Economic and Ecological Connectivity

Wendy Plump for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

<img alt=” src=” http:=”””” uploads=”” 273=”” image=”” barrett_hb_cover.jpg”=”” style=”margin: 5px; width: 241px; float: right; height: 350px”>A new volume of essays honoring economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, with contributions by a Princeton University biologist, falls squarely in the tradition of festschrift – books published in tribute to an exceptional living scholar. Yet “Environment & Development Economics: Essays in Honour of Sir Partha Dasgupta,” out this month from Oxford, expands its tribute into a clarion, almost beseeching call for action on Sir Partha’s pioneering work with economic and ecologic connectivity.

In concert with two Stanford University colleagues, Princeton University George M. Moffett Professor of Biology Simon Levin contributes an elegant, richly-exampled chapter that sets the tone for the book’s arguments; namely, that policymakers cannot overlook the links between these two systems in seeking to manage some of our most pressing social and environmental threats. 

The book “Environment & Development” features contributions from five Nobel laureates, leading economists, and researchers based in developing countries. Levin’s chapter is titled, “Some Perspectives on Linked Ecosystems and Socioeconomic Systems.” The essay was co-written with Kenneth J. Arrow, Nobel Prize-winning economist and Professor of Economics at Stanford, and Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford.

“Perhaps the most crucial question facing scholars today is how to create a global society that gives a decent life to all people without doing it at a serious cost to future generations,” the co-authors write in the chapter. “Our most basic conclusion is that policymakers fail to give adequate consideration to some of the most fundamental aspects of the complex adaptive global system they are charged with influencing.”

To make the point, Levin and colleagues weave into the chapter’s text brief examples from matters as disparate as equilibrium theory, natural capital, biological fitness, modularity, the planet’s carrying capacity, cooperation and exploitation theory, even the vertebrate immune system to demonstrate that, in fact, these matters are not disparate at all.

In doing so, Levin and his colleagues highlight the intellectual challenge of addressing these complex, interconnected systems that form the basis of Sir Partha’s scholarly work. Sir Partha is an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Cambridge.

The body of the “Linked” essay includes examples of cooperation, modularity, competition, and destructive self-interest within these two systems that have led to the “mess” in the planet’s common-pool resources and among its poorest inhabitants. The conclusion focuses on a series of strategies, effectively and bluntly summarized by the line, “Ecology must meet economics.”

“We had three objectives with this chapter,” said Levin in a brief interview. “We wanted to honor our friend and colleague, Partha, who has been one of the leading, if not the leading, economists in the world addressing environmental problems; to highlight the deep intellectual challenges involved in addressing these problems; and to lay out the management challenges, in the hope of influencing management.”

Scott Barrett, one of the book’s three editors, said “Environment & Development” is unique in the diversity of its contributors. Barrett lauds the Levin/Arrow/Erhlich chapter as “a tribute to the vision” of Sir Partha, in which, “the fates of each system depend on the other one.”