molly Scott Cato is a green economist and expert in the social economy    Photo © Tim Dickeson

“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.” This is the view of the chancellor, George Osborne, who suggested last year that protecting the environment and minimising climate change are burdens on the economy. But for others, this perspective is naive when the environment is the ultimate source of wealth and growth.

Molly Scott Cato, author of Green Economics and economics spokesperson for the Green Party, believes it is possible to have an economy, “that lives comfortably within the planet, addresses the social justice implications and is practically focused in terms of policy and community activity.”

However, this is not occurring, she believes, because “what happens in economies,” has drifted apart from how economics is taught in higher education.

Neoclassical economic theory, upon which our current system is based, is flawed because it is self-referential, says Molly: “Whatever question you put to it, it has an answer within its own ideology, but very little of what it does relates to what’s happening outside the window of the university. This is why they [neoclassical economists] weren’t able to predict the economic crisis and why they don’t worry about resource depletion.”

Most green economists derive much of their understanding from ecological economics, an approach that Molly feels is more grounded in reality. This understanding regards nature as the primary source of wealth and resources. To have a viable economy hence means that addressing the problems of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, CO2 emissions and climate change is central.

With the need for renewable energy sources being the first pillar of green economics, this also connects to the issue of localisation, as much energy is wasted in the globalised system. Green economists also favour localisation for reasons of accountability, power and control.

“Local economies help to build strong communities whereas a global economy undermines them,” believes Molly.

Other politicians are beginning to praise the potential of a green economy. Energy secretary Ed Davey commented in April, for example: “We should make more strongly the business case for going green. Efficiency policies are unashamedly good for growth – using less resources lowers operating costs and frees up capital.”

But the defining characteristic of a green economist, according to Molly, is the idea that economic growth is the problem rather than the solution to the global economic crisis. “We start from the point that quality is more important than quantity,” she says.

“There is some good thinking in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but by the time it gets to the Treasury it is crushed by the same last-century, pro-growth prejudices. The main problem is that the government is going for growth, so saying growth might not be the best thing for the planet, isn’t going to get very far.”

Within what the Green Party regards as the constraints of the current system, Molly’s main proposal is: “We should only invest energy in areas where we know ultimately that we will use less energy – what we might call ‘transitional investment.’”

She explains that this understanding would mean that it would make sense to invest in a national network of electric car recharging points or in insulating people’s houses, but building a new airport could not be justified.

Green economists are also suggesting carbon and land taxes. They want to see policies that will help us use land as a carbon sink. “We could use the tax system coupled with the local planning system to encourage that,” says Molly, “taking land away from wealthy farmers living from subsidies paid by the poor, and providing incentives for all those who own land to use it in the way that best captures and stores carbon.”

Green economists believe that traditional economics is unlikely to be able to make a real contribution to alleviating poverty, tackling environmental problems and moving us towards a more fair and sustainable world. If they’re right, new types of economics in which human and environmental justice are the foundation, might be the answer to building a more sustainable future.

Uniting the Greens was originally published in Resurgence/The Ecologist issue 274, September/October 2012. To buy Resurgence, read further articles online or find out about The Resurgence Trust, visit: 

The environment movement has been plagued by disagreements and in particular a rift between deep ecologists and social ecologists. Stephen Lewis explores ways to find common ground.

In the 1980s and 1990s there was a lively debate between social ecologists and deep ecologists. In 1988 The Ecologist even devoted a whole issue to this debate (Vol. 18 No. 4/5). It has flared up on several occasions since, often couched in the rather opaque language of ‘anthropocentrism’ versus ‘ecocentrism’.

Murray Bookchin was one of the earliest ecological activists who championed the idea of social ecology. He started to highlight and analyse the ecological crisis some years before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. “Social ecology”, he said, “is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems.” For him and his followers it was the rise of dominance and hierarchy that had caused both the oppression of people and the despoliation of the planet. You couldn’t hope to address ecological ills without changing the ruling economic order. Bookchin’s ‘solution’ was local democratic communalism. His thinking has had a great influence on many ecological thinkers and activists.

The roots of deep ecology are more eclectic. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss is credited with coining the term and is often referred to as the father of deep ecology. The basic philosophy is that all the diverse forms of life on Earth have intrinsic value and their value is independent of any usefulness to humans; indeed humans have no right to reduce diversity except to satisfy vital needs. As well as this, deep ecology recognises the ecological damage humans are doing and explicitly acknowledges that a decrease in human population is required.

In the 1980s, Dave Foreman and a few others – people who described themselves, perhaps misguidedly, as deep ecologists – wrote a series of articles that appeared in the Earth First! Journal and elsewhere. Very much in the spirit of eugenicist Garrett Hardin, these were misanthropic neo-Malthusian pieces on the issue of over-population. They claimed, in the words of Stephan Harding, that “the AIDs virus was good because it reduced population, and that famines in Africa were good because they too reduced population”. They also had some derogatory things to say about social ecology. Now Bookchin was a pugnacious character, so he responded in kind, denouncing the anti-humanism of the authors. But his critique also extended to the whole of deep ecology: “Whatever its merits, the fact is that deep ecology, more than any other ‘radical’ ecological perspective, blames ‘Humanity’ as such for the ecological crisis – especially ordinary ‘consumers’ and ‘breeders of children’ – while largely ignoring the corporate interests that are really plundering the planet. This socially neutral aspect of deep ecology appears to be very agreeable to the powers that be.”

Harding regards this whole exchange as “water under the bridge”. Any distinction between deep and social ecology has become, he says, a “false dichotomy”: “First, as Arne Næss would have said, there’s no one central dogma in deep ecology. Everybody has to work out their own ecosophy, their own ecological wisdom. So these people by calling themselves deep ecologists had completely misunderstood the key point. Second, the first guiding principle for Arne Næss was that all life has intrinsic value, and ‘all life’ includes humans, therefore to be anti-human is not in tune with deep ecology… Bookchin was right to attack the anti-human views of Dave Foreman etc., but he was wrong to attack deep ecology, because these views have nothing to do with deep ecology…”

Harding continues: “I have a lot of respect for Bookchin. Arne Næss’s philosophy is radically pluralistic and different people have to work at different points of the frontier… For Bookchin the important thing is to reconnect with each other and then we’ll treat Nature properly. For Arne, if we reconnect with Nature we will treat each other better. Both are different viewpoints on the same spectrum.”

Brian Tokar was a colleague of Murray Bookchin for many years. He was also one of the people who contributed to the debate in the pages of The Ecologist back in 1988. In a long, thoughtful and quite conciliatory piece entitled Deep Ecology, Social Ecology and the Future of Green Political Thought, he wrote: “The increasingly bitter debate between these approaches, with their very different theoretical assumptions and political styles, threatens to obscure the essential work of movement-building and the development of more lasting alliances among people dedicated to saving the earth and creating more ecologically sound ways to live upon it. Instead of becoming further mired in sectarian debates between philosophical approaches that increasingly define themselves in opposition to one another, eco-activists need to begin evolving a broader approach, firmly grounded in a commitment to ecologically-sound living.”

More than 20 years later Tokar still eschews the more “polemical and divisive” language of his mentor, believing that greens need to find common ground. He says: “Movements are stronger when people with different views that have aspects in conflict, but others that are complementary, are able to collaborate to move a larger common agenda forward.” Of course, being a social ecologist, he regards active opposition to hierarchy and domination as crucial; yet he is positively effusive when it comes to the contribution of certain deep ecologists. He mentions John Seed and Joanna Macy. “They are two people who are most identified with the side of deep ecology that most emphasises personal therapy and ritual, but they always encourage people to be active.”

The question of population or, for some, over-population, has often been seen as a sort of dividing line in politics and policy. It remains a hot topic (see Jonathon Porritt’s article in Resurgence 274). Green MP Caroline Lucas recently called it “an elephant in the room when it comes to many environmental debates”.

Tokar and Harding have a similar take on the issue. Tokar says: “The question is whether we’re going to really try to understand the causes of rapid population growth or view it merely as a matter of numbers and demographics.” Harding thinks that the population issue is possibly a red herring. It might be that the planet could support 10 billion people for a while. “It’s not population per se that’s the problem; it is over-consumption, which has got to do with inequality,” he says. So women in poor countries need “good health care, education and access to contraception” while the other area of focus must be the unequal distribution of resources between rich and poor countries.

Others see things slightly differently. Writing in The Independent in October 2011, Jonathon Porritt described over-population as the crisis that “dare not speak its name”. He added: “Damage to soil, fresh water, forests, biodiversity and fisheries affect both the rich world and the poor world, and cannot any longer be blamed on ‘over-consumption in the West’.” He asserts that by avoiding the issue for too long the green movement has scored an own goal.

Overall there is a remarkable degree of convergence between Stephan Harding’s and Brian Tokar’s views. To the extent that their opinions are in some way representative of the two ecological philosophies – deep ecology and social ecology – then perhaps any lingering differences between them can now be consigned to the waste bin of history. And it would probably be good if they were, because what is surely more important is what actions we now take.

Almost without exception greens, of whatever philosophical persuasion, are involved in some form of activism, and very often some form of direct action as well.

Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is not averse to making provocative statements that many social ecologists and others can find misanthropic. But does it really matter what his ‘philosophy’ is? He and the Sea Shepherd volunteers have arguably done more to obstruct and prevent the slaughter of whales and other sea creatures than any other single organisation.

The Occupy movement might seem quite different. One of its supporters is physicist and activist Vandana Shiva. Although she comes from a Gandhian background, parts of her recent article in Resurgence (No. 270) in support of the movement could have come straight out of one of Bookchin’s books. Having referred to ‘hierarchy and domination’, the key words in social ecology, she goes on to say: “‘Free markets’ mean freedom for corporations to exploit whomever and whatever they wish, wherever they wish and however they wish. It means the end of freedom for people and Nature everywhere.” No hint of an opposition between social and deep ecology here.

The social or political philosophy that informs people’s actions is important – be it deep ecology, social ecology or anything else. But what is really crucial is that some action is being taken.

Note: This issue was covered in the Ecologist, in Vol. 18 No. 4/5. UK filmmaker, Mark Saunders is currently crowd funding for a documentary on the life and work of Murray Bookchin. For more information: <>;

Economics doesn’t seem able to predict anything of great import. It certainly didn’t seem able to predict or even, after the fact, explain the recent banking and financial crisis; the repercussions of which will be felt by millions for decades to come. Why was this? What are the limits of economic prediction? Here are just a few thoughts.

Although I’m a simple economist and not a physicist – who do tend to think, pithily though incorrectly, that anything other than physics is stamp collecting – I’d like to venture the opinion that even in physical mechanics there are two primary ways by which we can make predictions. They have to do with what we can call “momentum” and “cyclicality”.

Momentum is one way to make predictions

If you’re driving along a straight motorway and someone asks you to predict where you will be in a few seconds time, the most likely outcome, and thus possibly the best prediction, is that you’ll still be on the motorway but just a bit further on. The car has momentum and so, even if the engine suddenly packs up, you’ll probably still be on the road in the near future – momentum will tend to see to that. Of course lots of other things might happen. I could suddenly decide to take the exit road that has appeared, fall asleep at the wheel or hit an on-coming lorry that has crashed through the central barriers into my path. But all these things require human volition – that means me or others making choices and taking decisions – so they are not purely mechanical. Without volition, mechanical momentum, even angular momentum, will generally determine where I’ll end up in the very near future. Over much longer periods of time it’s also possible to predict with great accuracy where a moving asteroid will be quite far out into the future.

In economics it’s the same thing. If the rate inflation in the first quarter of any year is, let’s say, 2.5%, it’s highly unlikely that in the subsequent quarter it will be 20%. It’s possible but very improbable. If the inflation rate were a random walk (which it isn’t) the best forecast of next quarter’s rate would be what it was in the last quarter i.e.  2.5%. However economists can incorporate various leading indicators into their models and might thus predict that the second quarter inflation rate will be 2.7%. Basically unless something very drastic happens -a huge meteor strike or a nuclear war for example – I think it’s clear that the economy, and thus the inflation rate, have both inertia and momentum.

Whether an economist predicts that next quarter’s inflation will be 2.5%, 2.4% or 2.7%, the prediction will be reasonably accurate (depending on our definition of accurate), but only because of the inertia and momentum in the system. If you ask an economist to forecast what the inflation rate will be in 10 years time, he or she will either wisely refuse to make a prediction or if he or she does offer one it will, after the elapsed period of time, tend to prove to have been wildly inaccurate.

All physical scientists and engineers know this.

Meteorology is a science; yet even with all their sophisticated and mathematically elaborate models, meteorologists generally limit their weather forecasts to a few days out. If they get ambitious then they may extend this to a few weeks. They have no idea what the weather will really be like in London next June. Perhaps because it’s summer they could predict it’s not likely to be freezing, a point to which I will return in an oblique way later on. But even in the short term they can get it spectacularly wrong. Those who live in Britain might remember, as I do, the BBC’s weatherman, Michael Fish, confidently telling us in 1987 that: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t!”. That evening, the worst storm since 1703 hit South East England. It caused record damage and killed 18 people. It also ripped off my roof! So even meteorology can only hope to make reasonably accurate weather predictions for very short periods – and then not always with complete success. This is because weather is a very complex dynamic system, and so its predictions tend to rely primarily on inertia and momentum.

We can predict the times of the tides because they’re cyclical

The second, and related, way in which we can make predictions is by taking account of cyclicality – events or patterns that repeat or reoccur. Our mechanical models can forecast the next appearance of Haley’s comet with great accuracy, as well as the times of the daily ebbs and flows of the tides at any location on the planet. Although these predictions are not strictly 100% accurate, they are very nearly so, and thus they are extremely useful.  Newtonian classical mechanics can and does predict a hell of a lot, and with enough certainty to have made it the bedrock of many of the most useful technological advances over the last couple of hundred years or so.

Unlike economics, the physical and other natural sciences have moved on from classical mechanics. This doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned it but just that mechanics and a “reductionist” method can’t explain everything. Einstein’s theories of relativity were a revelation. They told us truths about the nature of Space-Time that we could have hardly conceived before. Without knowing that time goes slower the faster we travel the world’s GPS system would become fairly inaccurate within a day or so. The two theories of relativity have been experimentally confirmed on numerous occasions since Einstein proposed them and they have enabled scientists to push forward the limits of physical prediction.

Similarly, and please excuse my economist’s ignorance of the subject, while the world awaits a grand unifying theory, it does seem to be the case that the sub-atomic world operates very differently to the macro world. You can’t simultaneously predict the position and momentum of particles; all you can do is work out some probabilities. Not only that but it seems that particles can disappear from one place and then reappear in another, seemingly without having been anywhere else in the interim! But theoretical quantum mechanics, despite its probabilistic nature, can also make predictions which are very often confirmed by experimental physicists. Even predictions of the likely existence of things – such as Higgs’ Boson.

Before turning back to economics, perhaps we can mention the weather again and even, though with some trepidation, the climate. Regarding the weather, I guess we’ve all heard how the flapping of a butterfly’s wings might cause a hurricane in India and about chaos theory in general. The problem for meteorologists when trying to predict the weather, over any time period other than the very short term, is that even if we can fully understand all mechanical and physical processes in their entirety, and thus could theoretically build comprehensive mathematical models that are fully deterministic – by this I mean for example that the weather system could be treated as a closed system uninfluenced by such outside “stochastic” shocks as periodic solar flares and the like – unless you can specify with absolute precision the exact starting positions, mass and energy, the “initial conditions”, of every atom that is involved in the dynamic development of weather, you’ll never be able to predict the weather somewhere in the world more than a few days out. Meteorologists know this and thus tend not to make such predictions.

“Greenhouse” gases have known physical and chemical effects

As I mentioned, I hesitate to touch on climatology and climate change, about which I know even less than I do about meteorology. Is there such a thing as global warming? Is it man-made? Such questions also touch on the nature of scientific prediction and on issues of cause and effect. From a personal point of view all I can say is that it does seem from the overwhelming bulk of the evidence provided by science that the earth is warming and that this doesn’t seem to be just another of the normal and natural cycles of changes in the climate witnessed on the planet. Rather it does appear to be caused by mankind. Even with my limited knowledge of physics and chemistry, I think it stands to reason that if you pump lots of gases with known properties into the atmosphere, it would be strange if they didn’t produce the normal physical and chemical effects – i.e. warming.

The point I would like to make here as it relates to the nature and limits of prediction is this: Assuming that the conventional scientific wisdom on climate change is correct, it’s still quite unlikely that the trend in rising temperature will be a neat linear one – that the cumulative build-up and concentration in the atmosphere of gases such as CO2 will lead to a parallel incremental rise in the world’s average temperature. The study of the deep history of the earth’s climate plus an understanding of biological evolution and eco-systems, has quite clearly demonstrated that physical and biological systems often jump almost instantaneously from one condition to another (from one equilibrium to another if you prefer). These jumps are often referred to as “tipping points”. We see similar “phase transitions” in physics.

Potential tipping points are understandably one of the fears of climate change scientists – not to speak of the rest of us. In terms of prediction, although we know that such tipping points have happened and do happen, because the climate is undisputedly a complex system, and I would argue a complex adaptive system at that, we might probabilistically suggest that such jumps, or tipping points, are quite possible in the future due to global warming. But I don’t think we are in a position to predict with any certainty or accuracy when such a jump will happen nor its extent and nor what the precise trigger for it might be.

I want to use these examples from the physical sciences as analogies for economics. Not, I hasten to add, as strict equivalences.

In the example I gave of driving along a straight motorway, the reason we might be able to predict where we will be in a few seconds is momentum. And so, as I suggested, short term predictions of key economic variables such as inflation, employment, growth etc also depend on momentum, coupled with the data provided by some key available leading indicators.

But think about it. Driving a car is not an exclusively physical act; it is also a social act. There is an actor – the driver. This actor, or “agent” as we might call him or her, has a whole raft of characteristics. Just two of these are that he has volition to choose or to decide at any moment what to do, and he can also adapt to the circumstances he finds himself in. If a motorway exit suddenly appears the driver can decide either to turn off the road or stay on it. If he turns off he will make our simple mechanistic prediction based on momentum wrong; even though he won’t break any physical laws.

The economy is in many ways a Complex Adaptive System

The economy and anything remotely economic is like the situation of the driver writ large. There are millions of individual, collective and institutional agents continually making choices and decisions – i.e. exercising their volition. They are also adapting their actions according to the actions of others and the collective result of all these actions. That’s life. The economy is very decidedly a complex adaptive system. From the point of view of economic prediction it doesn’t really matter if the “rules” used by the actors to help them make their decisions are completely “deterministic” or if there are also a stochastic “shocks” as well. Even with completely deterministic rules, the longer term dynamics of any complex adaptive system are, in the real world as well as in modelling, pretty much non-predictable. Why so? Surely if, like with the weather, we knew all the rules and all the initial conditions of every actor/agent, we could predict the outcome? The answer to this question is that “Yes” in theory we could. Unfortunately for the purposes of prediction the physical, social and economic worlds don’t work like that. Not only do we not know all the rules (I’ll leave that to one side) but if you change the initial conditions of any single actor/agent even in the tiniest degree then the collective result, after a bit of interaction, will not just be slightly different, it will be completely different – and this you can’t predict ex ante, before the event.

Quite categorically this means that economic predictions, even if they could be based on fully deterministic mechanistic rules and modelling (or maybe any type of modelling), will never be able to forecast the timing and magnitude of economic events with any accuracy over more than the short term. They decidedly can’t predict the future positioning and situation of individual agents. This has actually been the experience of economics. It has rarely been able to predict anything of any great macro importance by using conventional neoclassical theories and associated modelling techniques. Occasionally a prediction might get lucky and will no doubt be much trumpeted as a great success for the predictor and for his/her economic model. Yet I do tend to think that these rare “successes” might better be explained in terms of “Black Swans” and the like, so persuasively discussed by Nicholas Taleb Nassim.

Where does that leave us? Strange though it might sound, I do actually believe that economics can make some very insightful and useful predictions or forecasts; but they are not of the type I’ve discussed thus far. Rather they have to do with cyclicality or, more generally, with regularly repeating patterns.

Take the latest banking and financial crisis; a crisis that will inevitably lead to the gradual impoverishment of countless ordinary people throughout the world over the next decades, despite the fact that it wasn’t in any way their fault.

We know that most conventional economics (and unfortunately that means the neoclassical economics I studied for so many years) failed to predict this crisis. Economists and central bankers (not to mention ideologically driven politicians and greedy investment bankers) continually asserted that all was well in the world. When the crisis hit it was rather amusing, though a little sad as well, to witness the spectacle of Queen Elizabeth, when she visited my alma mater, the London School of Economics, asking why economists hadn’t seen the crisis coming. There was lots of embarrassed huffing and puffing and subsequently quite a bit of blather about how economics should take more account of “systemic risk” and such like. But there was no real answer. Actually most economists and even policy-makers have by now admitted that “there was something wrong with our models”. This crisis simply shouldn’t have been able to happen. Even central bankers such as Alan Greenspan and Mervyn King admitted this; not to speak of some of the more honest archpriests of the intellectually and empirically vacuous bunkum that is called “Modern Finance Theory”. In economic circles what then happened was that economists dashed around like chickens without heads (as a very senior central banker once told me), trying both to stick on a few patches and retrofit their theories to the experience of events. One commentator on something I recently wrote to this effect even said that it would be better to say that they “retrofitted the facts or denied them completely”. That’s probably fair though a little hard.

In true sciences if a theory is shown by experiment to be unable to make accurate predictions, or even not to be able to explain what has happened after the event then, despite many entrenched reputations, it is eventually abandoned. This doesn’t seem to be the case in economics. I think the reasons have to do with power, but that’s for another time.

Hyman Minsky was one economist who saw repeating patterns – His work has proved useful to understanding the present crisis

Yet certain economists did actually predict that there would be a banking crisis and a subsequent economic meltdown. Perhaps not that many; but there were quite a few. Let me just mention the Australian economist Steve Keen in passing – I’ll quote more such if need be. Such economists knew, either explicitly or implicitly, that the economy and the banking system were both complex adaptive systems. Thus they never dreamed of making point estimates as to the timing of the onset of the financial crisis nor its magnitude nor, indeed, what might be the triggering event. No, what they did, with an understanding of some very simple economic principals, was to see that the developing economic dynamics (for example of the build-up of the levels of absolute debt) were displaying a known historical pattern. We had seen this before and we had seen the results. How could it not happen again? Something was bound to crack. We can term such events Minsky moments or something else but the fact is that their predictions were predicated on an understanding of “cyclicality” in the economy – an understanding of historical dynamics, repeating economic patterns and how and why these patterns arise.

On the other hand, neoclassical economists do tend to have a sort of collective amnesia when it comes to the past. They don’t seem to have learned anything from what’s gone before. To be sure these cyclicalities and patterns of economic dynamics aren’t in any way like the regularity of the amplitude and frequency of physical waves or the regular ebbs and flows of the tides. They’re not even like the cycles of various economic “trade cycle” theories once so beloved of economists. How could they be! Anyone who has ever looked at the dynamic properties of complex adaptive systems will know that sometimes a system will start to oscillate. These oscillations might be explosive or they might die down, only to appear once again, possibly after a long period of relative stability, but in any case certainly totally unpredictably. But what economics can try to do, and is increasingly doing, is not to predict precisely when a particular event or “crisis” will occur, or even to suggest what might trigger it, which is unknowable. Why not Northern Rock or Bear Stearns? Why Lehman Brothers? Rather what they try to do is look at the prevailing economic conditions and how these are developing through time (and space) and predict, with a decent knowledge of real economics and economic history, what seems likely will happen. It’s not much, but that’s what the economics profession can do in terms of prediction if it puts its mind to it.

Economic prediction will never be a precise science, if it’s a science at all. But, I would like to suggest, useful predictions can be made if we use what we know about how economies really work and tend to evolve (and we know quite a bit) coupled with a greater historical awareness.

In terms of economic modelling and the use of mathematics in economics, both of which I support, the main questions to ask of models are: What are we using this model for? And what are we trying to predict with it? A topic for another day.

Ultimately I think it’s the explanatory power of economics more than its limited ability to predict that is of crucial importance. If we understand how and why something has happened it will go a long way towards enabling us to create a system that might limit the deleterious things we wish to avoid.

This is an interview I recently conducted with the well-known environmental campaigner Bill McKibben. It is published in the summer print edition of the excellent Positive News (see below). The online version is here:

This is an interview I recently conducted with the editor of Resurgence magazine (just merged with The Ecologist). It is published in the summer print edition of the excellent Positive News (see below). The online version is here: