Cost, benefit and green principles

Ecological Economics

May 26, 2006

Two related books, one on ecology and one on environmental science, hit my desk the same day as Mick Common and Sigrid Stagl's text.

All three claim to be aimed at the lucrative first-year undergraduate market of environmentally related degrees in their various hues. While the latter two books are packed with colour photos and illustrations and attractively presented real-world examples, Common and Stagl contains not a single photograph or flash of colour. While it does have the obligatory boxes, these are densely packed and written in a small, tightly packed font. So no matter how good the text may prove to be, Common and Stagl will not pass the "bookshop flick-through test" and it is therefore unlikely to be bought by any cash-strapped undergraduate. I wonder what the publishers' thinking was on this matter.

The authors claim that the book can be read by "beginning undergraduates" in environmental management, environmental science and sustainable development "who have no previous background in one of the traditional disciplines involved". To write a book that can simultaneously develop skills in ecology and economics separately, and then combine them in the manner demanded by ecological economics, is a big task by anyone's standards. So we should not be surprised that the book achieves this more successfully in one area than the other. The success is in economics; less successful is ecology.

Consider, for example, that chapter two, "The environment", is 44 pages in length, while the last chapter, "Biodiversity loss", is 18 pages long; the other 472 pages deal with topics largely related to economics and policy.

In view of this, the book would be better placed as an alternative introductory textbook for economics-related courses rather than as a holistic treatise aimed at environmental students.

And what of the content? The writing is clear and the voice is distinctive.

I particularly like the way in which the authors present a standard neoclassical economics analysis and then state how an ecological economic viewpoint differs from that standard view. Equally distinctive is the habit of presenting analyses from first principles. Typically this involves presentation of some mathematical treatise, which is then explored graphically. This is a good idea for developing understanding among students, but the fact that some of the graphs look as though they have been pulled straight off a spreadsheet does not enhance the book's aesthetics.

The book is split into four parts. Part one begins by defining ecological economics and proceeds with chapters on humans in the environment, and the economy and environment. Part two is a solid introduction to economics and deals with economic accounting, economic growth and markets and their limitations. The book is at its best in parts three and four, which deal with governance and policies in an international context. The value of these chapters arises from both the quality of the writing and analysis, and also the rarity of similar sections in other books.

This is a well-written book but poorly produced and incorrectly positioned in the market - an interesting situation for a book dealing with an alternative economic paradigm.

Gareth Edwards-Jones is professor of agriculture and land use, University of Wales, Bangor.

Ecological Economics: An Introduction. First Edition

Author - Mick Common and Sigrid Stagl
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 560
Price - £60.00 and £30.00
ISBN - 0 521 81645 9 and 01670 3

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