From the Big Bang to the Anthropocene: Economics as if science mattered
What if the natural sciences were seen as foundational to the social sciences and humanities, rather than a competing branch of knowledge? What if fields of study within the social sciences and humanities developed from a metaphysical view that embedded humanity within the Earth’s biogeochemical systems, subject to the physical laws of the Universe? What if normative fields such as economics, finance, governance, law, and ethics – fields that tell us what we ought to do – were informed by the more positive disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology? Economics prescribes growth; finance how to manage personal, corporate, and public wealth; law the rights of property owners and the boundaries of legally allowable personal conduct; governance the legitimate powers of the state and other bodies; and ethics the privileges and duties of individual persons. Where does the "ought" of the normative conflict with the "is" of the positive?
Herein lie the necessary questions that open up a fresh and hopeful vision for the future. Today we have a better understanding of the cosmos than at any time in history. The scientific narrative that begins with the big bang and extends to the emergence of life on earth provides a new perspective from which to build the study of human economies and institutions, to guide public policy and governance, and to provide a new foundation and ethics that could help guide humanity through the planetary crises of climate change, mass extinction of species, and social conflict over growing human demands on dwindling planetary resources.
If the academy is to be relevant in addressing the ecological crises of our time, then research should purposefully consolidate worldviews between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. This consolidation has some success in the more "positive" social science disciplines such as psychology and anthropology that have formed alliances with the natural sciences based on neuroscience and evolutionary biology. However, there is less discourse with the intellectual traditions of the more normative disciplines of the social sciences and humanities, a principal focus of this presentation. Ecological economics will be presented as one compelling example of building a study of the human economy that is: (1) viewed as a complex social system and embedded in the biophysical universe; (2) grounded in the evidentiary standard of physical and biological sciences; and (3) framed in a problem-solving approach built on methodological pluralism that borrows broadly from many fields.