Meet Dr. Ove Jakobsen, pioneer of “ecological economics” in Bodø

An interview by Norway Today.

We spoke with Dr. Ove Jakobsen, Professor of Ecological Economics at Nord University and Ecological Economics Projects Coordinator for Bodø2024Bodø European Capital of Culture 2024.  

Welcome! Please introduce yourself to our readers.

“My name is Ove Jakobsen and I’m a professor of Ecological Economics at Nord University in Bodø.

“I’ve been working with topics such as business ethics, environmental management, philosophy of science, political philosophy… for years. Now, I’m trying to connect all of these different topics in one important field: ecological economics.

“I’m also Coordinator of the Ecological Economics project for Bodø2024 European Capital of Culture. That started in January of this year and it’ll last until 2024. So I have three years to come up with more research [laughs].”

The northern lights dance over beautiful Bodø. Source: Tommy Andreassen / Pixabay

What is “ecological economics”?

“In my interpretation, ecological economics is completely different from the traditional economy we have today. Ecological economics is about reaching revolutionary goals with evolutionary means. For example, we have ideas about how to solve the problems outlined in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals – by introducing what we should do more than focusing on what we shouldn’t do.

“Ecological economics focuses on developing local societies in a direction where we focus upon the enjoyment of life and quality of life for humans and all other living entities on Earth.

“One of the questions at the core of ecological economics is: How can we share resources on Earth to satisfy the basic needs of human beings without disturbing the balance of the ecosystems? And then we apply that to a change in the economy.

“We want to ensure a fair share of goods and an economy that’s not growth-focused – because after all, the planet we live on is not growing. So, it’s not logical to continue using more and more resources in ecosystems that are not growing.”

How long have you been working in ecological economics?

“The field of ecological economics was first introduced as a university topic in the USA at the University of Maryland in 1989.

“We started with ecological economics at Bodø Business School in 1995. We were very early here in Bodø, in Norway. I think we’re still the only school in Norway with courses in ecological economics, doing research on the topic.

“Other business schools are working more on the ‘green economy’ and the ‘green shift’. The ‘green shift’ is a kind of economy where we try to reduce the negative symptoms of the existing system – without actually changing the system.

“So, they’re trying to develop a green economy… But within the rules of the existing game. In ecological economics, we challenge the rules of the game directly.”

Are the “green shift” and “ecological economics” the two main types of sustainable economics in place today?

“Yes.

“Then there’s the traditional economy where there is no focus on environmental or social problems at all.

“Most companies and most leaders in the political world talk about sustainability all the time… But it’s a question of what they actually mean; it could be nothing, they could actually be questioning the system, or it could be just reducing negative symptoms within the system.”

In your opinion, where is Norway on the list of most sustainable countries?

“Norway thinks that they are in the forefront, but I’m not so sure.

“Many other countries are working on experiments of the ecological economics type. New Zealand, Scotland, Finland, Iceland, and others.

“But there are also areas – not necessarily a whole country – doing well. Eco-regions in Italy, for example, work in the same directions as ecological economics. There is also the US-based Sustainable Connections organization and the English Transition Towns movement. So there are initiatives in many different countries. Things are clearly changing and I hope Norway will join.

“Maybe the problem in Norway is that we have too much money from oil and so on. So we say Ok, we’ll just pay for the symptoms. The Norwegian government is still very green and not very ecological.

“There is hope for Norway, though. We’re working on international cooperations – including a few potential upcoming ones for Bodø2024. I’m trying to arrange for the local authorities here in Bodø to meet people in Minnesota working on similar initiatives. Maybe that’s not very surprising because Minnesota and that part of America have many people from Norway living there [laughs].

“But we also have cooperations with people in Hungary, Italy’s eco-regions, and so on. For some places, we see the whole country is moving in the right direction but in most countries, we only have small groups and regions working in this positive direction.

“There is absolutely hope for change, though.”

Reindeer grazing around the fields of northern Norway. Photo: Ole Kristian Andreassen

Let’s talk accountability. Who do you think is accountable for the lack of sustainability: the average consumer, governments, corporations? Where do small businesses stand?

“The way I see it is that the people in the local society must be participants and co-creators. If people are co-creating their own future, they will also be co-responsible.

“Look at the distance between top and bottom, the gap between rich and poor, the gap between the politicians at the top and ordinary people… The bigger it is, the less responsible people will be.

“So, in ecological economics, we talk about a more democratic way of developing society. People should be more involved in the processes.

“It should be a combination of bottom-up initiatives and top-down common rules for certain things (like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals). We need some rules [chuckles] for the whole Earth internationally.

“In our perspective, global society is an integration, a network, of local societies. This is why the focus on local societies is key. And the thing that we’re missing most today is engagement from the bottom. People must participate in the development of their own local societies.”

So how can individuals be motivated to participate in ecological economics?

“We’re currently working on that. One of our activities is fostering participation by arranging dialogue meetings. We use a mix of many different methods (socratic dialogue, open-space dialogue, and so on) which we call a utopian dialogue.

“Much of our inspiration is from Karl Mannheim [1893-1947], a Hungarian sociologist, and Paul Ricoeur [1913-2005], a French philosopher. And now also Ruth Levitas [b. 1949], an English professor of sociology working with utopian research.

“So, this is how it goes. We invite different people in local societies to come together and have a dialogue. First, we ask them to use their own experiences, their histories, to try to synthesize values and principles that they have in common. In the second stage, we ask them to develop concrete projects to materialize their ideas and principles. And in the third stage we try to combine it all; to create cooperation between different projects and to make them more easily implementable in practice.

“Our goal, though, is that these processes become self-organizing in the future. Institutions shouldn’t always have to organize such things. Therefore, we also offer courses in different dialogue methods.”

How can corporations and governments be motivated to participate in ecological economics?

“I have no answer for that – that’s the main problem [laughs].

“We see some bosses, for example, having meetings with private jets, and being well connected; they have contact with the military or they have a very strong economical background. These enormous, mega-sized global businesses are above the political level in a way. It can be hard to do something to combat that.

“I do not think we can do it with a violent revolution – it must be peaceful and it must be step-by-step. If we do it peacefully, build up, and find solutions others can learn from it. I truly think that local society connections can be the driving forces.

“When people ask this question, this key question, I always say it’s better to work in a positive direction. It’s more inspiring to do that.

“I think that in countries all over the world, people are already going in the direction of ecological economics and they might not even know it. They might have other names for it. But the local initiatives are key – ‘Local food for local markets’, a project we’re working on, for example, is mentioned in many UN reports. It deals with healthy, good food grown in an ecological way by reducing[ the distance between production and consumption.

“So, I think if we can succeed in developing many good examples, their power can be far-reaching.”

Fishing off the coast of Svolvær on the Lofoten Islands. Photo: Magnar Jakobsen

How much time do we have, in your opinion, before we run out of resources?

“There are different prognoses about that…

“But I think we have to start as soon as possible with the change process.

“In fact, it has started already.

“Many people are working in the right direction. Not always under the same name – they don’t always call it ecological economics, it could be called other things. In India, they call it Buddhist economics, there’s also cooperative economics and new economics… There’s any number of ways to call it.”

What would you say to someone who says: “We only have XY years to save the planet. We have to act more quickly and more radically”?

“I would say that we agree on one thing: we need revolutionary goals. But we cannot change everything at once. We have to take it step by step. And if we start today, it’s better than waiting ten years.

“Maybe we do need stronger actions. Some people argue about rebellion and think we need to do something very big very fast and very dramatic. But it’s not a good idea to start killing each other to make changes. That’s a very bad idea. A violent revolution is not a good thing.

“I think people are more motivated when we’re working towards something positive than just focusing on not doing all these negative things. If you’re doing all these positive things, then you don’t have time to do the negative things. So the problem will, in a way, be smaller. But we’ll see if that’s enough [chuckles].

“Also, there must be different solutions for different countries. We have different ecosystems and different cultures – we should stimulate the development of the local traditions connected to the local ecological conditions and cultural conditions. We should not look backward but forwards, and hope they will use this to make a better world in a way. And a better world is not a world where everything is similar – it must be different.

“For example, in cooperation with Nordland County, we could engage the population (through decentralized networks) to participate in planning of concrete activities.

“Freedom is a very important part of it. We must be free to develop our own directions within some common rules.”

Are there any historical examples of ecological economists?

“Ecological economics ideas are not new today; we can find them in ancient history, too. The first person recorded talking about such ideas was Aristotle, over 2000 years ago. He said Economy should use resources in a way that is best for human beings. Aristotle pointed out the problems of chrematistics – which is finance today. In terms of trade, he noticed that it was dominated by finance; not by real products, but by money. The ancient Greeks were already buying and selling money and earning a whole lot of profit back then [laughs]. But this specific way of profiting was a bad thing in a good economy, according to Aristotle.

“Critical voices have said for centuries that we cannot go on in a competitive economy based on growth. Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and Russian philosopher and anarchist Peter Kropotkin were also already talking about such themes in the 19th century. Kropotkin spoke about the development of local societies based on cooperation and fairness; peacefully of course. He was a pacifist and likely one of the inspirations behind Gandhi‘s peace philosophy.

“Kropotkin said We have to change from mechanistic to organic thinking after studying the development of different countries from an ecological perspective. He discovered that organic thinking was the basis for a change in a more fair direction and a more ecological direction.

“Then in the 1970s these ideas really exploded in the Western world. Alternative economists emerged from all parts of the world. Some were young, some were old. Women, men. And all of them had one idea in common: that we have to develop an economy and society that is based on ethical principles and fairness; that does not disturb the ecosystems.

“American ecologist and economist Herman Daly, one of the most important people in the development of ecological economics in the late 1980s, used the example with Aristotle to make a distinction between real economy and chrematistic, that is, finance-based economy. We need finance in the new economy, too, but it shouldn’t be used as a means to get the economy working.

“We have to have a good economy, but economy should be used for the common good, not for maximizing individual profits.

“How this will end up is impossible to say today – because we’ve decreased usage of even physical money in favor of internet-based transactions. Maybe we can come into a society without money, some talk about that, too.”

So, a Star Trek society 🙂 Was there a point in history up until which all humans lived sustainably or ecologically?

“The Industrial Revolution was a turning point, but in the wrong direction in a way.

“We do need industry – but we have to find a new direction in which to do it.

“That’s especially interesting in these corona times. Do we go back to how things were before corona, or do we look forward to find out how we can change things and come into a better path in the future?

“I think we must take a step forward and ask new kinds of questions like what are the main ideas in a good society, a fair society, a society where people want to live?”

A glimpse into urban agriculture. Photo: Susanne Forsland

If there was an ideal world where ecological economics were in place, what would that look like?

“That’s also a very interesting question.

“We are actually not trying to describe an ideal world but rather a process that’s changing all the time. So when we talk about a Utopia, it’s very important that we define it. ‘Utopia’ is not a description of an ideal society – it’s a description of a process.

“Instead of talking about how the future will be, we ask the question how we want the future to be; and how we want the future to be will change. So if we ask a local society today if they want to develop in this or that direction, and then ask again in ten years, maybe the answer will be different.

“We have to focus more on Utopian thinking than on a prognosis. A prognosis is descriptive: ‘The future will be…’. On the other hand, when you work with Utopian methods you ask, ‘In what direction do we want to go?’ And then you start working in THAT direction. But, it’s really a question of both and not one or the other.

“The answer is – I don’t know what the future will be but I hope it will be different in different places. That is, that local solutions in Australia, India, South Africa, the USA, Norway, etc. will be different. Even on a micro-local level, that community solutions will be different.

“This is something that we learn from nature. A strong ecosystem is an ecosystem characterized by diversity. Diversity leads to resilience, and the same thing can be applied to a social dimension and an economic dimension. There’s a book called The McDonaldization of Society illustrating how many things are similar all over the world… To combat the negative effects of this, we try to develop different solutions based upon the values, characteristics, and peoples living in their specific local societies.

“Another thing here, Ruth Levitas has a very interesting thought: she says that people criticize you for coming up with ideas that seem utopian.

“You can answer that the utopian solutions are less impossible than following the same route we’re on now – THAT’S what’s impossible! We cannot use more and more resources. Exponential growth on a globe that is not growing is logically impossible.

“In order words, utopian ideas are less impossible than continuing on in the same direction.”

What are some of the biggest projects you’ve worked on to actually implement these ideas so far?

“Currently, it’s the Bodø European Capital of Culture 2024.

“Then there are three projects.

“One is Local food for local markets. The second is the Dialogue Society where we try to implement and stimulate dialogue-based processes in local societies – not only Bodø but all around the country. The third is making networks of SMEs to foster participation in the development of local societies.

“So these are three projects I’m currently working on implementing in Bodø2024, as well.

“I hope that by 2024, these projects will be growing, working and that they will develop into the future.

“As the EU panel said in the answer to Bodø’s application for European Capital of Culture 2024: Ecological economics in Bodø is interesting in a broader European context as well.

“The corona pandemic has made it a bit difficult now in the start – we cannot have meetings with many people in person. We can do certain things online, but it’s very important that people participating in the movement can come together physically and have a more direct dialogue. So let’s hope that the pandemic is over very soon and that we can start these physical meetings.

“Norway can learn from Europe, and Europe can learn from Bodø European Capital of Culture 2024. So let’s start learning!”

Where can our readers find you?

“I have my own homepage.

“There, you can check out some of my articles and books, as well as a presentation in English about my interpretation of ecological economics.”

To our readers…

If you’re interested in learning more about Bodø2024 – or better yet, planning a visit! – head to the project’s official website here for more info.

What do you think about the concept of “ecological economics”? Write to us and let us know.

Bodø, a natural oasis, is fittingly a pioneering region in ecological economics. Photo: Guillaume Briard

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayTravel

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