The best books on environmental economics

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The best books on environmental economics

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In our current state of isolation, it’s important not to forget about some of the other issues which still beset the human race, not least climate change. Due to the fact that so fewer people are travelling both around the world and domestically each day, the levels of greenhouse gases being emitted are far lower than they have been in recent years. However, the problem is far from solved, and how to balance the economy with climate change policies is a question that still awaits an answer. At the very least, most people currently have a lot of time to read; and what better issue to read about than the most pressing of our time?

the best environmental economics books

1. Stephen Smith - Environmental Economics: A Very Short Introduction

Another in the excellent bite-size series from Oxford University Press, this edition focuses on giving a brief overview of the field and asking some important questions to get you thinking about the topic. Designed (as the title suggests) as an introduction into the topic, Smith outlines pollution control, environmental damage and its reduction, and global climate change policies, giving some answers as to how governments should balance their economic duties with the responsibility to protect the environment. Including questions like whether the economic costs of controlling environmental damage are viable, whether some environmental damages are necessary and even desired, and how we can assess the impact environmental damage has on humans, this book offers a great (and very short) springboard into the topic of environmental economics.

2. Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling - Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

Can you assign a monetary value to things like the environment and health? Many economists have tried to do this and, while it sounds rather cold and calculated, it’s often how governments decide what’s important to them. The problem is, our moral compasses are often ignored when numbers are the way we try and solve the problems we face. In Priceless, Ackerman and Heinzerling argue that the cost-benefit analysis which defines how many societies are run is hugely detrimental to the environment, and that issues such as climate change and health should be dealt with using democratic, moral values, rather than numbers.

That being said, should we avoid all risks, for fear of something bad happening? Some of the analysis in Priceless seems to imply that certain things are simply too risky to take on, and they cause people to be anxious, fearful, and depressed. The book often blames the nameless ‘company’ (much like in the Alien series), and the book has been criticised for encouraging cynicism and an anxious view of progress. Nonetheless, an interesting read which poses some important questions.

3. Tim Jackson - Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet

Economic growth has long been touted as the solution for all problems, as the most important indicator of success in modern society. Recently, though, this idea has been challenged: particularly the Green parties of Europe have argued that endless growth is detrimental to a number of things, not least the environment. In Prosperity Without Growth, Jackson argues that economic growth in developed nations should stop, that growing consumption doesn’t improve the happiness levels of citizens, and, most importantly, that the world’s ecosystems will be destroyed unless we take a different view of progress. Jackson argues that humans can prosper while taking into consideration the limits of a planet which has very obviously finite resources. Current evidence suggests that the level of current economic activity isn’t sustainable, meaning, if we decide our planet is important, it needs to be decreased. A revolutionary read which turns fundamental ideas of economics on their head, and was based on a report Jackson wrote for the Sustainable Development Commission in the UK, which was the most downloaded in 2009.

4. Paul Hawken - The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability

Hawken’s book confronts the conflict between businesses and environmental protection by making the argument that businesspeople need to transform commerce and make it sustainable. His book is premised on the fact that business, as it currently functions, is contributing to our exceeding the limits of what our planet can offer us, and in the process destroying the ecosystems we need to survive. Writing ‘the promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service’, he contends that the general rule that businesses exist to make money needs to be contested, and that through innovation and creativity, commerce can be reformed to serve the needs of the planet while also serving the needs of its customers.

But how? At the forefront of his idea is that businesses must manage their waste more effectively so it all is reused or recycled, and that the energy businesses use must rely solely on solar power and hydrogen. Governments can’t do this, he argues: businesses must take the lead, driven by an incentive shift from commercial gain in the short term to a wider view of ecological sustainability. A very business-centred approach that offers important ideas while perhaps not taking into account the dramatic system change which needs to take place to save the planet.

5. Jonathon Porritt - Capitalism: As If the World Matters

The current world is predominantly capitalist, particularly in those states which produce the most greenhouse houses. Even countries like China which have strict socially authoritarian governments have made moves towards a capitalist economy in the last few decades. In Capitalism, Porritt addresses the question of whether this economic system is at all able to deliver the change we need to see to save the environment - can it offer us a sustainable, green future? Porritt believes it has to be able to, even though our and politicians’ faith in the system has been shaken, because it’s the only system we really have.

While analysing capitalism and the role of businesses within it, the author also discusses the challenges that face the environmental movement and makes the argument that rather than emphasising the bad things that will happen if we don’t go green, it should be focusing on the (economic) positives of becoming sustainable. Porritt argues capitalism offers the best middle ground for personal well-being, economic growth, and sustainability - and anyway, we don’t have any other choice. A bit of a status-quo read that may ruffle the feathers of those who believe overall system change is the only solution.

6. Naomi Klein - This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

In stark opposition to Porritt’s analysis, Klein writes that the status quo is no longer viable and to protect our world, radical change is needed to our economic system. She argues that climate change isn’t just another issue which needs to be dealt with by politicians, but the wake up call we have needed which tells us that our systems are failing both us and the planet. Looking at how solving climate change can help us fix some of the problems that are at the forefront of modern society, such as widening inequality and democracies that only sort-of work, Klein builds a compelling case for why the capitalist market isn’t the solution to our problems and how current environmentalist movements are too defeatist. The climate crisis, while urgent and something we have very limited time to fix, acts also as a ‘gift’ - a way to rebuild our broken relationship with nature and totally change the way we live and interact with one another. A good companion to other, more capitalist-based solutions to the crisis, and one that offers a radical alternative.

7. Charles D. Kolstad - Environmental Economics

Looking for a textbook that focuses solely on environmental economics, getting straight to the point? Kolstad’s Environmental Economics does exactly that, assuming knowledge of micro- and macroeconomics from the off. While not offering newer ideas for the study and analysis of the environment in relation to economics like the other books on our list, this work will, however, give you a comprehensive overview of what the field looks like right now.

The book is split into four sections, dealing with (respectively): the definition of the field; market failures; the role of government regulation; and the demand for environmental quality. Kolstad takes an international/global approach to environmental economics, acknowledging that the discipline cannot work in isolation within states. That being said, he doesn’t ignore the differences between how countries use this field of economics to deal with (or not deal with) the environmental catastrophe we are facing. Perfect for undergraduate students who want to specialise in this field.