How Do Economists Really Think About the Environment?

On a topic like the environment, communication among scholars from different disciplines in the natural and social sciences is both important and difficult, but such communication has been far from perfect. Economists themselves may have contributed to some rather fundamental misunderstandings about how economists think about the environment, perhaps through our enthusiasm for market solutions, perhaps by neglecting to make explicit all of the necessary qualifications, and perhaps simply by the use of jargon that has specific meaning only to other economists. In this brief essay, we seek to clarify some of these misunderstandings and thus to improve future interdisciplinary communication. We hope that natural scientists and other non-economists will take economic analysis and prescriptions more seriously when they see tempered enthusiasm, explicit qualifications, and better definitions. Our method is to posit a series of prevalent "myths" regarding how economists think about the natural environment. We then explain how each myth might have originated from statements by economists that were meant to summarize a more qualified analysis. In this way, we hope to explain how economists really do think about the natural environment.

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Working or Discussion Paper
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JEL Codes:
Q2; H4; L51
Series Statement:
Discussion Paper 98-29

 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2018-01-22

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