Economists facing nature, histories and contexts: a syllabus

With Quentin Couix, a postdoc at CIRED who’s one of the best specialist in the history of environmental economics, I’m opening a new course on the history of how economists have handled natured, and how other disciplines have reacted to their work. We’re putting our syllabus online for those looking for reading lists on the topic.

Most of our students have an engineering background (with an interest in sustainable development), with a few others taking master classes in environmental and urban economics (polytechnique and ENSAE). This explain why the course is centered on the quantification, modeling and evaluation strategies that economists vs other natural and life scientists and engineers have proposed to manage nature. We want students to get a sense of why economists made the choices they made, why they believe those choices were scientific, why other scientists did not always agree, and how the models, concepts and tools they produced were taken up or challenged by businessmen, judges, policy-makers, environmental activists, on local, national and global scales. Had our students been more social science, humanities or law oriented, the emphasis could have been different. There’s a large literature on legal approaches to the environment, international governance, divestment movements, whose surface we only scratch here (see for instance this repository of syllabi on climate change). We also focus on the period following World War II, because this when the scientific identity of economists stabilized and when their contemporary epistemology and toolbox was forged. Again, there’s a lot to be said about economists’ concerns pre-World War II.

Suggestions for additional topics to cover and references to read are welcome!

Overview and Objectives:

The course is meant to provide a contextual history of how economists have approached and modelled “nature” and “the environment” since World War II. This is the moment when economics became entrenched as a social science and when its contemporary boundaries and methods were standardized and stabilized. The first lecture will however offer a chronology of the environmental issues economists have focused on since the late 19th century. The objective of the course is twofold: 

  • It historicizes the models and tools economists use to deal with environmental issues. This course doesn’t require taking any specific courses, but we will discuss the history of some of the key models and tools taught in ECO572 (environmental economics), ECO569 (environmental economics 2) and ECO581 (Economics of biodiversity). This will include models of growth, climate models including IAMs, cost-benefit analysis, contingent valuation, valuing ecosystem services, carbon taxes, cap and trade markets, commons governance, market failures, social cost of carbons, redistributive effects of climate policies, etc. Our goal is to clarify how and why economists have developed such models for growth, energy and climate, why they chose to quantify, value and “commodify” nature, what solutions they proposed to problems of resource exhaustion, pollution, global warming, etc. We will discuss what technical and computational problems, as well as theoretical and ethical problems they faced. We will also cover disagreement among themselves and the various heterodoxies that developed from these disagreements (such as ecological economics, evolutionary economics or degrowth).
  • Crucially, it also historicizes the reception, dissemination, resistance to and influences of such tools and models. Given that you come from various background (economics, math, engineering, life science, etc), we will pay specific attention to how researchers from these disciplines have engaged with or criticized economists’ work. We will sometimes tell stories of how engineers and biologists themselves have proposed their own economic counter-models. Given that you consider various career options (business, research, public service, activism), we will document the national and global contexts in which economists’ research was carried, as well as their uses and misuses by governments, international organizations, businesses, lawyers and activists’ groups in the last 70 years. 

While this is a course in history of economics, we build on and ask you to read work from historians of science and societies, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists as well.  

Course schedule and readings

Summary of lectures

Session 1 (January 3): Shifts in economists’ approach to nature: a chronology 

Session 2 (January 10): making of the group, project choice, workflow outline 

Session 3 (January 17): Economists’ models of resources, environment and growth

Session 4 (January 24): The economic analysis of climate change

Session 5 (January 31): Quantifying and valuing nature

Session 6 (February 7): Pricing the priceless: taxes, property rights and markets

Session 7 (February 14): Economists and the ethics of nature

Session 8 (February 21): From economics to environmental policies and the politics of nature

Session 9 (March 7): group oral presentation

Session 1 (3 hours, January 3, Beatrice Cherrier)“Shifts in economists’ approach to nature: a chronology” 

I have tweeted this introductory lecture here


1. 1880s-1930s: the problem of exhaustible natural resources

2. 1930s-1960s: amenities, pollution, and the consistency of economic models with the laws of physics

3. The 1970s environmental momentum in Western societies and economics

4. The market turn in societies and environmental economics? 

5. Epilogue: A tale of two prizes 

No required reading; Suggested additional readings 

Boulding K. 1966. “The economics of the coming spaceship earth” in H. Jarrett (ed.), Environmental quality in a growing economy, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Daly, Herman E. 1968. “On Economics as a Life Science.” The Journal of Political Economy 76(3), p. 392–406

Fullerton D., R. Stavins. 1998. “How do economists really think about the environment?” Nature 395: 6701

Moore, JW. 2017. “The Capitalocene, Part I : on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44 :3, 594-630.

Moore, JW. 2018. “The Capitalocene Part II : accumulation by appropriation and the centrality of unpaid work/energy,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45 :2, 237

Malm, A., and Hornborg, A. 2014. The geology of mankind ? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review 1, 62-69.

Radkau, J. 2008. Nature and Power. A Global History of the Environment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Session 2 (January 10; 3 hours, Beatrice Cherrier): project choices 

Session 3 (3 hours, January 17, Quentin Couix): Economists’ models of resources, environment and growth

Topics and questions

Pioneers in environmental and resource economics (Boulding, Ayres and Kneese); The Limits to Growth report and economists’ reactions; Growth theory with exhaustible resources (Solow and Stiglitz); Controversy with ecological economists and their thermodynamic approach (Georgescu Roegen and Daly); Steady state and degrowth perspectives; Weak and strong sustainability

What type of environmental issues were economists concerned with in the 1950s and 1960s? What kind of tools, models, support and funding the engineers and scientists who wrote the Limits to Growth report built on? Why did those model make economists unhappy and how did they adapt their own models of growth? Why their focus on growth as a key object and which alternatives concept have been developed?

Primary readings (pick one) 

Ayres, Robert U., et Allen V. Kneese. 1969. “Production, Consumption, and Externalities.” American Economic Review 59 (3): 282.

Daly, Herman E. 1990. “Sustainable Development: From Concept and Theory to Operational Principles.” Population and Development Review 16: 25 43.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1975. “Energy and Economic Myths.” Southern Economic Journal 41 (3): 347 81.

Solow, Robert M. 1974. “The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics.” The American Economic Review 64 (2): 1–14.

Secondary sources (pick one)

Erreygers, Guido, 2009. “Hotelling, Rawls, Solow: How Exhaustible Resources Came to Be Integrated into the Neoclassical Growth Model.” History of Political Economy, 41(Suppl_1):263281.

Levallois, Clément, 2010. “Can De-growth Be Considered a Policy Option? A Historical Note on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome.” Ecological Economics, 69(11):22712278.

Missemer, Antoine et Nadaud, Franck, 2020. “Energy as a Factor of Production: Historical Roots in the American Institutionalist Context.” Energy Economics, 86.

Røpke, Inge. 2004. “The Early History of Modern Ecological Economics.” Ecological Economics 50 (3): 293‑314.

Spash, Clive L. 1999. “The Development of Environmental Thinking in Economics.” Environmental Values 8 (4): 413‑35.

Additional suggested readings

Couix, Quentin. 2019. “Natural Resources in the Theory of Production: The Georgescu-Roegen/Daly versus Solow/Stiglitz Controversy.” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 26 (6): 1341‑78.

Schmelzer, Matthias. 2016. The Hegemony of Growth: The OECD and the Making of the Economic Growth Paradigm. Cambridge University Press.

Vieille Blanchard, Elodie. 2010. “Modelling the Future: An Overview of the ‘Limits to Growth’ Debate.” Centaurus 52 (2): 91‑116.

Session 4 (3 hours, January 24, Quentin Couix): The economic analysis of climate change


The rise of climate change concerns; IPCC, working group III, and integrated assessment models (IAMs); Nordhaus and the DICE model; Stern and the discount rate controversy; Methodological issues surrounding damage functions; Cost-benefit vs cost-effectiveness ; Ecological macroeconomics

How has the concern for climate change (re)emerged in economics and societies at large in the 1970s? What type of models did economist propose to analyze the costs, benefits and aggregate economic consequences of climate change and what criticisms from environmental scientists and ethicists?

Primary readings (pick one) 

Nordhaus, William D. 1991. “To Slow or Not to Slow: The Economics of The Greenhouse Effect.” The Economic Journal 101 (407): 920‑37.

Stern, Nicholas. 2008. “The economics of climate change.” American Economic Review 98 (2): 1‑37.

Stern, Nicholas, et Joseph Stiglitz. 2022. “The economics of immense risk, urgent action and radical change: towards new approaches to the economics of climate change.” Journal of Economic Methodology 0 (0): 1‑36.

Weitzman, Martin L. 2009. “On Modeling and Interpreting the Economics of Catastrophic Climate Change.” The Review of Economics and Statistics 91 (1): 1‑19.

Secondary sources (pick one)

Godard, Olivier. 2008. “The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change: Contents, Insights and Assessment of the Critical Debate.” S.A.P.I.EN.S. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society, nᵒ 1.1.

Masini, Fabio. 2021. “William Nordhaus: A Disputable Nobel? Externalities, Climate Change, and Governmental Action.” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought.

Randalls, Samuel. 2011. “Optimal Climate Change: Economics and Climate Science Policy Histories (from Heuristic to Normative).” Osiris 26 (1): 224‑42.

Additional suggested readings

Dietz, Simon, Frederick van der Ploeg, Armon Rezai, et Frank Venmans. 2021. “Are Economists Getting Climate Dynamics Right and Does It Matter?” Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists 8 (5): 895‑921.

Pottier, Antonin, Jean-Charles Hourcade, et Etienne Espagne. 2014. “Modelling the Redirection of Technical Change: The Pitfalls of Incorporeal Visions of the Economy.” Energy Economics 42: 213‑18.

Woillez, Marie-Noëlle, Gaël Giraud, et Antoine Godin. 2020. “Economic Impacts of a Glacial Period: A Thought Experiment to Assess the Disconnect between Econometrics and Climate Sciences.” Earth System Dynamics 11 (4): 1073‑87.

Georgescu-Roegen; valuing ecosystem services; Solow

Session 5 (4 hours, January 31, Beatrice Cherrier): Quantifying and valuing nature

Topics and questions

Commodification; History of the concept of natural capital ; Costs and benefit analysis; Contingent valuation debates (experimental vs econometric); Hedonic methods; valuing ecosystem services, and controversies within ecological economics 

Why and how do economists quantify nature? Why do they focus on recovering citizens’ own evaluations and why do they disagree on hw to do so? What are the alternatives to the focus on economic agents? Is putting numbers on nature a good strategy to influence public debates, legal structures, international treaties?

Primary readings

Arrow, K., R. Solow, P. R. Portney, E. E. Leamer, R. Radner, and H. Schuman. 1993. “Report of the NOAA Panel on Contingent Valuation,” Federal Register 58, no.10 (January 15): 4601–14.

Costanza, d’Arge Ralph, de Groot, Farber, Grasso, Hannon, Limburg, Naeem, O’Neill , Paruelo, Raskin, Sutton, van den Belt. 1997. “The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital,” Nature, 387, 253–260

Daly, H. 2020. “ A note in Defense of the concept of natural capital.” Ecosystem Services 41.  

Secondary readings 

Banzhaf, S. 2009. “Objective or Multi-Objective? Two Historically Competing Visions for Benefit-Cost Analysis.” Land Economics 85(1): 3-23

Banzhaf. 2017. “Constructing Markets: Environmental Economics and the Contingent Valuation Controversy.”In Roger Backhouse and Beatrice Cherrier, eds., The Age of the Applied Economist”. History of Political Economy 49 (Suppl.): 213–239.

Fourcade, Marion. 2011. “Cents and Sensibility. Economic Values and the Nature of ‘Nature.’” American Journal of Sociology 116(6):1721–77. 

Maas, H., and A. Svorenčík. 2017. “Fraught with Controversy: Organizing Expertise against Contingent Valuation.” History of Political Economy 49 (2): 314–45

Missemer, Antoine, 2018. Natural Capital as an Economic Concept, History and Contemporary Issues. Ecological Economics, 143:9096

Additional suggested readings

Banzhaf. 2010. “Consumer Surplus with Apology: A Historical Perspective on Non-Market Valuation and Recreation Demand.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 2: 183–207

Kahneman, Daniel et Knetsch, Jack. 1992. “Valuing Public Goods: The Purchase of Moral Satisfaction.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 22(1), 57-70.

Castree, Noel. 2003. “Commodifying What Nature?” Progress in Human Geography 27(3) 273-297.

Spash Clive L. 2020. “A tale of three paradigms: Realising the revolutionary potential of ecological economics,” Ecological Economics, vol. 169

Session 6 (4 hours, February 7, Beatrice Cherrier): Pricing the priceless: taxes, property rights and markets

Topics and questions

Debates on market failures, pigovian taxes, property rights, Coase theorem and tragedy of the Commons; Markets for carbon, cap and trade ; Hardin vs Ostrom debate on governance of the commons and collective action ; Carbon taxes, economists’ consensus and petitioning ; A green mandate for central banks? 

How do economists approach environmental policies? Why the focus on taxes and markets? Why do they disagree on solutions to cure pollution, to preserve biodiverse, to avoid global heating? Do they tailor policy analysis to different types of environmental issues?

Primary readings 

Baumol William T. and Wallace E. Oates. 1971. “The use of standards and prices for protection of the environment.” The Swedish Journal of Economics, vol. 73, no 1, p. 42–54.

Coase, Ronald H. 1960. “The Problem of Social Cost.” Journal of Law and Economics 3, 1-44

Crocker Thomas D., 1968. Some economics of air pollution control, Natural Resources Journal 8 (2), p. 236–258

Hardin G 1968 “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, Vol. 162, Issue 3859, pp. 1243-1248

Kneese, Allen V. 1971. “Environmental pollution: Economics and policy.” American Economic Review 61: 153–66.

Schmalensee, R., Stavins, R. N. (2017). “The design of environmental markets : What have we learned from experience with cap and trade?.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 33(4), 572-588.

Secondary readings 

Berta, Nathalie. 2020. “Efficiency without Optimality: A Pragmatic Compromise for Environmental Policies in the Late 1960s.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought.

Medema, Steven G. 2014. “The Curious Treatment of the Coase Theorem in the Environmental Economics Literature, 1960–1979,” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 8(1), 39–57.

Lane, “The promiscuous history of market efficiency : the development of early emissions trading systems,” Environmental Politics  21(4), 583-603

Ehrenstein, Vera; Muniesa Fabian. 2013. “The Conditional Sink: Counterfactual Display in the Valuation of a Carbon Offsetting Reforestation Project.” Valuation Studies 1(2), 161-188

Suggested additional reads

Baumol, William J., and Wallace E. Oates. 1975. The Theory of Environmental Policy. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Dales John H. (1968), Pollution, Property and Prices. An Essay in Policy Making and Economics, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Johnson, M. 2022. “Two ‘Two Ostrom’ Problem.” History of Political Economy, special issue

Locher, F. 2016. “Third World Pastures: the Historical Roots of the Commons Paradigms (1965-1990)” Quaterni Storici 1

Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the commons. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Session 7 (4 hours February 14, Beatrice Cherrier): Economists and the ethics of nature

Topics and questions

Discounting rate in climate modeling and “future generations”; effective altruism; Preservation vs conservation;Notions of efficiency & equity, redistributive aspects ; Schumacher and Buddhist economics ; Philosophy of “sustainability”, loss, etc Welfarism and non-welfarism in environmental economics

Why do economists focus on evaluating the “welfare” consequences of environmental issues and policies and what do they mean by welfare? Are they alternative normative criteria to discuss what uses human make of nature, and what the consequences of these uses and of local to global policies have on various present and future populations? Can/should nature be discussed independently of human yardsticks?

Primary readings

Banzhaf, Ma, Timmins, 2919. “Environmental Justice: The Economics of Race, Place and Pollution,” Journal of Economic Perspectives  33(1), 185-208

Costanza, R. 2020. “Valuing natural capital and ecosystem services toward the goals of efficiency, fairness, and sustainability.” Ecosystem Services 43

Fleurbaey, Ferranna, Budolfson, Dennig, Mintz-Woo, Socolow, Spears, Zuber 2019 “The Social Cost of Carbon: Valuing Inequality, Risk, and Population for Climate Policy” The Monist 102, 84-109

Liotta, Kervinio, Levrel, Tardieu, 2020. “Planning for environmental justice – reducing well-being inequalities through urban greening,” Environmental Science and Policy 112, 47-60

Stern, Taylor. 2007. “Climate Change: risk, Ethics and the Stern Review.” Science 317.

Secondary readings

Banzhaf, H. Spencer. 2019. “The Environmental Turn in Natural Resource Economics: John Krutilla and ‘Conservation Reconsidered.'” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 41(1): 27-46.

Bethem, Frigo, Biswas, DesRoches, Pasqualetti, 2020.  “Energy Decisions within an applied ethics framework: an analysis of five recent controversies.” Energy, Sustainability and Society 10:29

Keheller, Paul. 2017. “Descriptive versus Prescriptive discounting in Climate Change Policy Analysis.” Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy 15

Additional references

Brown, P.G., and Timmerman, P. (2015). Ecological economics for the anthropocene: An emerging paradigm. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Elliott, Rebecca. 2018. “The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss.” European Journal of Sociology 59(3):301-37

Munda G., (1997), « Environmental economics, ecological economics and the concept of sustainable development” Environment Values 6 (2), 213-233

Nagastu, Davis, DesRoches, Koskinen, MacLeod Stojanovic, Thoren. 2019. “Philosophy of Science for sustainability science.” Sustainabiliy Science 15

Muir and Pinchot, preservation and conservation

Session 8 (3 hours, Beatrice Cherrier, February 21): From economics to environmental policies and the politics of nature

Topics and questions

Power relations and North/south relations ; Inequality, redistribution and environment ; Environment and natives across the globe  ; Economists and environmental activism; Agnotology and the industry-science relationships (Exxon case, oil business, Total, etc)

What concepts, tools and models proposed by economists have ben taken up by businessmen, activists, and policymakers? Have they been transformed and distorted in the process? Has economists’ identity shifted as a result from going out of the ivory tower and participating in business practices, policy making and activism? Or have they never been locked into an ivory tower?

Secondary readings

Bonneuil, Choquet, Franta. 2021. “Early Warning and emerging accountability: Total’s response to global warming, 1971-2021” Global Environmental Change 71. 

Ekberg, Pressfeldt. 2022. “A road to Denial: Climate Change and Neoliberal Thought in Sweden, 1988-2000” Contemporary European History 31, 627-644

Franta, B. 2021. “Weaponizing Economics: Big Oil, economic consultants, and climate policy delays.”Environmental Politics

Perrault 2013 “Dispossession by Accumulation? Mining, Water and the Nature of Enclosure on the Bolivian Altiplano” Antipode 45(5); 1050-1069

Watts, M., 2004. “Resource curse? Governmentality, oil, and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.” Geopolitics 9 (1), 50-80.

Additional references

Banzhaf, H. Spencer. 2020. “The Conservative Roots of Carbon Pricing.” National Affairs, forthcoming.

Cronon, William, 1994. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, New York : Hill and Wang

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Stratton, Clif. Power Politics: Carbon Energy in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021

Session 9 (March 7) : Group Oral Presentations


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