Economism and the Night Sky

By Richard B. Norgaard

The economy is our new cosmos. Stars may still shine, but few now tend sheep under a starry night sky. In fact, half the world’s population seldom sees stars through the smog and artificially lit megacities of industrial civilization. Artifacts of the economy define our lives —buildings, vehicles, highways, processed foods, and electronic gadgetry. We are caught in a web of market relations that determine how we interrelate with one another and with nature.

As markets expand to global proportions, the cosmologies and moral tales embedded in the cultural narratives of particular places fade, and their lessons are forgotten.  The slowly changing world that held these multifaceted stories, stories that revealed what was unknown as well as known, is replaced by a fast growing monoculture of things.

Nor does scientific study provide a substitute way of creating an understanding of the universe and its meaning.  It provides only a fragmented tale of the nature of our world.  Some scientists are putting the pieces back together again through integrated environmental assessments of climate change and biodiversity loss, but their number is small, the overall impact insignificant.  Ensnared in an economic cosmos, we increasingly draw on economic theory, or economism, to explain reality and guide our choices. Indeed, economism even colors the language of science as researchers employ its terms to communicate concepts to the public.

Let me expand on the term “economism” (belief in the primacy of economics) by distinguishing between actual economic activity and the complex of myths we have developed that sustains our trust in the economy and makes it possible to keep it functioning--possible to keep people, capital, and land working together.

This distinction is parallel to the one between nature as a reality of its own and the complex of myths traditional peoples held about nature and their relation to it.  Just as traditional myths provide explanations for natural phenomena, facilitate individual and collective decisions, and give meaning and coherence to life, so do modern beliefs about economics and the economy, in similar ways, make meaningful, coordinated life in industrial society possible.

During agricultural civilization, from roughly 10,000 BCE to our grandparents’ times, when the vast majority of people worked the land, people had a shared understanding of their economy, their place in it, and its relation to nature. Problems still existed, questions arose, and so a mythology evolved to resolve them.

In the modern industrial economy human knowledge is much more compartmentalized and differentiated due in part to our educational system that separates knowledge into distinct disciplines, but also because of differentiated experiential knowledge gained through specialized roles in the market. Individuals are trained to observe specific aspects of the economic cosmos without seeing the whole. The public good is ignored in favor of what is good for the individual.

Of course, there have long been differences between rich and poor, those with land or capital and those with neither.  Now these differences are exacerbated depending on who holds particular pieces of information and how this information is used.  The fragmentation makes it especially difficult to “see” the industrial economic system as a whole or to recognize our interdependence with other people and with nature.

Nevertheless, some seven billion people function together in today’s global economy in surprising synchrony. Industrial civilization is held together amazingly well through rich combinations of myths about the economic system. Thus, in spite of our specialized roles—let alone our class, religious, ethnic, and national heterogeneity—we are a “we” formed through our common acceptance of beliefs that allow us to interact. Indeed, we are absolutely dependent on the actions of millions of others, bound by a system of trust that each of us will sustain the myths and do our part.

Economism smoothes over both our cultural incongruities and those of a fragmented worldview. While these shared myths that make us a “we” are necessary to sustain the economic system on which we depend, they also make it very difficult to see how serious our economic problems really are, to visualize a different economy, and move in a sustainable direction.  

Economism is to the formal models of the discipline of economics as the complex beliefs that make up environmentalism are to environmental science. While distinctions between environmentalism and environmental science are commonly made, the term economism is relatively unknown and the distinction is rarely made. Yet the academic discipline of economics is completely infused with economism. The formal models of economics suggest many possible economies, depending on the assumptions made, but economists keep selecting “reasonable” assumptions enabling them to reach conclusions that support the status quo. Economism determines what is reasonable.

This brew of popular, political, and academic philosophy and practical beliefs both keeps industrial civilization glued together and discourages a challenge to the current economic system. So how do we get to a new economy that is socially just and environmentally sustainable? Even if theorists and applied economists can use the economic models we have to point the way toward a new economy, how can this potential be communicated to a public whose understanding is constrained by the economism that keeps the current system going? To what extent will a new set of myths have to be developed, a new economism? How can we make the transition without destroying the trust that keeps the current system from crashing, causing a social disaster and accelerating environmental harm?

We find ourselves in a 200-year bubble with the economy booming unrealistically. Even calling it a bubble can cause it to burst, which will result in chaos. Much as in the financial crisis we just went through, there are important economic interests behind the bubble’s continued expansion. And yet it cannot keep expanding. Environmental and social limits will pop it sooner or later.