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  • Culture of Ecology: Reconciling Economics and Environment
  • Douglas Macdonald
Robert E. Babe . Culture of Ecology: Reconciling Economics and Environment. University of Toronto Press. 312. $65.00

Robert Babe describes a 'culture of ecology' as a society in which the dominant discourse is fully compatible with the physical world of [End Page 152] which it is a part. He contrasts that with current industrialized societies in which the dominant discourse, most particularly represented by the discipline of economics, is at odds with physical reality. Babe argues that economics is completely anthropocentric, placing humans on a higher moral plane than that of all other species, and that it assumes human desires for material acquisition to be insatiable, resulting in the many forms of environmental degradation that are now so prevalent. He has written the book, accordingly, to document the anti-environmentalism inherent in neoclassical economic thought and to contrast that with the pro-environmental sets of ideas found in such disciplines as ecology and ecological economics. He disputes the argument made by Lynn White and others that today's individualism, materialism, and anthropocentrism – which are the basic cause of the environmental harm we are doing – can be traced back to Greek and biblical writings and are therefore essential elements of Western culture. Instead, he says, the anti-environmental mindset of mainstream economics has more recent roots, in the writings of Hobbes and Adam Smith, who presented assumptions and values concordant with those of the emerging ideology of capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He concludes with a discussion of the ways in which ecological economics might do more to incorporate the study of information and communication. This argument is presented in order to rebut the claim of economists that the transformation to an information economy frees us from the constraint of finite earthly resources.

Culture of Ecology provides a comprehensive, well-researched, and accessible analysis of a very important topic. Although we cannot blame economic thought for all of our environmental shortcomings, it and the attendant 'have our cake and it too' conceptualization of sustainable development is certainly part of the problem. The critique made by ecological economics is that economic analysis can no longer view nature only as a source of resources and sink for wastes, blindly assuming that we can always substitute capital and technology for the pieces of nature we kill off, without regard either to the sufferings of other species or the future of our own. That critique, however, is still very much on the margins of mainstream economic thought. Babe's book performs a very useful service by bringing that critique to a larger audience.

I do wish, though, that Professor Babe had done more to contribute insights from his own field to the development of ecological analysis. The penultimate chapter provides a very interesting discussion of information as a factor of production, critiquing previous work by Kenneth Boulding. I had hoped the author would then draw upon his professional training to further extend ecological economics and discuss ways in which such development of that body of thought will help free us from the dominance of economic ideas. The conclusion, [End Page 153] however, instead of setting out the implications of that analysis, does little more than call for a greater number of parks and protected wilderness areas, leaving the reader a bit flat.

I hope that in his next work the author will further develop his picture of an ecological discourse that will restore at least some harmony between ourselves and our world. In the meantime, we can be satisfied with the present work, which is indeed a very useful contribution to discussion of an essential topic.

Douglas Macdonald
Centre for the Environment, University of Toronto


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