DOI: 10.12924/cis2014.02010001 |Publication Date: 5 May 2014

Seeking Consilience for Sustainability Science: Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, and the New Economics

Joshua Farley
Department of Community Development and Applied Economics, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA
Abstract: The human system, driven largely by economic decisions, has profoundly affected planetary ecosystems as well as the energy supplies and natural resources essential to economic production. The challenge of sustainability is to understand and manage the complex interactions between human systems and the rest of nature. This conceptual article makes the case that meeting this challenge requires consilience between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, which is to say that their basic assumptions must be mutually reinforcing and consistent. This article reviews the extent to which economics is pursuing consilience with the sciences of human behavior, physics and ecology, and the impact full consilience would have on the field. The science of human behavior would force economists to redefine what is desirable, while physics and ecology redefine what is possible. The challenges posed by ecological degradation can be modeled as prisoner's dilemmas, best solved through cooperation, not competition. Fortunately, science reveals that humans may be among the most cooperative of all species. While much of the mainstream economic theory that still dominates academic and the policy discourse continues to ignore important findings from other sciences, several sub-fields of economics have made impressive strides towards consilience in recent decades, and these are likely to change mainstream theory eventually. The question is whether these changes can proceed rapidly enough to solve the most serious problems we currently face.

Keywords: anthropocene; cooperation; human behavior; interdisciplinarity


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