Reflections on the paradigm of Ecological Economics for Environmental Management | Maurício Fuks | 2012

A concise history of ecological economics via Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Kenneth E. Boulding laying down foundations in the systems sciences, and their influence on Herman Daly and Robert Costanza.

Georgescu-Roegen (1971) pointed out that, according to the first law of thermodynamics we can neither create nor destroy matter or energy (Principle of Conservation of Matter and Energy) and consequently asked: What, then, does the economic process do? The answer is: it absorbs, qualitatively transforms low entropy and releases it outside the economic system in the form of high entropy.3 That is, the economic system is a subsystem of the finite global ecosystem, on which it depends to both extract low entropy and, when using it, release it in the form of high entropy (Ayres, Nair, 1984, Constanza et al 1997).

Figure 1 - Matter and energy flows through the economic system

This entropic perspective of the economic process is the opposite of the mechanistic view addopted by standard economic theory. Unlike the Newtonian worldview – in which a system is time reversible, remaining identical -, the second law of entropy indicates an irreversible and unidirectional qualitative change: The amount of bound (or unavailable) energy in a closed system increases continuously. To decrease the entropy of a system, we need to obtain energy from outside the system, which means increasing the global entropic deficit.

Living organisms are no exception to the second law of thermodynamics, since they survive by absorbing low entropy from the environment to offset the increase in entropy to which they are subject. Thus, although living organisms temporarily avoid dissipation, they increase the entropy of the system as a whole, i.e., of the environment in which they exist. In other words, the presence of life speeds up the entropic process (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971, 1993).


Kenneth Boulding, another thinker of huge influence in Ecological Economics was also adamant about the need for changing the economic behavior of humanity.5

  • Although Georgescu-Roegen and Boulding disagreed about the concept of entropy, the congruence between the works of these two thinkers is evident. The sharpest disagreement lies in that Boulding advocates the possibility of a closed system for matter without its dissipation and powered by solar energy. This difference makes Boulding’s view (potentially) less tragic than Georgescu-Roegen’s (see Cechin & Eli da Veiga, 2010; Cleveland, 1999; and Fuks, 1992, 1994).

“Reflections on the paradigm of Ecological Economics for Environmental Management” | Maurício Fuks | Estudos Avançados | vol.26 no.74 São Paulo 2012 at , CC-BY-NC at


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