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On the Art of Co-Creation: A Contribution to the Philosophy of Ecological Economics



Today, the status of science in society is increasingly contested. One reason is immanent to science: Facing hypercomplex systems and ‘wicked problems’, science cannot provide an unequivocal and binding basis for action and policy design. This problem is especially pronounced in systemic contexts in which epistemic subjects and objects are entangled in a co-creative relationship, as in the economy, which is the core driver of climate change, in turn. I argue that in these contexts, ‘art’ becomes an epistemic mode on equal status with ‘science’ conventionally understood: Art is the science of co-creation. This argument builds on the philosophy of post-Kantian German idealism and its intellectual metamorphoses, such as in American pragmatism. I discuss the essentials of this view, present examples from the field of Ecological Economics and present practical implications for method.
On the Art of Co-Creation:
A Contribution to the Philosophy of Ecological Economics
Carsten Herrmann-Pillath
Background paper for Keynote Lecture:
Finland, June 18-21 2019
Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies, Erfurt University, Germany
Today, the status of science in society is increasingly contested. One reason is immanent to
science: Facing hypercomplex systems and wicked problems, science cannot provide an
unequivocal and binding basis for action and policy design. This problem is especially
pronounced in systemic contexts in which epistemic subjects and objects are entangled in a co-
creative relationship, as in the economy, which is the core driver of climate change, in turn. I
argue that in these contexts, artbecomes an epistemic mode on equal status with science
conventionally understood: Art is the science of co-creation. This argument builds on the
philosophy of post-Kantian German idealism and its intellectual metamorphoses, such as in
American pragmatism. I discuss the essentials of this view, present examples from the field of
Ecological Economics and present practical implications for method.
The declining status of science in society
A hallmark of our times is the decline of the social and political recognition of science as an
independent source of facts about the world and arbiter in public debates. This problem is salient
in the controversies about global warming and the necessary policy responses (Latour 2015).
Economist would conventionally explain this phenomenon in terms of the growing clout of
naked interest group politics. But many observers notice that there are more complex and
possibly enduring forces at work. In my view, these mainly relate to three phenomena:
The first is that after the revolutionary advances of physics, chemistry and biology in
the first half of the 20th century, science is increasingly facing principled limits to further
growth of scientific knowledge (Rescher 1999), especially with regard to grounding
policy recommendations in scientific knowledge. This is increasingly diagnosed also
for economics (Pyndick 2013; see e.g. the editorial comment on Nordhaus’s and
Romer’s Nobel award in The Economist, October 18, 2018).
The second is that this allows for the renaissance of alternative regimes of truth, such as
religious truth of judicial truth (Latour 2012; think of the actual verdicts on Bayer
corporation in the Monsanto/Glyphosate case, with Bayer leaders obviously believing
in the scientific evidence that Glyphosate does not cause cancer, and US juries rejecting
this argument).
The third is that in the political arena, there is growing tension between public opinion
as necessary driver of democratic processes and the claims of science-based expert
knowledge, often expressed in outright populist rejection of science and even aggressive
actions against its institutions (for example, President Bolsonaro in Brazil launches a
battle against universities by announcing budget cuts of 30 percent).
These developments create a difficult environment for disciplines such as Ecological
Economics which are engaged in intra-disciplinary debates about even fundamental
assumptions of economics, possibly undermining not only their own legitimacy in the larger
public, but also of the discipline altogether. Therefore, Ecological Economists increasingly
venture into radical rethinking the conventional assumptions about ‘normal science’ (Strand
2018). My paper is a contribution to these efforts.
Can philosophy help?
I am going to explore the role of philosophy in regaining lost ground for science. I focus on a
new concept that is traded among Ecological Economists, ‘co-creation’. I agree that it is central
for grounding Ecological economics in philosophy, more specifically in ontology and
epistemology. One may ask, why is this intellectual labour necessary? There are two reasons.
First, Ecological Economics manifests various and substantial debates about foundational
issues such as whether a ‘shallow’ or a ‘deep’ understanding of ecology should be adopted
(Spash 2013). After creating the new subdiscipline of economics, the relationship between the
two terms of ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ has never been satisfyingly resolved, which is salient in
the often-heated controversies about specific approaches such as ‘ecosystem services’ or
‘nature capital’. This is not only a theoretical issue, but has immense practical consequences,
since economics in general is a science that aims at guiding practical decisions in the economy,
business and politics. For example, whether Ecological Economists follow economics in putting
human welfare at the centre stage, hence adopting analytical anthropocentrism (Llavador et al.
2015), or whether they adopt the perspective of other living beings, ecosystems, or even the
‘Earth’, whatever that means, has far-reaching consequences for all practical policy approaches
and decisions (Brown 2016).
Second, Ecological Economics is programmatically wedded to interdisciplinarity, in both
directions of the sciences and the humanities. Therefore, it is necessary to create systematic and
coherent conceptual linkages to these various disciplines and their conceptual frames. This
requires meta-disciplinary reflection which can be powered by modern philosophy.
In this essay, I want to sketch some very basic aspects of these problems in discussing the role
of co-creation in restating the nature of Ecological Economics as an ‘art’. In introducing this
controversial idea, I want to systematize and focus many ideas that are currently floating around
in the discussions about ‘post-normal science’ (Strand 2018). Conventionally, the notions of
‘art’ and ‘science’ are juxtaposed, in the sense that science pursues the goal of objectivity, i.e.
the ‘view from nowhere’, whereas art aims at expressing radical subjectivity, rooted in the ideas
of individual artistic creativity (at least in the Western tradition). This resonates with many
other methodological assumptions, such as Max Weber’s idea of ‘value free’ science.
Economics clearly pursues the goal of science, often in distancing itself from other fields of the
social sciences and the humanities, which are being criticized as being value driven. In turn,
Ecological Economics criticizes economics partly by making claims of being better grounded
in science, as clearly articulated in the thinking of one of its founding fathers, Georgescu-
Roegen. Many Ecological Economists maintain both positions, one is claiming to be ‘more
scientific’ than standard economics, the other, however, is to express dedicated value judgments
that might guide human action (Spash 2012).
I will argue that these intellectual struggles can be pacified if we overcome the juxtaposition
between science and art. I will defend the view that ‘art’ is an epistemic activity that pursues
truth on par with science, if we deal with hyper-complex systems and ‘wicked problems’: Art
is the science of co-creation. Recognizing this epistemic role of art and exploring the
implication that science-based policy is artful design, can be a powerful antidote against the
social forces that increasingly undermine the epistemic status of science in society.
Art and co-creation
Interestingly, the concept of ‘art’ and related terms have been sometimes used in economics in
referring to certain ways of economic reasoning that renders it more realistic and practically
relevant. For example, Leamer (2012) speaks of the ‘craft’ of economics, and the expression of
‘art of central banking’ is often used (originating in Hawtrey 1932). These ways of speaking
express the diagnosis that many economic theories seem detached from reality and often
maintain assumptions that are difficult to reconcile with facts on the ground and do not provide
sufficient guidance for practical action. For example, in macroeconomics it is widely
recognized that most of the research done by academic macroeconomics after the ‘rational
expectations’ revolution, adorned with several Nobel awards, is irrelevant for conducting
modern central bank policy, and indeed the discipline seems in intellectual disarray today
(Mankiw 2006; Buiter 2009; Romer 2018).
If we look at the case of central banking in some more detail, the rhetoric of ‘art’ refers to
various aspects. One is that assessing the state of the economy is an exercise in assembling
results from many different analytical views and put them together in a well-reasoned synthesis.
In doing this, the central bank decision makers always need to keep in mind that the central
bank is a pivotal player in generating the current and future conditions of the economy. In
deciding about its actions, they need to analyse its causal impacts which requires an
understanding of how the engine of the economy works. However, at the same time they are
aware that their decisions already influence the economy in the moment when they are
communicated and hence influence the expectations of the economic agents. Acting in this very
complex setting is said to be an ‘art’, not ‘science’.
In the central bank example, we already find two necessary conceptual ingredients to discuss
the idea of co-creation.
The central bank faces the problem that it cannot simply approach and analyse the
economy as an entity that is separate from itself. In most abstract terms, if we treat the
central bank as ‘subject’ and the economy’ as object, the central bank is both. This was
recognized in the rational expectationsrevolution, for example, when discussing the
problem of time-inconsistency. The central bank needs to predict its own actions when
forecasting the future state of the economy.
At the same time, the central bank cannot operate the economy like an engineer who
designs and runs a machine. Central bank communication is pivotal, mediated via
expectations of economic subjects: The central bank produces economic impact via
continuous interactions with all other economic subjects.
In other words, central banking is an art because the generation of macroeconomic states by
means of monetary policies is not like using levers to move a mechanism, but is their co-creation
by many actors, including their interaction with the perceived object, ‘the economy’ (often
dubbed ‘markets’ by practitioners). But this in not a special property of the central bank. The
economy as an object is a product of co-creation, and this ultimately means that it can no longer
be approached as an ‘object’ that is independent from the scientific subject.
Breaking through the subject-object divide
If we move to a highest level of abstraction, the two conceptual ingredients of co-creation mean
firstly, that there is no clear-cut ontological separation between subject and object in which
‘objective scientific analysis’ can be grounded, and secondly, that the central bank as a subject
can only act in conjunction with other subjects. Here we have the two senses of co-creation:
firstly, that there is no separation between subject and object and that the acting subject
always interacts with its object in co-creating the action and its effects, and vice versa;
and secondly, the action and action consequences are always co-created via the
interaction of many subjects, which needs to be anticipated in designing plans for action.
If we introduce an intermediary level of analysis between the concrete central bank example
and the abstract consideration of subject-object relations, a most important philosophical
perspective is to recognize that economics as a science is performative (Herrmann-Pillath and
and Boldyrev 2014; Boldyrev and Svetlova 2016). Without going into details here,
performativity of economics means that economics does not simply describe and analyse ‘the
economy’ as an object that is ontologically independent from doing economics, but that
economics also creates the economy (Callon 2007; Çalışkan and Callon 2010; in principle, an
important intellectual precursor is Polanyi 1944). In economic sociology, the seminal example
was that the theory of finance, once translated into practical applications, also transforms the
way how the economy works (MacKenzie 2006). Or, accounting methods that are based on
economic theory also create the ‘things’ aka ‘assets’ that are the objects which economic action
targets (Vosselman 2014). Accordingly, the performativity of economics means firstly, that the
economist as scientific subject co-creates the economy, which in turn influences the ways how
the economist perceives it; and secondly, this performativity only works via the interaction
between the economist and all other economic agents, who therefore co-create the economy
As we see, co-creation is a fundamental phenomenon in doing economics. One way of
generalizing this is offered by Karen Barad’s (2007) theory of ‘intra-action’ which states that
all phenomena, including the most basic facts of physics, are not ‘objects’ that are being
analysed by the epistemic subject aka ‘scientist’, but are emerging in the ‘intra-actions’ between
subject and object. This is not simple radical constructivism that would root all reality in the
subject but means that co-creation is a fundamental ontological feature of the world as the force
that generates ‘phenomena’. As Barad elaborates, Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics is
a most universal recognition of this, as opposed to subjectivist interpretations of quantum
statistics pursued by Heisenberg. The world is intra-action and can be neither reduced to
subjectivity (radical constructivism) nor to objectivity (positivist science).
How to create things with economics
Let me give a practical example from Ecological Economics that illustrates co-creation in this
sense of ontological creativity of the subject-object ‘intra-action’. This is fisheries and has been
analysed extensively by both economic sociologists and ecological economists. In economic
sociology, the fisheries were explored in the context of critical discussions over Actor-Network-
Theory and Callon’s approach to performativity (Holm and Nielsen 2007). Callon (2007) and
others argued that economic models of markets are not just descriptions, but in applying them
become ‘real’, in the sense that they create real objects, most generally, of course, ‘markets’. In
the fisheries context, this thinking applies for the introduction of ‘individually transferrable
quotas’ ITQs based on neoclassical economic theory and its conceptualization of property rights.
This is only one example for the extremely influential idea in Environmental and Resource
economics (as distinguished from Ecological economics) that resource over-exploitation can be
remedied by establishing private property rights for a resource and creating markets for trading
these rights (as in other cases, such as pollution permits). In the fisheries case, it means that
based on measuring the resource base (i.e. diverse and highly mobile fish populations) the total
quantity of fish biomass is divided into quotas that can be assigned to individual agents (often,
‘vessels’ which in turn are owned by other agents). This transformation has immense
consequences, such as fundamentally changing the social structure of fishing traditionally being
community-based, for example. It also creates the various forces of economic interests which
induce actors to accommodate and eventually to assimilate the economic model, thus creating
a complex network of actor identities and practices that embody the economic model. This even
includes the interests of the fish, who, in Holm’s (2007) words, may ‘hunt for the best owners’:
That means, if we approach the ecological system consisting of fish as prey and fishermen as
predators, the transformation of the hunting practices according to the economic model also
serves the interests of the fish since they are optimally managed, in the sense of making the fish
population sustainable. This intuitively corresponds to Barad’s ‘intra-action’ (see also Callon’s
1986 famous founding paper on ANT on the fishermen at St Brieuc Bay).
This analysis overlooks another factor highlighted by Hiedanpää and Bromley (2016: Chapter
10), namely that the ITQ management is based on the establishment of sovereign rights on the
coastal zones as exclusive economic zones. That means, the ITQ model builds on the flawed
blanking out of the fact that there are already state property rights on the fisheries. This implies
that in justifying the approach, the distinction between resource rent (triggering the over-
exploitation of oceanic resources in open access conditions) and economic rent (generating
from limiting market access) is blurred. In fact, in creating the ITQ market access is limited via
quasi property rights, thus turning fisheries into assets that create economic rents which can be
appropriated by the incumbents and materialize when quotas are sold to new entrants. Hence,
they are rights to market access, but not property rights on fish as living entities.
Holm (2007) uses the catchy term ‘cyborg fish’ in referring to the phenomenon that the entire
system creates ‘fish’ as an artefact of markets: For example, many living organisms in a catch
are treated as ‘waste’ and are being discarded even though they are also essential members of
the maritime ecosystem. In my own work (Herrmann-Pillath 2018), I interpret this as the fish
becoming part of the ‘technosphere’ as an emerging regulative and ontologically creative part
of the Earth system, thus transforming the biosphere into an artefact. This process is driven by
co-creation. As emphasized by ANT, we cannot just reduce this on mere subjective projections
of humans on the world, in the sense of social constructivism. What is involved is a vast network
of humans, technological devices (such as sonars and computers) and living organisms in which
a new kind of entity is co-created, the ‘cyborg fish’. In Searle’s (1995) terms, the fish become
‘observer-dependent facts’, but ‘facts’, after all.
How to reach through at the ‘Ding an sich by means of philosophy
Let me return to more fundamental philosophical considerations. The distinction between
subject and object stays at the centre of Western conceptions of science (for example, Chinese
thinking in Imperial times radically discarded this separation, assuming that meditation can lead
to knowledge about the external world). However, European philosophy already went beyond
this simple juxtaposition exactly when the sciences emancipated themselves from philosophy,
especially in the shape of ‘philosophy of nature’. This was achieved by post-Kantian German
idealism which established the intellectual bifurcation between rationalism and what Charles
Taylor (1989) aptly called ‘expressivism’. Kant posited the radical distinction between subject
and object in his argument that the ‘thing in itself’ is not accessible to human epistemic activity.
Accordingly, what we access as ‘reality’ is itself determined by basic epistemic structures such
as space and time. Against Kant, Hegel, Schelling and others posited the thesis that subject and
object are interrelated in various ways, thus allowing for access to ultimate realitybut not in
the sense of a simple correspondence theory of establishing claims of truth. Basically, there are
two possible ways. The first is to centre on action as primordial epistemic medium, with the
consequences of action also working back on the subject via its products (this is expressivism,
Taylor 1985). The second is to conceive the subject as being just a moment in a larger totality
in which epistemic processes evolve, such that individual knowledge can directly participate in
the world as an evolving structure (Hegel’s ‘world spirit’). In other words, post-Kantian
idealism envisaged the co-evolution of subject and object, and in this entanglement ultimate
reality is grounded.
I leave it with these very broad and coarse characterizations (for more detail, see Herrmann-
Pillath and Boldyrev 2014). What is important for discussing co-creation is that German post-
Kantian idealism recognized the creative dimension of action, including epistemic activity, and
assumed that this is part and parcel of a larger evolving system in which subject and object are
embedded. These ideas left an enduring legacy in philosophy, even though the internal debates
were often driven by the immanent critiques of those very same positions. Yet, they factually
created a kind of ‘background condition’ for all these more specific philosophical developments.
As one important example in our context I mention American pragmatism as emerging from
the seminal contributions of Peirce, Dewey, Mead and others, who were avid readers of the
German idealists. In their views, the separation between subject and object is overcome in
creative action directly involving the world, and hence ‘reality’ is manifest in the experience
gained in successfully acting in the world. As action is transformative, and as we are also
inseparable parts of the world, our actions also transform ourselves. At the same time, this
action is always enabled by the scaffolds of human sociality, i.e. communication and
cooperation among humans: In modern terms, all epistemic activity is embedded in social
Climate as a ‘Ding an sich’
Again, let me illustrate these fundamental philosophical ideas with a topic taken from
Ecological economics (for a related argument, see Szerszynski 2010). What is climate? Morton
(2017) has argued that climate is a ‘hyperobject’. Without stretching the argument too much,
we can argue that climate is a ‘Ding an sich’. How can we access climate epistemically? What
we experience, is local weather conditions. Science has built a huge arsenal in rendering climate
as a scientifically grounded notion. But there are serious and principled limitations to achieving
‘objective’ or ‘true’ knowledge about climate in the sense of unequivocally identifying the
causal structures and forces that generate climate phenomena, which, after all, in terms of data
points, relate back to pre-scientific notions of ‘weather’, though apparently ‘objectifying’ them
in terms of measurement procedures and the integration of measurements into data-sets that
scale on different levels, up to the global. But the only way to identify causal forces is to build
climate models. This is because we cannot conduct experiments with the climate as a totality
which encompasses us.
Hyperobjects may be just seen as ‘systems’, but as such they are ‘objectified’ or ‘reified’ in
terms of the standard conception of the subject-object dichotomy. We face serious difficulties
and limitations in dealing scientifically with hyperobjects aka hypercomplex systems, for a
wide range of reasons, including scale differences to the range of our own perception and action
(we cannot ‘see’ the climate, as opposed to seeing, say, an animal), we cannot operate controlled
experiments (a local climate experiment might interact causally with other localities in an
unknown and unpredictable way), we are part and parcel of the climate in the sense of living
‘in it’ (unless we create a totally insulated spaceship), and so on.
That means, climate is what we create as ‘climate’ by means of our science. Given the nature
of that object, there are principled limitations to reaching a full scientific understanding,
especially in terms of our capabilities to predict climate change. If we recognize this properly,
it means that climate phenomena are ‘intra-actions’ in Barad’s sense. However, the difficulties
are leveraged by the fact that we know that we already do a global scale ‘natural experiment’
with climate: We change it by our actions anyway. While we are investigating climate, we
simultaneously change the causal dynamics that we want to establish ‘objectively’, i.e.
independent from us as epistemic subjects.
But are we really special in doing this? If we consider the issue in terms of the Gaia model of
the Earth system, once life emerged on Earth, it became endogenous to the evolving biosphere.
In that sense, we are surrounded by hyperobjects like watching Godzilla and other mythical
beasts in their perennial battles: The biosphere is a hyperobject, but so are markets, the
international political system after the peace of Westphalia, and so on. All these systems meet
the defining criteria for being ‘hyperobjects’, and when we consider the impact of humans on
the climate, this is not about what we as single individuals do (nothing), but what hyperobjects
do to each other within which we are embedded and of which we are parts. Then, we must admit
that we neither understand markets nor climate scientifically, and so we cannot understand how
they interact.
We are part and parcel of Earth system evolution
I am proceeding with this intellectual ‘creative destruction’ to open the vista on the relevance
of German idealism for reflecting on these issues. If we draw the parallel between our impact
on climate and the impact of the biosphere on climate, we do not only notice the central role of
action in determining the causal interdependencies just interpret ‘life’ as ‘autonomous agents’
in the sense of Kauffman (2000) which are conducting complete thermodynamic work cycles
governed by the goals of maintaining their metabolism and reproduction. We also have a totality,
the evolving biosphere, of which we are a part, by definition, including our epistemic activities.
What if we are just a stage in the evolution of the Earth system (Lenton et al. 2018)? Is Gaia
the naturalistic version of Hegel’s ‘world spirit’?
This is not a new idea. Vernadsky, who coined the term ‘biosphere’, envisaged its evolutionary
continuation as ‘noosphere’, the sphere of human thinking. This seems to harmonize with the
recent proposals to consider a new geological age, the Anthropocene, which have triggered an
intensive and fascinating interaction between the sciences and the humanities, in my view,
prescient of the emergence of art as the science of co-creation (Malhi 2017). This concept has
also been criticized for being overly anthropocentric, and indeed, the question is whether and
how we can conceptualize the evolutionary continuity between biosphere and the human
domain. One possible way is to concentrate on the notion of information, in the more precise
sense of semantic or functional information: This idea stands at the centre of pragmatism and
means that we interpret information in terms of its role in governing life as a system of goal-
oriented action, or adaptively valuable information. One strand of research allows for explicitly
and systematically working out the details of the view, modern biosemiotics, harking back to
the foundational work on semiotics by Peirce (Deacon 2012; Herrmann-Pillath 2013; Wheeler
I cannot delve into the details, however, and therefore just illustrate the point with another
example from Ecological economics. One hallmark of the biosphere is its capacity for growth
harnessing solar energy via photosynthesis, while at the same time minimizing waste by almost
complete recycling of all components of the biomass. The information that governs this
amazing ‘hyperobject’ is embodied in distributed form in the genetic code of all living
organisms that go back to the chemical origin of life. So far, the technosphere, the system
created by human action, but not human design, cannot achieve this feat, but threatens to
destabilize the biosphere via its failure to achieve sufficient levels of recycling. The possible
way out may be finding an evolutionary trajectory that would directly translate biosphere
information into technological information, i.e. harnessing solar energy for achieving almost
complete recycling, hence a bionic circular economy. For achieving this, human thought and
inventiveness is crucial, but insufficient, as the evolutionary trajectories emerge in systemic
contexts, such as the economy or science, which are not themselves subject to human control
and design. In other words, the challenge is to find a performative trajectory for the co-evolution
of biosphere, economy and science, and other domains, that eventually sustains basic
constructional principles of the totality of the Earth system (Lenton and Latour 2018; compare
Kleidon 2016 on the underlying continuity of physical principles).
Artfully co-creating the Earth
This is the point where the notion of ‘art’ comes in to play. Art was central in German idealism
as one activity in the culmination of human spiritual development, hence was conceived as a
most sublime form of knowledge. Schelling, for example, thought that metaphysics must
ultimately result in a poem of the status of the ‘Divine comedy’ (Hogrebe 1989). This fusion of
art and science did not last for long in Western intellectual history, starting with romanticism,
and resulting in the growing and deeper fissure between the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and
the humanities. I posit that we need to go back to the climax of German idealism and approach
science and art as epistemological activities not only of the same status, but actually as two
sides of the same coin. In a nutshell, I define art as the science of co-creation.
Again, let me explore this in direct reference to Ecological economics. My distinction has
already been implicit in a very stimulating fictitious scenario drafted by Hiedenpää and
Bromley (2016: Chapter 6). They tell a counterfactual history of climate policies that would
start out from establishing a ‘Scientific Commission on Climate and Society’ instead of the
IPCC. This Commission would have collaborated with climate science (hence the WMO) and
not with UNEP, but with UNESCO. Why that? If we take stock of the current state of climate
policies, the problem seems to be a specific conceptualization of the relationship between
human action, the environment and political decisions. In the reasoning of this essay, this is to
conceptualize a clear divide between the environment and the human domain and to treat
climate change as an ‘externality’ in the economic sense, that is, following the subject-object
logic. However, today we know that this approach fails because it does not tackle the more
fundamental issue that we are part and parcel of the Earth system, and that (in the pragmatist
sense) our ‘habits’ drive our actions. What is less needed is the design of specific policy
instruments, such as a carbon tax, but a radical change in our ways of thinking and our lifestyles.
Economists normally assume that rational agents would just achieve this when costs and
benefits change, as induced by a carbon tax or an emissions trading system. As Hiedenpäa and
Bromley argue, in creating the existing institutional regime of international climate policies,
the climate problem is being performed as an ‘economic problem’, thus necessarily triggering
all forces that commonly drive economic policies, especially juxtaposing the economy (growth,
jobs, and all that) and climate, which, tragically, appear to block all substantial progress in
solving the current dilemma.
In terms of my contrast of art and science, the IPPC approach is science based, Hiedenpää’s
and Bromley’s fictitious organization would be based on ‘art’: This is salient in the choice of
the UNESCO as partner organization of the Committee. In metaphorical words, the task is to
draw a new painting of the blue planet in a collective effort of humanity, but not to engineer a
trade-off between economy and climate.
Less picturesque, what is the difference between art and science in the current context? Clearly,
I do not argue that art is a lesser medium of gaining and applying knowledge than science.
When I use the term ‘science’, I refer to what emerged as science after the post-Kantian great
divide. But this is a way of doing science which easily falls into the trap of scientism. In this
view, the problems in dealing with hypercomplex systems of co-creation are simply interpreted
as reflecting gaps in current scientific knowledge, and the belief is typically articulated that
future progress will eventually result into more powerful knowledge and hence more effective
action. Contrary to this position, I define art as the science of co-creation. In which way does
this relate to the conventional understanding of art as radical subjectivity?
The art of living
One strand in modern philosophical thinking also revealed a deep affinity to the arts, music and
literature, Critical theory as seminally developed by Horkheimer and Adorno (1944).
Horkheimer (1937) famously drew the distinction between ‘traditional theory and ‘critical
theory’. In my parlance, this distinction refers to the recognition of the entanglement of subject
and object if theories have performative effects. ‘Critical theory’ means to recognize the role of
science in shaping the society of which it is a part. This comes close to Marx’s famous critique
of ‘fetishism’: Traditional theory, in claiming an ‘objective’ analysis of its objects, overlooks
that it directly participates in shaping the way how we perceive the objects. We act on these
objects but are not able to identify their true nature and meaning.
Now, one way to break though the veil of fetishism is artful creation of realities behind the veil.
In the current context, an interesting example is the way how Morton (2017) uses art objects to
illustrate the meaning of hyperobjects. In fact, there is along tradition in science to apply art in
producing ‘objective’ images of the world, such as in the production of atlases (Daston and
Lorraine 2007). Interestingly, this is also true for climate sciences, and we even have down-to-
earth (pun intended) methodological recognition of ‘intra-action’ in terms of the renaissance of
the role of ‘informed judgment’ in identifying phenomena (such as taxonomies of clouds) vis-
à-vis methods that would aim at maximally shrinking the role of ‘subjectivity’.
Again, let me further substantiate this with an example from Ecological economics. Previously,
I already referred to the deep troubles of the economics of climate change, which are especially
visible in the widely recognized deficiencies of ‘Integrated Assessment Models’ as championed
by Nordhaus. One of the central issues is fixing the discount rate (Pyndick 2013), which
therefore in practice is a deeply politicized issue (Auffhammer 2018). Nordhaus himself early
suggested to use the long-run market interest rate, thus assuming that the market is not only a
medium of aggregating over individual time-preferences, but even of depicting this aggregate
in an ‘objective’ way. One radical solution of these dilemmas is proposed in Llavador et al.
(2015) (see also the discussion in Heal 2016), namely integrating climate models and economic
models without a damage function (which to a certain extent defines away the fundamental
economic trade-offs in climate policies). At the same time, they change certain fundamental
assumptions about welfare: Most interestingly, they treat education not only as producing
human capital as an input, but also as a consumer good that directly generates utility. The
immediate effect is to drive the material intensity of production and growth down, hence
envisaging the possibility of sustainable growth in the long run.
But what exactly does that mean, treating education as consumer good? Obviously, this is not
a question of the ‘objective nature’ of education (embodied and reified as ‘human capital’). In
my parlance, redefining education is an act of artistic creativity, and, in a more precise way,
would entail the performative effects if such a model is widely adopted as a scientific reference.
The model does not describe reality but creates an alternative reality in which all human agents
would regard education as a consumer good, thus triggering substantial effects on how the
economy operates. How would this reality be effectively created? Well, in the Hiedenpää and
Bromley scenario it could have been triggered by the Commission on Climate and Society:
Think of switching to a Ruskin-type cultural regime that estheticizes everyday life and imbues
it with a different sense on meaning (Ruskin 1985). In this case, ‘art’ becomes not only a method
of generating knowledge, but also of living it.
As we realize, art is a method to critically move beyond the veil of fetishism that relies on
creating artful visions of alternative realities, possible worlds. This includes artfully showing
ways how to realize those possible worlds.
The art of modelling ecology and economy
We can further substantiate ‘art as science of co-creation’ when looking at the current
methodological debates about climate modelling. There are three fundamental problems from
the philosophical point of view:
The first is that models suffer the necessary complexity in integrating different scales,
especially local effects and their interactions on higher scales (Verburg et al. 2016).
Since these are always co-created by local human populations, there is a need to
integrate higher-scale systemic knowledge with local knowledge. This has resulted in
new approaches of participatory modelling (Videira et al. 2018), which can be
conceived as ‘applied co-creation’.
The second is that models are only useful for forecasting if they factually are
performative, in principle. By this I mean that the model describes a reality in which
human actions are generated in an incentive-compatible way. If the model makes
assumptions about human action in the future that cannot materialize, it fails
predictively, too (Bai et al. 2016). By ‘incentive-compatible’ one should not only
consider economic incentives, but also how these are framed, i.e. all aspects of cultural
factors that contextualize human action. Methodologically, this means, for instance, to
include narratives into models (Moezzi et al. 2017). Indeed, scenario building is a form
of science-based artful design of possible futures.
The third problem is that global models suggest a degree of systemic integration which
is elusive (Latour 2015). Even though causality as driven by physical or chemical
processes may in fact achieve global scope, causality of living systems is localized, and
especially so for human societies: As many critics have pointed out, the ‘Anthropocene’
is the age of Western capitalism, gobbling up all other forms of human societies
(Bonneuil and Fressoz 2017). This may also impact on biophysical causalities: For
example, most modelling approaches take the nation state for granted as a unit, but cities
and networks of cities are in fact major drivers of developments (Biermann et al. 2016).
Considering the three points in combination, co-creative modelling appears to be a far cry from
established methods of computer-based analysis of mathematical models. Although these
remain an essential ingredient, they would need to be integrated with other methods, and, most
importantly, would include other actors than the ‘expert’. This integration, I claim, is itself an
act of artful design and cannot be based on scientific principles, in turn. This critique being
expressed, I believe that the current practices, for example, of scenario building and assessment
in the field of biodiversity have already moved in this direction (IPBES 2016).
Hiedenpää and Bromley (2016: Chapter 9) offer an illuminating example, the policy towards
wolf populations: If this is only informed by scientific ecology and does not include local
knowledge, policies may utterly fail. This is currently also emerging as a political issue in
Germany: In local communities in Eastern ‘Länder’, the wolf has become a politicized figure
which even drives voters into the arms of the radical right, who is the only political force that
adopts a tough stance towards wolves. This seems to be a narrative of the struggle between
science and populism. But in fact, it reflects deep flaws in ecological modelling that separates
‘nature’ as object and humans and subjects. In the real world of rural communities, wolves and
humans are still embedded in a shared ecosystem, and over centuries, if not thousands of years,
the wolf has become an integral part of the imaginaries of local culture. If the scientific models
do not explicitly include these dimensions, they will lead to policies that are not sustainable.
That means, designing a workable ecological model of wolf populations is a creative act of art,
possibly even including the aesthetics of local imaginaries.
More generally, the challenge to modelling is to explicitly include the ‘subjective’ dimension,
i.e. the human capacity of sense-making and interpretive powers which eventually motivate
actions which are constitutive elements of the biophysical causalities in the Anthropocene.
However, at the same time we need to recognize that these capacities are also embodied in
human technology: If we consider the technosphere as emergent phenomenon of the biosphere,
how far does the technosphere manifest its own goal-oriented structures, and how far is human
sense-making actually driven by autonomous technosphere processes (Haff 2014, 2016)? On
the one hand, modelling the technosphere may highlight its physical properties in the most
general sense, which would also allow for recognizing its ontological continuity with the
biosphere, as I pointed our earlier, such as in terms of the role of information and energetic
transformations. But how can we explore developmental possibilities that inhere in currently
emerging goal structures of the technosphere which are not our own ones? In using models to
forecast the future, we need to include the mechanisms that generate futures beyond what is
emerging in human discourses (Schulz 2016). For example, science fiction can be one epistemic
mode by which we can explore mechanisms that are embodied in the technosphere (Raven 2017;
Szerszynski 2017).
The art of valuation
In concluding this essay, I want to give a few hints at how we can reconstruct Ecological
economics as an art, and what this implies for the practical work of Ecological economists. One
of the central issues in Ecological economics is valuation: How can we put value on ‘nature’,
‘the environment’ or ‘biodiversity’, if the economic system and its endogenous valuations do
not generate these values? Indeed, value is one of the pivotal notions in economics, and the
approach to valuation should differentiate Ecological economics from both standard economics
and ecological sciences.
A most interesting notion is that of ‘ecosystem services’, which had immense impact on the
growing clout of Ecological economics and ecological sciences in designing national and
international policies. In my perspective, ecosystem services are values designed by artwork
with performative intent. Once we recognize this, we can substantially enhance and improve
the ecosystem services approach (Gomez-Baggethun 2018). The ecosystems services analysis
is one input into a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional process of analysing eco-
economic systems with multiple functions and transcending the anthropocentric orientation of
conventional economics. This can be achieved in a stepwise expansion of the viewpoints from
which the value of a certain ‘service’ can be assessed (as suggested by the concept of
‘deliberative monetary valuation’, overview in Kenter 2018). For example, a certain plant could
be valued by indigenous communities in a traditional belief system that governs their
interactions with the environment: Identifying and recognizing this value is not only important
to explore the multiple dimensions of value, but also to understand functional interdependencies,
such as when the belief system, in which the plant plays a role, contributes to local ecosystem
sustainability in toto, which also includes the original ecosystem service, thus connecting the
two valuations. The next expansion would be to include the perspective of non-humans, for
example, of other animals that may rely on the plant as food, or the plants themselves (Myers
The latter perspective is particularly difficult to achieve. Scientific approaches in the traditional
sense might aim at deducing such a perspective from general concepts of ecosystem health, for
instance (critical overview in Goldberg et al. 2016). In this case, a top-down analysis would
connect human benchmarks of ecosystem sustainability with a hypothetical reconstruction of
the value that various species would have for each other. That would include complex trade-
offs: For example, the contribution of a large predator to the sustainability of the population of
rodents may be conceived as positive even from the perspective of the prey. Obviously, this can
only be achieved via imagination, or, artistic creativity on part of the human observer. In more
exact terms, this means to create an interpretation of the complex (bio)semiotic network that
ultimately constitutes the systemic coherence of the ecosystem in terms of the interactions
between its niches, hence the multiplicity of species-specific ‘Umwelten’.
In other words, once we expand the concept of ecosystem services to a much broader concept
of valuation, we recognize that it means to decipher the full biosemiotic dimensionality of an
ecosystem, i.e. the multiplicity of views within that system, of humans, plants, or animals. This
means to co-create the ecosystem: Right in the sense of Darwin’s famous final paragraphs of
the ‘Origin of Species’ which paints the image of the “entangled bank”. Co-creation is a process
in which we firstly, artfully achieve an understanding of the semiosis that creatively works in
unfolding and maintaining the interactions within the system, and secondly, we craft our own
actions on this knowledge and perceive ourselves as an integral part of it (on a related idea of
‘geosemiosis’, see Baker 1999, 2017).
In doing this, we need to go back to values. Whereas conventional economics tries to neutralize
the value issue by radical subjectivity, Ecological economics would ground the notion of value
in a co-creative process that would result in shared values within humanity and even beyond.
The synthesis of scientific analysis and the co-creation of values is art. How can we practically
implement this? One way is to recognize the central role of minimizing suffering and
recognizing the integrity of all forms of life, which translates similar concepts in social
philosophy in a non-anthropocentric way (Sayer 2011). As Wheeler (2016) emphasizes, this
can be enabled by reflecting on fundamental biosemiotic affinities of all forms of life, which
have been recently identified by Damasio (2019) as ‘feelings’. In the philosophy of mind,
feelings are mostly treated as the ultimate instances of ‘qualia’, i.e. irreducible subjectivity.
Thus, they seem to be the fertile ground for human artistical creativity, but not adducible to
‘science’. Damasio argues that there is fundamental continuity of feelings as a shared property
of life across all living beings, which enables what Rosa (2016) calls ‘resonance’ as a
foundation of our meaningful and productive relations to the world of which we are a part. I
expect that based on this idea, we can promote another Darwinian revolution: ‘Gaia-centring’
values and valuation. This would only be possible as a performative act (as envisaged in
Latour’s 2015 discussion of the theatrical performance ‘Gaia global circus’).
If we remain in this picture, the Ecological economist would assume various roles as a writer,
director and even actor in the theatre of doing Ecological economics. This does not mean that
facts do not count. After all, we appreciate great creations of art and literature as manifesting a
reality behind what we experience in our daily interaction with the world. Many artists ground
their work on meticulous research of facts on the ground. In establishing these facts, Ecological
Economists must rely on scientific methods put to the scrutiny of the scientific community. But
in creating new hypotheses and venturing to transform their research in policies that work in
the real world, they must excel in the art of co-creation.
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Full-text available
I review the economic characteristics of the climate problem, focusing on the choice of discount rates in the presence of a stock externality, risk and uncertainty/ambiguity, and the role of integrated assessment models (IAMs) in analyzing policy choices. I suggest that IAMs can play a role in providing qualitative understanding of how complex systems behave, but are not accurate enough to provide quantitative insights. Arguments in favor of action on climate issues have to be based on aversion to risk and ambiguity and the need to avoid a small but positive risk of a disastrous outcome.
Full-text available
Energy and climate change research has been dominated by particular methods and approaches to defining and addressing problems, accomplished by gathering and analysing the corresponding forms of evidence. This special issue starts from the broad concepts of stories, narratives, and storytelling to go beyond these analytic conventions, approaching the intersection of nature, humanity, and technology in multiple ways, using lenses from social sciences, humanities, and practitioners' perspectives. The contributors use stories as data objects to gather, analyse, and critique; stories as an approach to research an inquiry; narrative analysis as a way of crystallising arguments and assumptions; and storytelling as a way of understanding, communicating, and influencing others. In using these forms of evidence and communication, and applying methods, analytical stances, and interpretations that these invite, something new and different results. This essay is a brief introduction to how, in our view, stories and their kin fit in energy and climate change research. We outline the diversity of data, approaches, and goals represented in the contributions to the special issue. And we reflect on some of the challenges of, and possibilities for, continuing to develop 'stories' as data sources, as modes of inquiry, and as creative paths toward social engagement.
Climate scientists have spent billions of dollars and eons of supercomputer time studying how increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and changes in the reflectivity of the earth’s surface affect dimensions of the climate system relevant to human society: surface temperature, precipitation, humidity, and sea levels. Recent incarnations of physical climate models have become sophisticated enough to be able to simulate intensities and frequencies of some extreme events, like tropical storms, under different warming scenarios. In a stark juxtaposition, the efforts involved in and the public resources targeted at understanding how these physical changes translate into economic impacts are disproportionately smaller, with most of the major models being developed and maintained with little to no public funding support. The goal of this paper is first to shed light on how (mostly) economists have gone about calculating the “social cost of carbon” for regulatory purposes and to provide an overview of the past and currently used estimates. In the second part, I will focus on where empirical economists may have the highest value added in this enterprise: specifically, the calibration and estimation of economic damage functions, which map weather patterns transformed by climate change into economic benefits and damages. A broad variety of econometric methods have recently been used to parameterize the dose (climate) response (economic outcome) functions. The paper seeks to provide an accessible and comprehensive overview of how economists think about parameterizing damage functions and quantifying the economic damages of climate change.
p>Recently postulated mechanisms and models can help explain the enduring ‘Gaia’ puzzle of environmental regulation mediated by life. Natural selection can produce nutrient recycling at local scales and regulation of heterogeneous environmental variables at ecosystem scales. However, global-scale environmental regulation involves a temporal and spatial decoupling of effects from actors that makes conventional evolutionary explanations problematic. Instead, global regulation can emerge by a process of ‘sequential selection’ in which systems that destabilize their environment are short-lived and result in extinctions and reorganizations until a stable attractor is found. Such persistence-enhancing properties can in turn increase the likelihood of acquiring further persistence-enhancing properties through ‘selection by survival alone’. Thus, Earth system feedbacks provide a filter for persistent combinations of macroevolutionary innovations.</p
The Anthropocene, the concept that the Earth has moved into a novel geological epoch characterized by human domination of the planetary system, is an increasingly prevalent framework for debate both in academia and as a wider cultural and policy zeitgeist. This article reviews the proliferation of literature surrounding this concept. It explores the origins and history of the concept, as well as the arguments surrounding its geological formalization and starting date ranging from the Pleistocene to the twentieth century. It examines perspectives and critiques of the concept from the Earth system sciences, ecological and geological sciences, and social sciences and humanities, exploring its role as a cultural zeitgeist and ideological provocation. I conclude by offering a personal perspective on the concept of the Anthropocene and its utility.
This paper outlines a new approach to the study of power, that of the sociology of translation. Starting from three principles, those of agnosticism, generalised symmetry and free association, the paper describes a scientigc and economic controversy about the causes for the decline in the population of scallops in St. Brieuc Bay and the attempts by three marine biologists to develop a conservation strategy for that population. Four "moments" of translation are discerned in the attempts by these researchers to impose themselves and their degnition of the situation on others: Z) problematization-the researchers sought to become indispensable to other actors in the drama by degning the nature and the problems of the latter and then suggesting that these would be resolved if the actors negotiated the "obligatory passage point" of the researchers' program of investigation; G) interessemen- A series of processes by which the researchers sought to lock the other actors into the roles that had been proposed for them in that program; 3) enrolment- A set of strategies in which the researchers sought to degne and interrelate the various roles they had allocated to others; 4) mobilization- A set of methods used by the researchers to ensure that supposed spokesmen for various relevant collectivities were properly able to represent those collectivities and not betrayed by the latter. In conclusion, it is noted that translation is a process, never a completed accomplishment, and it may (as in the empirical case considered) fail.
I argue that discussion about the ‘technosphere’ as an emergent new Earth system needs to be situated within wider reflection about how technospheres might arise on other worlds. Engaging with astrobiological speculation about ‘exo-technospheres’ can help us to understand whether technospheres are likely, what their preconditions might be, and whether they endure. Engaging with science fiction can help us to avoid observer biases that encourage linear assumptions about the preconditions and emergence of technospheres. Exploring earlier major transitions in Earth’s evolution can shed light on the shifting distribution of metabolic and reproductive powers between the human and technological parts of the contemporary technosphere. The long-term evolution of technical objects also suggests that they have shown a tendency to pass through their own major transitions in their relation to animality. Such reflection can shed new light on the nature and likely future development of the Earth’s technosphere.
The dynamics of the modern Earth-system is not explicable without reference to systems that have a purpose, i.e., that exhibit goal-seeking behavior. This paper develops the physical basis of agency or purposiveness in the technosphere-the human-technological system that defines the Anthropocene-as part of an analysis of the organizational requirements of energy-dissipating systems. The regulative, or framing, approach used here avoids reliance on reductive modeling and aims instead at establishing general properties of purposive systems. Establishment of purposiveness (the condition of having a purpose) as a physical system property, rather than a metaphysical concept or a purely biological phenomenon, enables a new look at the role of humans and human purpose in the Anthropocene. This approach can help avoid the misleading anthropocentric assumption that humans are independent authors of the Anthropocene they inhabit, rather than contingent actors whose purposes are not entirely their own.