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Ecological Economics

Herman Daly, Ph.D., is an ecological economist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. His life’s work is to explore how massive-scale human activities can be ordered in ways that take into account the biosphere — “ecosystem services” in economic parlance — the life support systems on which everything depends. As a professor, he’s encouraged students to look beyond the existing neoclassical economic paradigm — the one that says we can, in essence, have infinite growth on a finite planet. Daly came of intellectual age in the late 1950s and early ’60s while attending Rice University in Houston, Texas, his home state. He believed economics was a good choice for a major because it combined humanities, science and philosophy, and he figured it might help him make a living upon graduation. But he later decided choosing economics was a mistake, “because economics along with social science generally does not really have one foot in the sciences and the other foot in the humanities. I kind of thought it had both feet in the air,” he says. Still, that sophomore-year mistake led to his life’s work — attempting to ground economics in both the physical sciences and in the humanities and ethics. After receiving his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, Daly taught economics for a time, then went to Northeast Brazil to teach as Ford Foundation Visiting Professor at the University of Ceara. Daly worked as a senior economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank from 1988 to 1994.

He also served as a research associate at Yale University, visiting fellow at the Australian National University, and a senior Fulbright lecturer in Brazil. He has more than 100 articles to his name in professional journals and anthologies as well as many books, including Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics (1999); Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (with J. Farley, 2003, 2011); and From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy (2014).

Interviewed by Leigh Glenn

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve said you were interested in helping to resolve poverty in Latin America through economic growth and development. How quickly did that change after you entered the field of economics?

HERMAN DALY. That took a while to disappear. In a way, that’s both fortunate and unfortunate. That made it easier for me to get along as an economist, to be promoted and get tenure. From the time I graduated, it took maybe 10 to 12 years before I had some experience teaching in Northeast Brazil. Reading Mathus, Rachel Carson and more recently then, having studied under Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen at Vanderbilt, re-reading John Stuart Mill — all of those things, plus the whole big population question in Northeast Brazil.

ACRES U.S.A. What kinds of real-life examples did you see in Brazil that prompted you to question the emphasis on economic growth as a panacea? Continue Reading →

Interview: Author Judith Schwartz Examines Water Management

Modern Water Wisdom

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

When writer Judith Schwartz learned that soil carbon is a buffer for climate change, her focus as a journalist took a major turn. She was covering the Slow Money National Gathering in 2010 when Gardener’s Supply founder Will Raap stated that over time more CO2 has gone into the atmosphere from the soil than has been released from burning fossil fuels. She says her first reaction was “Why don’t I know this?” Then she thought, “If this is true, can carbon be brought back to the soil?” In the quest that followed, she made the acquaintance of luminaries like Allan Savory, Christine Jones and Gabe Brown and traveled to several continents to see the new soil carbon paradigm in action. Schwartz has the gift of making difficult concepts accessible and appealing to lay readers, and that’s exactly what she does in Cows Save the Planet And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, which Elizabeth Kolbert called “a surprising, informative, and ultimately hopeful book.”

For her most recent project, Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World, Schwartz delves into the little-known role the water cycle plays in planetary health, which she illustrates with vivid, empowering stories from around the world. While we might not be able to change the rate of precipitation, as land managers we can directly affect the speed that water flows off our land and the amount of water that the soil is able to absorb. Trees and other vegetation are more than passive bystanders at the mercy of temperature extremes — they can also be powerful influences in regulating the climate.  

The week after this interview was recorded, Schwartz travelled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a congressional briefing on soil health and climate change organized by Regeneration International. As a public speaker, educator, researcher and networker, she has become deeply engaged in the broad movement to build soil carbon and restore ecosystems.

ACRES U.S.A. Please explain the title of your book, Water in Plain Sight.

JUDITH D. SCHWARTZ. The title plays on the idea that there is water in plain sight if we know where to look. It calls attention to aspects of water that are right before us but we are not seeing. By this I mean how water behaves on a basic level, not anything esoteric.

ACRES U.S.A. How should we reframe the problems of water shortages, runoff and floods?

SCHWARTZ. Once we approach these problems in terms of how water moves across the landscape and through the atmosphere, our understanding shifts. For example, when we frame a lack of water as “drought,” our focus is on what water is or isn’t coming down from the sky. That leaves us helpless because there’s really not much we can do. But if we shift our frame from drought to aridification, then the challenge becomes keeping water in the landscape. That opens up opportunities. Continue Reading →