History of Thought on Nature and Economy

Aristotle (384/3 – 322/1 B.C.) was the first to develop a proper doctrine of the economy and is considered the founder of economics as a science – apart from Xenophon (430 – 354 B.C.) and his treatise Oeconomicus. Aristotle regards the economy and politics as separate entities. Politics is the sphere of freedom, while the economy is the sphere of bondage, meaning a master oversees the household while slaves carry out the work.

Aristotle’s view dominated discourse until the end of the Middle Ages. The English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) criticised Aristotle’s views, attempting to use science to create constant progress for the welfare of people. Nature had no value in itself but was a means to his end. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) dismissed Aristotle´s view of regarding human beings not as a community orientated by nature but as a community orientated only towards itself. Instead of emphasising natural harmony, he saw conflict. Hobbes viewed human beings as individualistic, rationally maximizing their choices in their own self-interest.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith founded modern economics, emphasising that economic activity leads to dynamic development, innovation, growth in the national product and improved welfare. Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770 – 1831) and Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) viewed the economy as a system. While Hegel based his considerations on the wants of consumers, Marx saw the economy as dominated by production.

Mainstream Economics started to develop during the second half of the 19th century. Its methodological perspective is based on the concept of the rational utility maximiser. At its core the theory shows how household demand and supply by firms lead prices to strike a balance in the markets. Mainstream Economics views the environment as a subsystem of the economy, providing resources while receiving emissions, waste water and waste.

Ecological Economics emerged out varying strands of historical thought; we shall outline two of their major representatives. First, we examine the classical economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834) before considering the romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850). We then draw conclusions for modern Ecological Economics by comparing their views.

Then we turn to the founding of Ecological Economics in the 1980s and its development. In contrast to Mainstream Economics, Ecological Economics sees the economy as subsystem of the environment. This change of perspective broadens the range of questions to be asked.

Finally, we outline the influence of Malthus on Ecological Economics. He emphasizes nature’s limitations for proving food, while Wordsworth interprets nature as a source of inner orientation for Ecological Economics.

Key Contributer: Hans Christoph Binswanger