Bringing Economics teaching into the 21st Century

Home / Wisdom of others / Bringing Economics teaching into the 21st Century

16 12 e4a-icon-colorWe are delighted to have come across the work of ecological economist Professor Peter Brown of McGill University on Economics for the Anthropocene.  To be honest, when we first came across the term ‘Anthropocene‘ we did not have a clue what it meant!  A quick look at Wikipedia educated us that “The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch dating from when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.”

Peter’s career has concentrated on the practical uses of philosophy to think critically about the goals of society.  Since the 1980s this work has centred on the deterioration of Earth’s life support capacity and the thought systems that facilitate and legitimate this decline – which we are very interested in.  We had the opportunity to ask  Peter about his work.

Before starting with my questions, could you tell me a little bit about yourself? 

I would say I am somewhat of a misfit, and an anachronism.  My father was a protestant minister; and he took the word “protest” seriously in the way he lived his life—calling attention to, and seeking the redress of grievances, in the world he saw around him.  He devoted much of his career to advancing the education, and respectful treatment of women.  He served his community as a chaplain and professor in the then traditional women’s colleges such as Vassar.  My mother’s profession was that of a homemaker—and this is what she wrote on the IRS form.  She worked hard to see that our household was welcoming and healthy for all that passed through it. Some of the people who passed through it were post-world war two refugees from Asia and Eastern Europe. The heroes we discussed around the dinner table were people like Albert Schweitzer and his work among the lepers in West Africa, and his struggles with mainstream Christianity; and Helen Keller a person who became deaf and blind at the age of 19 months—yet graduated from college, wrote books, and spoke on behalf of the disabled around the globe. 

The community I am concerned about is what I have come to call The Commonwealth of Life—the community of beings that have co-evolved with the Earth and are completely dependent upon it for life and well-being.  I seek to respect and honour life’s household and to celebrate its majesty, and the dignity of the Earth itself.  It seems to me that we live in an era of disrespect and abuse of our mother Earth.  With fatal hubris we celebrate, as progress, our victories over her as we lay waste to millions of years of evolution.  I stand mourning at this funeral pyre, and seek to extinguish it.   

In my work as a professor, tree farmer, and land conserver I seek to demonstrate and advocate for a respectful and mutually-enhancing human/Earth relationship.  Seeking to foster a more reflective and respectful civilisation in the mid-1970s, I co-founded the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, around 1980, the School of Public Policy and in the late 1980s, the School’s Environmental Policy Program—which operated programs at both the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Department of the Environment.  In the 1980s I also co-founded the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy and began to protect land in Western Maryland.  This is now some 550 acres of land under conservation easement and is known as Savage River Farms, and contains a sanctuary for brook trout on one of the last rivers in the state which contains good habitat.  During the last year I lived in Maryland I served as the Chair of Citizen’s Advisory Committee of the Rural Legacy Program. I have also been involved in farmland preservation in Maine and wildlife preservation in Quebec.  

After serving for six years on the board of Common Cause working on campaign finance reform in 1998 (with NO success at all), I moved to Canada in despair over the unbridled role of money in US politics.  At McGill University I was the Director of the School of Environment for over three years. 

I was rather intrigued your latest article, “How Higher Education Imperils the Future: A Call to Urgent Action”, where you describe how several disciplines currently taught in Universities are orphans. Could you expand on that?  

It is widely recognised that humans are destabilising Earth’s life support systems.  Much less discussed is the role of higher education in legitimating and facilitating the rapidly accelerating decline in life’s prospects.  The emerging integration of the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology; and the extension of the evolutionary framework to our understanding of the cosmos have not affected many of the frameworks which shape and mediate our relationship to life and the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the disciplines of economics, finance and management; and in our systems of law, governance, and ethics.  The premises of our culture derived from Judeo-Christian and Greek sources have been undermined and/or rendered somewhat obsolete.  At the same time we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which humans have become major players in the biogeochemical systems of the Earth.  What is taught in these and other disciplines is putting humanity, and the rest of life with which we share heritage and destiny, on a tragic crash course with biophysical reality. 

You have developed a program called Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A).  Can you tell me how, and why, this came about?

The E4A partnership started with a mission to ground economics in contemporary science, studying economic production as a physical transformation of earth materials and energy from the sun into waste that either assimilates within Earth’s carrying capacity or accumulates beyond.  The well-being of humans, and indeed all life, hangs upon the pace, distribution, and ultimate scale of this transformation.  Growth becomes an initial stage of a maturing economy; however, ultimately it should be a temporary means to longer-term ends of stability, resilience, and longevity which is why we seek to expand the ecological critic from “economics” to “education” for the Anthropocene, with immediate focus on the popular and influential fields of economics, finance, and business more broadly. 

We also refer to it as ”Ecological Economics”, which holds that the human economic is fully embedded in the Earth’s biogeochemical systems.  This contrasts sharply with neo-classical economics which imagines the economy as a closed system of transactions with no systematic relationship with the Earth.  Unlike a cheap hotel room it contains neither a plug (for energy), nor a trash can (for the inevitable waste stream connected to any production).  The main goal of E4A is to keep the discipline of ecological economics from going extinct by educating high quality PhD students to seed the academy, and influence public policy and private practice. 

In 2014 working closely with colleagues at the University of Vermont and York University we were able to assemble over five million dollars to found the “Economics for the Anthropocene” project.   About one-half of this amount was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

What has happened since you first got together? 

Let me quote from our most recent program plan:

What We Have Done.  To address the failings of higher education to tackle the root causes of the interdependent social and ecological crises of climate change, overconsumption, persistent poverty, and mass species extinction, an international partnership to the build an “Economics for the Anthropocene” (E4A, was formalised in 2014 between McGill University, York University, the University of Vermont, and 22 partners from advocacy organisations, think tanks, and government agencies.  The partnership is designed to (1) create a vibrant international research network in ecological economics and associated reconciliation projects within the social sciences and humanities; (2) engage civil society and government to help solve immediate, transnational, environmental conflict over water, energy, and climate justice that exemplify problems of a human-dominated epoch; and (3) train future leaders for the Anthropocene, including 41 graduate students across 3 initial cohorts to seed higher education reform worldwide.  We are planning a much more ambitious program called “Education for the Anthropocene” (Ed4A).

Time of the Essence.  It is a sad and very sobering fact that macro-economic policy at the national and global levels are creating a future radically different and much worse than the current situation.  Sea level rise alone will trigger a refugee crisis that will exceed by several orders of magnitude the current crises in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.   Diseases are spreading, crop failures are more common, the natural world is shrinking and imperiled.  Everyone who is paying attention knows all this and more.

How does E4A help to effect social change, and how can the impact be amplified?  

The plain fact is that science-based economics is only rarely taught in a systematic way in the English speaking world, nor in the parts of the world which have, tragically in my opinion, adopted the curricula from that world—e.g. India.  E4A is a precarious foothold in an avalanche of expensive ignorance.  The growth-insistent paradigm embraced almost universally is, to put it bluntly, undercutting the Earth’s ability to support even the current human project, and is destroying the prospects of the rest of life with which we share heritage and destiny.    Hence the subtitle of our project is “Re-grounding the human/Earth relationship.”  In the E4A project and its successor (described below) we seek to provide education not only in science-based economics; but to stimulate the re-grounding of broad swaths of higher education from which we take our norms.  Our goal is to reach 10s of millions.

And why focus on PhDs?

16 12 E4A 2Higher education reform can be a significant leverage point in ushering in sweeping societal change urgently and desperately needed.  As such, the E4A project is committed to (1) Digital curation and global penetration in higher education of an economics curriculum grounded in contemporary science, (2) Solidifying an Earth System Science foundation to the now largely social critique and movement for a new economics in higher education and policy, and (3) Alignment of missions of higher education, civil society, and government working on positive social change through grounding the social sciences and humanities in contemporary science.  In a word, we propose to chart a course for higher education in the Anthropocene.    It is a flight of the Phoenix. 

What will happen next?

Here is our plan: Establish a program in the Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at McGill and our academic partners built around the idea of Earth Economics (EE)EE sees the biogeochemistry of the Earth, the real economy, and finance as a single integrated system. It differs from mainstream economics in recognising limits to the expansion of the economy, paying explicit attention to the economy’s metabolic processes, and using both qualitative and quantitative measures of assessment.  From the vantage point and the current scientific synthesis we will lay the foundation for a broad renaissance of the social sciences and humanities, and a new structure and purpose for higher education based on an ethic of respect for life on Earth, and the dignity of the Earth itself. 

How we will do it:

  1. Raise funds towards establishing an Endowed Chair and/or a Professorship in Earth Economics at both McGill and the University of Vermont.  Each University will commit one professorship as a match. 
  2. Continue the existing program led by McGill and its North American academic partners at the University of Vermont and likely York University.  The original program will graduate about 40.  We will expand this target to 125 by extending the existing program for five years and admitting about 20 students a year, spread roughly equally between the three universities. 
  3. Adapt and Extend the North American E4A Ph.D. program to universities in Australia, China, and India; and beyond as the project matures. The Big History Institute (BHI) at Macquarie (MU) already has agreed to facilitate opportunities to extend these programs to their global network.  We will also build on our existing partnership with MU through coordinating our research with theirs, co-supervision of students, and student and faculty exchanges.
  4. Enhance international cooperation through providing content and delivery of alternative curriculum to an emerging international movement for economics, finance, and management education reform.   We will work closely with Future Earth headquartered in Montreal which has special initiatives in this area. 
  5. Expand knowledge-sharing through launching an E4A-X online learning platform and massive open online course (MOOC) in Earth Economics within the edX network.  This will be done in cooperation with the Big History platform.  

We are working closely with the Big History Institute at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia to join in their efforts to reach institutions of higher educations around the globe.  We are planning to follow with a project called Education for the Anthropocene (Ed4A) which seeks to initiate, and be a major contributor to, a broad reform of higher education. Our preliminary budget for the first ten years of this effort is about 20 million USD.

If you had three wishes in connection with E4A and Ed4A, what would they be? 

!) We need money to support a Chair in Earth Economics; 2) to fund about 80 graduate students and 3) to mount a global campaign to change the disciplines and curricula that are undercutting the ability of the Earth to support life.  This requires a long term commitment to us and other institutions such as; the Big History Institute, the International Institute of Sustainable Development, and the David Suzuki Foundation.    The road before us is long and uphill.  We will be criticised as being impractical, dreamers, even utopians.  But a bitter historical lesson is now upon us.  In the 1970s and 80s the right invested in ideas, while the liberal establishment spent its resources on practical results that could be seen on the ground, without concern for a philosophy of governance.  In December 2016 it is not hard to see who won. 

Thank you Peter, may your wishes come true!

You can listen here to a key noteProfessor Brown gave at the Big History Anthropocene Conference at the Macquarie University in Sydney December 2015 where he talks about using higher education and economics to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene.

If you would like to find out more, please contact Peter directly (peter.g.brown at

We'd love to hear from you

Do you have any questions or thoughts in the context of innovation then please get in touch!

Start typing and press Enter to search