Darwin’s seminal book on biological evolution has triggered an ongoing debate on evolution, in biology and in general. Not until the 1960s did Mainstream Economics start to take up Joseph Schumpeter’s ideas of evolutionary thought for economic analysis in one of its branches, Evolutionary Economics. However, Mainstream Economics did not emphasise the relevance of his ideas for environmental problems. Ecological Economics, on the other hand, uses the concept of evolution as a key to diagnose, analyse and treat environmental and resource problems.
We show the fruitfulness of the concept of evolution by examining predictable and unpredictable processes, inventions and innovations, ignorance and novelty. For instance, the concepts of genotype (the gene structure of a living being) and phenotype (the realization of a living being) can be employed not just in a biological context but also in a physical and economical context. This broad view of evolution is useful for two reasons: (i) Several concepts first introduced in natural science are useful because they provide economics with a physical foundation. (ii) The way natural science has treated time and irreversibility offers important lessons to economics, for many economic actions have irreversible consequences, like the use of groundwater which cannot be replaced if it is extracted too fast.
Our example of the soda-chlorine industry shows an evolutionary process in an economy over the course of 250 years. First, new technologies and products are invented due to resource scarcity. Second, increasing pollution caused by the new technology is recognized, and third, environmental legislation is implemented, leading to new inventions, and so on. Hence new questions lead to new answers in an evolutionary way.