I’ve long been interested in the way many economists, business theorists, political scientists, and historians, have incorporated climate and ecosystem analogies into their writing about what drives progress. Moreover, many modern scholars regularly use climate and ecosystem analogies when discussing economic development proposals and industrial policy planning. Here are a few examples that I’ve come across and frequently cited in my own work:

  • In his 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance speech on “The Pretence of Knowledge,” economist F. A. Hayek suggested that policymakers should aim to “cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.”
  • In his magisterial 1990 book, Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, economic historian Joel Mokyr observed how “technological progress requires above all tolerance toward the unfamiliar and the eccentric,” and argued that the innovation that undergirds economic growth is best viewed as “a fragile and vulnerable plant” that “is highly sensitive to the social and economic environment and can easily be arrested by relatively small external changes.”
  • In the early 1990s, Michael Rothschild made a brief splash with his book, Bionomics: Economy As Ecosystem, which made environmental analogies the key to understanding how market economies work and to explain how economic growth evolves in a spontaneous, self-organizing fashion. Rothschild repeatedly referenced lessons from biology and ecology studies as way to better understand the evolution of complex economic systems. 
  • In 2009, Josh Lerner of the Harvard Business School published Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Why Public Efforts to Boost Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Have Failed—and What to Do about It. It was a stinging indictment of the many state-led efforts to boost innovation through targeted economic development initiatives. “Often, in their eagerness to get to the ‘fun stuff’ of handing out money, public leaders neglect the importance of setting the table, or creating a favorable environment,” Lerner argued. While he was supportive of other government efforts to promote innovation, he stressed the importance of first creating what he calls “the right climate for entrepreneurialism” through more basic things, like simpler tax and regulatory systems. 
  • Like Lerner, Judge Glock of the Cicero Institute has argued that, “all of America’s industries would benefit from federal, state, and local governments getting out of the way of change. It’s the government’s job to keep the soil fertile and to let things grow, rather than trying to direct where and when new life will sprout.”
  • Finally, in his recent book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, Tyler Cowen borrows the concept of a “Crusonia plant” from economist Frank Knight, who imagined “a mythical, automatically growing crop which generates more output each year.” Cowen argues that we should think of economic growth as a sort of real-world Crusonia plant in that it is self-sustaining and yields increasing returns and rising value over time. 

Building on these examples, I was wondering:

  1. Are there other good examples of progress scholars using climate and ecosystem analogies in their work?
  2. What are the lessons or limitations of using such analogies when discussing economic development, technological innovation, or societal progress more generally?

I’m hoping that others might have some thoughts on this. 


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