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October 25, 2001 Müller is out to change economics - and the world



Frank Müller

Professor Frank Müller teaches “ecological economics.”

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Frank Kuin

In some respects, Economics Professor Frank Müller is like a modern-day Copernicus, the sixteenth- century Polish astronomer who tried to convince people the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around.

Müller, who teaches ecological economics, has set himself a similar task: to persuade people, especially in business and industry, that the world economy is dependent upon the planet’s ecosystem, rather than the environment being subservient to the economy.

Economy depends on ecosystem

Such a fundamental shift in attitude is needed in order to save the world’s environment and promote sustainable development, he told the Thursday Report. So long as the business community operates exclusively on the basis of “very myopic goals,” it will be difficult to back out of a “cul-de-sac” of industry-induced pollution and global warming.

“Ultimately, the environment is determining the limitations in which we conduct our economic activities,” said Müller, who serves as president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics (CANSEE). “But it is astonishing how difficult it seems even for the majority of economists to understand that.

“In most of the textbooks, we see economics as an independent system. This vision has to be changed. Economics is not independent. We are not creating anything new, we are only transforming what already exists around us — with all the environmental problems.”

In order for business to operate in a manner that’s environmentally feasible, economists should become more tolerant of ideas from other disciplines, such as ecology and biology. “Certain economic concepts are not adequate to handle long-term problems, like global warming and climate change.”

To help that view, Müller recently chaired a conference on ecological economics hosted by McGill’s School of Environment, titled Ecological Sustainability of the Global Market Economy. Like-minded participants from about 15 countries presented papers on a wide variety of topics, from “green electricity” to “carbon credits.”

Next, Müller will try to bring ecological economics to “the non-converted,” he said. In fact, Shell agreed to sponsor the conference, which raised some eyebrows, but according to Müller, it is imperative to engage corporations such as Shell and Exxon in the debate.

“It does not make sense to talk only to the converted, and not to talk to your opponent,” he said. “Ultimately, we have to win the battle by persuasion, through the industry. So what we have to do is get out from our academia and into the boardrooms.”

Sound economics

The main challenge in getting a corporate ear for problems such as global warming is the apparent contradiction between economy and ecology. There’s “a mismatch” between the two, illustrated by their respective timeframes, Müller said. “For economists, long-term is five years. But for ecologists, five years is nothing.”

Still, the strongest argument in the ecological economist’s arsenal may be economic merit. In the end, Müller said, corporations must be persuaded that environmentally friendly policies can be sound economic policies as well.

“Environmental policies should not be understood as slowing down the economy. On the contrary, new industries are coming up, new environmental products are emerging, new technologies are developed. So it’s pro-brain, pro-investment, pro-innovation.” For example, the automobile industry is investing billions of dollars to change engines and to get away from the fossil-fuel-driven economy.

Müller, a self-described conventional economist by training, knows not to expect quick progress. He has been involved in ecological economics for almost 30 years, even before he joined Concordia in 1974. Problems like global warming will be dealt with sooner or later, he said. “Environmental issues stay with us permanently; there’s no way to escape them.”